Sensitivity readers in traditional publishing

You might have seen that this week a black author pulled his book due to backlash over representation, only a month after an Asian author did the same.

I don’t usually comment on twitter discussions like this, but I think this is a worrying trend that has wide implications for the US YA publishing industry. This issue with diversity has been going on for several years, and many authors have pulled out of book deals due to poor representation. As an author, I have watched this and taken note – however, publishers do not seem to have done the same. They are not learning anything from these cases.

Publishers have a responsibility to their authors to make sure that books are edited to a professional standard, which is no longer just about legibility and plot structures. These days, having accurate and respectful diversity is a core and essential part of a novel, and the traditional editing process is clearly not working.

Publishers need to include sensitivity edits – where an editor from that specific demographic/culture/disability/etc is hired to comment specifically on accuracy in representation –  as a compulsory part of the editing process. Otherwise cases like the above examples occur, when an inexperienced author is the one to suffer due to negligent editing. This can affect their whole career.

It is the equivalent of sending an apprentice out into the field without training or safety certifications, and letting them get injured on their first day. And hiring another apprentice, and letting the same thing happen. And wondering why your apprentices keep dying.

These kind of situations should not continue to happen in a time when advice, resources and freelance editors (of any speciality and narrow field of interest) are so easily found with a single Google search. This should ESPECIALLY not be happening to BAME authors. Hiring own voices writers and trusting that their lived experience will guide them is not enough: they need support and guidance just like anyone else, in any new job.

In any other industry, this kind of manufacturing error would be addressed and fixed with a new addition to the process. Authors should be given the training that is clearly needed, especially when the costs are negligible in comparison to the losses – both emotional and monetary – of these events happening repeatedly.  It’s shocking that publishers are not putting steps in place to ensure that this does not happen – again and again and again.

Authors are not contracted employees at publishers, and so the companies do not feel the need to train them in the way they would a full time member of staff. Yet clearly the knowledge and abilities of authors are worth investing in, and should be guided. Because doing otherwise creates problems for everyone. Authors are not disposable, replaceable, and short term.

Unless something changes, the next logical step in this endless groundhog day saga will be that sales teams at publishers will decide that its too ‘risky’ to publish any diverse fiction at all. They will see that they are losing money whenever they try. They will avoid it completely. That obviously is not an option that we can accept as a community. We have an ethical responsibility to build a better, more inclusive system for everyone.

Diverse fiction is not a trend, and if publishers cared about representing these communities properly, they would be investing resources, time and care into creating books that everyone involved can be proud of. There is no way to avoid scrutiny in the internet age: there is no shortcut here. This has to be done right, otherwise individual – often marginalised – authors are going to continue to take the blame for publishers’ mistakes.


Published by Lauren James

Lauren James is the twice Carnegie-nominated British author of many Young Adult novels, including Green Rising, The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker and The Loneliest Girl in the Universe. She is a RLF Royal Fellow, freelance editor and screenwriter. Lauren is the founder of the Climate Fiction Writers League, and on the board of the Authors & Illustrators Sustainability Working Group through the Society of Authors. Her books have sold over a hundred thousand copies worldwide and been translated into six languages. The Quiet at the End of the World was shortlisted for the YA Book Prize and STEAM Children’s Book Award. Her other novels include The Next Together series, the dyslexia-friendly novella series The Watchmaker and the Duke and serialised online novel An Unauthorised Fan Treatise. She was born in 1992, and has a Masters degree from the University of Nottingham, where she studied Chemistry and Physics. Lauren is a passionate advocate of STEM further education, and many of her books feature female scientists in prominent roles. She sold the rights to her first novel when she was 21, whilst she was still at university. Her writing has been described as ‘gripping romantic sci-fi’ by the Wall Street Journal and ‘a strange, witty, compulsively unpredictable read which blows most of its new YA-suspense brethren out of the water’ by Entertainment Weekly. Lauren lives in the West Midlands and is an Arts Council grant recipient. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the Guardian, Buzzfeed, Den of Geek, The Toast, and the Children’s Writers and Artist’s Yearbook 2022. She has taught creative writing for Coventry University, WriteMentor, and Writing West Midlands.

2 thoughts on “Sensitivity readers in traditional publishing

  1. I understand that sensitivity readers are an important tool that should be utilized, but I’m still shocked that this is something that is happening. I’m not as familiar with what happened surrounding Kosoko Jackson, but what happened with Zhao was incredibly disheartening. While I think whatever was happening with the screenshots was uncalled for, the actual narrative that was being said to be racist and insensitive I think was unfair.
    This was supposed to be an ‘own voices’ novel. Zhao came to the US when she was 18, and lived in China before that. The slavery in her book was supposed to reflect the world she lived in and the kind of slavery that is still very present in China today. Slavery is a part of US history, yes, but it’s also apart of other areas of the world as well. I think it’s a very Western way of thinking to pretend that slavery hasn’t existed and still exists in other cultures.


    1. It’s terrible, and there’s no good or bad people – everyone involved has good intentions, from the bloggers to the authors to the publishers. Things are just not being done properly, and the effects are so terrible that it’s almost negligent.


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