How to Make a Million Dollars

I don’t know whether to laugh out loud or rage loudly when someone–usually my dad or daughter, who share political views–parrots the far right Glen Beck propaganda that teachers make millions of dollars over our lifetimes and, with the underhanded workings of powerful teacher unions, have more millions of benefits.

If only teachers’ egregious salaries could be reigned in, perhaps we would turn our hearts and minds to educating the country’s rosy-cheeked young. Greedy teachers would then no longer be the ruination of the economy. My daughter actually said to me that Big Education was as bad as Big Oil. But I could hardly hear her over the roar of the engine of my private jet.

I am a professor–a poor one. Not all of us are created equal. Salary is often based on your discipline. The more “marketable” you would be in the real world, the higher your salary at a university. For example, since presumably a marketing major in the corporate world would make significantly more than an education major, business profs make more than I do. Etc. Also, professors often obtain grants to fund projects and supplement income. Problem is, I don’t research anything that could get funded. I’m a theorist. The public generally feels there is enough theory floating around already. I have colleagues who are paid during the summer to transcribe recordings of student teachers talking about their experiences. Or comparing whether students should practice for 10 weeks or 30 weeks before getting certified to teach. Not that these questions are not important. They are. But so also is social commentary about how culture and politics interact and interrelate to schools and schooling. It’s just that nobody throws any money at that one. 

In one of this week’s USA Today’s Life sections, there was a feature story about a woman from Minnesota who works in a nursing home, lives with her mother, and has just signed a 2 million dollar contract with St. Martin’s Press for her e-books. I’m just recalling general details here, but I do recall that she primarily writes about trolls. I believe she also wrote a vampire novel. She has sold her e-books for an average of 99 cents each, and has made a couple of million in sales. That means, yes I paused to think about it, that two million people bought an e-book about trolls. 

This woman has a web site and blogs about what she’s writing, and has her e-books for sale there. Her sales have been so significant, that she began attracting the attention of publishers–publishers who had sent her rejection letters over the last few years. It is really, really hard to get a book published in the conventional way. Now, though, the companies are competing for her work. Although, their opinion of its quality is still about the same. One representative from St. Martin’s said that although they were thrilled to print and promote her troll work, they believed she could benefit from some MFA classes with the Iowa Writing Project. 

The following is from a conversation between me and a friend of mine when I was telling her about this story: 
Me: She writes about trolls. This is a very niche market to a very limited group of people. People who like to read about trolls. These people are looking for her and her work. Nobody is looking for me. 
My friend: Let’s keep in mind the fact that you haven’t actually written anything…

I have watched Hoda and Kathie Lee all week, and all week they have had a series called “New Year, New You.” Day after day, experts talk about setting and achieving goals. Mainly they suggest you identify your goal and name it, the idea being if you can name it you can do it. This is different from making a new year’s resolution. A resolution made in early January is little more than a public acknowledgement of something you are in need of improving. It’s like what Mary Poppins calls a “pie crust promise: easily made, easily broken.” Goals like I–and Hoda and Kathie Lee’s experts are talking about–are different. They involve more than taking off 20 pounds or adding fiber to your diet. And, it’s ok if you backslide on them, they are still there, and do-able, and you know your life will be better in big ways if you just work toward them. 

I’ve been a poor professor for seven years. I have taught 20 different classes, volunteered for committees, been to countless meetings, wrote a book, and got tenure. I will have lived half a century in a couple of years. And after 30 or so years, I have figured out what I want to do. I want to make my living “by the pen,” as Anne Hathaway said as her best British accent in Becoming Jane. And while I may never earn a dime, there are many, many meanings to “making a living.” And I will most likely never write about trolls.
More on this later.


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