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The art of becoming a literary self-publicist

Clare Jenkins on colleges which have been reaping the benefits of an in-house publishing revolution since leaving local authority control.

If you fancy yourself as another Jeffrey Archer, Barbara Taylor Bradford or Catherine Cookson, look for a blockbuster publisher. If you just want a wider audience to appreciate your innovative work in the teaching of car maintenance, then maybe it's an FE publisher you're after.

Ten years ago, you'd have been hard put to find one. Today, they're mushrooming. Not just the commercial "big boys" like Macmillan, Hodder and Stoughton, and Heinemann, but market-specific publishers like the Further Education Development Agency, the Further Education National Consortium, Learning Partners and the newest, Education Network. And then there are the colleges-as-publishers themselves.

Until incorporation, few colleges bothered with in-house publishing. It seemed irrelevant, too much like hard work, and not financially rewarding enough. That picture has now changed. Most colleges may still fight shy of running their own companies, but those that do have found benefits in terms of image, confidence - and income. According to one insider, a college with a relatively small list of 12 publications can expect to make around Pounds 20,000 profit a year. One college made that from two books alone.

Martin Johnson, head of publications at FEDA, is more cautious. "The volume of the FE sector and the volatility of the curriculum is such that it's unlikely to make a big killing," he says. "It's not like Inorganic Chemistry by Sherwood, which has been on the shelves for 40 years. Or a Latin primer. There isn't the stability now."

Then again, maybe he would say that. After all, FEDA - formerly the Staff College and FE Unit - is the market leader, publishing books, manuals, reports and bulletins for and about FE. It tackles anything from information about learning styles and governing bodies to reports on new European programmes. They're also encouraging more research in colleges into subject areas and on major policy issues, which they would publish.

For the past three years, they've worked with Learning Partners, producing pull-apart and photocopiable packs "aimed at people who are managing change in colleges": for instance, Managing GNVQ Development,. Supporting Learning, Developing Assignments for GNVQ. Learning Partners also runs a bursary system which sponsors development in colleges and then publishes the result - like a manual on supporting hearing- impaired students by Derby Wilmorton College, another on tutorial support from Amersham and Wycombe.

Publisher John Hurley echoes Martin Johnson's caution:"Being a small publisher isn't easy. We keep busy and alive and do work that's fulfilling and interesting to us. And we have very high market penetration in FE. But it's still a small market. Our projects are only viable because we are small, efficient and carry low overheads."

Now, another small publisher is set to launch: Education Network, run by a college director, a head- teacher and independent consultant Rhuwine Griffiths. According to Ms Griffiths: "The difficulty with current provision is that materials are costly to develop, have a limited shelf-life and are of variable quality. So some colleges prefer to produce their own materials. But this can involve duplication of effort and added pressure on staff. Education Network recognises a need for a co-ordinated approach to learning."

So it will act as a broker for colleges who want to sell in-house publications commercially. "We're not in competition with other publishers. This is purely something for institutions themselves to have control over and sell their products in an efficient manner." In that, they are following in the footsteps of the Further Education National Consortium. Publishing accounts for 70 per cent of the consortium's annual budget, with 1,500 titles produced by colleges for colleges, mostly paper-based though with some on disc and CD-Rom, and ranging from flexible learning units to A-level psychology.

Manager David Holland believes flexibility and adaptability are the keys to their success - in five years, membership has grown from 24 colleges to 160. Speed is also vital - a mainstream publisher can take two years to publish a manuscript, by which time it could be outdated. David Holland says the FENC was the first organisation to get GNVQs into colleges. "The big boys were 18 months behind us. We have to keep one step ahead. We're not providing a commercial service but meeting a need. We know how to meet it because we are colleges. "

While publishing may remain a minority activity for individual colleges, Ursula Howard, FEDA's director of research, reckons that as a whole it's a growth area. And she says there's a big demand for the "right" publications. "They have to be right because people are busy. So they have to be very focused, clear and well-produced."

As well as the commercial benefit, FE publishing, she says, is about "the desire to share good practice and to raise standards, to make that good practice more visible, to tell a wider audience about the importance of FE and its wider value in society. So it's not just for FE but about FE. One reason publishing will grow is to address some of those issues of image."

Traditionally, though, FE has seen itself as practical and vocational, rather then research-based. And Martin Johnson believes research will continue to concentrate on effective curriculum delivery rather than on academic research. He sees in-house publishing as marketing "to get the college on the map and its name seen and known throughout the sector".

Which is exactly how self-publishing colleges see it.

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