Panel Recap: Sensitivity Readers

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On December 7th, a group of YPG members gathered in the Dr. Seuss Room at Penguin Random House with an exceptional panel to discuss sensitivity reads. Patrice Caldwell, Associate Editor at Hyperion and the founder of People of Color in Publishing, Tiffany Liao, Editor at Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, Namrata Tripathi, Associate Publisher & Editorial Director at Dial Books and Phoebe Yeh, VP & Publisher of Crown Books for Young Readers, discussed the importance of authors and editors taking their craft seriously, the importance of not using sensitivity readers as shields from criticism, and reframing our language around sensitivity readers.

The panel began with a discussion of one of Tiffany’s current books, which she sent out for multiple sensitivity reads. The feedback from the readers helped shape the book, and allowed the writer to rework the fantasy world in the novel. Patrice, who has done sensitivity reads, discussed the importance of multiple perspectives from readers, which also ensures that a reader is not individually used as a shield if a book is criticized.

Namrata brought up questions about semantics and work, which was a thread that carried through the conversation. She suggested that the very use of “sensitivity” makes the work that these readers do seem less academic. At the heart of their work, sensitivity readers (or authenticity readers) are vetting the content of a book in order to make it more accurate. The work an authenticity reader does is in service to the book, and thinking about it as step taken to hone a writer’s craft can perhaps change the conversation around the necessity of such reads.

The panelists also discussed the perfect time to bring in a sensitivity reader. It varies case by case, but the consensus was early and often. At the copyedit stage, it can be hard to make serious changes to a book, so a reader needs to be hired before that point. If a book is given to a reader too close to copyedits, is it a true sensitivity read or is the imprint asking for permission from the sensitivity reader? Editors will have to ask themselves if they are willing to pull or move a problematic book if a sensitivity reader says the book’s content is concerning at that point in the process.

Editors also have to be honest with themselves when thinking about requesting a sensitivity read. Editors cannot know all things, and as part of advocating for the work, experts sometimes need be called in. As publishing professionals, we should want to make sure that the best version of a book is published, and publishing companies should want to invest in sensitivity reads as part of the editorial process. Phoebe discussed one of her authors that brought his books to sensitivity readers before sending her the manuscript. She also mentioned books that she called colleagues about when the book’s content was outside of her own experience.

What if a book becomes part of a public discussion on Twitter or Goodreads? The response should not be to go on the defensive. Publishing professionals and writers should be thoughtful, and make changes if necessary, or do better the next time around.

The issue of sensitivity readers is not about feelings, it’s about craft. Authors and editors need to put in the thought, time, and effort to make a book the best version of itself.

 

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