Publishers hire "sensitivity readers" to red-flag stereotypical content

Publishers are hiring what they refer to as “sensitivity readers” to flag potentially offensive content.  The practice is especially prevalent among publishers of fiction for children or young adults, especially when an author is writing about, or “as,” a character whose race or sex is different from the author’s own.  Publishers claim they don’t want authors to portray such characters inauthentically or in such a way as to promote stereotypes.

Bobby Byrd, co-publisher (with his wife Lee) of Cinco Puntos Press in El Paso, says their first concern was getting the language right.  “This first started when we did bilingual books because there are so many ways to speak Spanish,” he says.  “So we wanted to make sure it was the most generic form of Spanish when we did children’s books for bilingual readers.”

Byrd says his company tends to avoid the diversity problem in the obvious way.  “With a few exceptions, we always publish books by people from the community of which they’re speaking,” he says.  “So that gets a lot of it done right off the start.”

Every now and then, Byrd says, they’ll publish a book that’s a stretch in this regard.  A recent title, I Got a Handle On It, by Donovan Mixon, deals with a young dyslexic black man growing up in Newark.  Byrd notes, “We take, actually, pride in finding new communities, discovering new communities, because we want to learn.”  He says the author found readers to check his work in progress to make sure he was keeping it real.

Byrd says the “big push for diversity in publishing” in recent years doesn’t much affect a smaller publishing house like his.  “Actually the movement is really aimed at the Big Six of publishing in New York City,” he observes. “To be honest, we’ve been doing that since 1985.”

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