PUBLISHED MARCH/APRIL 2018
by Ebonye Gussine Wilkins, Founder, August Rose Press —
Public relations are just that: how you deal with the public at large with respect to your work. In indie publishing, we’ve been able to take control of our own narratives and release books into the world that may otherwise have not seen the light of day. But with that comes great responsibility. Many, but not all, writers and publishers seek to publish works that were rejected by traditional agents and publishers. Often, these works feature or are about people from marginalized backgrounds. This can be a great thing, as long as care and authenticity are a priority.
Ebonye Gussine Wilkins
Making authenticity a priority means a lot of different things, but above all, it really means doing your due diligence. When you publish your next work, you don’t want it to go viral for the wrong reasons. That would be a public relations nightmare, and often one that will be very difficult to stop. In a world that is plugged in almost all the time, it is imperative to get it right the first time.
Getting it right means a few things. It means getting ahead of the writing in your books before it can cause your publishing company problems. This is not the same thing as censorship. This is more “an ounce of prevention”-type logic. It means that a small investment while the book is still in development can reduce the chances of your book being negatively received because of content, positioning, or marketing-related dramas. Drama post-publication means that your limited resources are now diverted to resolving that problem instead of investing in your other books.
So, what does this look like anyway? Let’s use a fictional example. Mary wants to write a book about the school rules in District A, and she does. Mary is very confident about her writing. She has seen a lot of news coverage on District A, has read all the newspaper articles from several sources on District A, and has interviewed one professor who specializes in school rules from that district.
Sounds like due diligence, right? However, in this case, Mary has never been to District A, and doesn’t know anyone who has ever been a student in District A. In fact, almost everyone who she has encountered has heard the same things about District A, and has lived and gone to school in places surrounding that district, but has never been there. Mary’s niece has a few friends who goes to school in District A, but she has only seen them casually and in passing. Knowing that information now, it doesn’t sound like enough due diligence took place before writing the book.
Believe it or not, this is a common problem, and most publishers never catch it. It’s hard to know unless you ask some hard questions, and that is not always possible. Sometimes, editors don’t catch it either. They expect their authors to do the work before coming to them with a book. That sounds reasonable enough, except the publisher will likely first face any backlash before the author will, and that’s just not good for business.
So, what could Mary have done better? What could the publisher do minimize this kind of risk?
Mary could have interviewed students and their parents in District A about the impact of the rules. Mary could have attended school board meetings in District A. Mary could have respectfully engaged with people affected by District A’s rules before writing about it. But that doesn’t always happen. That’s where the publisher comes in.
The publisher can hire a sensitivity reader. (The publisher can also hire editors from diverse backgrounds and identities, because they are more likely to catch problems early.) Similar to asking school rules experts in a field to review a book about school rules and policy, a sensitivity reader is a member of the marginalized group in question, who can use their own experience and expertise to critique a book and raise red flags for the publisher.
What they can do is highlight problematic parts and let you know about them (and often ways to address it) so that the book is more culturally sensitive. This is especially helpful if writers of books are writing from an experience outside of their own. After the sensitivity reader is finished, the publisher can review it, and send it back to the writer for revisions. While the publisher should not rely on one person alone for a sensitivity read, hiring one good one is better than hiring none at all (again, editors are helpful in this regard). And most sensitivity readers charge a few hundred dollars to give a critique, which is far less expensive than attempting damage control post-publication.
However, hiring one sensitivity reader does not mean mistakes will not happen. Every person is different, and one person’s perspective does not mean it will automatically apply for every aspect of a book. However, if you hire three sensitivity readers for a book that you’re not sure about, and they all have similar comments about particular sections, it is a strong indication that those parts need to be revisited, and often rewritten.
But it’s not all scary news. In fact, there is good news here: Sensitivity readers are available in almost every subject and every cultural group imaginable. There are countless experts in countless subject areas who can serve as sensitivity readers for your books. If you have a book cover you’re not sure of, they can likely give you feedback on the images, as well. To find these people, look for editorial organizations that have directories of freelancers who specialize in sensitivity readings. You’ll be surprised at who you can find if you just ask. Even if the editors and sensitivity readers you come across aren’t the right fit, they can often offer a recommendation because they know someone who would be perfect for your book.
It’s important to note that not every book will require a sensitivity reader, so there isn’t a need to segment a large portion of your operating budget to hire a few. However, it is important to consider expanding your editorial budget to accommodate those instances where hiring one would be prudent. This will make your public relations specialist’s job a lot easier post-publication.
Expand your network and seek out sensitivity readers and diverse editors for your book. It’s a simpler solution to a complex issue.
Ebonye Gussine Wilkins is a social justice writer, editor, and founder of Inclusive Media Solutions LLC and August Rose Press.