Genealogy – What Do You Mean It Isn’t Free? A 2012 Update


[Editor's Note: this is the third in a week-long series of posts at GeneaBloggers entitled Genea-Opportunities - 2012 Update.]

Let’s see if the perception level has changed in 15 months since I first wrote about the expectations of the genealogy community in terms of free access to genealogy products and services.  The original post is here and please take time to read the comments since they contain great input from community members.

Where Is My Free Genealogy?

Some of the burning questions I have lately around this topic are:

  • Has this perception always existed in the genealogy community, that access to records especially, and access to other products and services should be free? Is it because we work with mostly public domain documents?
  • Have genealogy societies and other genealogists perpetuated this expectation by historically providing these items for free or at low cost? Indexing record sets and posting them on the Internet for free?  Charging minimal membership fees?

I don’t think I have an exaggerated sense of entitlement or that I “deserve” much in life. I was brought up to believe that you “get” in proportion to what you “give” (and giving more than you get is not necessarily a bad thing either).  I’ve come to absolutely detest that word – DESERVE. You hear it all the time in marketing and especially late night television commercials (and you know what I mean if you are an insomniac like me).

“Have a car? Then take out a loan against the car title and go on vacation- you deserve it!” or “Receive a large financial settlement as an annuity and want all that money now? Don’t you deserve it? Here’s how . . .”

I’ve seen this same expectation trickle down into the world of genealogy. There are a myriad of free webinars offered by vendors, genealogy societies and individuals and the first question invariably is “Where is the handout?” And then when you say that it is for members only or it is available if you purchase the recording, you can practically hear the consternation coming across the Internets.  DearMYRTLE had a great post recently entitled Applecart: Thoughts on Volunteerism that everyone should read to get an idea of the many facets of this expectation level and in which segments of the genealogy industry it is being seen.

Genealogy Services Are Undervalued And A Bargain Compared to Other Industries

When I tell my colleagues in the legal field or the information technology field what I charge for an in-person lecture or a webinar, they shake their heads. They also can’t believe how low the price point is for attending a genealogy conference or even purchasing exhibit space at such an event.

To be honest, if I were in almost any other industry, I would be back to making the six-figure income I earned up until 2008.  But I don’t want to be in those industries where, despite having money thrown at me, I was treated like crap. I won’t ever go back to working like that again (and periodically I have my Scarlett O’Hara moments where I shout out “As G_d is my witness . . .”).

The genealogy industry has historically discounted its own services, its own products and yes its own service providers to its own detriment.  I believe the intent starting out was one of pure benevolence: help others find their roots.  But we’ve had this fear of charging a fair price for our goods and services and we don’t want to be seen as shaking people down for money.  Most vendors and individuals provide a good service at a more-than-fair price.

Honor And Value My Work, Honor And Value Me

I believe that I and many other genealogy speakers, authors, researchers and providers of genealogy-related services, offer a good value in our products. And we want not only our work to be respected, but also honored by being able to receive a fair price for our services.

What I said 15 months ago still holds true and we aren’t “there” yet in my opinion:

I think that over the next two years the genealogy industry will see a shift towards true valuation of genealogy services and products by the genealogy consumer. This will come about only if we as service providers engage in an education campaign while still providing quality content. We need to hold our ground. When people try to devalue the worth of our services they devalue us and all the hard work we put into creating quality content.

I’m not longer shy in telling people what I feel my services are worth. I try to value my work realistically and attractively. It’s a free market and a free country. If you think you can do better elsewhere, then go elsewhere.

So when I tell you that I charge $150 for an in person one-hour lecture or a webinar, don’t “discount” me or talk to me like you’re talking to Kmart or Wal-mart.  Do you have any idea how much time goes into that slide presentation? Do you know how much time I spend on improving my own body of knowledge through reading, research and continuing education? Do you know I provide a minimum of four pages of quality handout material? Again, honor and value, that’s all I ask.

As I said last year, and I’ve heard another well-known genealogy speaker say this, “You pay your plumber, don’t you?”

I Don’t Live In Beverly Hills Because I Can’t Afford It

The fact is that not everything is free or even “cheap” and many products and services have a price point that the provider has worked hard to determine. A product should be reasonably priced to be attractive to the consumer yet still fall within your business model and help you pay the bills.

Some products and services seem expensive especially if you are on a limited income.  Several hundred dollars for a book to preserve your house history (or to hire someone to do this for you). Or several hundred dollars to document your family history on video. If you do your homework you’ll see that the price points are fair.  Yet right away someone is bound to criticize the product or service because it isn’t within their economic reach.

If that’s the case, either get creative (meaning make your own or do it yourself) or don’t buy it. Easy peasy, right? I don’t buy items that I can’t afford and I don’t complain about the fact that I can’t afford them.  I don’t live in Beverly Hills for a reason – I can’t afford it.  Yes it would be nice (movie stars, swimmin’ pools and all that) but I don’t turn it into a case of my somehow deserving to live in Beverly Hills or I have some sort of birth right entitlement.

So How Is That Freemium Concept Working For The Genealogy Community?

Sometimes I’m told I am the victim of my own good deeds and practices. Perhaps this is part of my self-delusion that you can make a decent living in the genealogy field. I do give a lot away. I do a lot of pro bono work. I do a lot of volunteer work.  Too much sometimes. (You’ll see just how much in tomorrow’s post . . . I’ve been tracking all my work on a project list since January 2012 and even I was shocked at what I found!).

But I do believe the freemium concept works and I am proof of it.  My first year as a genealogy speaker, I spoke for free at almost any event.  Heck, I’d even show up for the opening of an envelope if it got me noticed and helped spread the good word about genealogy.

As I did get noticed, I was able to charge a higher fee.  I garnered more and more engagements. I still do some for free, but very few and only as a donation to a non-profit society. Now after four years, my speaking schedule is booked out to 2014.

I can also speak for the fact that this freemium concept works for genealogy societies as well.  At the Illinois State Genealogical Society, along with a great Education committee chair we’ve helped develop a series of free webinars (with free handouts by the way) that actually bring several new memberships each month.  Comparing the cost of producing each webinar and the value of having a new member who is likely to renew each year, we are actually in the black when it comes to the balance sheet.


Mid-way through 2012 – which I stated would be my year of abundance – I’ve come to realize that there is still lots of work to do in terms of having my work valued and valuing the work of others in the genealogy industry.  I am seeing little steps as well as big steps in terms of improvement, despite days where I get an email or see a status update that makes me shake my head and bury it in my hands.

I am grateful every day that I get to work in an industry with some of the most intelligent, most likable, most generous, most interesting people in the world. And I get to do it out of my home, I get to travel periodically, and I get to be me and live up to my full potential.  If that’s not being blessed, than I don’t know what is.

As I’ve said before I want to make a living in genealogy, not a killing.

©2012, copyright Thomas MacEntee

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