Genea-Bodies: A response to the comments

A few days ago, Joan Miller posted “Genea-Bodies: The New Somebodies” at her LuxeGen Genealogy and Family History blog. In this article, she discussed the influence of social media users and, in particular, bloggers. Her experience in promoting the RootsTech conference as an Official Blogger gave her a unique perspective on this issue.

More interesting than the rather short post, however, is a comment from Marian Pierre-Louis, who writes the Marian’s Roots and Rambles blog:

Just want to play devil’s advocate here. It’s all well and good to be recognized but until we can actually make a self-suporting living based on the tremendous amount of work we do, what’s the point? All of us work so hard. If we were in corporate america doing what we do we’d all make more than $75k salaries. Until this industry recognizes these individuals with monetary compensation of some sort then it is only self-gratification we gain. I can’t eat that. …

Marian makes a great point here that needs to be discussed. Should self-gratification be enough?

Another comment, this from Kerry Scott, author of the ClueWagon blog, agrees:

Marian brings up a good point. When there are so many people working for free, it’s hard to turn this into a business (as others have had in other niches).

The conversation continues, and I would recommend that everyone go take a look.

I have been researching my own family history for virtually my entire life. I starting taking clients part-time, really as a way to fund my own research, about five or six years ago. Last year, I was laid off from my job, and decided that I had put in enough ground work to finally make the leap into self-employment as a professional genealogist, full-time. My wife is a stay-at-home mother (our personal decision to do this), so my income fully supports my family. Some months are better than others, but so far we are able to eat.

In order to accomplish this feat, I literally work from the time I wake up in the morning until the time I go to bed at night. I average about six hours of sleep a night. My time is spent researching for clients, creating lectures, writing articles for two columns and several magazines, writing and self-publishing books, and administrative work such as answering emails, marketing, etc. I also find myself tending to think outside of the box in creating new ways to generate income. I have no savings left, and, with a five-year-old daughter, I will need to start thinking in that direction.

One major issue in play here is, I believe, the separation of hobbyists from professionals. Genealogy always starts as a hobby. In many cases, it stays there forever. In far too many cases, the hobbyist never takes the time to educate themselves about proper research techniques, record groups, or even general history of the area in which they are researching.

For professionals such as myself, the process takes much longer. I spend a few thousand dollars a year (now tax-deductible as business expenses) on subscriptions to magazines and journals, memberships to genealogical societies and professional organizations such as the Association of Professional Genealogists, International Society of Family History Writers and Editors, and Genealogical Speakers Guild, research trips, and other forms of genealogy education. I go out of my way to learn everything I can about the research process, new and newly discovered record sources, and even both general and specialized history of the areas in which I work. All of this education pays off for those who hire me, read the articles I have written, and attend my lectures and webinars.

In between these two groups are the “Genea-Bodies,” that is, the Geneabloggers. In my experience with most of the bloggers I have met and in reading the blogs I follow, most geneabloggers hold a higher level of education and knowledge of research standards than your average hobbyists. But they often fall just shy of the professional standard of education and research.

Of course, there are exceptions. And for those who disagree with my assessment, I apologize. I can only speak from my own experiences.

However, in general, bloggers are researching their own families, possibly the families of close friends, but rarely accept paid clients. They may attend one or even multiple national genealogy conferences, but not often the several genealogy institutes that offer more in-depth education.

And most importantly, as the comments on the “Genea-Bodies” blog post confirm, they write their blogs because they love it. They are a community–a warm community that I am proud to be on the outskirts of. But being paid was never their goal, and is never their expectation.

Many of the companies that are now tapping into the strength of the geneablogger community, however, do expect to turn a profit. And they do. And the geneablogger community is extremely eager to support these companies, even the fly-by-night companies who create a new website or a new software product that gets surpassed or simply falls behind in that competitive market.

Does the geneablogger community show its obvious strength in supporting its own members? In another comment on the “Genea-Bodies” post, Kerry Scott mentions that she has been met with disapproval by suggesting that other bloggers click on each other’s affiliate links when ordering books from Amazon, etc. Clicking on these links costs the buyer absolutely nothing, though the affiliate will make a few pennies.

I have two questions that I would like to propose to the geneablogger community:

(1) Are we willing, not only as a geneablogger community but as a larger community of genealogists, to support each other as fervently as we support the larger corporations?

(2) More importantly, why do some geneabloggers seem to be opposed to those who attempt to earn a living in genealogy-related fields?

20 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Kerry Scott on April 18, 2011 at 11:28 am

    Oh! I can’t shout AMEN loud enough. If we supported each other like we support other (larger) companies, we’d all be so much better off. A rising tide lifts all boats (or ships, or however that goes).

    (My oldest is five also. Part of the issue might be that those of us who are in the expensive, family-supporting phase of life are in the minority.)

    Reply

  2. Posted by Beth on April 18, 2011 at 11:41 am

    AMEN! I agree. I would love to become a “professional” genealogist and make some money at it. I am a stay-at-home mom; my son is 3 years old. I would like to stay home and still contribute to the family financially. I just don’t know if people would hire me to do genealogy, especially people in my geographic area. But shows like WDYTYA and Searching For… makes me think there is a place for professional genealogists.

    Reply

  3. Amen. Business is not evil.

    I’ve taken my affiliate ads off because they simply didn’t generate diddly squat. Or money. *wink* But, Kerry, if I still had them, my response would be, “I’ll click yours if you click mine.”

    ~Caroline

    Reply

  4. I appreciate all of your comments. I just posted the following comment on the “Genea-Bodies” blog post, and thought I would share it here:

    Just to get it out of the way up front: I am a full-time professional genealogist. I support my family, including my wife and daughter, through various genealogy endeavors. Most of my income comes from client research projects, and I am not trying to advertise here at all.

    I completely understand and respect the passion that leads one to blog–I was writing unpaid articles for many years before blogs picked up any steam. But there may be a problem when this passion extends itself in the wrong (IMO) direction.

    The original post discussed the strength of the geneablogging community and how large corporations and large organizations have been tapping into the strength, as they have been for at least 2-3 years. Geneabloggers see no problem in helping these large corporations to publicize their products and make a pretty decent profit.

    However, I think that their own love of their hobby leads many geneabloggers to fail to recognize the value of the the hard work, time and money expended by others in trying to move this community forward. And in failing to recognize the dollar value of this work, the conclusion is often that members of this community should all be willing to provide everything for free. This is simply an unreasonable expectation, and one that can only hurt the community.

    How can geneabloggers help? Really all that is necessary is a change in perception or attitude. Recognize that there are those working in this field professionally. Recognize that there is an actual monetary value to the time and work put in by volunteers. Recognize that not everyone can afford to provide services and products at no cost. And then do not expect it.

    Once enough geneabloggers have come to the conclusion that it is not a sin to expect to paid for one’s work, and use the strength of their community to express these conclusions, then perhaps we can use this strength to actually advance the field of genealogy.

    We have to remember that throughout American history, innovation has always come as a result of the free market and the desire for profit! If Ancestry has taught us nothing, it is that the same is true in the genealogy. While we all might complain about the high cost of an annual subscription, I would like to see anyone who does not thank their lucky stars that Ancestry is there. When Ancestry completed their every-name indexes to the U. S. Census in 2005-2006, I was able to break down brick walls in minutes that had been standing for years of going through NARA’s microfilmed census records. Ancestry has advanced our field in truly visionary fashion, motivated almost entirely by the bottom line, and I am extremely appreciative as both a genealogist and a shareholder. (I figured I ought to get some of my money back, and was it ever worth it!)”

    Reply

  5. [...] with tons of frank comments on Marian Pierre-Louis‘ Facebook page.  Michael Hait also has a thoughtful post, and now Thomas McEntee is starting a whole series on the topic.  Lynn Palermo also revived an old [...]

    Reply

  6. I am a professional house historian and a blogger. Personally, I often see little difference between my blog posts and articles I could write for magazines. I understand that the focus of my blogs is often different than your average geneablogger in that I choose to write more journalistically than about personal family history.

    My goal is to bring news of the community to the community for the greater benefit of everyone within the genealogical community. Does that mean supporting other professionals? You bet it does. But only so far as I believe in and trust what they are doing/writing/selling. I will not be advocating for things or products I don’t believe in.

    Everyone is entitled to make a living from fair labor. Also, every professional in the genealogical community need not be restricted to making a living from the traditional means of taking clients. Some traditionalists hold out that that is the only true way of being a professional genealogist. Being a writer, speaker or other professional within in the genealogical community is equally as valid and deserving of earning a living.

    Reply

  7. Marian –

    Thank you for your comment. I have long been a fan of your blog, and your professional approach is exactly why.

    I also strongly agree with your last statement. Personally, I would prefer to be able to spend more time writing and lecturing, and be more selective with the client projectsthat I choose to accept. However, that is not currently in the cards for me, as the options are relatively limited. I have no doubt that in the future I will reach the balance that I would like.

    From both my own experience as a professional, and in discussing the topic with far longer established professionals, one of the keys to success in this field is diversification. One has to research AND write AND lecture. One needs to create sources of passive income (royalties, etc.) as well as active income.

    And of course it helps when you have an edge that attracts you to clients (whether research clients, or magazines for writing, or conference planners, etc.) Establishing yourself with a reputation for quality research is absolutely necessary.

    Reply

  8. Posted by wolfeeboy on April 18, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    Hi,
    I’ve been doing the family tree stuff for about three years now, just because I wanted to, and got hooked once I started. It’s revealed stuff I had absolutely no inkling of, but this discussion has started me thinking. I hate the thoughts now swimming around in my head, making me suspicious where I wasn’t before. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to make money doing what I love doing anyway for nothing, but much of what I have learned has been assisted by others in some way, and I feel it’s only fair to make myself available in the same way. I have however noticed just recently, that a few members of ancestry have lifted wholesale amounts of my tree straight over to theirs, some with extremely tenuous links. I’m not sure how to react to that, as I’ve only ever added stuff to my own tree after tracking all over the place to prove the links as being watertight, or within a reasonable doubt. Am I being paranoid?

    Reply

    • In terms of Ancestry family trees, this is a result of new hobbyists who have been enticed with the “shaking leaves.” Though Ancestry (and even the Internet) were barely a glimmer in someone’s eye when I started researching, I made mistakes of the same general nature as a newbie. I am sure that every one of us has at some point. I would not be too worried about it if I were you, because there is not much that you can do about it, other than make your tree private, so that others cannot download your research.

      Welcome, and thanks for commenting on our discussion!

      Reply

  9. Michael,

    Thank you for keeping this discussion alive and vibrant. The comments continue to add needed depth to the discussion. The balance of writing, speaking, research and other aspects seems to be at the heart of these considerations – and, they are difficult to do justice to in a few short sentence. Good job. Best wishes for continued success (as you measure it!). ;-)

    Reply

  10. This is such a fascinating conversation! I just blog for fun, but I’m learning more about how to make it a career. Like Thomas MacEntee, you never know what will happen next or if I’ll ever need to use my genealogy skills to earn a living, or to use my blog to make money. I never knew how easy it was to monetize a blog, or how hard it would be to really promote it and get a good income. I never knew anyone who made a lot of money at this, and one of the genealogists at NEHGS once told me that there never was a genealogist who became a millionare (not counting Alex Haley, who wasn’t a genealogist). Maybe one of the people here in this conversation will be the first millionaire a this occupation?

    Reply

  11. Hmmm, these are some interesting thoughts and definitely topics that deserve attention. While everyone has been posting thoughts, further angles for discussion, etc. I’ve been trying to figure out where I fall in the thick of things. While I have a blog, it was begun primarily to help keep me motivated towards my goal: building a genealogy business for myself. By this, I mean making a living by doing something that I love. The blog was also a way to document my time with the ProGen group, the NGS Home Course, IGHR, etc. And finally, I was hoping to be able to attract some clients, whether paid or not.

    The blog has served its purpose on the first two counts, but like most of the other avenues I’ve poked around in, failed in terms of attracting work. As a military family we move every 3-4 years and every time we move, I have to start over again almost from the ground up, researching my new locale only to have to move again right at the point when I would be confident enough to take on clients for that area. This constant moving doesn’t help fill my client pool and the alternative, specializing in one area or subject and sticking to it no matter where in the world I am located, would be difficult considering I wouldn’t have access to the repositories necessary for steady client work in that area. The moving also doesn’t help with gaining clients through associations with entities such as local genealogy and/or historical societies. I think this is primarily because I’m just not a local face and it takes time to make those connections and time to sit tight in one spot and network is not something I have in spades.

    This is another way the blog comes in handy. I can make those connections and network with other bloggers in ways that I just can’t in a geographic location. Having my own blog does help with that respect so I’m holding on to the idea that its possible that it could bring me some work at some point, even if it hasn’t yet. So after this rather long-winded assessment, I guess as far as the paid or unpaid question goes, I fall into the “I’ll take whatever I can get” category, though it is not necessarily by choice. I haven’t made the conscious decision to undercut the “professional” community by trying to offer services for free so I hope that no one would see my desperate plea for work at any, or no cost as anything other than that. Rather than being “offended” by those with a healthy clientele and those who are getting paid for what they do, I more envious than anything else. Either way though, if someone’s work gains my respect (and again, by “work” I mean paid or unpaid) I have been and will continue to sing their praises all over my blog and elsewhere.

    Reply

    • Nikki,
      Thank you for adding these comments on your perspective. If I may, I’d like to suggest you are a good example where you may want to add some services, such as speaking and/or writing a book. These give you more ‘content’ for your blog, that may attract more attention, but, also would provide added exposure in the local area you are in. It appears to me that most of the folks who are ‘professional’ – especially in their early days – have found this to be an almost necessary element to build credibility and to attract prospects. It may be a step out of your comfort zone, but that also may be what is holding you back from your goals. I have read your blog, and it does seem to be doing a fine job, as far as it goes, as you reported. I welcome replies back. ;-)

      Reply

  12. [...] this really is a tremendous outpouring of thoughtful posts and comments. I guess I’d start here, if you haven’t seen some of them. Or over here, where Thomas MacEntee adds to his [...]

    Reply

  13. The ‘fun, profit, career’ discussions have been interesting and helpful. My point of view is on Genealogy Leftovers (but I’ve thought of several ideas that I didn’t mention, so I may do a follow-up post). To those who are not ready to do paid RESEARCH – have you thought about indexing some useful sources in a local record office, and self-publishing the index (or listing names on a blog or Web site)? This worked brilliantly for me.

    Reply

    • I agree completely. I have done this as well, and the passive income from the books is helpful financially. And of course this is one more resource available to others working in the same area. I would recommend that all genealogists transcribe at least one record set into book form, as a way to “give back” to the community.

      Reply

  14. Posted by David Suddarth on April 25, 2011 at 11:09 am

    Excellent post, Michael. I realize I am coming in late to this discussion (out of town with limited internet access), but wanted to say that I could not agree more with what you have said. Although I am not a professional (yet), it is something that I am looking towards in the future. I have started doing some lecturing, but have not started accepting clients. I do have a blog, but it is mostly to document my personal research. Only recently have I considered using a blog to reach a larger community and discuss issues which would be of interest to a broader range of readers. I have found this discussion very interesting and am looking forward to its continuation.

    Reply

  15. [...] Pierre-Louise (who writes the Roots and Rambles blog) inspired one response in this blog (see “Genea-Bodies: A response to the comments” posted on 18 April 2011). The beginnings of the discussion were discussed more fully in that [...]

    Reply

  16. Michael,

    Great discussion. To your questions:

    (1) Are we willing, not only as a geneablogger community but as a larger community of genealogists, to support each other as fervently as we support the larger corporations?

    ==> I certainly read many blogs from the Genea-Blogging community. I learn something from everyone. Thank you for sharing each of your experiences. I have not problem at all but attending (online or in person) presentations where a Genea-Blogger is presenting. I also don’t have a problem by clicking on a link that is provided to “buy” something that might be of interest to me. Clicking on a link and purchasing something from that link, helps send a few cents your way.

    I don’t have a lot of spare change to buy lots of ‘stuff’ but I do, and will use your (genea-blogging community) link vs going directly to a commercial website.

    I also don’t mine, and try to, post to twitter or facebook to help get the “word out” that I am attending a webinar, or reading a blog post, to help my (small) followers check out what is going on.

    That is the only way I know how to contribute to the Genea-Blogging community.

    (2) More importantly, why do some geneabloggers seem to be opposed to those who attempt to earn a living in genealogy-related fields?

    ===> can’t answer that one. If I want to learn something I should be and am willing to help support the teacher. I think that most Genea-Bloggers are “teachers”. Oh, and some attempt to earn a living by sharing their experience.

    One Genea-Blogger follows opinion.

    Russ

    Reply

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