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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

32 thoughts on “Genealogy – What Do You Mean It Isn’t Free? A 2012 Update

  1. As long as we have no definitions for our profession and its specialties, no standards for professional memberships, we’ll always be undervalued. People who race to the bottom of the fee chart in an effort to get any business they can hurt the entire profession and themselves. “Professionals” advertising research services at a penny a minute, $5 an hour, 5 hours for $20, etc. do nothing to enhance the profession. I believe you underestimated the timing, Thomas. I believe it will take much longer than two years…

  2. Wow. $150. And not wow that is a lot, but wow that is nothing when you think about what it takes to pull a lecture together. pays me as an employee to do lectures, so it’s all wash for me. But it takes me a good 20 to 40 hours to put a lecture together depending on the topic. And that does not include the time it takes just to acquire knowledge.

    So lets say 30 hours. $150. That’s $5 an hour just to get ready. You are totally underpaid and for this. And yes, I know that genealogy conferences and individual gatherings have a hard time digging up what would be a reasonable amount of cash.

    And we all have to start somewhere and build our reputations. (You’ve done that 🙂 )

    There is a real problem in our space. Everyone does want it all for free. Same thing with online sites that charge subscriptions.

    We have to change perceptions and increase understanding of why things cost money in our industry.

    Fascinating article. I really look forward to reading the comments on this one.

  3. I struggle with this, Tom. I don’t think your ideas of valuation apply conveniently across the board of genealogical services.

    Do I think the speakers are worth every dollar I pay? Absolutely. I’ve kicked organizations extra money when they have speakers I like or topics I want to learn about because I want to reward them for reaching out and paying people what they are worth. And to be honest, that $150 probably barely makes you break even – I’m guessing most people put ten or more hours into a one hour or less presentation (and probably heavily on the “and more”) – and a detailed, high level, specialty presentation could take as many as fifty hours! (at least how it is with me, you might be Speedy Gonzalez at gathering sources, practicing, and formatting).

    But…I still have trouble with the costs associated with some tasks. I reached out to a couple professionals this year with a mind to see if they could help me solve a particularly difficult problem ( I am not going to name names because that would be pointless since I’ve seen the same example multiple times). I expected to see estimates of a few hundred dollars, with a few potential sources to check, and obviously some expenses to cover (dude, genealogists have to buy gas and copies too…) – and I worded this all in a carefully crafted proposal, giving all details, what I had searched, and where I had already been. What came back to me, however, caused me to walk away from all deals.
    1. The responses took over two weeks to get to me. Yes, I know we are not all fully paid to genealogy, but it would have been nice to get an email with “thanks for looking me up, give me a week and I’ll have a quote to you.”
    2. The responses listed one simple task on the quote…of which I had already explained to them that I had done. So they all listed the same one hour task “check X microfilm”.
    Which said to me that they didn’t bother to read my carefully worded proposal that said what I had already done, and didn’t value me as a client.
    3. They came back with what I considered to be outrageous. $60-$120 for one hour of checking microfilm? The one I had already told them I had checked thoroughly myself?

    Genealogical services will always be undervalued if the people that deliver them don’t act as if they are providing a professional service and respect their customers. Sometimes the prices are only a symptom, not the cause.

  4. Thanks Anne and Concetta

    What I should add is this: it may take me 30-40 hours to create a one hour presentation but I will then repeat that presentations sometimes as much as 10 times or more in a year. That is where it begins to pay off.

    Some presentations will require constant updating, but after the initial presentation is done, the money is made in repeating the presentation at different venues and audiences.

    In addition, for some webinars where I’ve created the presentation, I will earn a royalty on the recording as well as a speaker’s fee.

    But there are always those “stinkers” that you spend lots of time on and maybe only deliver once or twice . . .

  5. Thanks Dee Dee and I totally agree. We need to “elevate” many aspects of our profession. As for timing . . . I am always the optimist . . . but I believe you are right, it may take more time than just two years . . .

  6. I also reuse my lectures and present them at multiple venues. But rewrite every year from scratch and put a good 10 to 20 hours into revamping from I learned in presenting.

    $150 boggles the mind. At least mine anyway.

  7. I appreciate all you have done. Thank you.

    I came from a different industry than you did. I was a classroom teacher — never had anyone “throw money at me” and if you listen to the news, folks aren’t necessarily treating their teachers very well these days.

    In my past life, I used to speak at national and regional mathematics teacher conferences. I would spend hours (days) in prep and have well-made overheads, hand outs (frequently many pages long) and hands-on materials with me to use for the workshop activities.

    Teachers offer most of the workshops at many math teacher conferences. Local conferences “thank” you by giving you free registration. NCTM gives you a small discount in registration, but no pay or any reimbursement for the airfare, hotel, prep time, etc.

    Needless to say, I was pleased to hear that when I attended a national genealogy conference that the speakers were paid. Such a unique idea. I felt like the genealogy “industry” was at least valuing its presenters in a way that the teaching “industry” didn’t.

  8. It was interesting to see how much of this applies to my chosen profession – musician. We are constantly undervalued in terms of dollars. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had this conversation:
    “So what do you do?”
    “I’m a musician.”
    “OK but what’s day job?”
    At least with us we have a union, professional orchestras hold auditions and we can create recordings of our work so clients can judge for themselves. With genealogy anyone can claim the title of genealogist and hang out a shingle. I’ve seen this just this past month. Someone who just started doing genealogy less than a year ago decided they wanted to start a gen business last month. Granted some people soak up information and learn very quickly. This is not one of those people. Unfortunately without any oversight genealogy is an easy way to scam people out of money.
    I think the best way to make money at genealogy is through education. Thom, Lisa Louise, Anne, and others are great at this. Teach people how to research for themselves, that’s the fun part after all, and teach them what to look for if/when they need to hire a professional.

  9. Interesting post. I, like most everyone else, enjoy getting things at little or no cost. Webinars are a great asset and I try to view as many as I can. Will I ever pay for a webinar? If the speaker had built the reputation of delivering quality content. Yes, Thomas, you rank up there. Have I paid for a subscription database? Yes, Ancestry is first on my list. Have I attended conferences? Yes I wish I had the funds and travel time to attend more. I have felt in each case I have gotten good value for my money.

    Have I paid outrageous vital records fees? $20 for a death certificate in Wisconsin? Yes, I do think that a little steep although I paid it for direct line ancestors. NARA records fees on the other hand are way out of my reach.

    Now, on the other side of the coin and having been a presenter for local organizations, I do know the amount of work that goes into a presentation. Would love to say I can command $150. for a presentation but I am not there, yet. Although I do spend the same if not more time in putting one together.

    I have also been on the organizational end of finding programs for a genealogy club and of course money is always a concern. Dues do not begin to cover all the costs of a club. We are grateful for those generous souls that will give genealogists a break.

    Hobbies are expensive. I like to say my equine hobby is my cigarette money and drinking money. My genealogy hobby is running a close second. I have long come to realize that genealogy is not totally free. I may not be able to afford some of the things that I would like for my hobby, but if it is a priority to me, I save. I will never be able to travel to all the repositories to look up records where my ancestors lived. Thankfully, Ancestry and other websites have made that so it is no longer necessary. I will never be able to afford the money and travel to go to all the genealogy conferences I want, (and yes, I do budget a fair amount for vendors at conferences). Thankfully webinars allow me to get quality education from my own home.

    I need to budget my hobby dollars. I do not expect everything for free. I constantly tell my students not to expect all genealogy for free. I do not mind paying fair prices for a good value.

  10. Gotta agree with all of the above!

    Great comments, experience and input.
    As a family researcher – whether free or paid/commercial – we have paid fees/subscriptions to access various sites, societies for the information and that would also include vital records, copies, postage..ect – not to mention time to find the documents/research. (and time – as a business or away from family).
    Our time is money!
    If someone does not like the fees, then they need to try this themselves….especially outside their area of knowledge or locality (eg.state, country, ethnic group).

    See how far they can obtain free and perhaps then will appreciate the hourly costs for such research.

    I/we have done our research, have had some free assistance – and has taken a number of years to
    get to the point we are today. Must admit do enjoy the hunt at the court house and research – we have done. – more rewarding.

    Also think sometimes it has to do with the “lastest fashion”
    for some – regarding what is out there for the
    and who in the family can get the info 1st to be the celebrity – at times.

  11. Thanks for this article, Thomas! Appreciate all that you do for our geneablogging world as well as what you do to get ready for conferences, etc. You rock! And you are worth every penny!

  12. When formulating my initial business plan, I dug up salary survey data for Washington, DC (pubiished in 2010 by ERI Economic Research Institute, Inc.,variance from actual values reported is +/- 2%) that stated the average salary for a genealogist was $59,445 while the overall average salary (comapring Web Cotnent Administrators, Administrative Assitants, Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, Host/Hostess in Restaturant, and Project Manager, etc.) was $60,000. Well we were higher than Administratvie Assistants but a Web Content Administrator averaged $63,693. I don’t believe this has changed very much.

  13. Gotta agree with you Thomas, we all need to be fairly compensated. I gave up knocking on the door to lecture. I do lecture locally and of course I give back what feels like quite a bit to my local community. Trying to live that abundant lifestyle mantra! I would like to see us all raise our own bar of expectation and expect a higher pay rate per hour. My education hasn’t been free and my mortgage payment still comes due on the first of the month! I’m sorry to say I think it’s going to take longer than 2 years, I’d be hopeful for 5.

  14. Dynamite post, Thomas. I want to comment that people complain to me about the cost of Ancestry and other sites and I am dumbfounded. I have found so many records there, any one of which is worth the “price of admission.” And how do those things magically appear? With the universal green-back magic wand, of course. Staff salaries, costs to obtain the records and rights to them, indexing costs (even if they are off shore), not to mention servers, back up servers, technicians, etc. Yeah, I’m just fine with paying for what I get ( and ok with not paying what it is REALLY worth).

  15. Concetta,

    Since I do not know you or your skill level, please do not take the following comment adversely. I am only stating this to try to explain the responses that you received from professional genealogists. (And for everyone else, I was not one of the genealogists that Concetta contacted.)

    Part of my contract states that a client must provide all relevant previous research, including original records. I charge to review these records, and in nearly every case I find new evidence in the information provided.

    Skilled professional genealogists should have the knowledge to discover what records *mean* as opposed to what those records *say*. When a potential client says that they have *looked at* a document, this does not mean that they have *seen* all of the evidence that document holds. A skilled professional should be able to pull far more out of that same document than his or her client.

    This is how we earn the money we charge, in my opinion.

    I cannot speak for the genealogists that you contacted. I only speak for myself. But this is what I do, and I have never (to my knowledge) had an unsatisfied client.

  16. Fantastic post Thomas!

    Its really true and you speak for many people who are in the same situation in this industry.

  17. On the other hand, some of us entertain the illusion that if we speak at a seniors program before sixty people, one or two will hire us to do proper work. So giving a free cookie-cutter talk is like advertising.

  18. Let’s take the example of a certified birth certificate from a town or county clerk. You, as a genealogist (hobbyist or professional), want it. You have a choice. Pay the $20 and get it or don’t pay the $20 and don’t get it. Simple as that. Regardless of how much you complain if you don’t pay the clerk won’t give it to you.

    Everyone in the genealogy industry needs to have more of this kind of attitude. In the past year I have stopped discounting or negotiating the price of my services. I have become very comfortable saying “NO.” It’s my time and I value what I do. I like to work with and for other people who value it too.

  19. @Michael Hait,

    I agree, what you said eloquently and professionally makes sense.

    Part of my trouble with them is, had they said something akin to what you did so eloquently, I would have had zero problems with handing over all of my records and letting them look through them to their hearts content. Instead, their responses were short and said just what I listed, that they wanted to look at this one microfilm. Had the message been more professional, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it. I’m guessing I ran into a few people that Loretta Gillespie mentioned – folks that are new to the business, did the minimum amount of marketing and research to get onto the local gen society’s recommendation list, and that’s it.

    I’m not afraid to admit I need help, or that I think my look is comprehensive. But there’s a big difference between sending a potential client with no explanation a bill for $60 and sending a potential client an email with how you’d like to re-review the sources for potential new finds, and how as a professional, you can spot things that an amateur can’t, and then attaching the bill.

  20. I love teaching and sharing my knowledge. Everyday I am researching on a variety of websites. My favorite saying is, “Free is the best price, so start there.” Then one must decide by priority what they can afford from there. I am grateful for the Internet and where it has gone for genealogists in the past ten years. What we have available today was not even imagined ten years ago. Thank you Thomas for this post on resources and being professional in what we do as genealogists.

  21. There is a public misperception about what being a professional genealogist involves. I retired recently and told my family that I have decided to study to become a professional genealogist. I have been taking classes, reading, watching webinars (yes, lots of free ones!), researching, and volunteering at the local FHC for about a year now, and I think that with another year of full-time study I’ll be ready to take paying clients. My relatives are perplexed at what’s taking me so long: “What do you need to know to be a genealogist?” they wonder. Little old ladies have been doing it for decades. Surely if a little old lady can be a genealogist, anyone can. Friends can be even more condescending: genealogy is HOBBY, it isn’t a proper profession. And frankly, many hobbyist genealogists are the worst: Why would anyone ever need to hire a professional genealogist when all you have to do is look up your family tree on and its all there!

    The client base of people who understand that genealogy is a branch of history with all the concomitant demands for education and expertise is small. We need to educate the general public to increase their perception about what good genealogical research means, why good research is valuable, and why the services of a good professional genealogist (whether hired to conduct research or to provide training) is worthwhile. It’s a case of supply and demand: we need a critical consumer base that recognizes the value of professional genealogical research, and is willing to pay for it.

    A few months ago, my local genealogical society invited a speaker from a DNA testing lab to make a presentation to our group. The speaker didn’t know the difference between autosomal DNA testing and Y-DNA testing, but then, neither did most of the audience and the presentation was free (free advertising for the company, really) and everyone was very happy.


  22. Kay
    you sound like you have some of the same folks around you that I do. I”m taking courses, listening to webinars, blogging, and working with others (my “co-conspirators” who are trying to break down some of our brick walls). Folks are surprised that there are courses to take [what is there to learn about census?]
    I’m not putting myself out as a paid genealogist at this point, but I do tackle my friend’s challenges and work with others in addition to my own.

  23. This is an issue that I feel somewhat strongly about. I hope I’m not coming across as overly strident in my own defense, but in my view, the paradigm of the paid researcher in the industry is what I call the “dusty archives” or the “purely academic” researcher. Most do it part-time and have a day job, and many hobbyists expect that type of service when looking for a professional. The part-time researchers are often associated with museums, libraries, and local genealogical societies. They charge, in my area anyway, about $20 an hour to do limited research. I think that a lot of professional genealogists see this type of researcher as their competition, and price that way. Being a full-time professional is much the same as one poster here commented about being a professional musician and being asked “what’s your day job?”.

    I would suggest that we full-time professionals are more like real estate agents. Sure, you can buy or sell a house without one, but they know their markets, their industry, and they can save you a lot of time and grief. Also important is the fact that they’re in it for profit, not to do the home buyer/seller, a free favour. For most people who don’t know the real estate market they are well worth the fees they charge.

    Likewise, my business is here so that when a hobbyist gets stuck, they can get over the hurdle. I’m here to do the research for people who want to learn more about their families, but don’t have the knowledge or the time or the inclination to do the research themselves. I’m also someone who can save them hours and hours of time because I, like a real estate agent, know my industry, the pitfalls to avoid, and what resources are available.

    Most hobbyists don’t seem to have a problem with paying a subscription fee to the big online family history services. A hobbyist could pay five years’ worth of subscription fees to find what I could find in a day or two (I’ve seen this). They also perhaps don’t recognize that these companies have in fact monetized many resources that are free to researchers in their national or provincial/state archives, local museum archives, etc. They’re in effect paying a convenience fee so they can research from their home computer. Which is fine.It’s a very workable business model.

    The big companies also monetize what amounts to free research from their subscribers. I would suggest that many of their subscribers take family trees they find on these sites completely at face value, without ever vetting the research themselves. To me that’s a tragedy. Okay, now I’m getting into the territory of the dusty archives researcher, but I’m also a trained historian and I know the value of good research and good source citations. It’s the very basis of excellence in any historical research endeavor.

    If you’re a hobbyist and want to go it alone, great, but you shouldn’t expect a full-time professional to do you a free favour. If you were selling your house, you wouldn’t go to the local realty office and ask them to list your house for free would you? This is my career. I do this for a living. I don’t feel guilty about charging a fee, and I think that my service is a quality service and well worth every penny I charge. I have nothing against the part-time researcher who does it for free or for a low fee at the local genealogical society. But we’re not competitors.

    So just call me a retail genealogist. It’s the new paradigm.

  24. After reading the original posting by Thomas MacEntee as well as those who posted their thoughts I have to say this is a great string of comments on and by the professionals. Dee Dee King has spoken my sentiments exactly. I have never publicly posted my fees or charges for that is my business and is to be discussed between my and all my clientele.
    When I purchase an airline ticket I dont ask why on earth do they charge this fee. I just buy it and board the plane for I get what I pay for.
    I am vacationing in Colorado now and what I enjoy I have to pay for so if my genealogy clientele wants to enjoy my genealogy product they must pay for it.

  25. Thomas, I had to laugh when I read the discussion about professionals wanting to review the documents clients already possess.

    I once had clients who had already booked a trip to France, planning to stay in Orleans to research their ancestors from there. But when I looked at the actual documents, I was quickly able to determine that they were actually from the island of Oleron (near La Rochelle and hundreds of miles from Orleans)! Luckily the clients were able to tack on an expensive side trip and were quite pleased with the final result.

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