Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Dollars and Sense of The Genealogy Book Biz - Part One

This past Saturday, I spoke and we exhibited (as Jonathan Sheppard Books) at the Massachusetts Genealogical Council’s annual all-day event held at Bentley University in Waltham, MA.  There were four great tracks of four lectures each, plus a lunchtime presentation by Eric Jay Dolin on his current book titled “Fur, Fortune and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America” Close to 130 dedicated genealogists spent the day there, and, with any luck, went home happy.

After visiting the grandkids up the road a piece for part of the day on Sunday, we headed for home over the back roads of northern Massachusetts, thus avoiding the mania that is summer traffic on the Mass Pike. On Monday, we unpacked the vehicle, offloading books, hand truck, bookcase, and assorted display paraphernalia. Today, we did the book-keeping.  

That’s when we find out what really happened, business-wise.

Generally, and for lots of reasons, people who run small businesses are pretty close-mouthed about their finances. However, considering the great interest among many genealogists in discovering ways to “monetize” their hobby, I thought I’d provide some detail about running a genealogy book business, something that we have more than passing familiarity with, since we’ve been doing it since 1977.

So, for the record, and for those who are trying to figure out how to make a living from genealogy, here’s how this most recent event worked out:

1. First off, you must remember that, for booksellers, there’s a huge difference in numbers between “gross sales” and “net profit”.  Yeah, it might look like we're busy and selling lots and lots of books, but the money we take in - we don't get to keep most of it.

 For example, when we’re selling new books, we buy stuff directly from publishers for re-sale.  Some publishers give us 40% off the cover price of a book.  Others give us 20%.   In all cases, we pay the costs of shipping the books to us as well.  So, on a book priced at $19.95, we might make between $4.00 and $8.00 before the cost of postage, which usually reduces the profit by another 5% or so. 

So, when we tallied the sales from Saturday and added in my honorarium for giving a talk, and then subtracted the cost of the books and the shipping costs to get them to us, we had a “profit” of $429.00. 

However, since most folks paid for their book purchases with credit cards, and since credit card companies and banks take a portion of each charged sale, those credit card fees reduced our “profit” to $397.00.  Sure, our “gross sales” were much higher, but most of that went to pay the publishers and the bank fees for the credit cards. 
Bottom line on “INCOME”:  $397.00 to the good, ... before factoring in actual conference expenses. (Hint: those are the actual costs of “being there”)

2. On the “expenses” side, booksellers need to be realistic and accurately account for actual travel costs.  For example, because Waltham is 150 miles from home (or 300 miles round-trip), it’s not realistic (at least for us old folks) to think that you can spend three and a half hours driving there in time to set up at 7:30 AM in Saturday.  Hence, you go the night before and stay in a motel.  Likewise, it’s just not realistic to think that there will be any gas stations along the route who will say, “Oh, you’re going to a genealogy conference? Well then, YOUR gas is free!” Our Saturn Vue gets about 24 miles to the gallon, so it takes about 12 gallons minimum to get there and back.  

Then there’s prorated oil, tires, insurance, registration, maintenance, etc.  When you add it all in, the allowable IRS rate of 50 cents a mile is pretty close to the actual cost of driving. (Another Hint: IRS does not over-estimate costs…)

Therefore, in order to speak/exhibit, I need to account for and cover all those travel and overnight costs. (P.S.: the costs for post-conference Saturday night are not included, nor is the extra mileage cost to visit the grandkids; only the actual “conference costs” are shown here.

But we’re not quite done.

3. At national and regional conferences, vendors must factor in the costs of exhibit space. Even when the charge for space is small, there may be a conference registration cost. Last Saturday, the cost for two registrations at MGC was $130.00.  That was quite reasonable, considering it included breakfast, lunch, parking and admission to all the talks.  For the cost of two registrations, I got ample table display space.

And, yes, it actually takes two of us to do this, because the actual time allotted for sales is small, and EVERYONE wants to pay for stuff at the same time.  No way one person could handle it.
Should vendor space at small conferences be free?  Resoundingly, no!  Why not? Because this is not charity.  Ultimately, space costs somebody something.  If you’re running a business, get used to paying for space.  Even your “home office” has a cost associated with it.  There’s no “free space” at large conferences, like NGS, FGS or NERGC.  In fact, in the real world, space at genealogy events is about as cheap as it gets.  

Again, if you’re a vendor, get used to paying for space.  Even if the space is “free”, buy a conference registration for each one of the people it takes to staff your space.  Otherwise, you’ll have no idea if you’re actually able to make a living at what you’ve chosen to do. 

Plus, it’s costing the conference organizers something.  Help pay for it.  Plus, if you agree to exhibit, do us all a favor and actually show up, even if you’re a small society that depends on volunteers.  

Bottom Line on the EXPENSES side:  Total mileage, motel and registration costs in lieu of “booth rent” -   $403.88 in actual costs to speak/exhibit at 2011 MGC event.

Profit/Loss?  Overall, a slight “loss” of $6.88 to Mel Wolfgang AKA “Jonathan Sheppard Books”.

Yup.  That’s the bottom line for the weekend.  The bank account is $6.88 lighter than it was on Friday morning.

But wait . . . you will note that there’s been no mention of time – what professional genealogists, lawyers, plumbers and other self-employed types might call “billable hours.”

Today, it was all about the “cash.”   Next time, I’ll talk about the time factor involved in this kind of genealogy business.

As they say, time is money, and the sooner you factor that in, the more realistic you'll be.


  1. Thanks for the transparency, and laying it all out there. My romantic notions of book selling are out the window. Besides, I have a bad back, and I can't even imagine the packing, unpacking, loading and lifting all those boxes of books!

  2. There's more to come on this topic tomorrow. I can't tell you the number of people who came into our shop years ago and went on and on about how great it must be to own a bookshop ... Like a lot of business ventures, it's always good to take a look under the hood first, because things aren't always as pretty as they might appear. And, by the way, it's the knees that give out first, mostly from loading and unloading the bottom-most shelves!

  3. This is an education for me that I appreciate. The hourly rate for all that work would meet the minimum wage for 1811, not 2011. Your work thus is a donation to MGC more than it is a business venture. We've got to come up with more realistic expectations. Thank you for the transparency and for getting this discussion going.

  4. Mel, I'm so glad I didn't tell you how great it must be to be a books seller. But I should have told you how happy I am that you are one. Not only did I get great books but a great conversation too. Thanks for posting this and bringing us all back to reality.

  5. Barbara and Marian - glad you took the time to read it and to join Heather in the comments section.
    As you can see, there's a lot more "behind the scenes" stuff to bookselling than is readily apparent. The surprising thing is that the bookseller profit is so closely controlled by the publisher, since the actual retail price of the book is fixed by the publisher, not the bookseller. Compare that to the garment industry, where JC Penney can sell something at 60% off and STILL make a profit, since clothes are often sold at 5 times cost. Of course, genealogy books - unlike clothes - tend not to be made in China or Bangladesh.