Book-buying in a straitjacket

10th December 2010 at 00:00

Regular readers will be aware that in the October 15 issue of this organ, Morris Simpson's (semi-) fictitious school was hugely exercised by the alteration to textbook purchasing arrangements introduced by the recently-implemented Scotland Excel contract. In brief, teachers at Greenfield Academy were furious that they could not buy their books directly from the providers (their publisher), being forced instead by council directive to buy through an intermediary, at higher cost to their budgets than if they had been able to take advantage of the publisher's special discounts.

A few long-term TESS readers will be aware of my own, usually anonymous, amanuensical link with Morris Simpson; they might also recognise that October's column was the first time in 26 years that I have used it to highlight an issue concerned with my job in real life. So why am I "coming out" in more public fashion today?

Put simply, it is because our Paisley publishing office is in recent receipt of puzzled and angry comments from schools which can't understand why they have to pay more for our books than is necessary.

Let me explain. In 2009, Scotland Excel, a national procurement body, was asked to examine potential savings on school textbook and library purchases. They consulted with various publishers and booksellers. The depth of sampling for the library contract is an issue of some contention with Publishing Scotland, who were astonished at the lack of consultation with the Scottish book trade. But they did consult me (and others) on textbooks.

My advice was that this had been tried before (with disastrous results, if you remember the collapse of Interbook Media in the 1980s), but if they were intent on such a course of action, they needed more than a single "approved" contractor. Most importantly, although some schools would enjoy the convenience of "one-stop-shopping" with chosen contractors, high- discount direct supply from publishers is a large part of the market (approximately 65 per cent), a fact they needed to acknowledge in the contract.

So while I commend Scotland Excel's aims, and (they might be surprised to hear this) their success in pulling together a complex contract that fulfils most of those aims (at least in textbook provision), I still find it bizarre that Scottish state schools will not be able to negotiate discounts directly with nearly all publishers of the books they want to buy.

While we at Hodder Gibson (and all members of the UK-wide Educational Publishers' Council) are happy to work with all bookshops or contractors, it is an obvious fact of life that we can usually offer schools at least the same, and often greater, discount when supplying directly.

Why should I moan? We stand to make as much, often more, profit from these arrangements. But as a taxpayer, I strongly object to the potential waste of money caused by this straitjacketed method of ordering textbooks at a time of unprecedented financial pressures on school budgets, and I'm delighted to learn that School Leaders Scotland supports this view (TESS, December 3).

I understand there is no legal requirement to order through this contract, so if you are as irritated as I am, make your feelings known to your directorate of education and tell them you hate wasting their - and your - money. Then seek out the best deal for textbook purchases. Wherever you can get it.

John Mitchell is managing director of Hodder Gibson in Scotland.

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