Jeannie Ralston has gone from earning $7,000 for an article to $0. So what does she know about what it takes to get paid?

Plenty, actually. Ralston has had her work published as a freelance journalist, a book author and now an online magazine editor. During all that time, she’s dealt with people who love to pay and people who … forget? Or just don’t.

The desire to get paid every time was what spurred Ralston to her current project, NextTribe.

“I went from freelance writing for national magazines, where there was a good living to be made back then – Allure paid me $7,000 in the 1990s for a pretty easy story,” she told attendees of the February Freelance Austin meeting. “Then things changed for the industry.”

Ralston wrote a book, The Unlikely Lavender Queen, chronicling her life as a wife, new mother and “urban settler in rural Texas.” Earning money from a book is a long and uncertain process, she found. (You can buy a copy here.)

Then came what she calls “the apocalypse” and for which she blames Huffington Post: Suddenly, everyone was saying she should write for the exposure rather than the money.

“No! You can’t live off of exposure,” Ralston said. “Freelance pay plummeted after that. And it’s never recovered.”

As her children left for college, Ralston began looking for answers, saying, “Now is not retirement age. It’s work-for-myself age.”

Ralston values excellent writing and wanted to write for an online publication that did so, too – as well as one that reflected women her age. With a friend, she launched NextTribe, an online magazine that exhorts women over 45 to “age boldly.”

All she and her friend had ready were 12 stories, and so that’s what they launched with. Eventually, she was able to start paying other freelancers. Today, the magazine has an enormous following and sells out events it hosts.

“I have to believe that we’re still of the age to have an attention span long enough to sit down and enjoy reading something that’s well done,” she said.

Q&A with Jeannie Ralston

Q: How important is it for you to have a previous connection to a writer who pitches you?
A: With me, former knowledge isn’t necessary or even necessarily a plus. It’s about the quality of the writing and how much time I have to spend on it.

Q: Do you need to have a social media following to be a freelance writer?
A: Not for me, but I know other publications do want you to have them.

Q: How do you feel about “pay on publication”?
A: Pay on publication is BS because you as a writer don’t have control of when or if something gets published. You did your job. You should get paid. And be careful; “work for hire” means they own the copyright, they own everything – it’s like you never wrote it.

Q: Where do contracts come into play?
A: I use a one-page agreement. AIGA is a good source. If you’re doing a large job, ask for some of the payment up front or in stages. (See also Take The Fear Out Of Contracts, a Freelance Austin blog post.)

Q: Where are the best places to publish essays?
A. Aeon, Sapiens, NextTribe.

Cindy Dashnaw