What Is a Sensitivity Reader, and Why Do You Need One?

Sensitivity readers are a hot topic in publishing these days. I don’t need to remind you that publishing has a diversity problem: the industry itself is overwhelmingly white, and most of the books being published are the products of white authors or feature primarily white characters. Though increasing, the numbers are still cause for alarm: 31 percent of children’s books published in 2017 were about non-white characters, but only 7 percent of the children’s books published in 2017 were written by Black, Latinx, or Native American authors.

More diverse books are being published, but most of those books are being written by white authors. This discrepancy—authors writing outside their lived experiences—can sometimes result in characters and situations that are stereotypical, insensitive, or otherwise inaccurate. Of course, any time an author writes outside their experience (as most authors do), there’s a high likelihood that mistakes will happen. Most of the time, these errors are benign; they may stop a reader who knows better, but the general public will likely never realize the inaccuracy. (One example of a recent low-stakes error: in her debut novel What We Lose, author Zinzi Clemmons mixed up the location of the Columbia River in a scene set in Portland.)

Rivers are one thing; racial stereotypes are another. Even authors with the best of intentions can, through sheer ignorance, inadvertently perpetuate harmful ideas. This problem is not exclusive to white authors, either; e. E. Charlton-Trujillo, a Mexican American author, faced criticism in 2016 for what some called stereotypical portrayals of Black characters in early copies of her book When We Was Fierce. The publisher, Candlewick Press, has indefinitely delayed the book’s publication; Charlton-Trujillo does not list the book on her website.

In an effort to avoid the fate of When We Was Fierce, authors and publishers are turning to sensitivity readers. Although editors, copyeditors, and proofreaders are expected to flag problematic portrayals and instances of biased language, they, like the author, can’t know what they don’t know. Publishers hire sensitivity readers who share lived experience with certain characters or situations to ensure the portrayal is accurate and presented in an unbiased way. In many cases, multiple sensitivity readers are required to review different aspects of the story; Dhonielle Clayton, who founded the #OwnVoices movement to highlight authors of marginalized identities who were writing books within their lived experiences, hired eight readers for her book The Belles.

Although #OwnVoices is in some ways a response to this trend of authors writing outside their identity, Clayton maintains that authors can and should write about whatever they want. According to Clayton, characters that are one-dimensional or based in stereotypes are, by their nature, poorly written. As she said in an article in Publishers Weekly, “Writers should write what they want to write, but they should aim to do it well.”

Like editors, copyeditors, and proofreaders, sensitivity readers are just another important step in the publishing process. Readers deserve books in which they see themselves and their experiences portrayed with nuance, accuracy, and compassion.