by Karen Ball
Thirty-two years ago today I said those very words to my darling hubby, Don, in a candlelit service, surrounded by friends and family. Ours was a whirlwind courtship and marriage. From the time we met to the wedding was a total of 8 months—and we were apart for 3 of those months. Yes, we were young. And yes, in many ways, we were incredibly foolish. But now, 32 years later, I can tell you that though our journey has not been smooth or easy, it’s taught us more than I ever thought possible about love, about faith, about obedience, about grace. God has used two imperfect people to forge a strong, lasting bond, and He’s knit our hearts and spirits together as I once thought impossible.
As I thought about all this today, and about all it’s taken for us to not just survive as a couple but to thrive, it confirmed something I’ve heard and experienced: the author/agent relationship is very much like a marriage. There’s the wooing and courting, often on both parts. There’s trying to figure out how to win the heart of the desired. There’s that flush of excitement when you discover your interest is reciprocal. There’s the proposal, and the happy “I do.”
And then there’s the freakin’ hard work of the relationship.
An author’s relationship with an agent is a close and intimate thing. You share dreams and passions, callings and needs, you work close together to make those things come true. For many authors, me included, you share not just your writing life but your personal life with your agent. They become, for all intents and purposes, as much a part of your life as family. And there’s another similarity between marriage and the author/agent relationship…
Don and I came from diverse childhoods. I mean…DIVERSE. Our experiences growing up were polar opposites. Our understanding of family and marriage and love were as far apart as the east is from the west! You’ve heard of folks bringing baggage into a relationship? Well, we had steamer trunks. Big ones. As a result, we hit a lot of snags. By God’s grace, our relationship endured some very turbulent times. Time that ended up, again, by God’s grace alone, making us stronger individually and together. But I won’t deny I wish, wish, wish we’d understood more about the potentially devastating effect expectations can have on a relationship.
Again, it’s similar with authors and agents. Whether you’ve had a number of agents, or are in the process of finding your first agent, the best counsel I can give you is what I tell young couples contemplating marriage: Know your expectations. Each of you must determine what you want from the person and the relationship. Be honest about your strengths and weaknesses, and understand that no one person can ever meet all your needs. No, I’m not saying get more than one agent. Heaven forbid! All I mean is make sure you are aligning yourself with an agent who is a good fit in personality, ability, and passion.
How can you know that? Well, there are hosts of places online to find business questions to ask a potential agent. But I encourage you to consider this relationship in light of some self-examination, understanding there’s no right or wrong to your answers. There’s just understanding yourself and the expectations you bring to the relationship.
- Do you want someone who will get to know you and your family as well as your work, or are you looking more for a business partner?
- Are you someone who needs to hear from the agent on a regular basis, even if it’s just to say “hi”, or are you content only to hear when there’s something happening on the career front?
- Do you state your needs easily or find yourself wanting the other person to “read” you and know what you need?
- How do you handle conflict? Do you pull back and get silent, letting things simmer, or do you explode and then everything’s okay. Are you willing to address issues right away, or do you shy away from difficult conversations?
- How do you respond when you fall behind or miss a deadline? Do you let guilt eat you up and make you even less able to work, or do you keep the nose to the grindstone and work until it’s done? What do you need from your agent when this happens? Encouragement? A pep talk? A kick in the pants?
- What is the worst thing an agent could do? The best?
These are just a few thoughts to get you started. The key here is to not just know yourself, but to understand how you need to work with an agent, and how an agent needs to work with you. And then, when you have that figured out, to make those needs and expectations clear at the outset. Especially that last one. And I encourage you to ask the agent the same thing: What is the worst thing I could do as your client? What’s the best thing I can do?
If Don and I have learned nothing else through all these years, we’ve learned the importance of knowing and communicating as clearly (and unemotionally!) as possible our needs and expectations. Doing this with an agent will help avoid unneeded problems down the road, and will help you deal with problems when they come. No blame or shame needed. Just honest communication, steeped in kindness and truth.
There’s no better basis for any relationship.