On Writing,  publishing

Another Scam Firing Up

This Scam Starts in Traditional Publishing…

It’s brand new, but I fear it will spread. Writers are that afraid.

So what is this new scam?

Sensitivity Readers.

Not kidding you. Traditional publishers are hiring “sensitivity readers” to read books before they are bought or published.

Wow, the amount of stupidity has just hit a new level in publishing, far higher than my cyclical belief thought it could.

You can find the article and read it yourself if you want to be disgusted.


Sadly, some people will hire themselves out to do this and new writers are going to buy into this scam just as they bought into the scam of needing a “developmental editor” or a “book doctor” or some other named scam.

Mark my words, it’s only a matter of time.

This all comes out of fear, of course…

—- The thinking on “developmental editors” goes like this:

My book can’t be good enough so I need someone (who has no idea how to write a novel and never has) to tell me what is wrong and how to fix it. I am too afraid to trust my own skill, my own ability. So let me pay you a few thousand to read my book.

—- The thinking on this “sensitivity reader” goes like this:

I am afraid to have my book insult someone.

Seriously??? Are you f***ing kidding me?

Grow a pair. Believe in your own work.


Here are some of the top scams right now in publishing…

Agents… You think you need an agent in this new world of publishing, you really need a psychiatrist and a good friend who understands real-world business to help talk some sense into you before you start giving the gardner 15% ownership in your home.

Developmental Editors… Unless the “editor” is a New York Times or USA Today bestselling fiction writer, avoid at all costs. They are scams and will hurt your craft. Again, you may feel insecure, but never, ever let anyone touch your writing. Keep learning and keep writing and move forward. (And for hell’s sake, stop showing works-in-progress for “feedback” from people who know nothing. Just stop.)

Book Doctor… Usually referred by scam agents or scam publishers. Same rule applies as Developmental Editors. They will hurt your writing and take your money. A home run of stupidity on your part.

Vanity Publishers… Where you pay to have your book published with promises of all sorts of sales and riches. These cost thousands and will get you nothing. (Not to be confused in the slightest with places that offer help to indie writers like doing covers, doing formatting, and such for a menu price. Many of those are fine and offer great services. So caution, if the vanity press is owned by a traditional publisher or an agent, run!!)

And now add Sensitivity Readers to this list… Someone you pay who you think will help you not make others angry. If you are that afraid, go get a real-world job and stop writing fiction. Please. You have lost all hope.

However, that said, we all often write in cultures we are not familiar with. If you do and are worried about something, get a first reader from that culture. But don’t pay them.

Second, if traditional publishers were seriously worried about this problem in their books, they would hire diverse editors from different cultures, something they flat don’t do.

So, let me be clear here…

Fiction readers often have to tell hard truths.

And we often piss people off.

And sometimes we miss getting something perfectly right.

And we get bad reviews because someone doesn’t agree with us.

Who cares????

If we write what we are passionate about, what we care about, what makes each of us happy, what other people think should never, ever matter.



Write your own story. Get it out to readers and write the next story.

Keep learning, keep having fun, and keep writing new stories.

You do that and trust me, none of these scams will even tempt you in the slightest.



  • Harvey

    Absolutely right on. This is nothing but traditional publishing folding to “political correctness”–yet another form of censorship–and it’s just plain wrong, in addition to being inane. Thanks Dean.

  • Linda Maye Adams

    I was horrified when I saw this article. People take offense at the strangest things. My father gave a Toastmaster speech where he mentioned the word toilet and his evaluator was so offended she could not do the evaluation. I had a romance writer beta read a Civil War thriller. Little did I realize she was vehemently anti-gun. She should have turned the beta read down, and instead, she got very offended for the presence of guns in a book about the Civil War. Should we have had the soldiers throw pillows at each other?

    And I think about all the stories where the writer pushed a boundary and good things came out of it. Star Trek put a woman on the bridge. What if a sensitivity view today complained about her mini-skirt being offensive and the producers changed the character to a man?

    We lose our ability to write when we screen for possible offense.

  • Peter Rey

    I thought a sizable part of the fun of writing (in part also thanks to the advent of self-publishing) consisted exactly in writing what one likes most. Apparently, I’m a fool. But, luckily for me, a stubborn one… =D

    Grow a pair. Believe in your own work. It’s difficult at times. But it’s the only way.

  • S.E. Gordon

    The concept of having/needing “sensitivity readers” seems to have a political correctness angle to it. I’m surprised we haven’t seen this type of thing sooner.

  • Sheila

    >We lose our ability to write when we screen for possible offense.

    I agree. In fiction, sometimes the story isn’t very nice. I have one with a perfectly awful racist character. I cringed every time I wrote his dialog. But he is who he is. I could have written “nice” words in place of the stuff he said, or made him a better “person”, but that would not have been true to the story.

    In real life, I believe we should treat others with respect and dignity. Whether we like others who are different from ourselves, or “believe” in their experience, decency is never wasted. That may make me the dreaded SJW (Social Justice Warrior), but society works when we work together.

  • Sheila

    Oh, forgot to say that I’m glad to see you speaking out on this topic, Dean. I agree that the best way to look for issues is to hire diverse staff and value their input. Sadly, I think publishing has lost their purpose, which is to publish books readers want to read, rather than only what will make them money (or mostly only what they think will make them money).

    I’m reminded of an app or something from a while back that would take a book and remove any offensive language from the text. Cursing and words that were too rough for the reader would be changed or just marked out. It was supposed to allow certain sensitive readers to read books they normally wouldn’t touch.

  • Paula Gouveia

    I love that you mentioned agents again, Dean. The myths will persist for a while longer anyway.

    A former literary agent did a drive-by in the comments at The Passive Voice and perpetuated a bunch of them. Go ahead and check them out for some entertainment value. (Former agent goes by “No no no” handle. The comments in Chuck Wendig’s article are equally amusing [and sad].)


    • Teri Babcock

      Wow. Those agent’s comments were the most immature, insulting and cognitively-deficient comments I have read in quite some time. They are excellent argument for never using an agent. In fact, those with friends who are still thinking that they need an agent should send their friend that link.
      Now, agents who are fat and happy and doing wonderfully well don’t get defensive and angry and start calling newbie writers ‘little piggies’ when they criticise agents. They just laugh and go back to counting their money.

  • Emerson Hawk

    We’ve become marshmallows in this country. I get the idea of not being a bully on social media and in person. The new golden rule should be “Don’t Be A Dick”. But this is forcing a sort of self-censorship that could grow into something really ugly. When I first read it I thought of 1984, which happens to be topping the charts at the moment.

    I hope people realize that the people who control the books that are being used to teach the public school kids are also being altered. Meaning the “real” history of things are being softened for all the snowflakes. NOT good. We need to be able to share the harsh reality of war and how it came to be. Not sugar coat things so that no one remembers the truth.

    Honestly, I’m gonna write what I want to write regardless of what others think.

  • melanie

    wow. just wow.

    this makes me think of when those misguided individuals wanted to have all instances of the N-word removed from Huck Finn….and the profanity from Catcher In The Rye….and the list goes on. It’s handing the writer the match to set their own books on fire.

    i’m quietly delighted at what you wrote about developmental editors…i’ve often felt so very anti-establishment, or possibly just pig-headed about my feelings on this subject…considering how i’ve been bludgeoned repeatedly over the head with the notion that i MUST have one.

    i’d rather pay you to teach me how to write better the first time…;)

  • T. Thorn Coyle


    You know – I hope – that I respect you and have learned a lot from you.

    I’m going to disagree with you on this one.

    I wonder if it isn’t partially the name that is throwing people off. I don’t care for the name “sensitivity reader” myself. It’s just another form of “expert consultant.”

    Writers who knows nothing about police procedure or very little about guns often have folks who know more about police procedure and guns vet their books.

    Writers research airplanes in the 1920s.
    Writers research food in Prague cafes.
    If one was writing a book set in a concentration camp in Germany and could ask a camp survivor for an opinion wouldn’t they?

    There is a lot of low-hanging-fruit racist writing out there.
    There is a lot of low-hanging-fruit use of tropes about a lot of things.
    In a business dominated by white (heterosexual, able bodied, etc) people, those tropes become damaging to more marginalized people. Representation *does* matter, and traditional publishing by and large has fallen down on varied representation.

    So really, the rise of “sensitivity readers” (and yeah, I don’t like that name at all, or how some people are framing them. They are expert opinions like any other) is about trying to address two things:
    1 – a failure in traditional publishing overall to hire more diversely in their offices, thereby increasing the chance of actual diversity among their authors, stories etc. In other words, increasing the chance that the works they publish reflect the actual world and not some weird bubble.
    2- a failure by authors to actually immerse themselves in something other than tired old tropes they’ve seen and read forever. They haven’t bothered to seek out lived experience, or read first hand accounts. Everything has been pre-filtered for them, by their own biases and their own intake. They don’t realize they’re reaching for low-hanging-fruit and that low-hanging-fruit isn’t just offensive, it contributes to the continuation of racist/misogynist/ableist/whatever stereotypes.

    The Sensitivity Reader concept sprung from YA writer Justina Ireland as an attempt to address damaging tropes being fed to *younger readers*. Most of this conversation is happening in the YA world. Younger readers picking up a book filled with racism or homophobia, for example? That damages their worldview and sense of self in a way it doesn’t to adults (though with adults, it certainly can narrow our view, which causes other problems).

    There’s a best selling YA book right now that reiterates the old fantasy trope of the “darker race” being more savage and violent than the “lighter race”. Direct from Tolkien to 2017. A good first reader could have pointed that out and hopefully the author would have found a more nuanced way to write the thing instead of using old, racist tropes.

    Now, there are other ways of getting there that will make the writing a lot better – namely, do more actual research and expose yourself in a wider variety of people’s life experiences – but if an author isn’t doing that? Maybe hiring an expert isn’t such a bad idea.

    I wouldn’t frame this as not “offending” people. It’s about improving craft by improving awareness and empathy. And sometimes we also improve our craft by asking for an opinion about something we don’t intimately know. Like what life is like for a black man from Georgia when you are a white woman from Vermont.

    And here’s an article I really like about building craft via empathy, by author Brandon Taylor:
    “There is No Secret to Writing About People Who Do Not Look Like You”

    • dwsmith

      Not exactly sure what we are disagreeing with, Thorn. I never said writers should write sloppy and not try to get things right. Nope. I think we should all do our research when needed. What I was talking about was what you agreed with, the term and the building scam to take advantage of young and LAZY writers.

      You know I push people hard to work on their craft and improve themselves as writers and NEVER EVER write sloppy, which is what these “sensitivity readers” will allow a writer to do. Thinking will go like this…

      “Oh, I have a “sensitivity reader” so I don’t have to research, I don’t have to work on getting it right, my “sensitivity reader” will catch my mistakes.

      See the problem? So you and I are agreeing. I am just trying to stop the building SCAM. Writers need to do this themselves and work to get it right. Really is that simple.

      • dwsmith

        You and I also agree, AS IS SAID IN MY IN BLOG, that traditional publishers need more diversity in their editing. All this scam does is let the white culture pretend to do the right thing while creating yet another scam.

        • T. Thorn Coyle

          I apologize, Dean, I missed this part in my read of your blog early this morning – my mistake:

          “However, that said, we all often write in cultures we are not familiar with. If you do and are worried about something, get a first reader from that culture. But don’t pay them.

          Second, if traditional publishers were seriously worried about this problem in their books, they would hire diverse editors from different cultures, something they flat don’t do.”

          So yes, we agree on that 100%. Lack of diversity in traditional publishing is a huge problem. Use of sensitivity readers in these cases is them covering their asses instead of doing their job properly.

          That said, I don’t mind people paying a first reader for their time. Unless it is someone well known to the author, with whom they have some sort of relationship or exchange, offering to pay someone for their time and expertise feels right to me. Unless it’s a friend or well known colleague, the author is asking for labor from an expert.

          • dwsmith

            If you have to pay someone to read your work, things are upside down and you won’t get a real reader response. Readers buy your work. They pay you. You should be able to find readers who will read for free for the pleasure of reading your work to tell you if a story works or not. Of course, if you are talking copyediting, another matter. But just a reader… caution on paying. You get forced and often false responses simply because money is involved. Just saying…

          • T. Thorn Coyle

            Point taken that money can shift the responses…

            I’m fortunate enough to have a wide circle of folks I can ask to be first readers and have found a few that really work well for my voice and style. A good first reader feels like a gift.

          • dwsmith

            It is. And with writing into other cultures, it is surprising how those living in other cultures will want to help you for free get things right. Just takes a writer willing to work.

  • Raymund Eich

    I came across a Passive Guy post about this a couple of days ago. The concept of “sensitivity readers” instantly offended me as a writer for the same reasons as Harvey and Linda put forth already. My cynicism about virtue signalling had a chuckle when I saw the going rate for a sensitive read is $250. The grubby motivation behind the moral posturing came clear: “You should feel guilty enough to give me money.”

    This morning, though, I feel a hint of sadness for the sensitivity readers. They’re probably writers who bought into the myths: “I have to write slowly or I’m a hack.” “I need a traditional publishing contract.” “I need to make connections with tradpub in order to get published.”

    Their loss. Time for me to get back to writing.

  • allynh

    Why am I reminded of Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Crowd”, when I read stuff like this.

    In the story, a traffic accident occurs, and from nowhere people show up, crowd around the victim, making him “comfortable” then disperse when he dies.

  • David Keener

    Just so you know, I have made my services available as a sensitivity reader. With my help, you too will be able to write works that the average college-educated, IT-oriented, straight, middle-aged, white male will find inoffensive.

  • Jason M

    ETS, Educational Testing Service, which makes the SAT and the GRE, has been using sensitivity readers for years.

  • Prasenjeet

    Hi Dean. I don’t understand this concept of “sensitivity readers.” What does it mean? If the Da Vinci Code was written in 2017, will it be given to sensitivity readers who are Christians or anti-Christians, Opus Dei members or non-Opus Dei members? Suppose the book was given to sensitivity readers who were believing Catholics or Opus Dei members and they disliked the content. Does that mean books like the Da Vinci Code or Angels and Demons can no longer be published. Books that portray ISIS and Al-Qaeda in a negative light will be given to whom??? Sensitivity Readers who believe that these organisations don’t exist or what??? Where is the end to this?

  • Xpatwriter

    Having a ‘sensitivity’ reader is not going to help because a writer’s subconscious underlying beliefs are expressed in their work, resulting in character attitudes and beliefs, plot lines and overarching themes. What the writer believes deep down will come out in the story and any changes as a result of a sensitivity reader will be a superficial band aid. Know thyself is better advice to writers than trying to get external validation that you are not racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.

    Second point, readers disagree and have different opinions. What if you have three sensitivity readers and they all disagree with each other? What are you going to do then?
    I’ve lived overseas for many years and the trusted default position of “ask a local” does not return a uniform response – of course not. You will get a number of responses based on each individual. So you won’t get one answer, but you will get a sense of the debate, conflicts, tensions within a society. If you’r not aware of those conflicts in your subject matter, it will come off as false and superficial and your readers – sensitive or not – will correct you quickly. Or just stop reading your story.

    As Dean said, stand behind your work. It’s one point of view among many, just as any one person’s opinion is not an absolute truth, but just that – their opinion.

    Frankly I am scared to write about certain kinds of characters given the attitudes I see on social media. I imagine a horrible, shaming backlash if people find out I’m writing about characters of a different race to myself. It is scary and makes me doubt myself. I understand why so many young writers find it terrifying and want the reassurance/ insurance of a sensitivity reader.

    But these characters are within me and I’m trying to understand them, their problems and challenges.

    Final point – indie publishing means there are no more gatekeepers to prevent marginalised stories getting to readers. What I write is considered unsellable by trad publishers. That’s why I can’t find the stories I want to read and have to write them myself. So instead of worrying about trad pub and their narrow-minded sensitivities, I celebrate the fact that they are no longer in control.

    • Linda Maye Adams

      The attitudes I’ve seen scare me, too. I was on a message board where a writer asked for permission to post a question about writing about Blacks. He lived in a small town, so his primary exposure was TV and film, where the worst of the stereotypes were. When he posted some samples of what he was trying to do, instead of getting comments to direct him in the right direction, it turned so nasty that the moderator had to close the thread. I’m sure the writer decided he was never going to include any people of color in any of his books. Yet, every SF/F convention I go to, there’s enormous pressure to include diverse characters, like they’re chiding everyone for not doing enough. This kind of divide is going to drive fearful or perfectionist writers right into paying for sensitivity readers.

      • Xpat Writer

        Yes, exactly! On the one hand is the idea that writers need to create a “diverse” cast of characters and on the other is the growing belief that a writer only has the mandate to create characters of the same ethnicity, gender, orientation, etc, as themselves. Of course you will end up with tokenistic portrayals if writers are only creating those characters in an effort to please audiences, rather than in a genuine effort to understand the world (being lazy as Dean mentioned in his original post) — thus contributing to perceptions that writers cannot authentically portray any character who is not a clone of themselves.

  • Marsha Ward

    “…achieve an agent”!!! ACHIEVE AN AGENT??? Reading that bit of prose while sucking up the dregs of my soda through a straw caused me to inhale so sharply that a piece of ice came up it with such force that it cut my tongue.

    a c h i e v e an agent, huh? Kill me now.

  • Kate Pavelle

    I am in America now, and I can write whatever I want. Unlike back in the Warszaw-pact Czechoslovakia, where everything got censored by party-appointed political dweebs. I didn’t leave a whole family, friends, a good dog, a country and a native tongue behind just to have some “sensitivity reader” tell me I might, you know… offend someone.
    Next thing, they’ll want to edit Shakespeare. Oh wait, it’s been done by the infamous and sadly misguided Mr. Bowdler, in whose version of Othello, Desdemona and “the Moor” were merely *together,* instead of *making a beast with two backs.*
    I have enough of a hard time with my spell checker and autocorrect functions. I figured out how to turn those off. Now that I turned to dictation, I have to train my Dragon to talk like a real person.
    Ditto for trigger warning. If the reader wants to get a hint of potential psychological landmines ahead, the reader ought to read the blurb.

    • dean fan

      Indeed. I get the feeling some of these snowflake types seek out things that will offend them so they can have yet another target to attack and someone else to try to destroy. Because they believe all the world is out to get them, that is the lens thru which they perceive everything.

      • dean fan

        I am wondering what sort of external pressure the Big 5 are under behind the scenes to have come up with this Orwellian idea in the first place (and how they don’t see the irony of their own actions). We don’t necessarily know which agit-prop groups are threatening them with bad press to have inspired them to do this. But the cynic in me suspects they’ve probably been threatened for a shakedown of some sort. They are, after all, a big, easy target.

  • J. D. Brink

    Two thoughts:
    1. Wasn’t “Catcher in the Rye” once a banned book? One of the classics of literature? I’m not good on my history, but having read it a couple times, I’m assuming it was not just the language and smoking and drinking, but because it criticized the established idea that everyone should follow the same path, graduated, get married, make babies, and get a job to be a good little contributor to society, as defined by the social value system at the time. Holden called those people “phonies” or something to that affect. Obviously, this book offended someone “important”.
    2. If your goal is to write a book that cant possibly offend anyone, I hope you’re writing “how to read” books for kindergarten classes. Otherwise you’ll have to polish anything and everything off your story to make it so neutral and grey that it’ll have no voice and no character will have opinions and, therefore, your characters won’t be human.
    As sad, sad day.

  • Holly Lisle

    Excellent article, great points.

    If I’m not offending people, I’m doing it wrong. Whether in my fiction or my nonfiction, I’ve completely failed to say anything that matters, and have written absolute pablum that needs to be pulped and burned.

    But since I do actually manage to offend all sorts of folks, I think I’m doing something right. I consider this the process of weeding out the people who are a bad fit for my books on my way to finding my True Readers

  • Mike Lawrence

    Publishers paying censors – this is a firm step towards Montag and his kerosene. Or Usher II (Interesting that Ray called this one with such precision.) Telling writers what they can and cannot say according to any arbitrary standard is nothing less than censorship and in the hyper critical environment of political correctness, I would say this sensitivity censorship is more akin to book burning.

    Any offense offered by any author in the context of free expression pales to insignificance compared to the offense of stifling free thought and expression. Freedom of expression comes with no qualifications. None. You need not be accurate, correct, sensitive, aware or even particularly meaningful. You need simply speak your mind. Offense comes with the territory. Always has. Anything – and I mean *anything* that threatens that right is my enemy. Period.

    This move by certain publishers is dangerous and insanely myopic.