Agents & Editors: Rakia Clark

Vivian Lee
From the March/April 2023 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Of the many adjectives that describe Rakia Clark—sharp, ambitious, inquisitive—the one that might best express her career trajectory and her work as an editor, as well as what makes her an effective advocate for her authors, is intentional. Her acquisitions at Mariner Books, the imprint of HarperCollins where she has worked for three and a half years, the past year and a half as an executive editor, are a clear indicator of exactly that quality. She has ushered into print such recent notable books as Chinelo Okparanta’s acclaimed novel Harry Sylvester Bird (2022), Brian Broome’s award-winning memoir Punch Me Up to the Gods (2021), and Angela Chen’s probing nonfiction exploration Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex (2020).

Rakia Clark, executive editor of Mariner Books. (Credit: Andres Hernandez)

But even before she had secured her position as a top editor at a Big Five publishing house, back when she had no idea what she wanted to do after college, she was intentional in her journey. With the help of her counselor at the career development office at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, she determined exactly what she liked: books, words, ideas. Once she started talking about how much she enjoyed a junior-year seminar in which students wrote essays that would be shared among a small cohort, she realized that editing her fellow students’ words was something that came easy to her, natural even. For her it was essentially an Editing 101 course, even if she didn’t know that was what she was doing at the time. “But I loved it. I loved it,” Clark recalls. “And I was full of ideas, and this was fun to me. I’m grinning now just remembering it.”

Clark graduated from Haverford College in 2001, right as the dot-com bubble was bursting, and she knew that breaking into publishing was going to be challenging. It still is, of course, but in an unstable economy it was perhaps even more difficult that year. After twelve months spent back in her hometown of Atlanta, she moved to the capital of book publishing, New York City, and took the Columbia Publishing Course, a training ground for those interested in working in the industry. It was exactly the on-ramp she needed. “Everything started from that course,” she says. Not only did she receive an education in publishing, but she also received a crash course in making a life in the city. “It wasn’t tough mentally,” Clark says of the transition. “I wanted to spend my twenties in New York. I had watched all the movies, I had seen all the TV shows, and I thought, ‘Yeah, why not?’ I didn’t think I would stay, but I thought, ‘I’ll work in New York, hopefully in publishing, for a few years, spend my twenties here, and then I’ll figure out what I want to do when I turn thirty.’” She never left.

After completing the Columbia course, Clark fielded several job offers and took one as a rotational associate at HarperCollins, where she worked across departments. In this new role she received invaluable experience in publicity, sales, and marketing. While she knew publishing was the right industry for her, it wasn’t until she sat in her first editorial meeting that she realized it was her calling. “I had to be in the meeting and hear how people were talking about books and see at what point in the process editorial was working before I knew that,” Clark says. “No one could have explained it to me.”

In 2005 she moved to Viking, where she started acquiring books as an assistant editor, then took on an editor role at the independent press Kensington Publishing for two years before making a transition to freelance editing, which she did until 2015, when she was offered a senior editor position at Beacon Press in Boston. Four years later she took the position at Mariner. That sort of longevity as an editor, staying true to what delights and surprises, is rare, especially for women of color, who are often among the first to burn out and leave publishing.

I recently spoke with Clark about our hopes for the industry, those singular moments when we see a writer unlock something special in their own work, and what it takes for a writer to shine in a query.

How did you realize editing, reading, all of that was what you wanted to do?
I was an English major. Surprise, surprise. [In college] the centerpiece of the curriculum for English majors was this year-long class called the junior seminar—a class of fifteen students, three groups of five. And you would have to read the other students’ work. And then [outside of the regular class] you would have a weekly meeting where you’re giving each other notes. And I was really good at it. I was really, really good at it. I’m not a writer by any means. Well, none of the writers that I work with [now], I couldn’t touch them. But for academic undergraduate writing, I was pretty nice. And I was full of ideas, and this was fun to me.

And then everybody would read my work and they would have ideas and I would read their work and I would have even more ideas. That process I loved. And so, I was giving [the career development counselor] some version of that and just saying like, “I don’t want to be a teacher.” I said, “I know I don’t want to teach.” That’s the thing that everybody always goes to first. And I was like, “I don’t really want to be in advertising.” I kept pointing to the things I didn’t want to be, but I was using publishing words without saying the word publishing because I didn’t know that publishing existed.

I want to take us back to after you landed in New York and had just finished the Columbia Publishing Course. What did it take in 2002 to make it in the industry after all that?
Before the Columbia Publishing Course, I didn’t have a job lined up. But I bought a one-way ticket and I just figured, “Okay, I’ve got six weeks.” That’s how long the program runs. “I’ve got six weeks to figure it out.” And the course provides lodging and some meals. And I just figured I could figure it out after six weeks. And luckily at the end of the course I had a couple of job offers. So, it did work out, but it could very easily not have. My naivete, I think, worked to my benefit in that moment.

So, over the [duration] of the course, you’re meeting lots of people who work in publishing and many of them are very senior. And I don’t know if this is still how they do it, but the course was so revered at the time that people who had job openings would wait until the newest class of the Columbia Publishing Course students were finishing to hire from that class. And job openings were coming through all the time. That didn’t mean that they had to hire from the course, but they just often did. And at the same time, they were sending their job listings to—I don’t even know if that’s right anymore! But Monster and MediaBistro and all these websites that people would go to if you wanted to break into publishing in New York. And it wouldn’t be like from corporate HR. The actual editors would call the course and say, “Hey, we’ve got an opening for a publicity assistant. We’ve got an opening for a marketing assistant. Do you have anybody who might be interested?” And we got first dibs on, well, at least a head start on what the openings were.

And there was also a woman who came through who helped us. She looked at your résumés and would help you to tailor it to the kind of job you were interested in. There was a senior vice president of HR who gave us an idea of what to expect. Job hunting wasn’t the main focus of the course, but I would probably say the last several days of the course were very geared towards that because the whole point was for you to get a job right out of it.

Had editorial always been what you wanted to break into in publishing? Or were there other kinds of jobs that you were like, “Oh, maybe I would want to do that as well?”
Yeah, editorial wasn’t the thing that I was set on. I didn’t understand enough about the industry to know what I was set on. When I first heard, when the woman from the career development office said, “Rakia, you might consider publishing. It sounds like what you’re saying is publishing.” I was like, “No, no, no. I don’t mean like cutting down trees.” I did not understand there was a whole business to creating books, to book production. It never even occurred to me. And so the idea that I would’ve understood editorial being different than publicity, being different than sales, being different than managing editorial.... I didn’t know what a literary agent was. I don’t know if I ever heard that phrase until the course. I wasn’t even that far down the road.

So when I took the course I just knew I was interested in publishing conceptually. And what the course did was it introduced me to Publishing 101. “This is what the business looks like in our country. It works a little bit differently in the other places, but in the United States, this is what it looks like. Here’s what each department does. Here’s how they work together. And depending on what you’re interested in, are you an introvert? Are you an extrovert? What kind of books do you like to read? How much free time do you want? Are magazines a better thing for you?” Online magazines were beginning to emerge as a thing.

And it sort of gave me a wide view of what all the options were. And I thought literary agenting was interesting, but I didn’t consider myself very entrepreneurial. And I thought, “Oh, you only take home what you hunt.” I was like, “Oh, that’s a little advanced for me.” And then I thought maybe marketing, because it seemed like a blend of the business and the art.

And I had a couple of job offers and the one that I took was as a rotational associate here at HarperCollins, in fact. And it let you rove across departments. And then when assistant jobs opened up, you got first dibs on them. And the reason I took that job over the editorial assistant offer I had was because I wanted to see what is it like to be in publicity, what it’s like to be in sales. And after my first editorial meeting, I think I was sitting in for an assistant who was on vacation or something for a couple days, so in my first editorial meeting, I was like, “Oh, yeah. We’re done.” Very clear. But I had to be in the meeting and hear how people were talking about books and see at what point in the process editorial was working before I knew that. No one could have explained it to me.

I love that. When you see people talk about books, that’s when it clicked for you.

What would you say is your philosophy when it comes to editing?
I want the writers I work with to work at their full capacity, whatever that is. And everybody’s capacity is different. My ambition for each book I work on is to set out at the very beginning with my writer and say, “This is what we’re doing. We’ve all agreed that this is where we’re going to land.” And then I spend eighteen months, two years, sometimes longer, helping the writer get it there. And some writers don’t need as much help getting it there as others. And then some writers need more help than I expected getting it there. The most fun editorial experiences are when the writer has more capacity than I thought. That’s thrilling when I realize, “Oh. Oh.” And when that happens, it’s like, “Okay, we’re going to have some fun with this.”

Because it’s like, “Well, I thought your capacity was here. You’ve already passed that. Let me just keep pushing and see how far—what can you really do?” And that’s rare when that happens. But when it happens, it’s thrilling.

That’s one of the best parts of being an editor, I think: finding that magic moment when they’re like, “I have something. I have an idea from what you said.” And it’s even greater than what you had imagined.
And sometimes we see that on submission. I’m sure you’ve experienced this yourself when you’re reading something by a writer who’s never been published anyplace, [and it’s sent to you by] an agent who might be young or inexperienced or not at a fancy place or is using a P.O. box or has a Hotmail account. All of these things signal to us that this is probably going to be a no before we’ve even opened the attachment. And then you start to read the thing and you’re like, “Oh. Oh. Oh! Let’s go shopping.” That’s fun. That’s really fun.

What are you looking for that will give you one of those moments?
The writing has to be really good. It has to feel like something I’ve not read before, even if the topic is something that I have read about before. I see a lot of books about race and culture and music and fashion and feminism. And I see a lot of memoir. So it’s not that the topic itself needs to be new. What is really new? Very few things. But the treatment of it needs to feel new.

And I like to feel that the writer is telling me something about themselves, even if they’re not telling me something about themselves, where it makes me wonder where this person grew up. I wonder what they read. I wonder what they’ve experienced that makes them land here on this. I like that. I like that feeling a lot. That’s what makes something feel fresh and revelatory to me.

Even if it’s dealing with a topic that I’ve read about deeply or something that I might have even experienced myself, I’m interested in: How are you experiencing it, Vivian? We’re both in the same town, we went to the same school, work in the same industry, but you’re experiencing this differently because you’re in your skin. I [want to] feel whatever that experience is for you. Writers who can do that are really special.

What do you say when writers ask about trends or are worried about writing into a trend?
I tell them not to worry about it. If it’s good, it’s good. We might both be wearing jeans, but we look different in the jeans because our bodies are different. Just because somebody else has done it, was their version corny? Is your version better? And you have to be honest with yourself about that. I think sometimes writers are trying to avoid trends, but they also don’t have anything new to say about that trend.

It’s not interesting to read something that feels like a summation of other people’s work or a regurgitation of other people’s work. But if I can tell that you’ve engaged with all these other things and then you sat with it for a minute and then you were like, “Well, this is what I think about that.” Or, “What if we sprinkle this other thing in?” Or, “You know what? I’m going to turn this on its head and throw a wrench into this whole conversation.” So you’re talking about the same thing, but the angle on it is new. That’s fun.

I love that. You’re complicating the question. You’re complicating that thing you’re thinking about.
I love when writers are complicating narratives that are set for me. I don’t always like it personally. I’m like, “Oh, you’re making me think about that. I don’t want to. My opinion on this is firm. I know what I think. I know what I feel.” And then you read something about something and you’re like, “Wait a minute, you got a point here. Points were made.”

I don’t think anybody should be turned off on a subject because other people are writing about it, but then obviously you shouldn’t just try to jump on what other people are doing. That’s a quick way to get your work rejected.