‘We’re not the PC police!’: what sensitivity readers really do

But is the use of sensitivity readers really such a radical change in the publishing sphere? Writers have always sought advice on portraying cultures or groups with which they are not intimately familiar; the difference now is that this practice is becoming professionalised. 

Many sensitivity readers are freelance, but others – especially in America, where they have been used much more widely and for longer than in Britain – work for large parent companies. Every reader has a profile in which they describe their background and specialist areas, and in many cases present a stark catalogue of experiences they have undergone and can provide comment on the reality of racism, homophobia, sexual assault, disability, alcoholism and more. According to the US Editorial Freelancers Association, the average fee for a sensitivity reader is $31–35 per hour, or $0.01–0.19 per word, which would work out at around $1,000–1,900 for the manuscript of a novel of average length (thus slightly cheaper than the average proofreading service).

Critics of the practice argue that, in sensitive times, sensitivity readers are being granted too much power over the content of books. It seems timely therefore to find out more about what sensitivity readers actually do: who they speak for, what they are trying to achieve, and how much power they really have. 

Yasmin McClinton, a first-generation Ghanaian American, is a professional sensitivity (or authenticity) reader, as well as a freelance editor, former high-school teacher and (under the name Yasmin Angoe) novelist. Her involvement with sensitivity reading began “unintentionally”, she says, when she decided to train to be an editor and took part in a mentoring programme for people of colour who wanted to work in publishing; she was then offered a job by the company running the programme, which offers editorial services including sensitivity reading to writers and publishers.

What does a sensitivity review entail? “When I do a review, I’ll check for what the client specifically asks for. Most of the time, they ask for an overall view. They may ask me to read for African-American, black, immigrant or women’s experiences. They may ask me to read for areas based on my background as an educator – it depends. I’m looking for outdated, harmful, offensive terms – and phrases, stereotypes, appropriation, cherry-picking of elements of diversity that feel inauthentic and forced.”

I ask her if she has undertaken any training, and whether her job is to make note of what she personally feels is inauthentic or offensive, or to anticipate what others may be offended by. “As with any other job, there is continuous learning. I’m always curating resources I can use as a reference when I’m conducting reviews. If there is anything I’m not sure about, I’ll ask other editors that may be more knowledgeable. I attend webinars and whatever else I come across to ensure whatever I’m telling my clients is information based on research and fact.”

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