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


[Editor's Note: this is the third in a week-long series of posts at GeneaBloggers entitled Genea-Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money).]

“Well, You Pay Your Plumber, Don’t You?” – A Parable

A few years ago I had a discussion with a well-known speaker and educator in the genealogy industry. She was approached by a genealogy society to speak at a society event. After much back and forth in terms of travel etc., the organizer stated, “Just so you know, we can’t pay you a speaker’s fee. We’re a small society.” The speaker simply said, “Well, you pay your plumber, don’t you?”

Genealogy Services – Honoring The True Value

The key words for me here are “honor” and “value” when it comes to determining what my services as a genealogist are worth. And for this post I am using the term genealogist broadly to include my services as an author, an educator and everything I do to make a living in this industry.

Value is determined not only by what I say a service is worth but also what the market is willing to bear. If I price a webinar, for instance, too high, I won’t get the attendance I need to make money or break even. If I price the same webinar too low or free, then I also can’t have that income stream to cover expenses.

Does the genealogy community really value specific services provided by genealogists? Do most consumers or potential consumers realize what goes into preparing a webinar or a book or a research report? Perhaps we should be faulted as genealogists in not making it clear to the consumer.

Take one of my webinars or presentations, for instance.  I spend about 30 hours developing both the syllabus (four page minimum) and the slides for each one.  I charge between $100 and $150 per presentation depending upon the format (live or virtual), the venue, etc. I also do give a price break to those societies in which I have an active membership.

So what does a society get for its $150 when they hire me? For a recent Facebook for Genealogists presentation that I gave:

  • A huge almost standing-room only crowd showed up. Several first timers who have a potential for becoming new society members.
  • One hour of quality genealogy education filled with slides and live demos of Facebook and how genealogists can use the application effectively.
  • A six page handout included step-by-step instructions on how to not only set up a Facebook account but also deal with privacy issues.
  • Many questions were answered both during the presentation and afterwards. In fact, I was at the meeting for almost two and a half hours.
  • Publicity on all my websites and blogs for the event and the society.

Did the society get its money’s worth? I think so and I believe the society would agree with me. Does $150 cover my expenses for that presentation? Well, not one iteration of it but if I give the presentation 10 times in a year it does.

By the way, I don’t do a presentation like this everyday.  I do perhaps two or three a month at about $150 a pop. Not a living on its own but when combined with my other efforts (which I’ll explain more about in tomorrow’s post), it is a decent segment of my income each month.

The Spending Habits of the Genealogy Demographic

I’m always amazed at the folks who say they can’t afford $19.95 for a 90 minute webinar complete with handouts yet I see them drop $200 on genealogy books at a conference. I don’t know that enough studies have been done on the spending habits of those in the genealogy community. I’d love to see a survey that not only asks what is purchased and for how much, but also asks what a fair price is for a webinar, a live presentation, a research report, etc.

Everything Is Free, Right?

This is what irks me the most.  Recently, one of the attendees at one of my free webinars emailed me, very upset that I had decided to not have a free handout but to bundle it with the sale of the webinar CD. I explained that a) the webinar was free and consisted of quality genealogy education and b) that the webinar sponsor had made the recorded version (with pause and play buttons) available for 10 days after the original presentation. The attendee had ample opportunity to takes notes and view the webinar as often as she wanted.

A syllabus or a handout is my intellectual property into which I put a lot of work. It has taken years of education and writing to achieve a style of writing that works for me and my students. And just because you are given that syllabus at a presentation doesn’t mean you can pass it around like a cold at a daycare center or post it on the Internet. It has my copyright at the very bottom and I’m very clear about what can and can’t be done with it.

I think this perception of “everything is free” has gotten out of hand and I’m not sure how it started.  Perhaps because as genealogists we deal with public domain documents so much that folks feel everything on the Internet is free. There is a dire need for education on what is free and what free really means. does use public domain documents but what you pay for is the ease of access and search mechanisms which are Ancestry’s intellectual property. The same would apply if you were to compile an index of public domain documents and sell it as a self-published author.  You’ve done the work, you’ve made it easy for the researcher to find the information, you have a right to sell the “derivative work” at a fair price.

Is the Freemium Concept the Right Concept for Genealogy?

I think the jury is still out on whether the “freemium” concept is a good thing.  I think it might raise expectations of the genealogy consumer for free everything without follow-through of purchasing the premium content such as the syllabus, the CD or the book, in the case of a webinar. But there is still a mindset that would balk at even a $4.95 price on a webinar believe it or not.

Right now monetizing your skills as a genealogist especially in an online setting via webinars, book sales etc. is relatively new to the industry believe it or not.  I think the market and what the market will bear is still being determined.


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.

And please don’t ask me to do something as a volunteer or guilt me into believing that the genealogy community has been built on volunteerism. I currently perform between 40 and 60 hours of genealogy volunteer work a week. And I know I’m not the only genealogist who is under intense pressure at home to do less volunteer work and more paid work.  Each time I mention a new project, the response is “so are you getting paid for this or not?”

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

©2011, copyright Thomas MacEntee

Print Friendly


Loading Facebook Comments ...
Loading Disqus Comments ...