Publishers defend sensitivity readers as vital tool following author criticism

From The Bookseller:

UK children’s publishers have defended the use of sensitivity readers following criticism from some quarters about supposed interference in the creative process, arguing the intention is to make books more inclusive and this should be “applauded”.

Speaking at Hay Festival last month, author Anthony Horowitz hit the headlines for claiming “children’s publishers are more scared than anybody” when it comes to so-called “cancel culture”, saying he was shocked when receiving the notes for his new work.

The author of the Alex Rider series said he “suffered” through the edits on his latest book for younger people, Where Seagulls Dare: A Diamond Brothers Case, due to be published next month by Walker Books, and claimed “what is happening to writers is extremely dangerous”.

Horowitz did not single out sensitivity readers, but the author seemed to echo concerns in the national press about their use. “I believe that writers should not be cowed, we should not be made to do things because we’re so scared of starting a storm on Twitter,” he said, although he declined to specify the publisher’s qualms.

Bloomsbury, Bonnier and Quarto all told The Bookseller they had employed sensitivity readers, saying the move was “important in inclusive, forward-thinking publishing” while rejecting any suggestion authors were being forced to make changes they did not want to make. None of the Big Four publishers responded to requests to comment.

Helen Wicks, managing director for children’s trade at Bonnier, said: “We recognise that this is a delicate balance, and that the authorial voice should be respected. However, we believe sensitivity reads can play an important role in inclusive, forward-thinking publishing. We have used them for many years, picking our partners very carefully and positioning them as peer reviews. Importantly, we believe our teams have both the knowledge and skill required to work with our authors and advisers to bring the best possible stories to the widest possible audience.”

Rebecca McNally, publishing director for Bloomsbury Children’s Books, agreed: “We think they are very helpful on some projects as many authors really do appreciate the insight of a specialist editorial perspective as part of the process. We view it as another kind of expert read that raises questions a general editor, however rigorous, may not think or know to ask. Mostly they give the author an opportunity to review their text through a particular (relevant) lens and make subtle changes, or not. We don’t expect them to make books bulletproof and don’t expect authors to implement all the sensitivity reader’s recommendations—it’s an intelligent, informed dialogue.”

Shannon Cullen, group publishing director for Quarto Kids, also confirmed the publisher used “a variety of editorial consultants” for some of its books “to ensure they are naturally inclusive and accurate in their representation, particularly when exploring topics such as history or geography, or in books that represent multiple experiences”.  

She added: “We encourage our creative partners to consider the potential impact of their work on children and families—regardless of their own intent in producing it—when considering any editorial or illustration feedback. We do not believe that you can make children’s books ’too inclusive’ if the result is also making every child feel seen or safe in their pages, or to build their empathy through reading.”

Silvia Molteni, head of the children’s and YA books department at PFD, said the agency had seen “an increasing number of UK publishers employing sensitivity readers recently, while in the past it was something much more common with US publishers”.  

“It is a process that we, as agent, are removed from as we work with our writers and it’s the publisher who decides whether or not and how to conduct a sensitivity read. Generally speaking, the intention of making children’s books more inclusive—without affecting creativity in the process—is certainly one to be applauded,” she said.

However, reporting in national media on sensitivity readers tends to focus on authors who are less receptive to the idea.

. . . .

Clanchy noted sensitivity reading’s origins in children’s and young adult fiction, and said “there are good reasons for regulating children’s reading: it is foundational and formational and may be enforced by school choice or being read aloud to”, adding “it is genuinely important, there, to avoid oppressive stereotypes”. Nevertheless, she argued Some Kids was not written for children. “Adults are able to put books down if they upset them, so their books may safely contain difficult ideas,” she said. “I thought carefully about all the notes I had been given and, in the end, adopted none of the suggestions proffered by the readers.”

Sensitivity readers, such as author Eva Wong Nava, are keen to explain what their role actually involves. Wong Nava says the term “sensitivity reader” is a “misnomer”. She told The Bookseller: “What a sensitivity reader does is really editorial. It’s not to cancel anyone, it’s really to add a recommendation or suggestion.” She explained how sensitivity readers read through the lens of their own lived experience, or professional and research experience, to provide feedback on authenticity. Wong Nava reads for the portrayal of South East Asian and Chinese experience, identity and culture, for example, as she is from Singapore and Malaysia. She also reads for British Chinese lived experience as she lives in Britain.

She stressed: “I understand writers feeling defensive, but the thing to note about sensitivity editing, is it is not to cancel, it’s to make your manuscript better, like any editor would want to do.”

Responding to Horowitz’s comments, she emphasised the “consultative” nature of sensitivity reading, where the author has the right to accept or reject suggestions, but also the need for children to feel safe.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

During World War II, a large number of ships were utilized to move soldiers, military vehicles and supplies from the United States and other locations to war zones. For the safety of those ships, a number of them were traveled as a group, a convoy. The convoy was guarded from attacks by enemy air and sea forces by armed naval vessels.

For the convoy to be an effective safety measure, the ships had to travel together at the same speed. That speed was governed by how fast the slowest ship in the convoy could travel. If the remainder of the convoy went faster than the slowest ship, that ship would be left behind and be a much easier target for enemy forces to attack and sink.

PG was reminded of the slowest ship in the convoy when he considered sensitivity readers. The most “sensitive” of the sensitivity readers would seem to set the standard for a publisher. If the editors or other sensitivity readers thought one of their staff was going too far, that would open them up to attack for not being sensitive enough to the fears, needs, traumas, lived experiences, etc., etc. of that sensitivity reader and others who shared those sensitivities.

PG was a trial lawyer for many years and anyone who spends much time in that field ends up representing people who have made decisions the lawyer wouldn’t have personally made. For example, marrying someone who was, in PG’s eyes, entirely unsuitable to be anyone’s spouse, life partner, drinking buddy, companion, friend, friendly acquaintance, auto mechanic, etc.

PG tried to screen out crazy people before they became his clients. But on some occasions, PG ended up representing crazy people because he/she didn’t present as crazy when PG first met with them (crazy people are sometimes quite ingenious in disguising their true nature) or a judge assigned him to represent a crazy person because even a crazy person is entitled to legal representation under many circumstances.

When PG considers sensitivity editors/readers/reviewers, he wonders how many crazy people slip into those roles. This question arises in PG’s fevered brain because some of the identified sensitivities are so abstruse and hypothetical he suspects that psychiatric treatment would be more effective than sensitivity editing for the exquisitely sensitive among us.

8 thoughts on “Publishers defend sensitivity readers as vital tool following author criticism”

  1. One wonders if the book publishers have any sensitivity readers who check and see if, say, conservative evangelicals are being presented inaccurately and invidiously.

    Anyway, this article, when combined with the one about the book business system being under attack, showcases two different methods of censorship–one way is to go after already published material, the other way is to make sure that it doesn’t get published at all. The second kind gets far less publicity because it is much less visible–after all, who notices what doesn’t get published.

  2. The problem with this is the idea that one (or two) readers can stand in for the views of a whole community. Basic fact checking is fine but once you get past that you’re in a realm where one community member will be saying “this would never happen” and another “it happens all the time”, or “this is very offensive” versus “nobody cares about that”.

  3. One wonders if it would be necessary for publishers to hire outside “sensitivity readers” if publishers’ staffs reflected the prospective readership even a little bit more. Imprint X — a prestigious literati-friendly separate business division of a NYCBigConglomberate — was, three or four years ago, so white (not to mention relentlessly upper-middle-class/upper-class and filled with trust-fund kids from the not-quite-Ivies) that it “had” to hire sensitivity readers to deal with literati-friendly authors with Hispanic surnames.

    There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with hiring an expert in a field to review a manuscript; academic publishers do it all the time (it’s called being a “referee,” and I’ve done it more than once and had it done to me more than once). But that happens when there’s no expertise on staff. I find it amusing — then, I have a sick sense of humor — that the parallel here is that there’s no on-staff expertise in the areas that justify sensitivity readers.

    • C.E., I suspect that, for almost all of the sensitivity readers, it is a side hustle. They’re not about to take a day job that pays the pittance the NYC publishers pay those “relentlessly upper-middle-class/upper-class trust-fund kids from the not-quite-Ivies.”

      • It’s worse than that in some instances, W.O. In one instance in which I was (very privately and everyone involved will deny that there was ever an issue) consulted recently,† the identity of the hired “reader” was characterizable on first blush as “staff member’s roommate whose own job had recently disappeared due to a corporate failure” (notwithstanding whether said roommate did fit the desired demographic, and those details are not for discussion).

        Graft, corruption, and nepotism — the three things that made America great.

        † Let alone a “consultation.” Let alone of me.

        • Graft, corruption, and nepotism — the three things that made America great.

          Still do. If anything more than ever. A life in politics can take a trailer park kid with the right connections from zero to $200M.

          Also, there’s no need to name the political scion that is the current exemplar, right?

          As Heinlein used to say, the honest politician is the one that *stays* bought. Few qualify. (China can attest to that.)

          • Just a nitpick, Felix – you really can’t attribute that to RAH. It was a very common saying among his entire generation.

            My Dad (who definitely never read a single word of Heinlein) did have a somewhat different way of saying it, though. “Nixon went down because he didn’t have the good sense to STAY bought.”

            • Re: Nixon – Did he ever clarify?
              The way I heard it it was paranoia over the 1960 voting dead, that he was looking for signs of more chicanery.

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