Category Archives: Self-employed

Encore! Are You Charging Hamburger Prices for Gourmet Work?

Are You Charging Hamburger Prices for Gourmet Work? It’s not uncommon for those starting out in the personal history business to offer their expertise at rock bottom rates. And while this might be important for the first project or two, it’s definitely not a plan for financial solvency and success in the long run. How much are you charging per hour for your personal history services? To give you some idea of where your fees fit with others, I’ve compiled some lists. From PayScale here are … Read More

Encore! Are You Part of “The Great Vacationless Class”?

Are You Part of "The Great Vacationless Class"? Anne Morrow Lindbergh observed that,  for the most part,  mothers and housewives were the “great vacationless class”  because they had little time off. I would add the self-employed to her list. If you’re self-employed as I am, it’s often difficult to see your way to a holiday. You’re either too busy or too broke or both. Here are a few tips that you might find useful if you’re still struggling with the notion of taking a vacation. …Read More

Encore! 10 Commandments for the Professional Personal Historian.

10 Commandments for the Professional Personal Historian. I’m not Moses or even a prophet for that matter. But I’ve been around for a while! As a freelancer for thirty years,  I’ve learned some key lessons that can be summed up in these ten commandments that I try my best to follow. Not always successfully!  For those of you starting out, these might provide a useful checklist. For the experienced among us, perhaps the commandments will be a  useful reminder of what we need to keep doing. What are your … Read More

Can I Make a Living as a Personal Historian?

I get asked this question with increasing regularity. And my response is – it depends. Like most things in life, there isn’t a simple answer. Here are a few things to ponder.

What do you consider a living wage?

If you need to earn a 6 figure salary in order to maintain your lifestyle, you’re unlikely to achieve that as a personal historian .  I’d suggest you take up cosmetic surgery. ;-)

But maybe you’re thinking, “I’m looking at a more modest income, maybe  around $50,000 a year.”

Okay. Let’s do the math.  On average it takes about three months to complete a personal history book.  You might be able to produce 4  books a year. That means you’re going to have to charge your clients $12,500 per book to make $50,000 a year. And remember, you’ll have to deduct your business expenses from that figure.

If you can find clients who are willing to pay you that amount, great. But I’ll be frank. While $12,500 is a reasonable price to pay for a personal history, you’ll find many potential clients will be shocked by the price.

People love the concept of personal histories, but they haven’t a clue about the costs of producing one.

How soon do you need to earn some money?

If you’re new to self-employment, you’re in for a surprise. It’ll take you at least a couple of years of hard work to make your business profitable.

Without another source of income or sufficient savings to tide you over, it’s almost impossible to reach a point where you’re making a living from personal histories.

Do you have the right qualities to be a personal historian?

If you don’t have the qualities that are required of a personal historian, you’re going to find earning a living from this work a challenge.  Here’s a check-list of some of those qualities. How do you think you fare?

  • excellent interviewing skills
  • non-judgmental
  • enjoy working alone
  • able to market and promote oneself
  • patient
  • empathetic listener
  • self-motivated
  • comfortable at public speaking
  • proficient writing and editing skills
  • love variety
  • a positive attitude
  • enjoy working with people

How hard are you prepared to work?

Being a personal historian can be a very enjoyable hobby. But if you’re intending this to be a business, then be prepared to work harder than you’ve ever worked before. For the first few years this can means 10 to 12 hour days, 7 day weeks, with few if any holidays. Trust me, I’ve been there.

Putting in this kind of effort works if you’re passionate  about what you’re doing. But if you don’t have that “fire in your belly”,  then do yourself a favor and don’t even start.


You can make a living being a personal historian provided you’ve got the right personality, love life stories and people, are prepared to work hard, and aren’t looking to earn top dollars.

Photo by Renee

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Warning: Avoiding the Digital Universe Will Hurt Your Business.

Let me begin by saying there are legitimate reasons to be wary of the ever expanding digital universe – a glut of junk information, loss of privacy, time wasting, and addiction. But there are also irrational fears at work based in part on our inherent resistance to  change.

Change happens. And a good thing too. Lucky for us there was the invention of the printing press. Monks no longer toil on illuminated texts for a select few.  Manual typewriters have a certain aesthetic appeal but quite frankly I was happy to throw out the rolls of correction tape.

Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.  ~ Popular Mechanics, 1949

There are those for whom the world was a much better place when we read “real” books, wrote in longhand, and used manual typewriters. There’s a wistful longing for a slower paced, more genteel life.  And while I sympathize, I can’t help but feel that these people are missing a richness of experience that’s just a click away.

Television won’t matter in your lifetime or mine. ~ 1936, Richard Lambert, broadcaster

If you’re not running a small business, it probably doesn’t matter if you’re digitally savvy. But if you want to create a successful personal history business,  you’ve got to stick more than your big toe into the digital stream. This doesn’t mean you have to be sucked under and drown.  But it does mean that you need to be familiar with what’s out there to be able to pick and choose the digital tools that’ll help your business.  Sticking your head in the sand and ignoring the wealth of resources that are available will hurt your business.

Here are a few digital resources worth considering. What would you add to this list?

  • E-books:  add a whole innovative and interactive realm to life stories with text, videos, photos, maps, documents, and more. Read more here and here.
  • Webinars:  increase marketing reach using such services as GoToWebinar.
  • Blogging: build conversations and credibility with clients using a free service such as WordPress or Blogger.
  • VoIP: extend interviewing reach world wide with a service such as Skype .
  • Podcasting: reach a wider audience with information and support using such services as BlogTalkRadio.
  • Booklets: turn a PDF file into a handy information booklet using BookletCreator.
  • POD: print a sample copy of a book using a print-on-demand service such as Blurb.
  • QR Codes: print these codes on your business cards and send clients to a URL site where they can access more information about your services, get discount coupons, access video, and more. You can create a QR Code here.
  • Project management: find a list of 10 free project Management applications here.

Photo by wecand

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Encore! How to be Self-Employed and Stay Motivated.

How to be Self-Employed and Stay Motivated. “When we are motivated by goals that have deep meaning, by dreams that need completion, by pure love that needs expressing, then we truly live life.”  ~ Greg Anderson

Most of my working life I’ve being self-employed, first as a documentary filmmaker and now as a personal historian.  There have been ups and downs but on the whole I’ve been able to stay motivated. What’s the secret? Here are the things that have worked for me … Read More

Want to Know What Betty White Can Teach You About Your Personal History Business?

1989 Emmy Awards

Who doesn’t  love Betty White? I’m a huge fan, first encountering her as the sugar-coated tough cookie  Sue Ann Nivens on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. This past weekend I was reading an interview with White.

I was struck by the fact that her life has lessons to teach those of us who run personal history businesses. I’m not for a moment suggesting that we can all possess the good health and talent of a Betty White but we can certainly learn from her example.

Keep going

Betty White has been working hard for over  six decades. She’s done it all, constantly reinventing herself. She started out in radio in the 1940′s. Her first television appearance was in 1949 with Al Jarvis on Hollywood on Television which she later hosted.

Through the 50′s she created, co-produced, and starred in the syndicated comedy Life With Elizabeth for which she received her first Emmy Award.  Through the 60′s  and early 70′s she appeared regularly as a celebrity panelist on game shows.

Her big break came in 1973 with The Mary Tyler Moore Show where she was a regular until the series ended in 1977. Her next starring role, for which she received her second Emmy Award, was on The Golden Girls from 1985 through 1992.

Through the 90′s, White guest starred in numerous network television programs. She also lent her voice to a number of animated shows. Most recently she’s hosted Saturday Night Live and is starring in the comedy series Hot in Cleveland.

LESSON: Success doesn’t happen overnight. As a personal historian you’ll need to put in many years of hard work. You might have to take on a second job to pay the bills. Like Betty, who continually reinvented herself, you’ll need to learn new skills such as public speaking, book  production, blogging, or workshop design. Doing all this with determination and a positive attitude will help you through the tough times just as it did Betty White.

celebrate your uniqueness

Betty White embraces her age. She makes no apologies for being old. From the Golden Girls to Hot in Cleveland she’s demonstrated that you can be old and still be funny, smart, outspoken, and sexy.

Receiving a lifetime-achievement award at the 2010 Screen Actors Guild Awards, she gushed sincerely about how lucky she’s been to work with so many in the room, and then seamlessly added, “And I may have had some of you, too.” Back on that podium again in 2011, she stroked the statuette’s bare bottom and smiled lewdly.

~ from the Globe and Mail  The Betty White tornado

LESSON: Be yourself. As a personal historian, I bring decades of experience as a documentary filmmaker. I value my graying beard and wrinkles. I see my “advancing years” as a plus in this business. Age suggests experience and a life lived – all valuable and marketable traits for a personal historian.  Look hard at what makes you special and unique. This will be a selling point with your potential clients who are not only looking for competency but also authenticity.

Embrace curiosity and learning

“You have to stay interested in things.” White said in her Globe and Mail interview. “There’s so many things I want to know more about that I’ll never live long enough to do. But it’s something to reach for.”

Betty White is a marvelous example of life-long learning. Starting in radio, moving to television, then becoming a producer, starring in feature films, hitting the quiz show circuit, and now releasing her fifth book  If You Ask Me: (And of Course You Won’t).

Given her six decades in the entertainment business she could have easily succumbed to its changing technologies and tastes as many did. But she rose to the challenges, got even better, and survived without any bitterness. As she says, “Sickeningly optimistic.”

LESSON: To survive in the personal history business we need to adapt or be swept aside by the the digital revolution. E-books, print on demand, social media, and HD video all require learning new ways of doing our work. Sure,  it’s not easy at times but sticking our heads in the sand or complaining bitterly won’t work. Grab on to your inner “Betty White” and just do it!

look Fantastic

Have you noticed that throughout her career Betty White always looks fabulous and stylish? She’s not afraid to show some flair and sassiness.

LESSON: Hire a designer to ensure that all of your marketing materials – business cards, brochures, and website are first class. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone to come up with a design that speaks to your uniqueness. And don’t forget your own appearance. Looks do speak volumes whether we like it or not. You want your business attire to read confident, impeccable, trustworthy, and appropriate.

Photo by Alan Light

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From the Archives: How to Stop The Clock And Make Time for Yourself.

How to Stop The Clock And Make Time for Yourself. If you’re self-employed as I am, you’re probably all too familiar with the trap of filling most of your days with work. There are deadlines to meet, marketing activities, clients to see, and  administrative chores. Maybe you’ve found a way to manage all this and still have a life. If you haven’t, here are some lessons learned from my three decades of experience that you might find helpful. To be honest, sometimes I  “mess up” and don’t follow my … Read More

Want to Start a Personal History Business? Here’s How.

Interest in personal history as a career is growing.  When the Association of Personal Historians was formed in 1995, it had a handful of members. Today that membership has swelled to over 500.

Increasingly people track me down and ask if they should start a personal history business. In order to help you decide if this is your kind of work, I’ve pulled together these articles I’ve written over the past 3 years years.

If there’s a topic you don’t see here and would like covered, please let me know and I’ll address it in a future post.

  1. What You Need to Know About Becoming a Professional Personal Historian.
  2. Three Crucial Steps to Starting Your Personal History Business.
  3. The Best Advice Ever for a Personal Historian.
  4. 12 Key Tips for Successfully Working Alone.
  5. The 10 Best Things About Being A Personal Historian.
  6. The 10 Worst Things About Being A Personal Historian.
  7. How Much Should You Pay a Personal Historian?
  8. What Makes a Personal Historian a Professional?
  9. Are You Doing a Good Job of Conveying the Value of Personal Histories?
  10. 12 Ways to Ensure Your Personal History Business Fails.
  11. When Should You Quit Being a Personal Historian and Move On?
  12. Six Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Personal Historian.
  13. More Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Personal Historian.
  14. 10 Commandments for the Professional Personal Historian.
  15.  How to Start and Run a Personal History Business.

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From the Archives: 12 Ways to Ensure Your Personal History Business Fails.

12 Ways to Ensure Your Personal History Business Fails. [A tip of the hat to Laura Spencer at Freelance Folder for inspiring this post.]

Ever get a “teensy” bit tired of all those gung-ho blogs dedicated to productivity and success? It’s time for some balance. Let’s talk about good old-fashioned failure. For all you personal historians who are  run off your feet with  clients’ demands, here’s your escape plan. Follow these 12 tips and you  can’t help but fail successfully. Do you have some great … Read More