How Do You Make Money In Genealogy?

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

Some readers of GeneaBloggers may not know the story of my journey to this point as a professional genealogist so I’ll lay it out in quick fashion – sort of like an elevator speech. Creative thinker, 25 years as trainer/project manager in Information Technology, gets laid off during Great Recession, repurposes self in genealogy field, works at a variety of endeavors to make a buck. And is having the time of his life.

And here are the details of what I am doing while having the time of my life.

You Can’t Sell Ideas

What I seem to produce the most lately is ideas and concepts. Ideas for new genealogy services or methods of delivering those services. Taking a concept like a genealogy conference and morphing it with other concepts and creating a new concept.

The downside is that while I am very prolific in terms of generating ideas (and I keep an “idea parking lot” file open on my desktop at all times to capture ideas), it is tough to sell ideas.

It takes time, effort, resources and money to successfully translate those ideas into actual products and services.  This is what I call projects: capturing ideas, determining their feasibility, and translating them into actual “stuff.”

My Current Projects

Here is a list of my current projects and an estimation of what percentage of income each brings me in a given month:

  • Writing: I enjoy writing quite a bit and would do more if only I had time. Currently write for Family Tree Magazine as well as Archives.com for which I get paid per article depending upon the length and topic. I also have produced my own self-published works including Approaching the Lectern: How to Become a Genealogy Speaker at Lulu.com. My income is roughly $300 a month from writing but my goal for 2011 is to increase this with more self-published titles. I am finding that small, low priced “minis” as I call them do quite well on the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook. I also write for many genealogical societies and organizations for their newsletters, quarterlies and journals for which I receive no compensation but I do get exposure and publicity. Plus I am giving back to my community.
  • Lectures – Live: Another one of my favorite things since I do have many years as a technical trainer, working mostly with older adults. I am frequently asked to speak at regular meetings of genealogical societies here in the Chicagoland area for which I receive an honorarium and travel expenses. My income is approximately $200 a month for live speaking.
  • Lectures – Virtual: Webinars provide a great service to the genealogy community and industry and I think with rising gasoline prices and the globalization of genealogy, they will only become more popular. Right now my webinars work on the “freemium” or “loss leader” concept whereby the webinar itself is free but if you want the recording or the syllabus, there is a charge. In terms of speaking fees for webinars, my income is about $300 a month right now.
  • Royalties: I receive royalty payments each month for my recorded webinars amounting to 15% of the sales price. I have been blessed in that these CDs seem to be popular and the more webinars I do, the more CDs are recorded and the bigger the royalty check. Right now  I am making about $400 a month in royalty income and I hope to see that increase to over $1000 a month by year’s end.
  • Merchandise: Last year I started a store for GeneaBloggers on Zazzle with some fun genealogy items and logo wear. My income from these items, for which I get 10-25% of the sales price depending on the item is about $30 a month.
  • Consulting – Social Media: I’ve become an expert at self-promotion in social media (to the point that I sometimes feel like a used car salesman on one of those late night television commercials) and others either want to learn my techniques, have me set up their social media presence, or actually hire me as a social media agent (SMA). I am currently handling social media for several genealogy vendors and individuals and the income is roughly $100 a month. I am hoping to increase this income by the end of the year as I pitch my services to more venues.
  • Consulting – Website Administration: Relying on my tech skills, several genealogy societies and individual genealogists have retained me to do minor updates to their websites and to handle items such as domain renewals, hosting services etc. This income is roughly $100 a month.
  • Consulting – Market Analysis: This is an area that I enjoy but it takes quite a bit of time and knowledge to gather information and coalesce it into a format for use by clients. I currently do not have any income related to this type of consulting but last year I was able to bring in about $13,000 by charging $125 an hour for this service which I’ve been told is actually below market rate. I am contemplating ramping up this service and perhaps hosting a quarterly or semi-annual analyst call along with a newsletter on trends and demographics in the genealogy industry.

Net Results

So for all my projects, I pull in a little over $1,100 a month. Keep in mind the following, however:

  • I live in an urban area and $1,100 doesn’t even cover half of my mortgage payment. I realize this is a choice and I’d do much better in a different location but for now due to family obligations (and the real estate market), I have to stay put.
  • I work from 8am until 11pm at a minimum seven days a week.  Even when I am on the road or on vacation I am online, connected and working. I pride myself on customer service after having worked years on a help desk which is the hind end of the technology business.
  • Expenses.  I’ve got’em.  Believe me. Website hosting services, subscriptions to genealogy research sites.  Accounting software. Computer equipment. And then there are taxes being self-employed.  My rule is that you really only make half of what you charge as a consultant or being self-employed.
  • Volunteer work also takes up about 40 hours of my time between ISGS and FGS right now as well as other smaller endeavors.  Sometimes I feel I need to cut back but I really enjoy the people I work with, I feel very much appreciated and these opportunities offer me unique insights into the genealogy industry.

Future Projects

Hey! Did you really think I would publish a list of my future projects? Listen, my mother didn’t raise any stupid children.  Just two ugly ones and they’re still at home.  As transparent as I may want to be, and as much as I think that the genealogy industry is much “nicer” than most in terms of how we treat each other, I’m not stupid.

There is competition. There are industry folks always poking around. I know from the stats on this blog and my other sites who checks in and how often. It would be plain silly for me to reveal any of my plans to translate ideas into actual “stuff.”

Conclusion

So there you have it.  A look at the glamorous working life of an up-and-coming professional genealogist.  While I’m not expecting anyone else to be as transparent (and some probably think I am crazy) I would appreciate knowing what others are doing, their successes and their failures.

I truly believe I am blessed right now in that I am working in a field I love, with some of the best people on G-d’s good earth, and at an exciting time in the genealogy industry. Do I work hard? You betcha! Can it be a struggle at times? You know it! Do I have self-doubts every now and then as to what I am doing and where this crazy journey is going? Of course, anyone would.

So what helps me succeed, what is the formula to my “success” if you want to call it that? Every day I call upon the collective wisdom and experience of my ancestors and by following their examples and knowing their stories, I make no small plans, I harbor no small ideas. They didn’t.

©2011, copyright Thomas MacEntee

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38 thoughts on “How Do You Make Money In Genealogy?

  1. Thomas –

    You rock my socks off!

    Thank you so much for giving us a glimpse into what it is like as a professional genealogist. I have to be honest, you would only be able to pay rent in a small one bedroom apartment in Los Angeles on $1100/month (or you could pay cheaper but then you’d have to wear a bullet proof vest any time you stepped out your door). My last apartment was $1200/month for a one bedroom (which included water, gas, and trash), which is why I couldn’t keep it for long after my mom passed away.

    I’d be curious to know what others make – I know talking about how much a person earns is taboo. But I’d just like to have an idea of whether or not a person could really make a living (and not starve to death).

  2. Thank you for an honest look at what it takes to earn an income in genealogy. My income sources aren’t as varied as yours, but the bottom line isn’t radically different.

    There is no question that I love genealogy and I love every hour I put into it. Lately, though, I’ve been questioning why much of my time is pro bono society work. You put time into FGS. I put time into the BCG Ed Fund, and the Massachusetts Genealogical Council. These are significant amounts of time.

    Should we start to look at whether our society time should be recompensed? Should we limit our society pro bono time in order to increase our billable time? Where should we draw this line?

  3. O_o Wow, that’s quite a lot you’re doing!

    I made around $100-200 a month while Expert Connect was going on. This has been reduced to $0 in March and April. Given that it was my only source of income, I am going to have to figure out something until I can get a full-time or part-time regular paycheck position.

    I do need to start thinking out side of my little box and swallow my doubts so that I can move forward. If anything, trying to write for the blog is giving me some practice in writing. I at least hope that what I’m writing is worth reading! I published a small article in Ancestry Magazine before it stopped publishing. I perhaps need to look into writing a query for Family Tree Magazine.

    Being that I’m living with my parents, I’d be happy enough to get $100 a month to cover my Ancestry subscription and miscellaneous expenses.

    I don’t think I’ll ever be expert enough to do much formal speaking though.

  4. Thanks Elyse. I’m waiting for someone to ask if I am independently wealthy in terms of how can I afford to do this. The truth is that I’ve been able to sock away some money, both savings and 401k and I have some rental properties that bring in some income. Also, the other half covers my expenses when I am in a down cycle. I could not do this without any of these other income streams right now but things are picking up and I believe that I will be in the positive each month by the end of the year.

  5. Great post! Thank you for being transparent. This is one of the first articles I’ve read, outside of “Professional Genealogy,” to even broach the subject. It gives me some ideas how I might be able to supplement my income with some genealogy-related ventures. Because right now I’m spending lots of time, but making no money.

    And I can cross one idea off the list:
    Open a chain of retail stores selling genealogy-related designer clothing.

  6. Thanks for sharing all that, Thomas! Such great ideas, which means the ones still simmerin’ on the stove are FAN-tabulous!

    Me? I’m just gonna follow my dad & Big Paw Paw down the professional path. Their ingenuity, grit, & instinct. They seemed to plug along just fine. Well, Big Paw Paw? Professionally.

    ~C

  7. I’m shocked at the numbers for the social media work. I know of three different people who do this (full-time, but still) for companies (one NFP, the other for-profit). Their full-time salaries range from $42-55K (and these are in Milwaukee, where salaries are lower). The hourly rate, then, ranges from $20.19 to $26.44.

    When my blog was targeted at job hunters, I made about $75/month from Amazon affiliate sales. Now it’s $5-10/month, even though my traffic is at about the same level (and most of that $5-10/month is actually from job seekers who are reading those old blog posts about job hunting, and then clicking on affiliate links at the bottom and buying stuff on Amazon). The job-hunting audience draws from the larger internet population, so there’s a higher degree of understanding of why using affiliate links for blogs you like is important, I think (and also, HR bloggers routinely used each other’s links; that was kind of an expectation within the community). I never had any negative comments about ads or affilate links until I switched to genealogy topics.

    My hosting costs $150/year, and I also sometimes use stock photos (another $75/year or so), so the blog is not profitable.

    The rest of my income comes primarily from content mill writing, at $15/article (and most articles are around 500 words). The topics aren’t related to genealogy. I do occasionally still do HR-related stuff too. From what I’m seeing in this discussion, maybe I should just stick to that.

  8. Kerry

    My rate right now for SMA (social media agent) work is $35 an hour which I think is fair. It is more a matter of not enough clients right now and the figure I stated was what I’ve made so far in 2011 averaged over the year. I usually charge a 5 hour minimum to set up a social media presence (Facebook and Twitter and social bookmarking) and then each “item” is $35 since it requires about an hour to post the item, track it and moderate the conversation involved, if any.

  9. Thanks for sharing. This series has been very informative to me and has my brain spinning!

  10. Another clarification: why didn’t I include affiliate income? Well, now that Illinois collects sales tax on Internet purchases, Amazon has pulled its affiliate program here in Illinois. That was my major program for affiliate income and it has dried up as of April 15, 2011.

  11. Wow, transparency. I love it. The big insurance and oil companies could learn a thing or two from you, Thomas. Thank you for sharing. It is good information for those of us just starting out. Scrappy Gen

  12. Thank you, Thomas, for tackling this “taboo” subject with such honesty, tact and clarity.
    For those of us struggling to figure out how to make a living doing this thing we love, it’s helpful to see a successful real-life example!

  13. All I can say is wow Thomas. Thanks for sharing that information. I think that some people probably imagined that you were raking it in. I like the idea of free webinars to hook people and then sell ancillary products, but the webinars are too good for that. Even a nominal fee to help defray some of the expenses would be better than footing the bill all by yourself. I was most surprised at the small amount you receive in speaker’s fees. Dude – you rock! You should be getting more than that!

  14. Thomas- I’ve always been impressed with your gift to share information courteously and your willingness to do so. Thank you. In response to knowing what others are doing, I found that I’ve spent thousands of hours designing my website and concept, yet have needed better systems and structure in place to be able to move forward in a more profitable way.

    I’ve been listening to Heather Madder’s teleseminar trainings on product creation and marketing (http://www.HeatherMadder.com/sevensecrets). I am currently taking an online class from her that teaches me how to create “packages” of my own information to be offered at several different price points. Since my efforts online have to do with using genealogy to help create positive generational change, I’m facing the challenge of offering this “concept” as the main emphasis in my business as well as offering products and services.

    I have found Heather to be a great resource for entrepreneurs, like myself—especially in the area of information marketing. I’ve watched her grow her business from making about $50.00 a month to making about $120,000 last year. I find her to be unique since she helps people overcome their limiting beliefs that block progress as well as offering systems to help their efforts online become profitable
    .
    By the way, Thomas, I loved your last comments that said, “So what helps me succeed, what is the formula to my “success” if you want to call it that? Every day I call upon the collective wisdom and experience of my ancestors and by following their examples and knowing their stories, I make no small plans, I harbor no small ideas. They didn’t.” I’m all about gleaning wisdom from the past to help create positive change in the present, so I get jazzed any time I hear someone actually say anything about how their ancestors influence still helps them today!

    Well, that’s my “two cents”. Hope it helps someone.
    Family Tree Gal, Carolyn

  15. Thomas yet again you keep us moving forward. Thank you for your honesty. You hard the hardest working individual in genealogy! I also want to thank everyone who has been adding their comments and discussing their income revenues both here and on facebook. What this conversation has done for me has encouraged me to look outside of the box if I want to move forward in this industry. It is really the kind of honest candor we needed.

  16. Thank you so much for sharing this. This helps me see other way I can earn a little with my genealogy. Especially with writing, which I love to do. I did not even know that it was possible to earn much from writing genealogy articles. The ones I knew about seemed to want articles for free, which is great for exposure I guess.

    With my background in manufacturing as a Continuous Improvement Cordinator and my previous sales background I think I should be able to achieve some of the same goals. So again, thank you very much for sharing the potential income I may be able to tap into!!!!

  17. Tom will know that I mean this with all due respect. These are good ideas for working “around” genealogy when “doing genealogy” doesn’t produce enough income.

  18. Thomas, I am most impressed by your sharing of your income resources. It’s giving me more food for thought as I know I want to join the ranks of professional genealogists. It’s a goal I’ve had for a while. While I probably won’t/can’t do as much as you have… there are still some avenues of income I will pursue. I have done a lot as a volunteer, so that helps. I need to increase my writing presence and attend a seminar or two. And get certified.
    Thank you for being open and honest!

  19. What a great post, with such honesty. You are such a hard worker – hopefully, like you say, you can be in the positive this year. You certainly deserve it.

  20. I am wondering if it’s possible to be TOO diversified. I am in awe of the amount of time you put in to your many projects, and I guess you have to try them all out and see which ones will ‘fly’. I know that if I spread myself too thinly I can’t give any one of my projects the attention it deserves, and so I have to decide which ones are more profitable, and enjoyable, for me.

    Thank you so much for sharing your life with us Thomas!

  21. Well there’s no way that I will discuss my income in such detail the way that you just did.

    But the point is definitely made. Until you have a wide client base on standby, diversity in services offered is the name of the game. Eventually one will bring more money than the others, and this will be the one that eventually uses more time than the others.

    Next thing you know, you will find yourself in a niche!

  22. Thomas, thanks so much for sharing this! The amount of time you’re investing is a revelation in itself. Can’t wait to see what those future projects bring!

  23. A few more specialties or supplements? Not necessarily for you, but in general. Heir searching (forensic genealogy). Travel arranger and tour guide to ancestral locations. Photographs of ancestral homes, communities, cemeteries, etc. Analysis of old photographs. Production of family history books for clients.

  24. Thomas,
    Thanks for sharing this with us! It helps me to see what is available and what I would have to do if I did decide to try to do this for money!
    Every little bit of wisdom helps! :-)

  25. Thanks for sharing Thomas. This is an interesting series! Fortunately you have the background that allows you to be versatile in what you are able to do in an effort to increase your income. That is good! Some of what you say confirms what I have told my own family; that you cannot make a living hiring out to do genealogy. As you know doing genealogy for others who want to hire us requires a good deal of our time to do the research, etc. My experience is that most people who contacted me do not want to pay what it takes to get the job done even when all I was asking was $15 an hour plus photocopying and travel. I gave that up as it was not worth the agita with the expectations of people way beyond reasonable, way beyond what the documents often tell and who didn’t really want to pay for the work anyhow. Now I just do it for free if I have the resources to help.. I love speaking so I count on that to supplement our income but you likely know that can be feast or famine. Now I hope to try get into webinars to see how that goes. It is time to incorporate some technology into what I do.

  26. Awesome food for thought, Thomas! You are definitely worth more than you are making!

    Love the comments “I make no small plans.” Wise, very wise. Most of us make our plans too small, and throw too small a loop at our hopes and dreams!

  27. Thomas, you’re my hero! I’ve NEVER seen ANYONE lay out their income, especially on the net, like you have! BRAVO!

    It proves how passionate you are about what you do and your willingness to help others.

  28. Thomas, Once again a great post filled with the honesty and transparency you are known for. It certainly helps me understand why I love my ‘day job.’

  29. Interesting post advising heir searching for those new to professional genealogy. IMHO, forensic genealogy definitely requires more skills and experience than most newcomers to the field possess. It’s a big leap for someone who has only completed a few client assignments to doing work that involves laws, lawyers, and courts.

  30. Thomas,

    Thank you for being so open and honest. Your examples point to the things I’m doing right and the things I’m doing wrong.

    It takes courage for you to divulge your income as you did. As one who purchased your e-book, I feel that my few ducats definitely went to the right, deserving person.

    Peace & Blessings,
    “Guided by the Ancestors”

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