When I first joined the Association of Personal Historians in 1999, I read this sage advice on the listserv: Don’t give up your day job.
As I developed my personal history business, I understood why. Creating a steady income from personal history projects takes time, especially when large projects yield lucrative but sporadic paydays.
To alleviate this problem, I examined other income-earning options, a review that began with assessing my skills and experience. After working 20 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, I knew how to interview, write, edit, and design pages. All personal historians possess specialized skills they can market to provide income between big projects.
No project is too small to generate income, and the small projects can create a more steady flow of cash. Options for generating extra income include doing freelance transcription, writing, and editing, work that brings in money without requiring a huge investment of time. Freelancers can market their services to other personal historians, or work part time for local newspapers, magazines, newsletters, or online publications.
Skilled interviewers can offer basic recordings on audio or video, charging an hourly price while helping families preserve the most precious part of their histories—the stories. Interviewers with writing skills can market their services to help people preserve their ethical wills or spiritual legacies.
People with Photoshop, design, and computer skills can help clients organize photos and create short photo memoirs or digital stories for graduations, birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, funerals, or other milestones. Quick typists can transcribe tapes, diaries, and letters. Graphic designers can create beautiful custom book covers, historical timelines, and detailed genealogical charts, or even coach novice designers. People with public speaking skills can teach memoir writing or other classes such as heirloom art.
Small history projects can include booklets or videos about historic homes and commercial buildings, family reunions or special vacations, favorite family recipes and heirlooms. Personal historians can create small booklets recounting a birth parent’s life story for a baby who will be adopted, or work with prospective parents to create profiles for adoption agencies.
My smallest personal history book, a 13-page booklet for a 90th birthday, took only three or four hours to complete and earned me $120. The six children of the honoree emailed me recollections of their mother, which I edited into a narrative. I scanned a few photos and designed a little booklet, which I printed and bound at home. A newspaper column I write pays me a bit each week. A set of audio interviews I conducted yielded $1,300.
It all adds up, creating a steady flow of income to help pay bills between the larger paychecks from bigger projects.
Julie McDonald Zander of Chapters of Life worked as a newspaper reporter and editor for 20 years before launching her personal history business in 1999. Her personal history projects range from the small 13-page 90th anniversary booklet to the 500-page company history. She also does freelance writing, editing, and design. She presented a workshop on small projects at the APH annual conferences in Victoria, British Columbia, and in St. Louis.