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  • Writer's pictureSarah Lustig

Are sensitivity reads really worth it?

Spoiler alert: My answer is yes. But that’s not really what you came here for. What you came here for was the answer to why sensitivity reads are worth it.

Last week Kate Clanchy, author of the Orwell-prize-winning memoir Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, wrote an article entitled, ‘How sensitivity readers corrupt literature’. In the article she details the recent sensitivity reads carried out on her book and heavily criticises the process.

Clanchy is tapping into a debate currently rumbling in parts of the industry. Do sensitivity reads protect readers from harm? Do they protect authors from embarrassing (or worse) miss-steps? Or do they restrict freedom of speech? Are they an attempt to cancel authors?

Clanchy presents her arguments about why sensitivity reads are so pernicious. Here, I’m going to look at the alternative point of view: the value of sensitivity reads. And why authors and readers should give them a chance.

The purpose of a sensitivity read

Sensitivity reads are new to some parts of the publishing industry. But other areas have been using them – perhaps under a different name – for many years.

In my work on textbooks for the international market, I have overseen many cultural sensitivity reviews. Their purpose is to determine whether the material is appropriate for the market it has been written for.

Sensitivity reads have the same goal in mind, but often the market is the home market. You might wonder why we need to check that materials are appropriate for the market in which they were written and published. Surely this can be assumed? But social expectations have been changing rapidly in the last decade (and more). And authors might not be aware of all the changes.

The value of sensitivity reads

One of the greatest benefits of sensitivity reads is their potential to highlight issues that the author might not be aware of. I’ve seen this happen on many books I have worked on. Authors themselves often highly value this process and express appreciation for the comments made.

It’s important to note that comments made are always made as suggestions. The author is not forced to accept every note. But even if they don’t, the discussion produced by a specific comment might mean that they have a fuller understanding of their own thoughts and ideas on a subject. It might help them hone the reasons why they want to include something. Many authors value those interactions as much as the suggestions they decide to implement.

Furthermore publishers have a lot to gain from sensitivity reads. They could be seen as a form of market research. They inform the publisher about how their new product might be received by the market. Sensitivity reads help them to protect their reputation, as well as preventing potential harm or offence to their readers – their customers.

Problems with sensitivity reads

However, in Clanchy’s article she details several problems with the sensitivity reads of her book. Is there any truth to her claims?

The problems she listed include:

  1. Comments being provided in several formats – as an Excel sheet, comments in Word.

  2. Contradictory comments about the same sections.

  3. Inaccurate comments, citing errors that are not errors.

  4. Insensitive phrasing in the comments themselves.

  5. Comments that she disagrees with.

I have seen problems like this on cultural sensitivity reviews. I’m not surprised by any of the points she mentions. I think that Clanchy has identified some genuine problems here – points 1 to 4. But I disagree with her about the solution.

I don’t think the answer is to decry all sensitivity reads. In cases where these problems have arisen on reviews I have worked on, we have been able to resolve them. And those reviews still represented a valuable part of the development of those books. In order to resolve these issues, I think publishers, and those working to commission sensitivity reads, need to refine the review process.

We must all remember that sensitivity reads of this style are relatively new to some sectors of the industry. For those teams, the processes for organising them are not yet honed. And that’s OK. It’s going to come with time.

For all of points 1 to 4 above, I think the publisher could have resolved these problems. An editor or editorial manager should oversee the sensitivity read(s) and handles these issues. Here are my suggested solutions:

As for point 5 – comments that the author disagreed with – I don’t agree that this is a problem with sensitivity reads. I think this is one of their greatest values. They are meant to open up discussion. The author doesn’t have to agree with every point or implement every suggested change. But they should at least be aware of the impact of their words. If they choose to make one change as a result of a sensitivity read, then I believe the process has been worth it.

The future of sensitivity reads

I’m not surprised that authors are reporting problems with sensitivity reads. For some teams, it is still such a new part of the publishing process. There is little training in this area (although, happily, provision is growing). Editors and publishers might be unclear about the aims of a sensitivity read or its remit. And understandably there is fear of published titles being publicly lambasted for offensive material.

Ultimately, I believe they have much to offer authors and publishers. But I also think that publishers, editors and sensitivity readers have something valuable to learn from Clanchy’s reaction.

For sensitivity reads to be a success, we need authors to be on board with them. We need to apply the same rigorous standards towards them that we do other areas of publishing.

We need to help authors to process feedback on this scale. We should protect them from insensitive comments. We should try to write comments that are mindful of how invested in their work an author is. In short, we need to make the process manageable for authors, too. We should help them to see what a great benefit they can be, rather than just a staggering workload for little gain.


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