Brought to book

25th November 1994 at 00:00
The Educational Publishers' Council has been celebrating its first 25 years. David Self talks to members about the outlook for the next quarter century. As birthdays go, it could have been more cheerful. After all, this has been a terrible year for the educational publishers. During the Dearing review, sales "stalled completely" to quote one editor. Even so, the publishers' trade association, the Educational Publishers' Council (EPC) has been celebrating its first 25 years.

Fiona Clarke, managing editor of the educational division of Oxford University Press (and chairman of the EPC's campaigns committee) has no doubts there is cause for celebration. "From the teacher's point of view, it's meant more money for books in both the GCSE and national curriculum years. If we hadn't put the pressure on, you wouldn't have had that money."

During its life the EPC has certainly won some notable victories but it has also witnessed the steady decline of the industry. In its heyday, it had more than a hundred member companies. Now it has just 27.

It all began in the Sixties which were the glory years of schoolbook publishing. The giants were still doing very nicely thank you. Ronald Ridout was selling well and every other history book seemed to be by R J Unstead. But new styles were emerging. Colour printing was being introduced. Maths books preparing the way for decimalisation looked as if they belonged in the real world. Books for English appeared with titles such as Openings, Happenings and Encounters - or, even more mystically, As Large As Alone.

David Gadsby, now managing director of A C Black, recalls those days with pleasure: "It was exciting. You could get away from the hidebound." Schools had money and sales were booming. It was common for a primary school textbook to have a first print run of 30 or 40,000 - something that is unheard of today.

Because educational publishers were doing well, they had muscle. They also felt that they were not being well served by the Publishers' Association (PA) which, perhaps naturally, was more interested in the promotion of books "through the trade"; that is, in bookshops - rather than in the non-net system of selling to schools and local authorities.

Gadsby was among a group agitating for a better service from the PA. The result was the setting up of EPC, within the PA, in 1969. The cynics would say it has been downhill ever since.

Government restrictions on spending, falling roles and (more recently) rapid educational change have combined to make life very much harder for the schoolbook industry. Some publishers have simply gone out of business; others have been taken over. Now just eight imprints dominate the field. The two university presses (Oxford and Cambridge), Collins, Ginn, Heinemann, Nelson, Stanley Thornes and the soon-to-be-merged Longman account for a massive 85 per cent of the market. Interestingly, three of these have chosen not to belong to EPC.

Richard Charkin, chief executive of Reed International which owns Ginn and Heinemann, is frank. "We never had problems with EPC. We left because we felt the PA was over-bureaucratised. We tried to change it from within and failed. " For Mike Thompson of Nelson, the problem also lies with the PA. (To be members of EPC, publishers must first be members of PA to whom they have to pay a subscription based on turnover.) "A lot of our contribution - about 70 per cent - would go to the PA. They would use a significant amount to support the Net Book Agreement and everything we publish is non-net anyway. It's not relevant to us."

It is a major concern of Roy Davey, currently chairman of the board of EPC, that it should be seen as truly representative. "At a time when there's so much change and a need for effective funding, it's crucial that EPC should encompass all educational publishers."

During its existence, EPC has achieved the release of considerable local and national government money for schoolbooks. In the Eighties (when LEAs determined book expenditure), it ran a regional campaign to persuade authorities to raise their levels of expenditure. According to John Davies (a former education officer in Newcastle upon Tyne who has been the full-time director of EPC since 1977), Pounds 20 million was released as a result of this campaign.

Another big success was achieved in 1986 when lobbying by EPC (and others) persuaded the Government to make an additional Pounds 35 million available for books for GCSE. John Davies later personally and directly lobbied Messrs Patten, Baker and MacGregor for further funds, and the campaigns committee led a concerted attack which saw the release of Pounds 15 million in 1990 for national curriculum books.

A rather wider campaign, the Two Per Cent campaign, was launched in the late Eighties. This stemmed from EPC research (backed up by comparable research undertaken by Book Trust) which suggested that school spending on books was only one per cent of their budgets; that is, half of what was required. Further research in 1993 (undertaken jointly by EPC and The TES) revealed that nearly half of primary schools spent Pounds 10 or less per pupil per year on books while just over half of secondary schools spent less than Pounds 20 per pupil.

The EPC Campaigns Committee has published a number of documents to help schools assess their book needs - notably two Book Check Action Files for governors and teachers in primary and secondary schools. Fiona Clarke points out that the campaign to get schools to spend the equivalent of two per cent of LMS budget on books is not just in the interests of the publishers. "It's a very good way of helping schools to say to parents, 'We are delivering.'" Two per cent in today's terms means Pounds 35 being spent per primary pupil per year, Pounds 47.50 per secondary pupil. But even these figures were calculated before it emerged that the average cost of new school textbooks rose by 25 per cent in the year to June (the highest rate of inflation in any sector of the book trade).

Even so, the campaigns committee is keen to point out to Government that books are "relatively very cheap", while fighting changes that will mean that money once earmarked for books will in future be designated simply for "school effectiveness" - which could mean anything from books to carpets.

But EPC is not solely concerned with sales. It maintains regular contacts with teachers' bodies and organises exhibitions (for which events it would dearly like to have all the major publishers on board). It also has meetings with the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority.

At these meetings, it has attempted to iron out the problems of publishing at a time of rapid curriculum change. John Davies says that SCAA has been "extremely helpful" but the timetable for the commissioning, writing, design and publication of a major new textbook remains very tight. "We used to say we'd develop a book over two or three years. Now it must be over two or three months."

There have been, for example, real problems in history publishing. Publishers had got more than Pounds 1 million invested in materials for key stage 4 humanities precisely at the moment when it emerged it might disappear from the curriculum. It is to sort out (and ideally to prevent) such problems that EPC runs a number of subject panels. Chairman of the history panel is Jim Belben of John Murray. His panel of fellow history editors and publishers meets two to three times a year but he admits it is not on a frank "let's share everything" basis. "Publishers can be very secretive." (They are, after all, in competition with each other.) Now they must all come to terms with the outcome of the Dearing review. The good news is that a period of stability lies ahead. The bad news is that (according to John Davies) "the changes are significant enough for publishers to have to review their entire list". As he points out, the terminology has changed and new emphases must be taken on board. "Publishers are being asked to reinvest yet again - and our concern is whether schools will have the funding to buy the new books."

While schools and the EPC can agree on that, they are separated by at least one conflict: the matter of photocopying. Teachers and librarians want to be able to photocopy anything - and increasingly to copy electronically (by scanning text into a computer or word processor). EPC's concern is the protection of intellectual ownership, otherwise known as copyright. As Roy Davey points out, "if schools could photocopy anything, it'd be a short-term benefit but the diversity we are able to offer would be threatened." David Gadsby is blunter: "If they could copy anything (for free), we'd stop publishing."

Looking ahead over the next 25 years, John Davies hopes "not to have quite the same difficulties of the past 25" but sees "no indication that the printed word won't be the main resource of learning". David Gadsby is optimistic but also realistic: "In the past you could publish adventurously. Now you must know your market." That can result in safe books produced by committees. Significantly some books no longer carry an author's name - other than "Written by the project team".

Yet Gadsby refuses to give up his ideals. "The good educational publisher can change what happens in schools and we must treat the national curriculum as a starting point. My worry is that it'll lead to a narrowing of what we as publishers are able to do. The challenge is to produce exciting books alongside and outside the national curriculum. And we need to preserve the authorial voice within that constraint. That way lies our satisfaction as publishers. "

Educational Publishers' Council: 19 Bedford Square, London WC1 (071-580 6321).

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