By Rebecca Wei Hsieh
Much of the dialogue around sensitivity readers has centered on the potential for censorship. The discussion has certainly helped increase the profession’s visibility. Yet in fixating on the censorship debate, it’s easy to lose sight of who exactly is doing the reading. To shed some light on the readers’ side of the process, We Need Diverse Books talked to several sensitivity readers about their experiences.
Sensitivity readers (also sometimes known as authenticity readers) are experts who draw from their lived experiences and knowledge to point out any problematic elements in a manuscript. They’re usually from one or more marginalized communities and read material that is potentially triggering or traumatizing. Deep diving into manuscripts that may duplicate injustices means self-care is a must, and taking breaks—both during and between projects—is high on the list.
“The way I balance that is by both taking time to read the story and taking breaks if I need it,” said Adriana M. Martínez Figueroa. “Another thing is to not delve immediately onto the next project; I take the time to perhaps read something that makes me feel good or is an entirely different genre than what I was working on.”
In a similar vein, D. Anne Williams tries not to read for the same issues all the time, since the emotional labour required varies from project to project. She explained that for her, “Reading for Black American representation in a historical fiction set during the Civil War is going to be way more draining than reading for asexual representation in a contemporary romance written by an LGBTQ+ author.” Apart from genres and themes, many readers also vary the types of projects they take on based on the length and medium to help balance the emotional labor they expend.
Most readers only take on projects that are relevant to their identities, seeing as no culture is a monolith. As with the writing itself, choosing a reader requires nuance. Pam Punzalan urged clients to understand intersectionality. There is no single spokesperson for any kind of marginalization, they said. It’s unrealistic for clients to expect one person to single-handedly catch all their problems when “authentic” looks different from person to person.
Unfortunately, sensitivity readers don’t always get paid what they’re worth. The low pay rates sting harder when publishing powerhouses offer meager paychecks, all while racking up bestseller after bestseller.
“When the hire is coming from traditional publishers, they tend to set their own prices which are always lower than my price,” Ryan Douglass told WNDB. “Authenticity readers should be hired on as staff members at publishers, and this job should not be relegated to the freelance market forever.”
In some cases, sensitivity readers don’t get paid at all. In addition to receiving requests for free labor, Yilin Wang recalled an instance where the client misrepresented the project. “An editor at a publishing house offered me the chance to do a book report to gain experience and it suddenly turned out to be a sensitivity read. It was really unreasonable and unpaid, and it came from an established gatekeeper who I had asked for advice on breaking into publishing, so I feel really taken advantage of.”
The client should know what level of involvement they need from the reader. Zhui Ning Chang told WNDB that services can run the gamut from character development consulting to final feedback before a work is published. Clients should consider their timelines and budgets accordingly, they said, and plan for ample time to make any adjustments before publishing. After all, what’s the point in asking for feedback when there’s no time to implement it?
Punzalan encourages clients to consult sensitivity readers earlier on in the process. “We can’t help you fix things that are fundamentally broken,” they said, and went on to point out how some sensitivity readers have been used as human shields to ward off criticism.
Even naming a sensitivity reader out of genuine gratitude can still inadvertently put the reader in a vulnerable position. As Williams explained, “A lot of readers don’t understand that SRs can’t flag every instance of possible insensitivity for every identity. It makes our jobs harder if we’re getting hate emails/tweets for insensitive portrayals of identities we weren’t contracted for.”
Another easy way for clients to protect readers is by providing a list of content and trigger warnings, such as instances of physical violence, sexual assault, or animal death. Williams emphasized that warnings should also include topics that the reader isn’t reading for. “The worst SRs I’ve had were not because of poor representation (though that is always draining), but because of other triggers that I was not aware of until I got to those pages. I cannot stress how much we need to know what we’re getting into.”
Of course, there’s no such thing as the perfect manuscript. But it’s obvious, Katherine DeGilio said, when a writer has made an effort to be accurate and when they’ve barely put thought into their characters. And if respect for marginalized voices isn’t enough of a motivator, a writer gets more out of a sensitivity read if they learn the fundamentals themselves.
“If an author starts their journey with me already covering the basics, then I can dive into deeper issues and really help their novel shine,” said DeGilio. “But if they haven’t done the slightest searching, I’m going to have to spend a lot of time on the basics and it will be more time and more money for them.”
At the end of the day, the best way to collaborate with sensitivity readers (or anyone, really) boils down to respectful communication. If anything, refusing to meet sensitivity readers halfway just goes to show that the hire is merely a facade. After all, the readers are literally members of the underrepresented communities written about; respect must exist on and off the page.
The decision to make adjustments ultimately lies with the client, but there’s no point in hiring a sensitivity reader if the client gives into the urge to defend and deflect criticism right off the bat.
As Liam Stevens puts it: “If you invite me to kōrero with you about your work, then you have best be prepared for consultation and education. I don’t just want you to not say the wrong things, but the right things and to understand why they’re right. If someone is not open to such a process then we can’t work together.”
So why do this work when it means shouldering such a heavy weight? Chang cited their desire to help transform the industry. Publishing can’t rely on individuals to fix its deep, structural problems, they said. Yet the knowledge that they’re not alone keeps them going. “The systemic problems keep us down, but I also see people who are fighting to dismantle and rebuild and imagine better, and that community of dreamers gives me strength and solidarity to keep going.”
For clients, it’s also a sentiment worth bearing in mind as you prepare to work with a sensitivity reader. Receiving feedback is never easy. Anyone could be tempted to view sensitivity readers as nitpicking gremlins, lurking in the shadows, waiting for writers to mess up. Censures, rather than collaborators.
But while every reader has their own approach, one thing remains constant: Sensitivity readers do this emotionally taxing, underappreciated, underpaid work because they want publishing to grow. They perform this intense emotional labor in the hopes of helping writers present the best, most nuanced manuscript they can. They want to help you write respectfully, mindfully. They want to help you write well. When they take on a project, more often than not, they’re rooting for you to get things right.
So be respectful, be open, and pay your sensitivity readers.
Rebecca Wei Hsieh (she/her) is a Taiwanese American actor, writer, translator, and authenticity reader based in NYC. Having grown up across several continents, her writing focuses on the interplay between Asia and the Asian diaspora, gender, queerness, and mental illness, and has been featured in outlets like Book Riot, The Dot and Line, Off Colour Inc (formerly Nerdy POC), and OC87 Recovery Diaries. She has a BA in theatre and Italian studies from Wesleyan University, and you can find her attempts to use her liberal arts degree at rwhsieh.wix.com/home.