THE CONFERENCE, held in a shabby hotel in Jersey, might easily have been mistaken for a convention organised by one of those inner-city churches that have been kept alive as a result of the efforts of a flamboyant and enthusiastic black congregation. Over four days more than 200 smartly dressed delegates - many of them from the Afro-Caribbean community - listened intently to a range of speakers praising family life, hard work, a healthy lifestyle and the merits of education.

'People Who Need People' was the theme of a gathering that bore all the hallmarks of happy-clappy evangelism. The congregation beamed at each other; at intervals devotees would leap to their feet and cheer spontaneously. Those who harboured doubts were swept along in a torrent of faith and fervour.

But this was a secular gathering. Delegates had come to Jersey not out of love for the Lord, but to celebrate an encyclopaedia.

The World Book, published in Chicago, is the world's best-selling and longest-established encyclopaedia, although not many people in this country have heard of it. While World Book's publishers have made significant inroads into the Irish market, its 'penetration' in the UK is low and sales are concentrated within the Afro-Caribbean community.

It is not specifically an encyclopaedia for black people - its entry on Martin Luther King, for instance, is no more exhaustive than those included in rival volumes - but at least 50 per cent of the company's managers are of West Indian or African origin. Most of the sales team is recruited from the black community.

'We have recruited Caucasians in the past,' says Joan Absalom, one of the London managers, 'but we found that some of them are a bit lazy. They can't stand up to to the challenge of commission-only selling. Caucasians like to know exactly how much money is coming in each week.'

'The black person in this country,' explains Ruel Cadogan, a former careers officer turned World Booker 'is at a disadvantage. The class system means that we are denied many of the opportunities that white people take for granted. We have to prove our excellence - and World Book can help us to do that.' Mr Cadogan privately educated his three children, one of whom is now a captain in the British Army.

Oliver Walsh, one of World Book's most dynamic performers, who came from Ireland for the conference, put it more bluntly: 'The white fella in England just won't believe in the power of the World Book. They want to take but they won't give, that's why the ethnics are so successful. They need the education. It will help them get out of the slum.'

In common with other expensive reference books of its kind, the World Book is sold through network marketing: teams of self-employed workers look to their own network of friends, neighbours and colleagues to generate sales. While most of the sales are made in this way, traditional door-to- door cold-calling still has a place in earning orders. And in spite of the recession, inner-city estates are seen as a rich seam of potential sales.

Lyn Mackenzie, a former health visitor, says: 'We find that even the poorest of people will realise the benefits of investing in their children's education. I went into a house in Stockwell which was very shabby, with dirty rags in the kitchen. I thought, surely the woman won't be able to afford it. But she believed it was worthwhile and she paid cash.'

Most of the delegates had similar stories about poverty-stricken families being prepared to make sacrifices in order to provide their children with a set of encyclopaedias. They went to great pains to point out that only the terminally poor or reckless would be unable to make such a crucial investment. Over a year - I was told ad nauseam by innumerable delegates - World Book costs less than the price of a daily newspaper.

The well-rehearsed patter trotted out by delegates with such determination appeared to be based on the dubious premise that a set of encyclopaedias can itself offer an 'education,' transforming the average low achiever into a brainbox with Nobel Prize-winning potential. My suggestion that some families might consider pounds 500-plus a little steep prompted a shirty response: 'Nobody can afford to neglect their children's education,' snarled one delegate.

It is easy to imagine how some potential clients, faced with this kind of pressure, might feel guilty if they decide not to invest in the World Book. But the reps are bound by the law - there is a seven-day 'cooling-off' period - and Mike Brown, World Book's (Caucasian) UK sales manager insists that the sales force would never intimidate anybody into buying. 'Most of our customers are what I'd term lower middle-class. We're not taking advantage and they're not gullible.'

Corporate mumbo-jumbo permeates much of World Book's activities. Sales staff are encouraged to work as part of a team: at the same time they are expected to compete with their fellow reps to earn glitzy bonuses - porcelain mountain eagles and diamond- encrusted achievement rings, which bring delegates to their feet in a rush of admiration.

The most successful don a special satin sash at the conference that indicates their membership of World Book's Galaxy of Stars: the sashes make their wearers look like members of the Orange Order. Themes at previous Achievement Conferences have included 'Attitude Conditions Success', 'Focus on Excellence', 'Riding High' and 'Light Up a Life'.

Rather like members of a religious sect - many of the UK sales force are in fact Seventh Day Adventists - or followers of some microscopic group on the fringe of mainstream politics, World Bookers show an unstinting devotion to the cause. Not one delegate suggested that the book ('A fantastic product', said one manager) or the company ('A fantastic company', said another) had any shortcomings.

Commission rates are high and there is scope for senior representatives to make huge annual profits. An ordinary rep makes between pounds 60 and pounds 90 for each set ordered: those in charge of a team of reps also cream off what is known as a 'responsibility allowance'. One rep claimed he earned pounds 96,000 a year in commission: another who was cheered to the stage by his colleagues had managed to sell 60 sets of encyclopaedias in the space of four weeks. The hyperbole surrounding the Achievement Conference - the most successful sales reps receive a pat on the back from the company president accompanied by a synthesised drum roll - belies the miserable fact that 50 per cent of those recruited do not sell a single set of encyclopaedias.

Many of the Afro-Caribbeans selling the Book are imbued by a spirit of enterprise oddly redolent of Thatcherism. There is much talk of the virtue of hard work and the fact that their earnings have allowed many of them to send their children to public school.

Mike Brown puts the company's success with the black community down to 'attitudes to education'. 'They value their children's future and they care more about education . . . they have a very positive attitude . . . With so much emphasis on study at home it is important that parents do their best for their children.'

If we are to believe the World Bookers, we might as well demolish our schools, colleges and universities and invest instead in a network of encyclopaedia printing plants.

As Peter Finegan, an established World Booker put it: 'World Book is very much a substitute for education . . . I mean an addition . . . There's no such thing as a sales pitch, the company gives us the motivation to go

out and work. We are partners in excellence.'

(Photograph omitted)