Tuesday, March 22, 2011

How to price a "lookup"?

I am intrigued by Genlighten. It's a website where researchers can hire genealogists to do specific lookups.  It's not a full service genealogy site, rather more like a la carte.

I spend a lot of time in Registry of Deeds and Probate Courts in Southern New England.  I thought it would fun to add myself to Genlighten and offer Deed and Probate lookups since I am in the trenches anyway.

The one thing that is stopping me from signing up is the pricing.  I'm not sure how to come up with a single price.

There are just too many variables.

I have one set basic cost - that's my time/gas back and forth to the courthouse.  But after that how do I slice it?

Let's look at probate:
  1. Is the client providing the docket file number, the name and year or just the name?  With each diminishing amount of information extra time is needed for research.  There are three variables right there.

  2. Does the client know exactly what they are looking for? A "will" file can contain one piece of paper or myriads of documents.  Is the client looking for just the will or also the accounts, distributions, decrees, estate inventories, etc.  Personally I would want the whole file but maybe someone just wants to have the will.

  3. As mentioned above probate files are a mystery until you open them. It doesn't seem fair to charge a person who receives one  page the same as someone who receives 100.  Not to mention that it takes a lot more of my time to photocopy 100 pages than one page.
So how should I approach this?  Should I create multiple "package" options for the same courthouse?

I could really use some suggestions.  Maybe the idea is the law of averages. That I should  create a single price in the middle and that it will ultimately average out.  Or maybe I can list additional fees based on extra number of pages.

If anyone is using Genlighten, please send some suggestions my way.  I'd really love to be able to provide this service for genealogists who have Southern New England ancestry through an existing website like Genlighten. I'm just stuck on how to get past this one bump.

Thanks folks!


    1. Start with Question 3. I have done this a lot, I charge client what the courthouse charges me, $1.00 per page. So, I state, copies over and above research fees.

      Question 2. I will copy all file if client wants, but, most do not want to pay $1.00 for a receipt for $2.50 for a past due bill. Most of my clients want, Will, Administrator type pages, final distribution, the real guts of a file. They don't particularly care about the 3 required newspaper publications, again, noting that they must pay $1.00 for each page of those, so $3.00 right there. Of course, I have been able to discuss this in detail with my clients before I go to courthouse.

      Question 1. Set up parameters for each of those? So, if client has the case number, year, all the required info, set one fee, say $10.00 PLUS copy costs (and postage if they want snail mailed to them). If you have to do more detailed searching, charge so much per hour, whatever your normal research fees are, PLUS those copy and postage costs. That way, the longer you look the more you get paid.

      Good luck to you and the clients.

    2. I set myself up for a few look-ups on Genlighten for Chicago and you have to be specific about what you are offering and the price. I don't think, but I could be wrong, that you can say $10 for a probate search plus all copy fees. I think it has to be a set price.

      I did set up two different priced offerings for the same file. Chicago property records. One is a set price for just a copy of the deed tract book, the other was for the whole process so the person could have that copy but also have all the info should they want to go view the actual documents.

      They will be changing things soon so you can put where you research and what your fees are so it is more flexible than just the current way. I think it is beta testing now and is supposed to be changed this summer.

    3. Here’s another caveat you’ll need to consider when pricing: the suggested Genlighten model (according to their own website FAQ) is based on the idea that “lookups” that yield “successful” results should – for some strange reason - be priced higher than “lookups” that yield “negative” results.

      This plays directly into the equally strange idea that “positive results” are actually worth more than “negative results”, which, in turn, suggests that a professional researcher’s time and expertise is somehow less valuable when the client’s “desired result” are not there to find in the first place.

      (For example, you may want me to read a week’s worth of two unindexed early 20th century urban local daily newspapers on microfilm - each with fifty or so pages - looking for your ancestor’s obit. If I find it, you’ll pay me $25.00; if I don’t, you’ll pay me $10.00. Considering that all I have to sell is (a.) my time and (b.) my expertise, and assuming I know what I’m doing in the first place – did I expend any less time/expertise to get “negative” results?

      More importantly, do you - as the client - know how to interpret the fact that your ancestor's obit was not in any local paper?)

      With genealogical research, positive results are certainly desirable, but not always possible.

      The problem with this “pay more for positive results” concept is that it directly relates to a serious issue with modern genealogical research in general – there’s a lot of relatively new genealogists who have never been taught how to deal with (i.e., interpret) “negative results”, which will likely be the topic of a forthcoming lecture of mine shortly.

      “Negative results” might be a whole lot less exciting, but they’re not any “less valuable” when it comes to analyzing genealogical brick walls.

      And most assuredly, they don’t make a professional researcher’s time/expertise any less valuable.

      So, keep that in mind as well!

    4. Carol - I totally get what you are saying but Genlighten only allows a single "lookup" price. There is no hourly rate. It's so hard to make a one price fits all.

      Jen - maybe I need to wait until they make some changes.

      Mel - Exactly! On every point! Maybe Genlighten isn't for me. It's unfortunate because it's a lot easier than marketing yourself. I guess I can't have it both ways. Maybe I will put a page up on my website with my own pricing and see how it goes.

    5. Marian, I've thought a lot about this too, and been reluctant to participate because I don't want to make it cost prohibitive, but I also want to help someone out with a lookup. In my case, mine would be just from my genealogy books or a look on Ancestry. I worry that I would get too many and not be able to fulfill my side of the bargain, plus let people down. Drat it all!

    6. I'm kind of waiting for changes too before I add anything else besides the deed look ups. I do have a few newspaper look ups but those are so close by and I said the person had to have a date. I would rather list repositories I will search and my hourly rate than all these look ups.

    7. if you look deeper, you will find work offers like this one, happens it is a probate one. I think you can be a little more flexible than what you might think at first glance


      that said, I am not real excited about that no find fee stuff. I think I would put mine just as close to the find fee as they would let me. $10.00 for a find, $9.00 for a no find. If they let me. :-)

    8. I too am waiting for some improvements. I do need to go back and add index look-ups (same price whether or not successful!). But we all need more flexibility when it comes to searching on site.

    9. this is a great and important topic. Mel, I am very thankful for your comments about the new genealogist dealing with the negative results not being as valuable. I am having that issue myself

    10. I'm really pleased that you asked this question, Marian, and that so many useful comments were made. I have the same reluctance to widen my range of offerings on Genlighten. Hopefully we'll all get going when they alter the system :-) Jo

    11. Marian, what a good question and such impressive and helpful responses!

      I'm not familiar with Genlighten so can't speak to their model of charging but you absolutely need to have a price for different packages AND extra for copies. That's standard procedure.

      If you steer clear of Genlighten you can do it the easy and accurate way which is to charge for your time in doing the lookup plus extra for copies Then you do not even need to offer a fixed price for different packages (with copies extra)

      It becomes much simpler - your time is so much an hour (including travel time), gas is a certain amount and any copies are $x.00 per copy. So all you need to know from a client is do they want every single page of a will copied, or just the will, or leave it to your expert discretion as to what is necessary.

      Then you can write up a blurb about your services, post it on your blog/website and email it to your genealogy blogger/website friends with a pretty please for a write-up.

      I don't know about others but I'd be very happy to post it on my blog!

    12. Knock ten dollars off your basic research fee. If you charge $35/hr, charge $25/hr, but no travel costs only copy costs.

      They should at least pay for your expertise. Not everyone is competent in copying the correct materials. They can always pay for the trip to do it themselves. I just paid $200 for three Slovak death certificates and thought that was fine.

    13. Genlighten should be made aware of this thread.

    14. The questions you ask in your post are important ones and I'm impressed with the thoughtful comments left by your readers. Speaking as a Genlighten co-founder, they are very helpful! Our site’s not perfect but we’re eager to make it better and we take outside suggestions very seriously.

      Dean has made significant progress in coding the updated site and one of the things that we've been discussing at great length recently is what pricing options would be the most helpful to providers and clients.

      Options include

      Hourly fee
      Hourly fee + expenses
      Set fee (single price)
      Set fee (found and not found prices)

      and we’d love to hear your feedback on them.

      The found/not found approach to pricing grew out of my experience doing "lookups" through ChicagoGenealogy.com. Most of my work was retrieving early Chicago death certificates (they weren't online for free at that point) and because it was rare that I couldn't find one I liked offering clients a break when I wasn't successful.

      We adopted that approach when we started Genlighten because we thought site providers would be focused on similar "quick lookups." The found/not found approach allowed for different fees based on results but it also allowed for setting found/not found fees to be the same.

      We quickly discovered, though, that providers were interested in offering more complex research through the site and we're eager to make that possible. Our new site will have “shop” pages for each provider and it’ll be possible to list set-fee lookups but it will also be possible to offer hourly research at local repositories. It will also be possible to add some custom features (like a banner image) and there’ll be a place to include your own research policies. If you’d like to help test the pages and offer feedback before they go live, send us a quick email.

      In the meantime, though, here’s my approach to fitting a square peg in a round hole until Genlighten 2.0 gets off the ground: I offer divorce lookups in Chicago and it’s a two-step process. I’ve broken it into two pieces and created two lookup offerings for it. The first one is for the index search and I charge a set fee, same price found or not found. The second one is for me to return to make color scans from the file. I don’t know ahead of time how many pages there will be but explain my fees in the description (travel + a per/scan charge) and I promise to cap the price at $40 for the return trip. It would be rare that a file would go beyond that and I like to offer my clients a ceiling. Once I have the scans, I set the price of the second offering to the exact amount a client should pay using the lookup editing feature and I send a quick message that it’s ready to order. When the request is complete, I set it back to $.01 so that it can be used the next time I need it. (I leave it active so potential clients can see it but I have a big note that explains that it shouldn’t be ordered until I set the price and send a message.) It’s not elegant, but it works!

    15. Cynthia,

      Thanks so much for your comment. I really want to sign up for Genlighten. It seems like a terrific way for me to reach out to folks who need probate and deed help. I was struggling with how to set it up on Genlighten but now with your suggestions I think I might be able to make it work. Thanks again!

    16. There is one courthouse in Alabama that charges $2/page for photocopies. This is one that would have to have a higher cost just because of associated costs, particularly for an entire probate file. For plantation owners in one county in Mississippi, I've seen probate files that cost me about $75 in photocopies even at 25 cents a page.

    17. I do courthouse research for the local gene society, we used to ask $10 an hour plus copy costs, but these days I ask for the copy costs and a donation to our gene society, and I collect about twice the $10 an hour plus the copy costs and all the money goes to the gene society. The gene society does reimburse me for the copies.

    18. I posted a listing for early Maryland genealogy lookups yesterday at http://www.genlighten.com/users/jginmd/provider_lookups/early-maryland-genealogy--6. (It hasn't been moderated yet, so it isn't official. The link might not work today.)

      Not many people want this lookup, I suppose, but I thought I'd offer it anyway. Maybe other genealogists who don't live nearby will want colonial MD info for their clients.

      Thanks for the discussion of the value of negative results. I've never been able to explain that nothing is something, especially while I'm still learning to interpret negative results.

      If somebody isn't in the huge number of immigration records I've searched, what does that mean? They were here, after all.