23 April 2011

Making Money from Genealogy

There has been much discussion this week about 'genealogy blogs for fun or profit' and 'careers in genealogy'. Before I add my ten cents worth, let me explain my perspective. Although I am relatively new to blogging, I have been doing personal family history research since 1974 and paid research since 1986. As a medical scientist in a hospital, I was working a five-day week plus some nights, weekends and on-call. I switched to part-time employment because my parents were getting on in years and needed help. Less hospital work meant less income but more free time and flexibility, and part-time professional genealogy became an option.

I am the sort of person who reads the instruction manual before taking the new gizmo out of its packaging, so in addition to reading widely and attending many seminars, I wanted some formal training. After hearing an inspirational lecture by Elizabeth Shown Mills, I did a Graduate Diploma in Local and Applied History (University of New England, NSW). That was expensive and took four years (two subjects per year), but it was interesting, relevant and definitely worthwhile. I also taught myself to write HTML code in a text editor and create my own Web pages (the smartest move I ever made).

Genealogy Blogging for Fun or Profit

Should genealogy blogs have advertising, affiliate links etc? This was thoroughly debated in Genealogy Blogging for Fun or Profit (Thomas MacEntee) and Genea-Bodies: The New Somebodies (Joan Miller). In Beyond Genealogy, Illya defined 'information', 'research' and 'family-focussed' genealogy blogs, and said that 'Anyone who devotes significant amounts of time in their blogging efforts and produces meaningful and helpful posts that promote quality research and support the industry should... have the guilt-free opportunity to benefit financially.'

The phrase 'guilt-free' is interesting. No business survives without promotion, and no-one should feel the need to apologise for promoting their business - and yet, like many genealogy professionals, talking about fees often makes me uncomfortable. (Perhaps this week's discussion will help me to get over that!) I love helping people, and I spend quite a lot of time on genealogical activities for which I am not paid. It is not always easy to achieve the right balance between genealogy for fun and genealogy as a business.

In most of my blog posts I freely share my knowledge of family history sources, techniques etc. Occasionally I mention my own services or publications, but my blogs are more educational than promotional. They do not yet have many readers so they generate virtually no revenue from ads. For my main Web site, which shows Google ads, the situation is quite different. With a Google Adsense account I can tweak the HTML code to control which part of the page the ad server reads when it is deciding what advertisements will match the page content. I can also block ads that I feel are not appropriate for my site. This means that most ads displayed are relevant to my readers. It costs them nothing to click on an ad and get more details, and I earn about $600 per year (enough to cover the cost of my Web hosting fees and Internet connection). But, as I said, that is from my Web site, not my blogs.

What Do You Mean It Isn't Free?

I was impressed by the article You Pay Your Plumber, Don't You? (Thomas MacEntee). Many people simply do not understand what is involved in handling a research request, so I now put this on my Web site:

Fees are based on costs incurred and time spent on handling the commission. This includes the time it takes to analyse information supplied, contact you for clarification if insufficient data is provided initially, plan the research, search the records, assess results, order and collect photocopies, prepare reports, and read and respond to emails. Out-of-pocket expenses are extra (photocopies, phonecalls, certificates, photographs, postage, packaging etc). My hourly rate covers non-billable expenses such as stationery, computer hardware and software, equipment repairs, Internet access, Webpage costs, electricity, ongoing education (genealogy seminars, conferences and journals), books/fiche/CD-ROMs for my home reference library, etc.

Careers in Genealogy

For some interesting ideas see Careers in Genealogy: 'Off the Chart' Thinking (Thomas MacEntee) and How Do You Make Money in Genealogy? (Amy Coffin).

I earn money primarily from research, copying services and self-published books. The vast majority of my clients find me via my Web site, which has lots of free advice plus 53,000 names from archival sources that I have indexed. If you find a relevant name there, you can pay a 'copying service' fee and I will go to the Archives and copy the original document. (If you are determined, have lots of time and can visit the Archives in person, the source description on my Web page may be enough for you to find the document without my help.)

For speaking I usually charge a fee (unless the group is one to which I belong) and I expect to be reimbursed for all or most of my expenses (travel, accommodation etc). In Australia, Council libraries usually pay higher speaker's fees than genealogical societies. I do not give the same talk often enough for a speaker's fee to cover the time involved in preparing talks, overheads and handouts (not to mention travel time) - but in country areas people often buy my books after the talk, so that helps. In the future I hope to do more speaking, especially in rural areas and perhaps overseas. Some groups keep inviting me back, so they must think I give value for money. (I once extended a two-hour talk to four hours because the audience and I were enjoying ourselves so much, but I was a wreck afterwards!)

In Genealogy: Charting Your Own Course (Amy Coffin), Kerry Scott commented that 'some of the traditional advice to would-be professional genealogists can be (unintentionally) very discouraging.' There is a fine line between 'discouraging' and 'realistic'. Personally I like to understand the potential risks and rewards before putting a lot of time, effort and money into setting up a business. I am so often asked about genealogy as a career that I have prepared a leaflet on the subject. I will publish that in a future blog post.


When my accountant looks at the figures for my genealogy business, she shakes her head and says, 'Why do you bother?' I explain that it is not my sole source of income; that it gives me a lot of pleasure; and that being able to claim genealogy conference expenses as a tax deduction is a big plus! I do have plans for expanding and diversifying my business, but everything is on hold while I deal with family commitments, health issues, bereavement and executor duties. In the meantime, I am learning as much as I can from this wonderful community of genealogy bloggers. Thanks, folks!
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