The slow death of quality resources for schools

When, in 1992, I started to work in publishing for schools in the UK, the future looked bright. The Government had recently introduced a National Curriculum. So, for the first time, publishers could produce textbooks knowing that all schools in the UK would be covering the same subject matter. In the UK, there were around 4,000 secondary schools teaching around 4 million students and since it was the policy of most schools to buy ‘class sets’, there was a large market to target. Provided that publishers found the right format and approach, they could expect sales in their thousands. At the same time, technology was changing. Design was moving from the drawing board to the computer. Printing presses were becoming digitised, lowering costs. For the first time, printing textbooks in colour was becoming affordable even for small publishers.

I joined a small publisher in Lancashire – just four editors and a total staff of nine. When I joined, the company had a turnover of under £200,000 per annum. By the time I left in 2004, there were still four editors and a total staff of nine. By then, the turnover was over £1 million per annum. So, the formula worked, at least for some companies. Whereas initial print runs before the introduction of the National Curriculum were no more than 1,000 copies, the first book I edited had an initial print run of 10,000 and it was reprinted within a year.

Long live the non-corporate-produced textbook and e-book

Long live the non-corporate-produced textbook and e-book

Of course, given this new opportunity, competition was fierce. My first texts were targeted at the History Curriculum (a minnow compared to subjects such as Maths, English and Science). At the first teaching conference I attended, there were at least 15 other publishers exhibiting, all of whom had published material covering exactly the same ground my books covered, most of it in colour. This was good for teachers since they could choose resources which suited their needs. It was also good for aspiring authors since there were plenty of publishers looking for new writers. Of the publishers exhibiting at this first conference, some were large and well-established like Oxford University Press or Heinemann. My company was one of the smallest but it was by no means the only independently-owned small publisher.

The rot set in towards the end of the century when the large multinational corporations started buying not just small but also medium-sized rivals, and doing so at an alarming rate. While the names of the smaller publishers might survive as an imprint, their independence ended, as they were reorganised along corporate lines. Not only was this detrimental to those working for small publishers (many staff were axed), it was detrimental to teachers who found their choice diminishing as material produced by the multinationals was increasingly homogenised and new and alternative approaches restricted, and, further, it was detrimental to aspiring authors since the number of publishers they could approach was rapidly shrinking.

I came to Australia for a month in 2002 and, investigating the educational publishing scene here, found that the same process was happening. By the time I came to live in Australia permanently in 2006, a single multinational – Pearson – had gobbled up 36 per cent of the total market share and the number of small independently-owned schools publishers was tiny. As in the UK, the market had been taken over by a cartel of corporations, aiming to stifle opposition by buying it out. In 2009, the Australian Society of Authors published a report entitled ‘Educational Publishing in Australia’, based on a 2007-2008 survey of authors who had published educational resources. The report was not optimistic. It found, for example, that ‘overwhelmingly, conditions for these writers had deteriorated since 2000 due to more onerous contractual conditions from fewer publishers’, that ‘the ability for educational authors in Australia to make a living has been severely curtailed’ and that ‘this is dire not only for the authors but also for the education of Australia’s youth’.

Australia is in the early stages of implementing a National Curriculum, but the landscape today is very different from that in the UK in the early 1990s. In part this is a knock-on effect from the GFC (most large publishers have their headquarters in the USA). In part, it is the result of the Digital Revolution. The Digital Revolution has changed not just the publishing process, but also the way in which material can be delivered. To an extent, this provides new opportunities for new or small publishers. There’s no longer the need to go to the expense of producing a text in print. E-publications can be produced at a fraction of the cost of print publications. All an aspiring publisher needs to do is to set up a website and deliver resources to schools as PDFs or as e-books. So, why isn’t there a plethora of new, small publishers producing material in this way? The answer is threefold. Today, teachers have access to thousands of free resources on the internet, so why would they pay for material which they could download for free? And why would schools provide a budget to fund class sets of textbooks when teachers can download material for their students free of charge? Of course, there is a downside for teachers. A great deal of free material is low quality, if not plain inaccurate, and it takes time to find the material that is required, making preparation for lessons more onerous. Second, there is the issue of intellectual property. Many visual images are subject to copyright fees, the small publishers paying the same fee as the large, making the publication of some resources financially prohibitive. And third, there is the corporate culture. The large corporations still aim to sell traditional print texts but add on digital resources free or at very low price, stifling competition from small publishers. As a result, choice and opportunity which free marketeers are so fond of talking about  have been severely curtailed.

There is another worrying trend. In the past, publishers were, on the whole, guardians of high publishing standards, with many safeguards to preserve these high standards, such as making sure that a text was rigorously edited and proofread and that books were rigorously marketed Today, those small publishers which survive have had to make cutbacks. Small independents can’t afford to commission works they would have commissioned just a few years ago – which is bad news for authors and for potential customers who are looking for variety and innovation. They also can’t afford to employ sufficient staff to market them properly – which is bad news for authors lucky enough to have their books published and for the publishers themselves since marketing is the cornerstone of successful publishing. Perhaps more disturbing is that some small publishers are having to cut corners. I know authors in both the UK and Australia who have had works commissioned recently. In the old days, they would have written the book, passed on the draft to the editor, made any corrections as advised, proofread the proofs and then sat back and waited for the finished product, relying on the publisher to maximise sales. Today, however, most authors are paid a low one-off fee rather than an advance and royalties. Some authors are having to organise and pay for the photos they use in the book. Sometimes they are the sole proofreaders meaning that they fail to pick up on errors which a second or third pair of eyes would pick up. Sometimes, the editor is so busy working on many projects at the same time that they do not have the time to undertake a thorough edit. Many authors are now expected to construct their own indexes (not good news for professional indexers). And, many authors are expected to write blurbs and media releases for their books, provide lists of possible reviewers and even contact possible outlets for their books – all of which used to be the preserve of the publisher. Of course, small and large publishers still manage to produce high-quality material for schools which sells in decent quantities. And, of course, there is still a place for the print textbook. But the non-corporate-produced textbook is essentially dead.

Long live the non-corporate-produced textbook and e-book.


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