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For the last few years, the majority of the conversation around diversity and inclusion in book publishing has happened in the Children’s Lit and YA world, where the debate over hiring sensitivity readers has grown especially heated. Obviously, authors of books meant from a young, impressionable audience should be especially mindful about both inclusion and harmful tropes and characterizations. But I was beginning to wonder why we weren’t talking about that more in the adult-sphere.

Then American Dirt happened.

Unlike the other book scandals that I’ve recapped thus far where I was looking at them in the rearview, this one I followed in real time, rather breathlessly I have to admit. I remember meeting with a good author friend around this time for lunch (in a café! With no masks on! We hugged hello! Remember those times?) and parsing the whole thing. I just kept thinking: what would I tell Jeanine Cummins if I was her publicist?

You truly cannot read a thing about sensitivity readers without the word censorship coming up, and in all of the op-eds I read there were four case studies that got name-checked over and over as evidence of this ‘slippery slope’ argument.

Last week, I talked about two of the books — A Birthday Cake for George Washington and When We Was Fierce — that were actually pulled from publication for being offensive: the first by the publisher, the latter by the author.

But two of the other most commonly cited books made their way to bookshelves and can be purchased today if anyone so chooses. …

As I was reading up on sensitivity readers, there were four books that came up again and again. So today I’m getting busy serving up some extremely cold several-years-old scandal. The fact that these books were still being name-checked in op-eds from this year should tell you something about the frequency of the “censorship” that’s been wrought by the “tyranny” of sensitivity reading, but I digress.

These books were held up by the group of detractors making the “censorship” case as examples of wokeness run amok. Because most of this conversation happened in the YA blogosphere and Twitterverse where I don’t spend much time, they mostly escaped my notice when they happened. …

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Last week, I went through what I see to be some of the specious arguments against the practice of using sensitivity reader (these arguments tended to also rope in the general pushback on books for being racist or otherwise culturally insensitive). The handwriting over any of this being a slippery slope to censorship is deliberately obtuse, in my opinion, but there are some arguments that sensitivity readers could be making things worse on the representation front, rather than better. And that’s what I want to explore today.

I’m going to be quoting a couple of very smart people who are far more immersed in the business of sensitivity reading than I am. I highly recommend reading the full articles, which I’ve included below. …

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As I mentioned in my first post on this topic, wading into the arena of sensitivity readers immediately had me feeling as though I’d bitten off a bit more than I could chew. I am by no means positioning myself as an expert on this topic, and will continue to encourage you to check out the work of folks like Patrice Caldwell, Dhonielle Clayton, and Jennifer Baker, as well as everyone over at We Need Diverse Books as they’ve been hugely helpful to me wrapping my head around some of this.

As always, I hope to help us wade through these issues together, bringing along my unique perspective as an author and onetime publishing professional and my continued curiosity about how we can make book publishing better. …

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If you’ve had anything to do with Young Adult or Children’s Literature over the past five years or so, you’ve likely heard about sensitivity readers in rather exhaustive detail. The practice has become increasingly common in adult literature as well, but I’ve found that it’s often misunderstood or unfairly maligned (I’ll get to that).

I started off to do a simple, instructive post explaining what a sensitivity reader is and why an author might hire one. However, in doing research to supplement what I know about the practice, I found myself almost immediately in the weeds. There’s been a lot of controversy over sensitivity readers (albeit mostly in the tempest teapots of the Twitter-verse and op-ed spheres); and I thought this was well worth unpacking because sensitivity readers — along with the online call-outs they’re meant to guard against — exist right at the intersection of race, representation, and book publishing. …

In early June as conversations around police brutality and racial disparities across industries hit a fever pitch, book publishing came face-to-face with a significant indicator of its own shabby treatment of BIPOC writers. During a Twitter conversation with fellow YA author Tochi Onyebuchi about unfair treatments of black authors, L.L. McKinney created #PublishingPaidMe to encourage authors to share the advances they received from publishers.

Even for those of us who’ve been around the publishing block long enough to expect disparity, the results were pretty mind blowing.

Just as a refresher, here’s how a book advance works. An advance on royalties in the big lump sum an author gets when a publisher buys their book. It’s calculated by the editor making an educated guess on how many copies a book might sell by looking at what similar books — or the book’s comp titles — have sold and then working backwards from there. …

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“People I care about are readers … particularly serious readers and writers, these are my people. And we do not like to yak about ourselves.”

This quote from the ever cranky Jonathan Franzen, in a 2012 Guardian article, was aimed at those who use Twitter to talk about books, or to cultivate an audience for their books. And while there’s plenty to critique about social media, when writers like Franzen dismiss it outright, it feels like someone pulling up the ladder to the treehouse.

I work as a social media and marketing director, so my enthusiasm about these platforms is a given. I’ve also been a book publicist, and in that job I spent my days reaching out to the kinds of storied outlets where Franzen is more or less guaranteed coverage (The New York Times, NPR, etc.) This was a very hard job, despite the fact that I was working for a venerable publishing house (Doubleday). The expectations were high and the odds of success, even in such a privileged position, were still low for all but the most flashy and established authors. …


Andrea Dunlop

Author of the novels LOSING THE LIGHT, SHE REGRETS NOTHING, and WE CAME HERE TO FORGET. Writing about books, culture, and publishing.

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