A lot of us laboring in the academic salt mines of adjunctdom tend to just keep grinding on, either content with our lot or hoping things will improve on their own. The identity of teacher/professor can be almost hermetically sealed, or close enough that we forget there are options, even options that will allow us to a) stay intimately involved with higher education, b) write, and c) get paid better than we do now (and maybe even gain a bit more control).
This week I’m talking with someone who has found one of those alternatives. John Soares was kind enough to answer a few questions for me on the topics of adjunct faculty and writing. John was an adjunct faculty member for several years, then left it for a career writing textbook supplements.
GB: Do you still teach anywhere as an adjunct?
John Soares: I last taught college in the summer of 1994—two sections of American government for Butte College in Chico, California.
If not, may I ask why?
There are many reasons. The two most important are freedom and money. Once I stopped teaching college and became a full-time freelancer, I had a lot more freedom to set my schedule and go where I wanted. Teaching tied me to Chico most of the time.
I also make much more money on an hourly basis writing college textbook supplements (instructor’s manuals, study guides, test questions, lecture outlines, etc) than I did teaching, especially when you factor in all the lecture prep, grading, and traveling to and from the college that teaching requires.
I also like having my livelihood directly under my own control and determined by my own efforts and talents. While I personally had relatively few problems getting the classes I wanted at Butte College (and Shasta College in Redding), I saw that many other adjuncts had difficulties. Also, when I began teaching at the college level, my goal was a full-time community college teaching position. But the longer I taught, the more I realized that was unlikely to happen.
If not, do you miss it?
I definitely miss it. I truly enjoyed being in the classroom and helping young people understand the world better and hone their critical thinking skills. To me, teaching is an intellectual challenge that also requires strong interpersonal skills, and I miss that mix, that interaction.
How long did it take you to build your career as a writer of college textbook supplements?
In 1992 I got my first supplement assignment, a 1600-question test bank for a new American government textbook that paid $4000. (By comparison, I was getting $1500 to teach a three-unit poli-sci course.) I was already making some money from the first hiking guide I wrote, and also from some outdoors and travel pieces for magazines and newspapers.
By 1994 I felt I could make more money if I focused all my energy on writing. I did make more money for the first couple of years, but I hit a couple of slow patches in the latter part of the 1990s after I moved to Kauai in Hawaii. Initially I only worked on political science projects, primarily American government, but also some international relations and comparative politics. Given the nature of college textbook publishing cycles, there are definitely times when there is little or no work.
By 1997 I expanded into new academic disciplines, including history and geography and the sciences. I also improved my marketing and communication skills, which, along with the expansion of disciplines, brought me to a middle-class income by 1999.
I know you do other writing, especially on hiking and outdoor activities. How does that fit with the supplement writing?
Although I do some blogging and marketing to keep the modest royalties coming from my two hiking guides (and to keep them in print), my main focus now is creating information products. My first was the e-book Writing College Textbook Supplements: The Definitive Guide to Winning High-Paying Assignments in the College Textbook Publishing Market. And I just completed my second information product: Maximum Productivity for Freelance Writers: Manage Your Time, Make More Money, and Get More Enjoyment from Life. I’m currently working on an audio book for Maximum Productivity for Freelance Writers, and in the spring I’ll begin teaching workshops on the same topic. I also have several other information products I’ll be creating in the coming months, most centered around the launch of what will become my flagship website:
I still do some textbook supplement projects. I’m currently working on test questions for study materials created by a nonprofit with a government grant, and I continue to do projects for Prentice Hall/Pearson Education and Cengage Learning.
Any advice for adjuncts about writing?
Freelance writing can be a very good way for an adjunct to pay the bills. As we all know, adjuncts typically don’t make much money, at least compared to what full-time instructors make.
Writing textbook supplements and ancillaries is the easiest field for most adjuncts to enter since they already have the background knowledge for the work. The pay, however, can vary substantially. With one exception, I haven’t made less than $50 per hour since 2000, and I often make in the $100 per-hour range. However, I’m a fast and experienced writer, and I’m good at negotiating pay rates. Some textbook supplement projects will pay far less than that.
Whether you write textbook supplements or enter another field, you must specialize if you want to be paid well. Look for companies or industries that need specific types of writing and approach them with your services.
Some generalists do make decent money, but most don’t.
John Soares has written over 200 college textbook supplements since 1992. He is the author of Writing College Textbook Supplements: The Definitive Guide to Winning High-Paying Assignments in the College Textbook Publishing Market and Intelligent Productivity for Freelance Writers: Manage Your Time, Make More Money, and Get More Enjoyment from Life. He also writes the “Writing College Textbook Supplements” blog and the “Intelligent Productivity For Freelance Writers” blog.