In the old says – and probably still for the poor people trapped in that model – we got told ALL the time that a relationship with your agent or your editor was “like a marriage.”
(Sarah pauses for a moment to allow people to appreciate the rich irony of publishing professionals, possibly the group with the highest number of single people of any professional group were the ones offering this model.)
The idea, of course, was that as in a marriage, you were entering in an exclusive relationship with this person, with whom you’d work very closely, and they’d have your best interests at heart.
I regret to admit I fell for it to an extent. To the extent that I knew leaving an agent (I left three. Well, ultimately four.) was often attended by the drama and emotional turmoil of a bad divorce, including but not limited to the letter that told you that without the ex you were going to starve in the gutter (agent number one.)
I was reminded of this, recently, by reading a magazine article, (which I now can’t find) which claimed your relationship with your employer is “just like a marriage.”
I don’t know why this metaphor is so prevalent, but I wish people would quit it. Just because it’s something permanent and you might (or then again might not) be building something together, it doesn’t mean the relationship is like a marriage. And if you insist on viewing it that way, you’re going to get badly hurt.
In fact I think the continued pushing of the metaphor was supposed to project this image of “love and devotion” and hide the ugly facts behind it.
So, next time someone tells you whatever relationship (business, partnership, classroom, whatever) is like a marriage, here are some things to keep in mind.
1- Unless you’re living somewhere where polygamy is legal (in which case I’m so sorry) marriage is one on one.
Unless you’re your agent’s and/or publisher’s only client/writer (and if you are, how much pull does that company have) this is not like a marriage.
2- Marriage is reciprocal. Yes, yes, for those of you who believe in certain forms of traditional marriages, (and even for those who don’t. As my husband puts it, it’s always good to know who’s to navigate and who’s to steer) there are mutual duties and obligations, well defined and daily enforced. A spouse would miss the other spouse’s contribution if it disappeared
While you are bound to send books to your agent or editor (by contract) they’re not bound to read them as soon as they arrive, and they’re not bound to consider your career the most important thing in their schedule. This is what we refer to as an asymmetrical relationship.
3- Marriage binds your success/failure into a common cause.
Again, unless you’re your agent’s or publisher’s only writer, your publisher/agent can do quite well without you.
I think most employers also fail the test.
So what is the point of the whole “marriage” talk, and how does it work? Well, by making it sentimental and giving the whole thing an image of mutual faithfulness, life-long, the hope is that it will cloud your judgment enough you won’t see the power imbalance in the relationship. If you think that you have invested in a “relationship” and aren’t merely contracting with someone or leasing your copyright to someone for the purpose of getting your book seen by as many people as possible, you’re less likely to drop an agent who doesn’t send anything out or a publisher that messes up distribution or isn’t very prompt on the statements.
So, whenever you encounter that type of metaphor: “marriage”; “family”; “brotherhood” in a context that’s clearly not appropriate – business, politics, place of residence – it’s time to start wondering what people hope to accomplish by evoking such fuzzy, sentimental concepts. Then say you Don’t.