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How to Be a Successful Freelance Writer for College Textbook Publishers

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Textbook and Academic Authors

Textbook and Academic Authors


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Ever wondered who writes all those college textbook test questions, lecture outlines, instructor’s manuals, study guides, and other materials that help students learn better and instructors teach better? Freelance writers like John Soares, that’s who. John, the author of "Writing College Textbook Supplements: The Definitive Guide to Winning High-Paying Assignments in the College Textbook Publishing Market," will tell you what you need to succeed in this field, including how to get the attention of higher-education textbook editors and convince them to hire you; how to get your projects done well and quickly; and how to get paid well. Join us for this lively, informative, and entertaining preview to John Soares 60-minute audio conference for TAA members on Dec. 14 at 12 p.m. EST: http://www.taaonline.net/TAATeleconferences


0:05 Kim Pawlak

Welcome to the Text and Academic Authors Association Podcast Series. My name is Kim Pawlak, and today I am interviewing John Soares, a freelance writer of College Textbook Supplements and the author of Writing College Textbook Supplements: The Definitive Guide to Winning High-Paying Assignments in the College Textbook Publishing Market, about what you need to succeed in this field including how to get the attention of higher-education textbook editors and convince them to hire you, how to get your projects done well and quickly, and how you'll get paid well. John has been a freelance writer for college textbook publishers since 1994. He has created over 200 supplements and ancillaries from major higher education publishers, including Cengage, Pearson Education and McGraw-Hill, in fields ranging from political science and history to geography or science and biology. He holds a BS in Biochemistry and an MA in Political Science from the University of California Davis. He writes the Writing College Textbook Supplements blog and the productivewriters.com blog. Hello John. Thank you for joining us today.

1:13 John Soares

Well, thank you Kim. It's my pleasure to be here. Let me tell the people a little bit about me before we jump in to the actual textbook supplements writing phase. I have a wide ranging academic background. I've been very interested in lots of different subjects throughout my life. I started out studying engineering and actually I have an AA degree in that; and as you just said Kim, I have a BS degree in Biochemistry and a master's degree in Political Science from UC Davis, and I've studied a lot of other subjects along the way. I'm just really interested in knowledge and understanding a lot more about the world. And my writing career started initially with my interest in the outdoors and hiking, and I started writing articles for newspapers and magazines and eventually windup writing three hiking guides on Northern California for The Mountaineers' Book, which is a major outdoors publisher in Seattle.

2:14 Kim Pawlak

So how did you actually get started writing supplements for college textbooks?

2:19 John Soares

Well, it started in the early 1990s. I was teaching political science courses at Youth College right outside of Chico in Northern California. And the textbook representatives would come around to talk to us to try to get us to adopt their textbooks, and I remember striking up a conversation with one of the reps and I said, "Who writes the instructors' manuals and the test questions?", and the things like that, but these are her textbooks, and she said, "Well, people like you do, if you are interested." So what she did is she connected me with the relevant political science editor at her company and she was the HarperCollins rep. And I stared out doing some very minor things, like I did some manuscript reviews and things like that for the first couple of months, but then in the summer of 1992, I got my first major assignment. I wrote 1600 questions for a new American Government Textbook and I got paid $4000 to do it and it was a very nice addition to my summer income. And after that, I got much more interested in doing this as a way to make a living, so I contacted the books reps for all the major publishers and they gave me contacts with their editors. I sent cover letters and a resume through the mail. This was back before -- really the internet was a major factor in anything, and then soon enough, they started calling me and I started getting projects.

3:55 Kim Pawlak

So, what do you enjoy most about writing textbook supplements?

3:59 John Soares

Well, there are several things that I really like about it. I really enjoy using my brain and I really enjoyed learning and of course I know most of what I'm working with, but I like reinforcing it, I like connecting it in different ways with different subjects and different subject areas. So that's just the actual work itself but as far as being a freelance writer for college textbook publishers, I, for the most part, get to set my own work schedule. So, if I want a day off, I can take a day off to go hiking and also since this is my main source of income, I'm not tied to any specific location. I can live wherever I want and I have taken an advantage of that. I lived on the Island of Kauai on Hawaiian Islands for three years in the 1990s. I lived on the coast of far Northern California for several of years and now I live in the Mt. Shasta area, and these are all beautiful real areas which is my preference for living, and it also allows me to travel frequently. I have been setting up situations over the last few years where my partner, Stephanie, and I get __5:10__ gigs in the Bay Area, and just recently I spend three weeks in San Francisco, so I can get a nice mix of culture and country.

5:20 Kim Pawlak

Well, that sounds like a great benefit.

5:22 John Soares


5:23 Kim Pawlak

So what background does a freelance writer needed in order to write for college textbook publishers?

5:28 John Soares

Well, ideally, you need a graduate degree and some college teaching experience. That's what I have and I know that's what a lot of other people who are involved in this field have. And that said, I do know that the textbook publishing companies hire people that are solid high quality freelance writers that are able to pay attention to details and get the work done at a very high level. And also these writers are able to convince these editors that they can do a good job. So, I would say at a minimum, you need a Bachelor's degree and typically you have to have a significant knowledge of the discipline you would be working in.

6:15 Kim Pawlak

Okay. So what are the best ways to find editors at textbook publishing companies?

6:22 John Soares

For me, I think, I started with the sales representatives and you can find those through company websites. You just Google the major textbook publishing companies and that you'll find their websites. They will have a place there where you can contact sales reps. And sales reps typically like to find quality supplements writers if they can connect with the editors. So, that's a really good way to go. Depending on the company, you can also find specific editors on the company website for the disciplines that you are interested in, and you have to figure out what disciplines you can work in. Usually, this is something that you have a significant academic background in or a higher degree of knowledge in. Another way to do is you can ask other freelance writers that are currently working for college textbook publishers, doing freelance projects. I personally had helped several freelance writers get connected with editors and companies and land jobs. And finally, you can ask the editors you've already worked with. For me, throughout my career, the editors I've been working with have helped me tremendously. They've been able to -- I asked them and I said, "Hey, I'm doing good work for you. Are there other editors in your company that could use my services?" And usually, they're very happy to help out with that and I've really been able to expand my career by working with one editor at a company and then from there, moving onto other editors and then finally I may have five or six editors that I know at one company that I do various projects for.

8:01 Kim Pawlak

What is the earning potential?

8:05 John Soares

Well, it varies. It varies based on your experience and how fast you are. I'm obviously been doing this for a long, long time. I went full-time in 1994. I'm quite experienced. I'm also quite fast. So, I typically make at least $50 an hour for my projects. Sometimes, it's substantially more than that. Every now and then, it may be a little bit lower. Now, let me say, there are projects that are out there that overall don't pay very well because the company just may not have a very large budget for that project, may be it's not a major textbook so the company doesn't want to put a lot of resources into it or it could be the editor is just trying to spread her overall budget among many different projects and she may be saying if she can get somebody to do this for a low cost. So, sometimes I've seen some projects that I figure out if I would do it, I would only make maybe $10 or $15 an hour. I turn those down. First, I'll ask for more money, but I turned those down. But typically for me, it's in the higher paying range. And what I will do if I -- I have this happen recently, may be six months ago, to write some lecture outlines for a textbook and I looked at the project and I said, "Well, I can do this for XML, which is roughly three times what I was being offered and the editor said, "Well, I am sorry. I really only have this amount", and I wrote back and said, "Well, if you have projects that have much higher budgets, please contact me in the future." And she wrote me back and said, "Yeah, I will definitely do that." So that's what I do. (Excuse me). So, if you can get to the $50 an hour and up, obviously that's a pretty decent pay. Now, it's not really that easy to get 40 hours a week 50 weeks a year to get that much work to be able to do that. The way that textbook publishing schedule is it chunks up at certain times of the year, there is a lot more work. Like right now, I'm in a very busy phase. I have a lot of projects going on. Then there are other times where I might have two or three weeks where I don't have any work at all, and I personally like this. This gives me time for my other writing projects, and allows me to travel and go backpacking and things like that. And many of the people who do this are also teachers and they may not be looking to do this full-time, they are may be looking at this has a way to supplement their income and it's an excellent way for them to do that. So yeah, the pay can be very, very good, but getting to the point where you can make a substantial middle class, let's say $50,000, $60,000, or $70,000 a year living can take a while to get there because you have to get known to a lot of editors, get trusted and start getting a lot more projects. So people who are considering doing this should say, "I'm going to use this initially as one of my income streams to supplement my other freelance writing or to supplement my teaching or another job or something like that.

11:24 Kim Pawlak

Okay. You said that your normally would turn down a lower paying project at this point, but do you recommend that people who are just starting now that they take those smaller paying jobs or should they even starting now ask for more?

11:40 John Soares

That's an excellent question. It depends on the person and who you are and what you are looking for. If it is a small project and you want to get your foot in the door, then perhaps you should take a lower paying project. And that's a good way to get experience and get known to these editors. So yeah, I would consider doing that if you are willing to work for that pay rate. It's important to be careful though because if you take a really, really low paying job, that might be a very, very large project, it might be something you're working on for a long time and you're may be looking at that pay rate and going, "Hmm, boy. I wish I wasn't doing this large project for this low pay rate." But I do agree that some people should consider doing that and coming back what I was talking about earlier as far as how to get your foot in the door with editors, I advocate in my book, writing college textbook supplements, that people consider doing what's called a risk reversal, where you approach a supplements editor and you say, "You're may be concerned that I don't have the qualifications or things like that, but how about I do a sample chapter for you for free for this project. And if you like it, you'll hire me at this good rate and I do the entire project and if you don't like it, well, then you are not out of anything." That's another way to get yourself in the door and potentially get yourself higher pay rates initially.

13:15 Kim Pawlak

Okay. So what are your favorite types of projects?

13:21 John Soares

My favorite type of project to do is lecture outlines for textbooks. These are done usually in PowerPoint software, and I just really enjoy that because I'm getting to read what is usually a very high-quality college level textbook and then create excellent lecture outlines that professors can use in the classroom. And it helps me to just really -- I get to distill what is the most important information in this chapter and how I'm going to present that in the lecture outlines, so that the students are really going to be able to learn from it and it's going to be easy for the professors to give a good lecture. And I have done just about every type of project that can be done for a college textbook. I've written -- I don't know how many -- tens of thousands of questions, may be 50,000 or 100,000 questions. I have written over the course of my career and that is one of the most common types of projects out there. I've also written a lot of instructor's manuals and student study guides. I've done a lot of work involving the art that goes in the textbooks and helping to breakup that art for professors to use in PowerPoint presentations, so that they can show it in the classroom. So getting back, to what are my favorite types -- I like the lecture outlines and then I also like writing exercises that get students to think analytically and critically about the subject matter and sometimes I write these as for under a student site on the internet to get them to think about these things and sometimes they have to write answers and then submit the to their professors. Sometimes, there are in instructors' manuals and professors can give them out to students to think about or answer as an essay -- I like doing that a lot.

15:21 Kim Pawlak

Alright. Well, obviously writing college textbook supplements may not be for everyone, so what are the important characteristics of a successful supplements writer?

15:32 John Soares

There are several important characteristics. Number one, you have to do high-quality work consistently. And that's obviously the most important thing for any job that you do, but you have to do the good work. And then number two, you have to have good marketing skills because no matter how good you are if the editors don't know about you or they don't realize you're good, the you're not going to get the job, so that's really important. Number three, you have to have good communication skills with the editors that you're working with, so that you make sure you're clear on what you're suppose to do, you're clear on what your deadlines are, and that you keep regular communication with the editors, even during times when you're not actively working on a project. Typically, the editors that I work with, two or three times a year, I will send an email and say, "Hey, just wondering if you have any projects coming up soon in the next two or three months, that would be suitable for me?" So that keeps me in their minds. Number four, you have to meet deadlines and this is crucial, this is the publishing industry. You have to meet your deadlines for everything else to go smoothly for whatever project you are working on. They are sprinters. There are all these people that are lined up, editors to work on what you have worked on, and then integrate it into the total support package for the textbook. So that's crucial. And if there ever is a situation where you're going to miss a deadline, you need to let your editor know as soon as possible, so that he or she can make adjustments if necessary. And then number five, you need good time management skills. You have to set schedules for yourself and make sure you get the work done and when it needs to be done. And what I do is I look and say if I have a project and there are 15 chapters and let's say I have 60 days to do it, that means I need to do one chapter with the work on average every four days, and I need to be aware of that and keep that in mind as I go along. Also, it's important to work quickly and to do good work as well as you can as you go along. And what I do is, I develop a routine so that I handle similar tasks in similar ways and so that my brain knows, "Okay, when I get to this, I need to do it at this certain way", and writers will find when they start doing these projects that initially the first chapter or two might feel slow and uncomfortable and it takes a lot of time, but you get used to what you're doing, you start figuring out the routines to get it done as quickly as possible, and it just goes faster and faster after that.

18:40 Kim Pawlak

Oh, thank you, John of talking with me today. It looks like we have several callers.

18:45 John Soares


18:47 Kim Pawlak

They want to ask some questions. So in the inches of time, why don't we see if we can get some callers on the line here?

18:56 John Soares


18:59 Kim Pawlak

Right. Hello caller? Go ahead and ask your question.

19:05 Richard

This is Richard.

19:07 Kim Pawlak

Hello Richard.

19:10 Richard

It's a little bit of a tongue-in-cheek question. You talked about having written over a 100,000 questions. Can you answer all of them now?

19:20 John Soares

Alright. That's an excellent question. Yes, I probably can answer most of them now, but yet there would be some questions that I wrote a long time ago for something that I'd looked at and I go "Hmm, would this be as I see..." But yeah, hopefully I will get most of them right.

19:38 Richard

That seems to suggest that the questions you write are multiple choice. Are there other forms that you are asked to write and the follow-up question, do you get involved in any sort of study guide writing?

19:56 John Soares

Yes. Multiple choice is the most common type of question that is in a test bank. So yeah, I've written a lot of those and I've written a lot of True/False and Essay questions, and some matching, and things like that, and shared answer. My favorite question to write is of the essay questions because those are the ones where I can really help the student to think about the material and engage it. One of the things I -- the big challenge with writing test questions is making sure that it is a high quality question that; number one the student understands, and number two, in other words, they're just the language and the structure of the question is clear so they know what they're being asked and then number two, that it is a fair question in testing their knowledge of the material -- and Richard, what was the second part of your question?

20:51 Richard

Have you gotten involved at all in writing study guides, which would be...

20:56 John Soares

Oh, yes.

20:57 Richard

A kind of compilation of the questions that you're talking about but in a guide that is closely connected with a particular textbook.

21:10 John Soares

Yes. I have done many, many projects like that. That's a fairly common project. Most of the large textbooks that are for lower division students typically have a student-study guide that could be imprint more and more when they are online. So, students access them online but I have done a lot of work for those, including writing the sample quizzes and the websites that they can go visit on the internet for more information, and those analytical thinking-type exercises that they frequently will go to a website and then I ask questions about the website. And those are some of my favorite types of projects to do.

21:53 Richard

Are all of your writing projects fee for service or are some of them connected with a royalty structure?

22:04 John Soares

All of my projects have been fee for service and another term for that is "work for hire" and it's very clear in the contracts that I signed where they say, "You are writing this but you have no copyright on it at all. We own it and we will decide what we will do with it." And that is important for writers to understand is that it is a work for hire. I think there are occasionally situations where a freelance writer might create something that would involve royalties. It would have to be a type of supplement that is sold to students like in the bookstore, perhaps, a solution's manual for a physics textbook or something like that. I've had heard of that. I think that is very rare and I would caution any supplements authors to be careful about royalties because you never know what your royalties will be. You might windup making a lot of money but it could be if it doesn't sell very well, you won't make hardly any at all. You might be better of taking the fee that you can get from the company as a work for hire.

23:16 Richard

Thank you.

23:17 Kim Pawlak

Okay Richard, do you have any questions?

23:20 Richard

If there's nobody else, what more. Is your name ever connected with your work in terms of what's published?

23:28 John Soares

A lot of it, it is. If you would go to Amazon.com and type in the name John Soares, which I occasionally do, you will see a lot of the supplements that have written; some of them going back to 1997. I wrote something, I think, it was called the "Internet Guide for History" for Cengage which was Wadsworth back then; that still shows up. Some of my instructor's manuals that I've written show up and some test things I've written show up, and of course you'll see I've written hiking guides, so my hiking guides will show up, and then -- yes, so they do. They do show up, but it can happen.

24:08 Kim Pawlak

We have some...

24:09 John Soares

Go ahead Kim.

24:10 Kim Pawlak

We have some other calls.

24:12 John Soares


24:13 Kim Pawlak

So, thank you Richard.

24:15 John Soares

Thanks, Richard.

24:18 Kim Pawlak

Hello, caller. Go ahead and ask your question.

24:25 S1


24:27 Kim Pawlak


24:28 S1

Yes. I have a question for the speaker. I was wondering what tools you use to develop your questions sets -- whether you use something in the learning management system that is part of the package or if you simply use Microsoft Office or something like that?

24:48 John Soares

Okay. That's an excellent question. It's a mix of both. For the most part, I have written my test questions in Microsoft Word, usually with very strict formatting guidelines and then the publisher would take what I wrote and then take it into their specific software that they use to generate the actual test for professors to professors. For those of you who don't know it, textbook publishers provide the professors who adopt their textbooks with a test bank, a set of test questions and some software that allows them to generate custom test or to pick certain questions and lay it all out for them and then generate a key for the Multiple Choice questions so they can easily grade them. So, to get back to the specific questions, yes it can be to Microsoft Words, like I've just said, and then some companies have their own proprietary software or specific set of software that they use, in which you enter the various parts of the test questions into the software, so it goes both ways.

25:59 S1

Alright. Thank you. Are there any common ones among the manufacture solutions -- any common tools or do they just vary by whoever is the publisher has?

26:14 John Soares

I don't have a definitive answer on that. I know that Pearson Education used something called TestGen, but I actually, over the last three or four years, have not been writing many questions. I've been moving more into lecture outlines and dealing with arts splits and a lot other things like that. So, as far as what's been happening in the last couple of three years, I'm not sure about that, but my guess is that the different major publishers have their own specific software.

26:46 Kim Pawlak

Okay. So, the work that you've been doing most recently, you said lecture generation and something else -- is that also using Microsoft Word or are you using some other tools for that?

26:59 John Soares

The lecture outlines, I do in PowerPoint and I just create the specific PowerPoint slides that they will use. As far as the dealing with the arts split directions and things like that, I used to enter that into a software package, but now I'm actually just giving the directions on a Microsoft Word document saying split this art this way and then the editorial staff will do that and then I'll check to make sure everything went well after that.

27:30 Kim Pawlak

Alright. Thank you very much.

27:32 John Soares

You're welcome.

27:33 Kim Pawlak

Alright. Thank you. Alright. We might have a time for one more caller. Hello, caller? Go ahead and ask your question.

27:43 Lupe

Yes, hi! My name is Lupe, and I've been a freelance editor for quite well for textbooks. And my question is, is how do I get them to pay me sooner -- I mean, in another words, I want to know, do you get paid right away? Are you taking half? Are you not getting paid until you finish your supplements?

28:06 John Soares

That's a good question. I'll answer it quickly. Typically, what I do is I get half upon signing and half upon completion, because I have a lot of experience with this and I have found that the typical pay rate is four weeks for the best publishers and an average of two months for the others. Every now and then, there is an issue or a problem and it can take four or five months to get paid usually because there's a glitch in the system somewhere up screen that needs to be figured out. So, I would say if you're not getting paid on time, just keep going to whoever hired you and say, "Hey, I requested this. Can you please facilitate so I get paid quickly?"

28:49 Lupe

That's great. That's I will do.

28:52 John Soares


28:53 Kim Pawlak

Alright. Thank you. We're running out of time today. So John, again, thank you for talking with me today. Talking with all of us.

29:01 John Soares

You're very welcome, Kim. I've enjoyed it.

29:04 Kim Pawlak

John will be presenting an expanded version of today's topic as an audio conference for members of the Text and Academic Authors Association on December 14 from 12 to 1 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. If you have any other questions for John, you can contact him on productivewriters.com. Participation in the expanded audio conference is free for members. If you're not already a TAA member, you can join for as low as $15. Non-members can participate in the audio conference for $25. All audio conferences are recorded and made available as podcast in the Members Only section of the TAA website. For more information, visit www.taaonline.net. Thank you for listening today's podcast. This is Kim Pawlak with the TAA podcast series.