How Much Should You Pay a Personal Historian?

cheque bookA common question I get is, “How much would a personal history cost?”   I tell people it’s a little like going to a car dealer and asking, “How much do your cars cost?” If you’re looking at a used economy model, you’re going to pay much less than for a luxury sedan. Similarly a personal history can be  simple or complex. You could have a  50 page, soft cover booklet detailing a memorable phase in someone’s life. Or you could have a 90 minute video biography complete with interviews, family photos and video, music, titles, and effects.

In addition, there are all kinds of  personal historians. Some do life stories to add an interesting sideline to their retirement. Other personal historians are hobbyists who work primarily with their own family or friends. There are those who work full time as personal historians and have many years of experience. And there are individuals who are starting up their personal history business and looking to find clients. Within this diverse group charges can vary widely.

Let’s look at where the expense comes in. There are essentially eight stages that almost all personal history productions take. They are:

  1. Initial consultation to decide what is to be included in the history.
  2. Interviewing the subject. This can involve anywhere from 2 to 13 hours or more depending on the scope of the production.
  3. Transcribing the interviews in order to edit and construct the story.
  4. Editing and shaping the narrative.
  5. Searching  for appropriate photos, artifacts, videos, sound effects, or music.
  6. Completing a rough edit of the book, video or audio.
  7. Presenting a copy to the client for review.
  8. Final edit and completion of production.

The amount of time it takes to interview someone is actually a small portion of the overall production. As a rough guide, it takes anywhere from 10 to 15 hours of editing for every one hour of interview. Personal historians charge either set package prices, work by the hour,  or a combination of both.  All professional personal historians will provide you with a contract spelling out the costs and payment stages.

So how much is it going to cost you to have a full length personal history told? As I mentioned, there are many variables that determine cost. But for argument’s sake let’s look at one possible example – a video biography.  It takes about five to seven hours of interview  for a video biography and you can add to that another five to seven hours for travel, set-up of  lights, camera, and sound.  If a personal historian is charging $40 to $60 an hour, then you’re looking at a minimum of $400 up to $840 just in labor to complete a set of interviews.  Added to this can be the cost of materials and in the case of a video production, camera, light and sound equipment charges.

Following the interviews comes the editing which takes most of the time. If there are five hours of interview, it’s safe to say it will take anywhere from 50 to 75 hrs. of editing time. If a personal historian is charging $40/hr., then you’re looking at somewhere between $2,000 and $3,000 for editing. Added to this can be the costs for editing rooms and equipment. So at the low end of the scale it will cost you anywhere from $2,400 to $3,840 for a 90 minute video biography. Top end can be double those figures or more. Beware of anyone suggesting  they can produce a  full-scale life history video or book for under $1,000.  It can’t be done unless that person is offering most of his or her time for free.

I think it’s fair to say that most professional personal historians will work within your budget to come up with a life story document that will meet with your approval. It might not be the luxury sedan you’d imagined but rather a nice shiny little compact car. The good news though is that unlike cars which depreciate the moment you take them off the lot, a personal history will gain value over the years. It will in fact become a priceless legacy.

Photo by gizzypooh

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10 Responses to How Much Should You Pay a Personal Historian?

  1. The car buying analogy works well I think. And, I think too that it is important for prospective clients to know that capturing a life story in a professional way goes well beyond just pointing a video camera at someone and getting them to talk.
    The video I have of my late father is something I take out from time to time just so that I can “visit” him. As the Master-card commercial goes, that is “priceless”.

  2. That is a well done summary, Dan. Thanks for posting it!

    I tell my clients that we can always find something within their budget, and if they can only do part of a project now, at least get the interviews down!

    Sally Goldin, Personal Historian

  3. Pingback: How Much Should You Pay A Personal Historian? : Legacy Multimedia Blog

  4. Dan,
    Great summary of the steps involved in creating a personal history. I like that you kept it nice & simple so everyone can easily understand it.


  5. @Beth LaMie. Thanks, Beth! I think simple is best, maybe because I’m a simple guy ;-)

  6. Dan, great summary. As someone with a strong background in the skills to produce personal, family and corporate histories but new to the personal history business itself, I appreciate your candor. Many folks doing this work were open about every element of doing this work, which I am grateful for, except for what they charge. Some would not even give me a ballpark fee when given a specific hypothetical project to budget for. For those coming up in the business behind me — as is the ethos of my company, Seventh Generation Stories — I intend to pass what I know to be helpful on. There’s enough work in this business for all of us, I believe, and what separates the wheat from the proverbial chaff is one’s level of skill, quality of project, time commitment, and ambition. Hope to meet you at the conference in October.

    Best, Alli Joseph

    • @Alli. Thanks for your comments. I agree that there is enough work in this business for all of us. Unfortunately, I’ll not be at the APH Conference this year – definitely next year though. Maybe we’ll meet then.

  7. Pingback: How much does it cost to hire a personal historian? « Memories

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