On publishing 53 interesting ideas

Under our P&H imprint, we — that is, Frontinus Ltd — publish a series of books called Professional and Higher Education. Each book contains 53 practical ideas. The content concerns various aspects of teaching, learning, and (more recently) research in higher education — for example, 53 interesting ways to communicate research.

I’ve been asked by a representative of a higher education association to provide some information about the series. The particular questions she asked were:

  1. how did the series come about?
  2. how well has the series has been received within the higher education community?
  3. how are topic areas for additions identified?

I thought that, since I was going to write this information, why not make it publicly available? Hence this post.


How the series came about?

The series began in the 1980s, when higher education lecturers Sue Habeshaw, Trevor Habeshaw, and Graham Gibbs wrote and, via TES Ltd, published such books as 53 interesting things to do in your lectures.

When, a couple of decades later, they retired, they put the books out of print.

When we discovered that they were out of print, we purchased the rights of some of the titles. We then published new editions, each including revised and new material alongside some of the original content.

We gave the series a new text design, expertly created by David Williams of The Running Head Ltd, and a new cover design: each book in the series features a painting by Rika Newcombe.

In addition to publishing new editions of five of the original titles, we also commissioned some wholly new titles.


How well has the series been received?

The facts tell their own story here. Gibbs, Habeshaw & Habeshaw wrote numerous books — because they found their was a demand for their material.

For the same reason, several of the books went through a number of editions.

The series acquired a fan club consisting of teachers in higher education teachers who welcomed the books’ combination of pragmatism and innovativeness. The fan club was mainly UK-based, although also found elsewhere in the Commonwealth.

I think the authors’ ability to get the books into retail chain stores was limited, so evidently the popularity of the series developed through professional networks and word of mouth. The intriguing and memorable titles (why 53!? – everyone asks) no doubt contributed.

A key feature of the books has been that the ‘ideas’ typically take a specific form. They are not just bright ideas: they are ideas that each:

  1. identify a practical problem faced by teachers in higher education;
  2. propose a solution — one that is rooted in practice and has been tried and tested;
  3. identify likely obstacles;
  4. recommend how to implement the ideas.

Of these, point (3) is particularly important: the fact that the authors recognise and confront obstacles signals to the reader their realism and helps to develop the readers’ trust.

Our decision to revive the series has been positively received. The books have attracted positively reviews, for example from The Thesis Whisperer.

Readers who knew the series old tend to greet the new editions fondly – and they are also reaching a younger, entirely new audience. The fact that we have good connections with international library suppliers and publish in eBook formats as well as print is helping them to get better known internationally.

Our rights agents, Harriman House, are  helping the cause by selling translation rights. Some of the titles will be published in Vietnam, for example.


How are topic areas for additions identified?

I don’t know how the original authors identified topics. I guess it was considering a combination of:

  1. areas of higher education where there was most need for reform and development;
  2. market potential;
  3. their own interests.

Our selection of titles to acquire from them was based primarily on (2). We republished the following:

Each of these deal with topics of broad, general, interest. We expected Lectures to sell best, but in fact Seminars and Tutorials is outpacing it.

So far as freshly commissioned titles are concerned , the process is not scientific. It involves a combination of (a) considering suggestions, (b) noticing, in our work in universities and colleges, what unfulfilled needs (and indeed frustrations) there are, (c) considering the interests and aptitudes of the potential authors we meet, and (d) using common sense about the likely demand.

So far we’ve published on wholly new title: 53 interesting ways to communicate research. We’ve just received the manuscript of another — 53 interesting ways to support online learning by Rhona Sharpe, which promises to be a real humdinger. The manuscript of the next one — 53 ways to enhance researcher development — is not far off.

Taken together, we like to think such titles sustain the original vision of the series whilst responding to contemporary developments in higher education.



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