Great Writing Niches: College Textbook Supplements

By John Soares

Did you graduate from college?

Do you like to learn? Do you think college education is important?

Are you a freelance writer?

Then you have what it takes to make a solid income writing supplements for college textbooks. I’ve been doing it since 1992, and by 1994 I was able to quit my job teaching poli-sci courses at the local community college to do it full time.

So What Exactly IS a Textbook Supplement?

A textbook supplement is anything that helps students learn and teachers teach (and test). Top examples:

  • Student study guides
  • Lecture outlines
  • Instructor’s manuals
  • Test questions
  • Laboratory manuals

But Don’t I Need College Teaching Experience?

College teaching experience is a definite plus, but I know several people who haven’t taught college who still get lots of assignments in this field. Most of the editors at textbook publishing companies care about the quality of the work you create, not how many years you’ve taught — or if you’ve taught.

Can I Only Work in the Same Discipline as My Degree?

You’ll likely start out in your discipline, but you can quickly branch out as long as you have enough knowledge to do the work in other disciplines.

For example, I have a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and a master’s degree in political science. I’ve also taken a lot of courses various subjects, including history, geography, and the earth and life sciences. I started by doing poli-sci projects, but soon branched out to history and all of those other subjects I just listed.

Is It Enjoyable Work?

I love doing this. I love to learn new things and reinforce what I already know. I want to know how the world works. The better I understand it, the more I feel a part of it.

Here’s what I’ve done in recent months:

  • Wrote lecture outlines for one of the world’s top environmental science textbooks
  • Wrote test questions for several chapters of an intro to business textbook, including internet marketing
  • Wrote directions about how to split up compound art in earth science textbooks for use in lecture outlines
  • Wrote test questions for an American history textbook
  • Wrote an instructor’s manual and test questions for a course that teaches graduate students how to do research

Of course, just about any type of writing is going to seem like “work” sometimes.

Hmmm… So What Does It Pay?

I make a minimum of $50 an hour on my projects, and I make substantially more than that on some. I recently finished a one-year project for a private company that worked out to about $150 per hour and about $12,000 total, but that’s less common.

When you first start out you won’t be as experienced or as efficient, so you could initially make less.

How Crowded Is This Field?

Not very. Few people know about it and it’s a multi-billion-dollar industry that’s essentially recession-proof. (Actually, more people go to college during economic downturns, which means more textbooks get sold and there’s more work for supplements writers.)

Any Drawbacks to Writing Textbook Supplements?

There’s one main drawback. More assignments are available in certain times of year — summer is one of them — with occasional slow spots. I’ve been doing this full-time since 1994, and I still occasionally have brief periods with no assignments. That’s actually cool with me. I write several blogs and I create information products, and I like to hike and travel, so I like the slow periods.

How Do I Find Out More About This Niche?

Ask away in the comment section below and I’ll answer you.

John Soares has been a full-time freelance writer for college textbook publishers since 1994. He also writes about time management and productivity on his ProductiveWriters blog.

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51 comments on “Great Writing Niches: College Textbook Supplements
  1. Alice says:

    Mr.John,
    I am M.Sc.,M.Phil and PhD in Biochemistry and I am interested to write biochemistry, microbiology or molecular biology book or part of book as paid freelance writer.
    Inform if any opportunity exists u.

  2. Bryan says:

    This is great! Just to clear my thoughts on this..so, i can write about the ones that i am most familiar about? I can write topics that covers my area of interest that would be really a win-win for us then..
    Bryan recently posted…College Hacks: How To Pull An Effective All-NighterMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      This is a niche generally for writers who have college degrees in a specific field that they could write textbooks for…often, multiple degrees are good. If that’s you, then go for it!

  3. Linda says:

    Hi Carol,

    Just got your message about this field, I am interested in knowing where to go, who to see are talk to about getting started in this field.

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    website recently posted…websiteMy Profile

  5. Christina says:

    I stumbled upon this article wading through a Google search for “freelance from home/history writing degree” and think it’s the most helpful one I’ve seen thus far. I have a Master’s in history and elementary education and just know I can utilize it somehow! Thanks for the tips; I know this article is a few years old so if there are any new leads I’m all ears!

  6. Len Holman says:

    Is a supplement to be requested by a publisher or do I have to go online and beg a thousand sites to take a read? I’m currenty writing an introductory text/supplement for philosophy and Kendallhunt tried to get me to sign a contract, the SELL it to my school..I’m an adjunct and have NO authority to do that, so I told them, “No thanks.” So, when I’m finished, what do I do next?

  7. Becca says:

    I realize that this was posted over a year ago, but if you are still receiving replies, I’d love to hear your feedback on this:

    I was so excited to find this post. I am a Middle School teacher with certifications in Elementary (all subjects), Grades 7-9 English, Math, and Science, and K-12 English as a Second Language, as well as a Master of Education. My Bachelor degree was in Communication and Women Studies. I just recently left my teaching position because I needed a more flexible schedule to assist with family etc… For several years I’ve been searching for some way to use my background in education in a different manner. I’ve always enjoyed creating my lessons/worksheets/manipulatives so much and I’ve frequently thought, “I wish I could just write for the textbook company – but how…..?”

    So this was a joy to find…the only problem is, I have never taught at the college level and I am more focused on the grade school textbook field. Would you say the information in your book on supplements could apply to both college and grade school textbooks? I know they have many of the same publishing companies – or so it seems with Prentice Hall and Pearson. What would the process be for “breaking in” to this field as compared with college textbook supplement writing. Or, do you have any resources for this you might recommend?

    So many thanks!
    Becca

    • John Soares says:

      Becca, you have a very strong background in both teaching and a variety of subjects, which means you are ideal for this type of writing.

      Yes, my e-book will definitely help you a lot because the marketing techniques and the creation of supplements are very similar between college-level and K-12. I don’t specifically address K-12 because I have only a little experience there, primarily creating testing materials for AP courses.
      John Soares recently posted…My New Freelance Writer Business CardMy Profile

  8. Pinar Tarhan says:

    Honestly, when I first read about this niche on your blog, I was really freaked out. I somewhat imagined a boring line of work where it would all too formal, and I’d have to write about stuff I didn’t really care about all that much in college. But this post hit me in the head:) I don’t need to cover stuff I don’t like. I had a lot of topics I adored, such as organizational theory, HRM, PR, advertising and more!
    Pinar Tarhan recently posted…10 Things You Need to Do After You Sent That Awesome Query LetterMy Profile

  9. I guess a good portfolio in this case to be useful. One may have a college degree or PhD but not have any talent in teaching others. As a student, I experience that every day at university with impossible teachers.

    I would love to give college supplement assignments a try one day, when I graduate from university, although I’m afraid Italy would offer such a nearly non-existent market for it, and working on foreign college essays may be tricky because of different standards.
    Luana Spinetti recently posted…My Creatively Busy Sea DaysMy Profile

  10. Ronald Sieber says:

    Carol Tice::

    I think you can see from the array of responses that you and John have touched a nerve. Many of us have wandered and toiled for years in the halls of the Great Education Machine. We know how things work in there, and we want some pointers on how to make some of our tuition money back.

    Hah! :]
    Ronald Sieber

    • Carol Tice says:

      I’ve been pretty surprised by the vigorous interest in this niche! Seems like a great one, though not for me as an (increasingly proud) college dropout. Can’t wait to learn more on the call!

  11. Levi says:

    Hello John,

    Great post. I am also very interested in this opportunity. I will not be able to attend the call tomorrow, however, would appreciate having it sent to me.

    I have a master’s degree in education, and a bachelors degree in exercise science. My question to you is, would it still be possible for me to break into this niche?

    Thank you and I look forward to your reply.

    • John Soares says:

      Levi, there are numerous opportunities in every discipline that has widely offered lower-division courses, and I think both of your areas qualify.

      I’m not sure if and for how long a download will be available. That’s Carol’s call.
      John Soares recently posted…8 Ways to Increase the Joy of WritingMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Be sure to send a question to the free-for-all if you want to get the recording, Levi — here’s the registration link: http://eepurl.com/d2Mpv

      Sometimes I send them out to all my subscribers or post links on the Facebook fan page (http://www.facebook.com/makealivingwriting), but sending a question is the only guaranteed way to get a tape. That and subscribing to Freelance Writers Den, where they will ALL be available in the media corner, including the one with Peter Bowerman… 🙂

      • Kathi says:

        Carol–

        I’ve tried twice to register but have never gotten the confirmation email. I guess it doesn’t really matter as I cannot, after all, attend, but I thought I’d let you know about the hiccup in my attempts to register.

        If you can see it in your heart to share the call with everyone after the fact I sure would appreciate it. 😉 I really wanted to be there but it’s impossible now.

        Thanks for inviting John to guest post. Loved this new information!
        Kathi recently posted…The Vacuuming SavantMy Profile

  12. I love whoever described themselves as an “educational junkie” – that’s me! This is a super interesting field, and I’m really looking forward to the call.

    What I would like to know is a brief overview of how the project works once you’ve landed a gig. What, if any, materials do the publishers/editors provide, what do you have to ask for, and how much communication/other activity goes on during a project besides the actual writing!

    Thanks for this guest post – this is fantastic!

    • John Soares says:

      Felicity, I’m also an education junkie. I often listen to college lectures in the car and when I’m working out. Right now I’m listening to lectures from a UC Berkeley prof on the history of the Roman Empire.

      Your questions are good ones. They are a bit involved, so I think I’ll address them tomorrow during the call.
      John Soares recently posted…How Multitasking Hurts Your ProductivityMy Profile

  13. Karen says:

    This is an interesting niche. My degree is actually in technical writing, but I have specializations in sociology and psychology. For the last 7 years though, I’ve worked for a market research firm designing surveys, and reporting their results for a lay audience. Which is to say I have some skillz when it comes to designing questions, and explaining concepts. So, maybe this could work for me too?

    I second (third? fifth?) answering questions about how and where to find these assignments. I wonder how one would narrow down which publishers to look at for a person’s area of expertise?

    • John Soares says:

      Karen, you are well set for this niche. Both psychology and sociology are big markets. Most of the supplements accompany textbooks aimed at the big courses that freshmen and sophomores take.

      It’s best to target the publishers who publish the most titles in your area of academic expertise.
      John Soares recently posted…Freelance Writer’s Guide to Internet ResearchMy Profile

  14. peggyc says:

    I would love to become involved in this type of writing. I have a masters degree, have taught college courses and love the higher education environment.

    Do you write for a variety of publishers to stay busy? Initially, did you just contact familiar publishers of textbooks you used?

    I am hoping I can catch the call tomorrow, because this is something I would love to hear more about.

    • John Soares says:

      I work for 3 or so main publishers right now, but I also work for separate disciplines within those companies, so I have a fairly extensive list of contacts and clients. I got started in this field by contacting the book reps that came around to Butte College in Chico, California when I was teaching polisci courses there. Book rep contact info is on just about every publisher’s website.

      We really hope you can make the call tomorrow Peggy. I’m happy to answer any questions about writing supplements for college textbook publishers, and Carol and I will be answering any and all questions about freelance writing.
      John Soares recently posted…8 Ways to Increase the Joy of WritingMy Profile

  15. I have some related experience myself contracting with Greenhaven Press (an imprint of Cengage Learning), which involved assembling social-science anthologies to be used (mostly) in middle-grade classrooms. They all included bibliographies and resources lists; some also included study questions. The hourly rate wasn’t that high for me, but someone with more experience in locating appropriate sources quickly probably could have done better.

    My question is: which textbook publishers are the best prospects? My master’s degree is in journalism and I have experience writing about the publishing world, but also about natural-history and geography topics–and also on religious topics, incidentally. (I assume seminaries and other religious colleges have need of textbooks and supplements as well.)

    And I love your “Multitasking Hurts Productivity” post!
    Katherine Swarts recently posted…Taking OffenseMy Profile

    • John Soares says:

      I’m glad you loved my multitasking post!

      Most of my projects have been for Wadsworth and Brooks/Cole, which are Cengage imprints, and Prentice Hall, an imprint of Pearson Higher Education. Both overall pay well.

      One important point: some projects will pay quite well and some won’t. The best-selling textbooks have the biggest budgets for supplements, whereas a new textbook or a book that sells only modest amounts will have smaller budgets.

      And of course, you can always negotiate for more money.
      John Soares recently posted…How Multitasking Hurts Your ProductivityMy Profile

  16. Kathi says:

    I have a bachelors degree, a masters degree, and 90% of another masters degree (I had to quit school before completing my thesis because I ran out of money). If I could make a living going to school I would. I have written a TON of papers during my 22 or so quarters and 10 or so semesters of higher education, but I basically have no experience freelance writing. (Blogs and a couple articles for a content mill is all). Can someone like me, with no experience, but with a lot of education, and know-how when it comes to writing papers for school, get into this business? What do I need to do to beef up my resume in order to get assignments? Would employers accept my school papers as evidence that I can do the work?

    Also, how long does it take to write supplements? How many do you do in a year?

    Thanks for this post. It definitely sounds like something I want to get into, but with no experience I’m finding it hard to break into freelance writing.
    Kathi recently posted…WordPress for webOS: A New Way to BlogMy Profile

    • John Soares says:

      Kathi, you have 3 very important qualities that will help you:

      1. You write very well.
      2. You have a strong academic background.
      3. You’ve shown you can meet deadlines.

      You can definitely break into this field and you can use your papers and blog posts as writing examples. You may need to demonstrate to an editor that you are capable of doing the specific work asked, which could be writing test or quiz questions or creating lecture outlines.

      Contracts usually have a clause that says the company can end the contract and pay you for work completed. This makes it easy for an editor if a writer doesn’t work out, and it also makes it easy for an editor to give a new writer a chance.

      Editors are looking for people that will do quality work and finish on time. You just need to convince editors you can do this.
      John Soares recently posted…Freelance Writer’s Guide to Internet ResearchMy Profile

    • John Soares says:

      And as for your second question, the supplements projects vary in length and pay. I’ve probably done as many as 25-30 in a busy year.
      John Soares recently posted…How to Make the Most of an Online Conference, Course, or SeminarMy Profile

  17. susanh says:

    Do you have to have advanced degree for work like this, i.e., masters?

    • John Soares says:

      Susan, it definitely helps to have a master’s or Ph.D. I have a master’s degree in political science from the University of California at Davis and several years’ experience teaching at the college level, and I know that has helped me.

      However, there are many people who do this work who only have a bachelor’s degree. The key is knowing the subject well enough and convincing the editor you can do the work.
      John Soares recently posted…8 Ways to Increase the Joy of WritingMy Profile

  18. Carol Tice says:

    Hi all —

    I thought John would be interesting to hear from, and looks like readers agree!

    I’d answer some of your questions, but this niche is not for me, as I’m a college dropout…but I’ve asked John to drop by and address some of these.

    And of course we’ll answer more questions on the Freelance Writer’s Free-for-All tomorrow at noon PST.

  19. Karen says:

    This is a really interesting niche that I’d never ususally have considered, even though I’m an education junkie. One of my recent assignments was actually writing a student success handbook for my local university, and I loved the whole process. Obviously I work as a freelance writer because I love to write but not every assignment is that enjoyable. I’ll definitely be listening iin on the call (or catching the recording). Looking forward to it.
    Karen recently posted…Had any rejections lately? You’re in good company.My Profile

    • John Soares says:

      Karen, you’re another person who’d likely do well as a writer of textbook supplements. One type of supplement is the student handbook. I’ve written guides for students about doing history research on the Internet, how to participate in the political process, and how to minimize one’s ecological impact.
      John Soares recently posted…How Multitasking Hurts Your ProductivityMy Profile

  20. I am interested in answers to all of the above.

  21. Great post. I have just come across your site and I ma very impressed. It is exactly what I am hoping to do with mine – but for the UK market.

    When it comes to text book writing, you need a really specialised knowledge and a willingness to research really thoroughly. So it is important not to undersell yourself. it will take lots of hard work which needs to be paid for.

    The best thing is the fact that updates are frequently needed – so the work can be ongoing. Just don’t allow someone to take credit for your work. I did this and missed out of a great writing opportunity. Ghost writing in this niche is a brave choice to make.

    I wonder if the market in the UK for this type of work is the same. Something to look into.

    • John Soares says:

      Megan, I’ve written small sections of a few textbooks, but nowhere near enough to qualify as a co-author. I also had a discussion at one point about coming on as a co-author of an existing American government textbook, but it didn’t happen.

      I agree that writing a textbook, or a portion of one, is a lot of work and a writer definitely wants to be well compensated. If you come on as a co-author you’ll usually get royalties, whereas if you ghost-write you may also have the option to do a work-for-hire.

      For those interested in writing actual textbooks, consider joining the Text and Academic Authors Association. I’ve been a member for 2-plus years.
      John Soares recently posted…How Multitasking Hurts Your ProductivityMy Profile

  22. Ronald Sieber says:

    Here’s another question for your session:

    What are the implications for writing supplements in the move to e-texts and online coursework?

  23. Ronald Sieber says:

    I am definitely interested in this line of work! I have spent most of my life, it seems, on a campus, in a course, writing a research report, or studying for a test.

    The university scene is somewhat analogous to a factory, but a bit more random, with all sorts of multivariate outcomes (i.e. people doing this or that to get or not get what they attended university for).

    Please answer this question in your discussion: what are the steps in getting started here? Inquiring minds want to know!

  24. Martine says:

    Where would I go to find these types of assignments? I’ve got some experience writing and researching in the History field, but no experience looking for that type of work.

    Would I usually pitch an idea for a supplement? And if so, is there anything in particular they’re looking for that I should emulate in my query?

    • John Soares says:

      Martine, you can get reach the supplements editors by contacting the company’s book reps and asking the reps to forward your interest and qualifications to the editors. And some textbook publishers have the editor names and e-mail addresses right on the website.

      You don’t need to propose supplements to the editors. There are a few main types of supplements (mentioned in my post above) and the editors go looking for writers like you to either create one whole for a new textbook or to update an existing one when a new edition of the textbook comes out.
      John Soares recently posted…8 Ways to Increase the Joy of WritingMy Profile

      • Yeah, good luck with that. I’ve tried repeatedly to contact editors directly–even at publishing houses with which I had previous experience. In most cases, I never heard back from them at all, and not once did I actually get an offer of work. Seems like if they haven’t worked with you before, they have no interest in what you have to offer. I’m not sure how they ever find *new* writers, but a writer who contacts them directly gets filed directly in the trash.

        • Carol Tice says:

          Amy, I know John is on a long trip right now…but there’s a real art to writing pitch letters. We do a review forum in Freelance Wriers Den, and rarely find writers know how to nail this form.

          They get new writers, so somebody must be finding a productive way to connect with course publishers, right?

  25. Christina says:

    OOh, this sounds like it’s right up my alley. I actually like that it’s somewhat seasonal, since I have other projects I want to work on. I can’t think of any specific questions right now, but will probably just buy your book as soon as I get paid for my next assignment. (So far, my freelance writing career has done nothing for me except to finance a rather extensive book habit!)
    Christina recently posted…The Great Disappearing DateMy Profile

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