There is much discussion on social media these days about the need for authors and publishers to engage sensitivity and diversity readers so that characters, language, plot points and more are presented accurately and with a keen awareness of how all readers might perceive the story.
Unfortunately, there have been recent examples of books that were pulled from distribution at the last minute because of these types of problems that might have been addressed at an earlier stage in the process before publication. That is heartbreaking for an author and likely costly in dollars for the publisher.
Disclaimer: I am not an authority about sensitivity or diversity readers and wouldn’t even grade myself a B student on this issue, but it is a topic and concern that interests me deeply.
I believe that in order to create authentic stories that mirror real lives, real people, real society and real issues, authors often must write outside of their personal experience zone. No more than any other group, we should not assume that writers have special abilities to portray and understand diverse people and situations and be able to present them flawlessly. Just as writers open themselves up to vetting their work in critique groups and with editors; they should also be willing to make every effort to ensure their book is valid, realistic and sensitive. This may require a professional reader.
From my personal experience, I would like to humbly suggest that the services of a diversity and/or sensitivity reader be engaged soon after completing the first draft. It is essential to discover what requires changing, deleting, re-wording or further research. At this point, it is also easier to incorporate the reader’s recommendations than when you are in the last stages before publication.
Also, you should engage people who have appropriate credentials and asking a neighbor or co-worker to comment on sensitive and diversity issues will rarely hit the mark. A writer needs a reader who is knowledgeable about the craft, the publishing world, the social climate, the use of language and more. This type of person will understand plot points, character descriptions and themes.
Sensitivity and diversity readers render professional services, and authors or publishers should expect to pay them accordingly. You wouldn’t think of asking a doctor or an accountant to provide their expertise without charge.
For my first book, Swallowed by a Secret, the sensitivity reader I used was an author and a psychologist. I chose her because the story deals with mental health issues. One of her recommendations was to include more scenes to show how the illness manifested itself so the reader would be prepared for the conclusion of the story.
In my second book, Spooked by a Suspicion (publication date August 2021), there are two characters of color who play major roles in the story. I engaged a diversity reader who is an editor and has extensive experience in publishing to read my manuscript to give me feedback on whether I had portrayed the characters accurately and without stereotyping or tropes. She spotted a plot point that needed changing.
As I stated in the beginning of this blog post, this issue is of concern to me, so I had the professional readers do one more reading right after I signed the contracts for publication so that I could know if there were any lingering issues to address.
As my books make their way in the world, I want to be sure that they meet very high standards.