Industry Interview with Sensitivity Reader Sachiko Suzuki

For our 2024 blog series, we’re highlighting industry professionals to find out more about their time in the book world. Follow along for insight on what catches a reviewer’s interest, things to avoid when pitching a media outlet, what librarians are searching for and more. 

Today, we’re chatting with Sachiko Suzuki, the sensitivity reader chair at Salt and Sage Books and project manager of their Incomplete Guides (more on this in a moment)!

Sachiko is a Japanese-American with an insatiable appetite for a good story. She’s worked as a sensitivity reader with multiple authors, illustrators and game designers, including Penguin, Asmodee, Abrams Books, Choice of Games and Harper Collins.

If she’s not reading or writing, Sachiko is probably quilting or fostering kittens and forgetting to give them away. Sachiko has yet to meet a genre she didn’t like, and she will absolutely make you katsu if your story has Pleistocene megafauna. Learn more from Sachiko in these online course offerings.

At what point in the writing process should authors consider engaging a sensitivity reader?

This is a question that I am always hoping people will ask! The short answer: the sooner, the better. Sensitivity reading addresses potential issues from the micro (proper terms and phrases) to the macro (themes and character motivations). The greatest frustration I see in clients comes from hiring a reader too late in the process to change anything, or when a great deal of investment has already been made in a direction that the author now would rather change. Since sensitivity readers work on a per-word rate, it’s relatively inexpensive to have one put eyes on a story in the outline phase, just to see if the story is headed in the right direction.

How can authors ensure they find the right sensitivity reader for their particular project?

This one can be challenging, both because many authors find it difficult to find and connect with sensitivity readers—some people end up broadcasting a call on social media—and also because each sensitivity reader speaks from individual experience and cannot speak for everyone. We sensitivity readers are not gatekeepers or permission-slip dispensaries.
My advice to an author looking for a sensitivity reader would be this: Look for someone whose lived experience most closely matches the character experiences in your story. You may not find a perfect match, but it’s good to try to get close. If you’re not sure, ask.
Also, look for readers who are familiar with publishing and genre expectations. SR feedback is something an author is purchasing, and it should be something useful for revision.

Salt and Sage offers a sort of one-stop-shop for authors looking for SRs from different backgrounds, many of whom have a lot of experience working with publishers or game developers.

Can you share an example of a positive outcome resulting from the input of a sensitivity read?

I’d love to! I can’t add identifying details, because part of the benefit of any edit is that it’s confidential, but I’ll do my best to describe it in general terms.

The author and I were working on a piece where I noted that this draft’s character motivation boiled down to “because she is Japanese”. This motivation, by definition, relies on stereotypes about Japanese culture and women.

The author took my feedback and used it to move forward into a new idea that not only didn’t rely on the common stereotypes, but also elevated the character and her series arc. The whole story was tighter and the character more relatable as a result. When the author contacted me with their new ideas, I was delighted to see how much better they’d made their book.

Sensitivity issues can often be identity-related craft issues. When an editor like me notes these issues, I’m not calling my client racist, sexist or anything else, and I’m also not calling them a bad writer. We writers know that we all need other people’s eye on our work to catch what we’ve missed!

This just means that an edit that focuses on authentic identity, and experience often uncovers places where the grammar is great but the narrative needs work. Stronger craft nearly always fixes the problem.

In my experience, once a good author knows why something story-related can hurt people, they are brilliant in changing the how.

I want to add that this effort between sensitivity readers and authors to find solutions is often collaborative and, to me, that’s another positive effect. I know people who started out as my clients and are now my friends. Sensitivity reading can be a great way to support other authors in the publishing industry.

What are some common misunderstandings surrounding the role of sensitivity reads?

We’re not censors. I’m laughing ruefully as I say this. This one comes up a lot!


  • Gatekeepers
  • Speak from power
  • Use their authority to control book access and content
  • Remove content
  • Override the will of authors being censored
  • Work in the public eye
  • Benefit those with power and authority
  • Require permission slips

Sensitivity readers:

  • Not gatekeepers, but guides
  • Speak from experience
  • Offer feedback as an invited editor
  • Add feedback and information
  • Collaborate with authors
  • Work in private consultation
  • Help authors match intent with impact on marginalized communities
  • Cannot write permission slips

Sensitivity reading isn’t an unwanted and offensive act done to authors any more than line editing is; it’s a professional service intended to help.

The vast majority of clients that I’ve worked with are eager to get another perspective on their story because audience connection is the key to commercial success.

Is it necessary for sensitivity readers to review the entire manuscript, or can authors request feedback on specific sections?

Great question! I’ve seen a split on manuscript selections among SRs, and I think both the For and Against folks have great points.

Many SRs are reluctant to read selections because it’s like asking a writer to identify all their line-edit errors in a manuscript. SRs strive to identify possible pain points and inaccuracies, which are there precisely because they may escape the best-intentioned notice of the author. How can an author know their piece’s greatest struggles—isn’t that why they’re hiring a SR?

Many SRs feel a degree of responsibility for the finished manuscript and don’t feel they can ethically consent to or sign off on a piece that they haven’t vetted.

Another reason some SRs avoid selections is that most of us are freelancers just trying to pay the electric bill, and selections require the same amount of admin and project structure as longer, more profitable projects.

On the other hand, many SRs are happy to read handpicked selections. I’m part of this group. I love selections because they maintain market rate payment for SRs, while also maintaining affordability and accessibility for authors. An author can pay a fair wage while still staying within budget!

My approach is that the author is always responsible for their story. I am an interested advisor, and hope for the best for both clients and readers, but I’m not a body shield and not culpable for anything harmful that remains in the story, especially if it’s something I didn’t see.

My advice to authors is to ask potential SRs if they’re willing to read selections, and see if their approach will be a good fit for your needs.

Are there specific terms or themes sensitivity readers consistently advise against including?

I love this question, because don’t we all want clear expectations?

The short answer is: Sort of.

It’s hard to create a list of DOs and DON’Ts, because so much of what makes a phrase or concept harmful is its context and application. That’s why a SR is so useful in the first place: we can view these ideas in their natural habitat of story, assess potential issues and be able to tell our clients which ones might maul paying visitors, so to speak.

That said, every SR I know has a running list of issues that they encounter repeatedly within their own frame of reference.

Salt and Sage Books has started compiling these common issues into books called the Incomplete Guides. Each guide names some of the top issues that we’ve seen pop up, explains why they’re harmful and then offers practical suggestions on what an author might try instead.

What I love about these Guides is that they’re short, easy to read, written by #ownvoices and cost the same as a fancy coffee. You don’t even have to be an author to find them useful. They’re not an exhaustive list—that’s not really possible—but they can be an easy place to start!

Should authors provide content warnings when handling sensitive topics or language?

Yes, please! It’s not only a kindness, it’s also a great way for authors and editors to get (forgive the pun) on the same page for what a work has and needs help with.

Salt and Sage Books editors are pretty up-front about the topics that they prefer or avoid. This makes it a lot easier for authors to find editors that are a good fit.

Are there additional insights or considerations authors should keep in mind when seeking out a sensitivity read?

The number one thing an author can do to get the most out of a sensitivity read is this:

Write a short note to the sensitivity reader.

It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it does need to be specific. The best notes go beyond content warnings and include these bits of information:

  1. Author level of personal experience with the subject
  2. Which story elements and genre expectations the piece contains
  3. Author’s specific concerns

For example: “Hi! I love Kurosawa movies, I visited Japan, but I don’t know any Japanese-Americans. I wanted to write a fun action novel, and I want to make sure my portrayal of the Japanese-American romantic lead is okay.”

Great! Now, as my client’s SR, I know which things to look for, how to have a conversation with them via my edit letter about what’s working, what isn’t, why it isn’t and any additional thoughts or encouragement I can offer towards those goals. If an author has more concerns, by all means, please list them.

I get excited when I see a client note like these, because they allow me to be that much more specifically helpful in helping the author meet their goals for the project.

I want to end with this thought to authors, given with my warmest heart: Sensitivity readers want you to succeed.

Every time I work with a client, I’m hoping for a book that says something true about my experience, so that I can recommend it to other people in my community and share copies with my kids. We’re usually fellow authors and creatives, and we know how hard it is to write and how vulnerable an edit can feel. Sensitivity readers are here to help you make your book better.