Empathy – a new 'why' for the book industry

Simon Sinek stresses the importance of every business finding its “WHY”. But it’s not often that an entire industry can develop a whole new “why” - an articulation of the social good generated by its products. That’s the position I believe the book industry is in.

We’re at a pivotal moment, and mustn’t fail to seize it. Empathy is a learnable skill and in supporting an empathy drive, we’re getting behind a strategy which is socially just, anti-discriminatory and wholly inclusive

EmpathyLab, which I founded in 2014, aims to raise a generation of empathy-educated young people, and today, on Empathy Day 2020, we arw calling for the book world to come together in very practical ways to do just that.  Empathy, as Barack Obama says, “is a quality of character that can change the world”.

Scientific research

The idea that books are empathy-building is not new. But what is new is the building body of scientific research showing why and how:

  • Empathy is a learnable skill. Only 10% of our empathic capacity is genetic. 98% of us can improve our empathy skills at any point in our lives.
  • Stories are a training ground for understanding other people’s emotions. Neuroscientists and  psychologists say that as we read our brains experience the story as if it were really happening. This means that in identifying with book characters we learn how other people feel.  

The moment is now

World events in the last few months have brought into sharp focus empathy’s power to build a better world. The act of imagining ourselves in someone else’s lockdown shoes has sparked a flourishing of community connection and kindness – we mustn’t let that fade.

And we need urgently to mobilise, because empathy is often in startlingly short supply, as evidenced so agonisingly by George Floyd’s death, and here at home by last year’s 10% rise in hate crimes. #BlackLivesMatter brings the perspective, and pain, of Black people into such sharp focus. A society without empathy is a society in deep deep trouble.

Publishers and empathy 

EmpathyLab builds children’s empathy and social activism through a more conscious, systematic use of books. We’re a not-for-profit organisation, working with the book, education and psychology worlds to create three key tools - an annual Read For Empathy collection, a schools programme, and Empathy Day. We work closely with public libraries, whose core values sit strikingly well in an empathy framework, and are working to build links with booksellers, who are so close to their communities.

We’ve launched a new Empathy Circle, working with nine children’s publishers on a three-year empathy strategy*. We’d love more to come on board. Shannon Cullen, publishing director for Ladybird at Penguin Random House Children’s, says: "The scientific research is here. The books are here. The tools are being provided. We now have everything we need to raise an empathy fuelled generation through the power of reading, and the Empathy Circle is a fantastic manifestation of the collective commitment to make it happen."

 Five reasons for publishers to focus on empathy

  1. Social change: science shows that your core business, books, can playing a direct role in building empathy skills. That’s a powerful long term strategy for social change, for combatting hatred.
  2. Publishers as thought leaders and actors in shaping education’s future: embracing their empathy- building role gives publishers a voice in key developments, like the international debate about 21stC skills. The OECD highlights the pivotal role social and emotional skills will play in new kinds of jobs, cohesive societies and economic growth.
  3. New sales and marketing opportunities: an empathy focus takes books into new areas, to audiences like the Scouts, interested in life skills and wellbeing. In schools, into subject areas way beyond literacy.
  4. New openings for authors: look at Empathy Day’s online events to see how an empathy focus positions authors very differently. Joseph Coelho helps us “read” other people’s emotions; Robin Stevens and Jo Cotterill practise listening 100%.
  5. Leadership, inclusion and recruitment: if publishing is an empathy business, its appeal to the future workforce could be greatly widened, with important implications for diversity. Publishers could join  business leaders worldwide in putting empathy  at the forefront of business practice.

Bloomsbury’s Nicola Hill says: “At Bloomsbury we often talk about the magical properties of reading and its emotional impact. EmpathyLab have taken this implicit experience and made it explicit. We’re working closely with them to ensure Empathy Day has the household recognition to serve that vision.  Through the Empathy Circle we aim to bring that empathy expertise back in to publishing houses to ensure our whole industry benefits from this new thinking.”

Fuelling a book-driven empathy movement

Imagine if the next ten years saw a razor-sharp focus on a new empathy drive. Authors, illustrators, publishers, booksellers, teachers, librarians, academics, charities, volunteers…anyone who works with books. Imagine If empathy education was mainstreamed, so every child knew what empathy was, why it matters, which skills are involved, and how to put them into practice. If every child had access to the diverse books which helped them understand and value others’ lives and perspectives.

At this defining moment, as society has the chance to reimagine itself, when we know we have to change, when bookshops and libraries are about to reopen, please consider:

  • Getting involved professionally - join the Empathy Circle group of publishers and flag your interest in the training we’re developing for publishing staff and authors.
  • Joining in Empathy Day today, fuelling a new national conversation about empathy and books’ power to build it bit.ly/empathyday2020
  • Talking to EmpathyLab about ways we can work together - I’m @MirandaMcK. And help us find the support we need to grow, from subscribing schools to volunteers; corporate sponsorship to philanthropic donations.

The tectonic plates of society are massively changing. We have an unprecedented chance to do things differently. Now is the moment for a new empathy movement, and the book world is on the cusp of making it a story-driven one. Let’s go for it.

* The Empathy Circle children’s publishers are Andersen Press, Bloomsbury, Bonnier Books UK, Hachette Children’s Group, Macmillan Children’s Books, Nosy Crow, Penguin Random House Children’s, Usborne and Walker Books.