What are some things you look for in a query letter that catch your eye when you open that e-mail from an agent?
The first thing that is important to me, and has become more important to me recently, is that you know what I work on. You know what I publish, and you know what I don’t publish. And if the query letter is communicating to me that you understand what it is that I do and you are sending me the submission because this fits what I do, that’s the bare minimum. Bare minimum. And if the query letter communicates to me one way or another, “Oh, you have no idea what I do,” we’re not starting off in a good place here, because it’s easy to find out what I do. It’s super easy.
And you don’t have to have a subscription to any place to find that. I have deliberately [shared it publicly] on my website. You can see what I do. So if I receive a query letter that isn’t in line with the kind of work that I’ve expressed a lot of interest in and published in the past, that’s annoying to me. Or if it is different in some way, explain to me why I should pay attention. You have to acknowledge that.
A query letter shouldn’t be overly long. And this is coming from agents, not unsolicited from writers. And then just tell me what it is, like, top line: This is a coming-of-age memoir. This is a story about environmental justice in places that we never discuss. Just tell me, “What is it?” And then follow that with a little bit of why you like it as the agent. Why were you drawn to this? And then attach it.
Are accolades important for a writer to have?
Not always. They were to me a few years ago. I’m less impressed by them now. And not because they’re not impressive; they are impressive, but that doesn’t mean the writing is good. Just tell me what it is, why you like it, why you think I’m going to like it, and attach the proposal or attach the manuscript. If it comes with a big blurb or with tons of accolades, it will make me look at it faster. Because I know what that means for other people, and it’s like, “Oh, everyone’s going to be looking at this faster, so I should look at this faster.” But it doesn’t make me want it any more. It doesn’t mean anything to me in terms of the quality of the submission, but it can put it on the top of the pile.
What would you give as advice to writers who are just starting to figure out what their story is?
Read, read, read, read, read. And this is not new advice, Vivian!
This is probably advice you give out yourself, too. Read, read, read, read, read, read. You cannot read too much. You cannot read too much. You’re going to read things that are so good that you’re going to be mad. You’re going to be like, “Oh, man, I should never write anymore.” And then you’re going to read things and you’re like, “This sold for what? I am way better than this writer.” And you’re going to feel heartened and renewed and encouraged to go back and work on your own stuff.
But the most important quality, in my opinion, for writers: If you call yourself a writer, you have to be reading. And who are your contemporaries? Who are your ancestors? Who are you writing in the tradition of? You’re not this person, but a very skilled, learned, well-read person could track from that to you. You need to know what that is, and deeply. And who are your peers? Who are the writers who are writing in the same space you are? And how are you similar to them? Which is great. And how are you different than them? Which is better. You need to know. And this isn’t just for marketing purposes; obviously it matters for that, too, but you need to know what space you occupy and how you relate to the people who occupy similar space, past and present.
We both had similar starts in that we both didn’t really know what publishing was when we started. Were you surprised by the gender, racial, class backgrounds you encountered when you entered publishing? Did it feel surprising to you? Or was it something that you were like, “This makes a lot of sense.”
I was not surprised at all. No, not at all. Not at all. I don’t know that anybody explicitly told me what to expect, but they didn’t need to. I’ve looked like this the whole time, you know what I mean? I was spoon-fed, from the moments of my earliest memories, what to expect from this world. And that is exactly what I got. And it wasn’t communicated to me to discourage me from trying anything, or from feeling free, or from making choices that were beyond whatever stereotypes people might have for me; it was so that I would have the knowledge.
And I heard this from everybody. “You need to know. You need to know what is out there. And then you can decide how you’re going to move in it. But you need to know. Baby, you need to know.” I heard this from my teachers. I heard this from my parents. I heard this from my aunties and my uncles. I heard this from the parents of my friends, from the dentist, from the doctor, from the postman. Everybody said, “This is what you’re probably going to be facing.” And it’s not like the rest of America is one thing and publishing is different. There are very few spaces where it’s not like this in one way or another. So I wasn’t surprised at all.
And how do you feel you’ve been able to navigate this space? Again, the space is no different from other spaces, but I think publishing, especially, is seen as this well-read, liberal beacon, but racially the way people act is no different.
Right. The way people act is no different. The way is no different. I grew up in Georgia, and my perspective was really clear. It was, “Rakia, we’re going to prepare you. We’re going to make you big and strong, because there’s a thing that’s going to happen when you leave where we are.”
So when I left where I was and went out into the world, what I got is exactly what everybody said was going to happen, so there was no surprise for me. And the fact that publishing is an industry that’s about culture and art, and it’s highbrow and all those things: So? That doesn’t make any difference. I gave publishing as an industry no credit there. I didn’t expect it to be any different. So when it wasn’t, it wasn’t.
What did surprise me was that my talent and my promise as a young editor was seen but not protected. That surprised me. That was different from what I had experienced. People saw. They saw the talent and they saw the promise. And I expected a little bit more protection so that I could be here. And that did not happen. And that surprised me. That broke my heart. And that breaks my heart because it still happens today.
Now you’re at a level where you can be that kind of protector in some ways. And how do you see your position? What does that mean to you?
It means everything to me. It means everything to me. I thought that some things about my experience in publishing would change once I got promoted. With each promotion, I thought, “Oh, that won’t be a thing now.” And your promotion doesn’t solve those problems. You’re just in a different room dealing with those problems. And one of the things that I’m reckoning with myself now is: The problems that I thought I wouldn’t have—which was naive—I still have, but I also have more power, but not as much power as people probably think I have. But when I see someone who needs protection in the way that I know I needed protection, how can I give it in a way that they want to receive?
Because when I was coming along it, it was just a different time. And I think that you have to be willing to accept protection from the person who’s giving it to you. And I’m also trying to find ways, not just with passing projects on to other editors who I think are really smart and available, but pulling them, in a way. And sometimes they don’t want to be pulled for their own reasons that are valid. Sometimes I understand it, sometimes I don’t understand it. But they also have expectations of me that sometimes I understand and sometimes I don’t understand.
So I’ve got more power, but not as much power as I think it seems sometimes. I’m trying to do my job, but I’m also contending with the same issues that everybody else is contending with.
But it means something to me, like when I launch a list or when there’s a situation where I’m visible to my peers and to the company, my colleagues, in a way. And I get e-mails: “Hi, I saw you. I was just so glad to see you, to see somebody who looks like me, running the room, doing the thing.” That means everything to me.
And I’m hyperaware of that as I’m working all the time. Do you feel that way too?
I do. I feel like I want to go to all the coffee meetups. I want to do all the informational phone calls. I want to give that advice. But I don’t want to dictate what you should be doing either—or even worse, scare you off. Just because this thing happened to me doesn’t necessarily mean that’s going to happen to you. And just because I was burned in this way doesn’t mean that you’re going to be burned in this way. And I want you to be open to all experiences without getting hurt either. But it’s a lot of pressure, because you also want to do your job and do it well and stay here.
Yeah. I’m in a hurry for people who are hungry to get good really quickly, because I need them for my books. Can you hurry up and become director please? Can you hurry up and lead the department please? Can you hurry up and do that? Because I need you, because you understand this culturally or you understand, I don’t know what you call it, but you understand; you are sympathetic in a way because you’ve been raised in an environment where that’s the status quo. You don’t have the expertise yet. So hurry up and get the expertise. Can you promise me you’ll get amazing at the job? Because you’re amazing already as yourself.
I think about how there are so few of us and I feel like we’re always in constant conversations with one another, whether we know it or not, whether explicitly or just in the ether. So I am very grateful to have that. And I wish there were more.
Yeah, but the thing is, Vivian, there are more now than there were before. That’s the thing. Right now is the most there’s ever been.
And if you look at the group of people who are coming, it’s more of them. So it’s so important to keep them. And we’re not going to keep them all, because some of them are looking at this whole thing and being like, “You know what? I’m going to fill out this grad school application, take out another a hundred thousand dollars in student loans. That’s a better option than being here.”
What do you think it will take for us to retain as many talented young people as we can?
Publishers have to give a shit. Publishers have to care. You can’t do this, Vivian. I can’t do this. My editorial department can’t do this. The company has to care. It has to be more than, “Here’s a speaker who’s coming in to talk about that.” Thank you, but you have to care about the humanity of the employees you have. If we didn’t make any more recruitment efforts, but we retained everybody we have, that would solve this problem ten times over.
We should keep [BIPOC] recruitment efforts going. But if you’re recruiting people, it’s like filling a bag with liquid, but there’s a hole at the bottom. Publishing has a hole at the bottom of this bag and it keeps thinking, “Well, let me just keep filling it.” And it’s like, “Can you tuck in something through the holes?” And you think because the hole is at the bottom, no one can see it. Well, there are a lot of us who see it and are pointing our fingers at it and being like, “Hey, I can’t hold this myself.” Publishers have to want to do this. And they can if they want to.
The retention issue is where I am particularly concerned because I’m looking at these people and if I’m experiencing what I’m experiencing, I know they’re experiencing some version of this, but with much, much less power to do anything about it, much, much less agency. And are they going to stick around for fifteen years muddling through this? I did. Most people don’t.
You did freelance editing for six years, right?
Yep. I wanted to go back in-house, but I didn’t have a strong acquisitions record at that point. I’d been an assistant for a few years and then I was at a smaller indie place for a couple years, but I didn’t acquire much there. It was a tough job for me.
And then I freelanced for a long time. The recession happened and I lost my job, along with a third of editors. A third of all editors got laid off at the same time so there were fewer places to go for a stretch. And then when places started hiring again, they wanted people who had strong acquisitions records. And I understand that, but I was like, “But I’m really smart and you need me and I feel my taste has not changed. It’s been the same since [I started].”
I was going to ask.
It’s the exact same. It’s just now people are paying attention to it more. And there are books that have been published into that space that have been successful, and so now the publishers want them. But there was a period where even if a publisher did want the kind of books that I do, I hadn’t published them yet. I had not done it yet. And so, I just found it really difficult to find a job in-house, and when Beacon Press reached out to me out of the blue, completely out of the blue, and said, “This is what we’re doing, and we’ve been asking around and your name keeps coming up. Do you want to talk about it?” I was like, “Hell yeah, I want to talk about it!” And I ended up getting that job. And that was what put me back on the radar of the industry. I’d sort of been on the outskirts for a while.
What are you excited about for 2023?
I’ve got five books coming out, three on the summer list and two on the fall. My summer list is particularly swaggy. All of 2023 for me feels pretty swaggy. So, the first book is called An Amerikan Family by Santi Elijah Holley. And it’s about Shakurs, this loose collective of people between New York and Baltimore who really are the flip side of the Kennedys. If you track the individual people in that collective, it tells you everything you need to know about Black liberation over the past fifty years. And so, Tupac Shakur is a Shakur. Assata Shakur is a Shakur, Tupac’s mother Afeni Shakur is the baddest bitch you ever seen on the planet. And it looks at not just the three of them, but this collective and what they did. They did some things that were wonderful, and they did some things that were unforgivable. They were a complicated group but fighting all in the name of Black Liberation. And that book is coming out this summer. It feels very special to me. That’s a book that editorially surpassed the capacity thing that I was talking about. When I was reading the first full draft I was like, “Oh, oh, let’s go!” The author is not shy. He delivered early. You could tell that he just locked in. Reading it, I could see that he had locked in and he knew it. He knew he had something, and then I read it and then I knew he had something. And we’ve got this fantastic cover and I think we’re going to print a lot of copies. And now it’s just hoping that we find the audience for it.
And then I’m publishing a book about abuse and harassment in Hollywood by a Vanity Fair writer named Maureen Ryan. It’s called Burn It Down. It’s not looking at one bad man, it’s looking at [how] Hollywood, institutionally, systematically, is set up for this and how did that happen? What does that look like in practice? And what are some things that are going to be happening in the future to try to combat it?
And then I’ve got a book by Wesley Lowery, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. And his book is called American Whitelash, a book about white America’s response to President Obama’s 2008 presidential election and all of the violent white rage that was in response to it. But Wesley’s focus is on the narrative of the families left behind and the communities left behind. So, he’s not focused very much on the crimes, he’s focused on where is this coming from for white people and how is this affecting, how is their grievance? What does it look like in real communities?
And then I am also working on a book with Alua Arthur; she’s a death doula, and people are like, “Death doula, what’s that?” People understand what a birth doula is, but because our country is less religious than it’s ever been, people are looking for traditions and they’re looking to have something at the end of their lives that can help them sort of organize their affairs and also be at peace. And so, in the same way that people are hiring birth doulas to help them bring life into the world, there are also people who are hiring death doulas to help them wrap up their affairs, to help them mend relationships, to help them just come to terms with where they are at the end of their lives. It’s beautiful.
What do you hope to see in the future of our industry?
I love seeing people get promoted. When I see brown and Black folks getting that first promotion, getting that second promotion, getting that promotion to full publicist, full marketing, full editor, I’m like, yes! I need you to get good as quickly as you can because I need you to be either working on my books or helping to inform the people who are working on my books. Nothing excites me more than that, people sticking around and getting promoted.
Vivian Lee is a writer and a senior editor at Little, Brown.Corrections: A previous version of this interview incorrectly stated that Rakia Clark has worked at Mariner Books for five years, the past three as an executive editor. In fact, she has worked at Mariner for three and a half years, the past one and a half in her current position. Additionally, Clark did not move back to New York to work at Mariner, as previously stated; her work at Beacon Press in Boston was done remotely.