Episode 55

Sensitivity Reads: The Upside and the Downside

What happens when an author does not agree with their sensitivity reader? In the case of one Big Five publisher, the author didn't get a rebuttal.

Music licensed from Storyblocks:

“More Jam Please” by Raighes Factory

"On the Up" by Humans Win

"Streets Of California" by Oleksii Abramovych

"California Blues" by Style da Kid

"Fighter" by Humans Win

Rosemi Mederos:

If you have plot bunnies coming out of your plot holes, it’s time for a writing break.

In this episode I’ll tell you about sensitivity reads, a new fantasy romance imprint, and the latest project from the creator of Calvin and Hobbes.

The Writing Break cafe is open, so let’s get some refreshments, rendezvous at our usual table, and catch up on some publishing news.

in January:

Unfortunately, layoffs are still expected to happen by June.

Bill Watterson, the creator of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, is back after nearly three decades out of the spotlight. And what he has for us is something quite different. He has teamed up with caricaturist John Kascht on a modern fable for adults called The Mysteries. “A long-ago kingdom is afflicted with unexplainable calamities. Hoping to end the torment, the king dispatches his knights to discover the source of the mysterious events. Years later, a single battered knight returns.”

Five years in the making, the hardcover is currently available for pre-order. The book releases October 10th, just in time for Halloween. Check the show notes to take a peek inside this strange new book.

Tor Publishing, known for its sci-fi and fantasy, has announced a new romantic imprint called Bramble, which will launch this fall.

“From science fiction and fantasy to contemporary and family saga, romance belongs in every genre and every genre belongs in Bramble. Whether the last page holds happily ever after, to be continued, or an ending that isn’t so simple, Bramble books will take you on an extraordinary journey of love. With spice levels to suit all readers, with familiar tropes and uncharted territory, Bramble books will explore a love that’s tangled up, covered in thorns, and oh so sweet. Bramble is for everyone and everyone deserves a good love story.”

Links to all of these stories can be found in the show notes of this episode and on writingbreak.com.

Let’s cozy up on the Overthinking Couch to answer a listener’s question.

I was recently asked why I quote book synopses and press releases rather than summarizing them in my own words, and there’s a good reason for that actually. One of the hardest things for authors is summarizing their book and talking about themselves. My hope is that by listening to these direct quotes, you get a sense of how it’s done, when it’s done well, and what you prefer. But I’ve read at least one that I would have tweaked had I been the editor, and this listener picked up on that, which means my evil plan is working.

Now it’s time to visit an independent bookstore in sunny California.

kland, California. Founded in:

Let’s roam around and see what we uncover.

Bread and Sugar Water: A journey through race, love and discrimination to become a man before a color by Abi Kobe Zar “gathers fragments of complex family relationships, fragments of a society that changes, but remains the same, fragments of love stories that burn the skin to the bones, where the pain often never heals.

Born in Accra, where he had been living for ten years, Kofi moved to Italy with his family. Here, for the first time in his life, he realizes that he has a color, that he’s black.

Only growing up he will realize how incredibly important and central his being is for society.

Thus begins the journey in Italian society, which first sees him as an innocent child, then as a danger.


Bread and Sugar Water is life, is fear, is depression, is discrimination and rejection, it’s death and survival, is creation and destruction, is love and desire, is hope and change, but above all it’s dignity and determination.

It’s light beyond the abysses of the human soul.” Bread and Sugar Water is available free on Kindle Unlimited in both English and the original Italian.

Now it’s time for this episode’s writing tip.

Today we’re talking about what happens when the good intentions of a sensitivity reader misalign with your good intentions as an author. First, in case you don’t know, a sensitivity read is when your manuscript is reviewed for stereotypes, misrepresentation, and offensive content. The person who performs this review is called a sensitivity reader, and they usually turn in a report with what needs to change, why it needs to change, and suggestions on how to change it.

The topic of a sensitivity read can be a sore spot for many authors, primarily because of the cost and the time it adds to the publishing process. As a side note, if you’re looking to save money, you might be able to get away with sending a sensitivity reader passages of your book to review instead of the whole book. For example, if you’re concerned with the way you’ve presented a gay character, you can send just the scenes with or about that character to a sensitivity reader who is a member of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Aside from time and money, there’s the concern that publishers are muffling the author’s message.

I’m going to present both sides here.

On the upside, I’ll say that I have found sensitivity reads to be helpful.

I’ll give you an example. I worked on the developmental editing of an action thriller about drug trafficking, gun violence, and gangs. Are we really going to be that concerned with offending people? Yep. We sent it off to a sensitivity reader who was from Paraguay because parts of the book were set in Paraguay, and the author was not from Paraguay. At a couple of points in the story, the characters visit each other’s homes. Originally, the characters went up to the door of a house and knocked. The sensitivity reader informed us that this is not done in Paraguay. Instead, people stand by your fence or gate and clap. They do not enter your yard until you come out of your house, even if your gate is unlocked, even if your gate is wide open.

So, the author made that change, and we were on our way.

Consulting someone on a manuscript is not a new thing. Authors consult scientists, gardeners, the police, and military and weapons experts all the time. It’s usually called research. But the term sensitivity read either puts some people on the offensive or makes them scared to dispute a sensitivity reader’s notes.

Literary agent Jeffrey Herman recently shared the downside to a poorly conducted sensitivity read in a Publisher’s Weekly article (linked in the show notes). He explained that his client “received a Big Five contract for a book about his time as a Marine sniper during the Vietnam War, when he was 17. The original manuscript (written with the assistance of a coauthor) told his story in the context of its time and place, including florid verbatim language and descriptions that wouldn’t be appropriate in other settings, then or now. Historical authenticity and truthfulness were the author’s priorities.

The manuscript passed the publisher’s editorial and legal protocols with relatively few revisions, and no additional hurdles were expected.”

Herman says they were told that the manuscript would have to undergo a sensitivity read, but he didn’t know what that was, and there seemed to be no reason to be concerned. Then, they received the notes from the sensitivity reader.

“Under the threat of having his book deal terminated, my client was forced to meaningfully modify his manuscript to accommodate a five-page document full of subjective complaints about how the Vietnam War was fought by the author and his co-combatants, the unfiltered descriptions of his horrific experiences, and the unsavory language used by the mostly very young men who were there on behalf of their country. The sensitivity review was written by one person. This person was hired by the publisher, and no information about their qualifications, or who might have reviewed their review, was provided. No appeals or rebuttals were allowed. My author reluctantly complied in full.”

What sounds an alarm for me is the fact that this author and the agent did not get any information about the sensitivity reader, and the author was told to alter his true life story without discussion or there would be no book. A bit draconian, don’t you think?

The missing part of the equation for a great sensitivity read in this case seems to have been handing the manuscript to someone who regularly reads and enjoys the genre. If you are going to pay for a sensitivity read for your historically accurate war book, make sure you hire someone who regularly reads and enjoys historically accurate war books.

I would like to think that the editorial team went toe to toe with the publisher on this one and tried their hardest to advocate for the author’s right to tell their life story as it happened.

My question to you is, what would you have done as the author? The agent mentions that the author had already accepted one advanced payment, and the second advance payment was to be made once they had accepted it for publication.

Discuss it in your writing group or just debate it with yourself during your commute. Either way, this writing break is over. Until next week, remember, you deserved this break.

If you would like us to visit your favorite independent bookstore, feature your favorite independent author (even if it’s you), or discuss something you’re overthinking about, please email me at podcast@writingbreak.com.

Thank you for making space in your mind for The Muse today.

Writing Break is hosted by America’s Editor and produced by Allon Media with technical direction by Gus Aviles. Visit us at writingbreak.com or contact us at podcast@writingbreak.com.

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Rosemi Mederos


Rosemi is the founder of America's Editor, a book editing company.