Is a collaboration like a marriage?

by Stephanie Golden

Copyright © 2009 Stephanie Golden

Certainly there are similarities. In her chapter on book collaborations in The ASJA Guide to Freelance Writing, Sarah Wernick notes that writers often make this comparison:
Ideally, your collaborator is someone who shares the work, a person with whom you can brainstorm, a partner who rejoices with you when things go well and commiserates when they don’t.
Then she adds, “Alas, collaborations, like marriages, aren’t always ideal.”
That part is certainly true, but overall I don’t really like this analogy. A collaboration is a professional relationship, not an intimate one: different expectations apply, especially involving money.
Best to think this way: a collaboration is not a marriage. No matter how much you may like and admire the other person, you maintain some distance, and you don’t lay your personal issues on each other.
Of course, you don’t have to keep your personal life a total secret. Both of you need to be flexible if either has to cancel a work session, or has an emergency that causes a writing delay. But whatever is going on in your life should not affect the working relationship any more than if you were part of a project team in an office.
In my experience it’s tricky to develop too much of a personal relationship when one party is paying the other for a service. More than anything else, I think, money brings out whatever is unbalanced in people’s characters. It becomes an outlet for feelings they can’t express elsewhere in their lives, including anxiety aroused by the book project itself. (Which is one reason why you always need a contract that lays out your agreement completely and unambiguously—a topic for another article.)
Basically, you don’t want too personal a connection with someone who’s paying you, or whom you’re paying. It’s hard enough to deal with the normal problems of the writing process without having to navigate emotional needs or irrational expectations on either side.
Here’s the exception: I’ve successfully done jobs for people who are (still) friends, but they happen to be pretty good at dealing with money. I’ve found that if money isn’t an issue, I can maintain my professionalism in relation to the work (even when the other’s behavior may occasionally irritate me), then drop it and just be the person’s friend away from the work. The trick is to pick your collaborator with your eyes open, and make sure the money questions are settled in a way satisfactory to both sides, so there’s no lingering discomfort or resentment over payment.
I’ve also found that even when you don’t particularly like the other person, or want to develop any personal closeness, as long as you respect him or her--and both parties behave with integrity--you can have an excellent working relationship and produce a terrific book.
In centuries past, a marriage was essentially a business contract, based not on love but on economic interests. The parties might eventually develop respect and affection for each other, but they didn’t go into the arrangement with delusions of getting their emotional needs met. Maybe that’s a better model for a book collaboration.