Shifting the Culture One Book at a Time
Rakia Clark ’01, an executive editor at Mariner Books, discusses her two decades in the publishing industry, and what changes she has witnessed over the years.
By the time she became an executive editor at Mariner Books, Rakia Clark had witnessed two decades of evolution in the book publishing industry. The consolidation and merging of publishing houses, combined with Amazon’s interruption of traditional bookselling methods and tech advances that enabled new platforms for consuming literature, has left the industry looking less and less like the one the Haverford English major entered after her 2001 graduation.
Clark launched her book-publishing career with a Columbia University course and steadily rose through the editorial ranks at major publishers such as HarperCollins, Penguin, Kensington, and Beacon before taking her current post last fall. Throughout, she has put the spotlight on marginalized voices and brought to print such acclaimed works as Mona Eltahawy’s bold feminist manifesto The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls and poet and screenwriter Brian Broome’s Kirkus Prize-winning Punch Me Up to the Gods: A Memoir, his powerful account of coming of age as a gay Black man.
Sameer Rao ’11 spoke to Clark about her long career in publishing and the industry changes she’s witnessed.
When did you decide you wanted to work in publishing?
I was pre-med the first three years at Haverford, and [by] September of my senior year, I knew I didn’t want to apply to medical school. I went to the Career Development Office, and [then-Director] Liza Jane Bernard listened to me speak uninterrupted for about 20 minutes about my quandary: what my path had been, what the expectations were from my family while going to an elite fancy school like Haverford, coming from my modest background. I knew how disappointing it would be for my parents to hear that I wasn’t going to medical school, and that they would then ask, “What are you going to do?” And I didn’t have an answer.
Liza asked, “Well, what are you interested in?” And I said, “Ideas and books and culture,” and I was going on and on. A smile started to creep onto her face, and she said, “Oh, honey, you want to work in publishing!” She gave me the very broadest strokes of what it is, noted that a few Haverford students were able to get jobs at publishers in New York, and said, “New York is where you want to be.”
The cornerstone of the English major is “Junior Seminar,” and I didn’t know this at the time, but I was honing all the muscles that I would use in this work. It’s the critical thinking, the writing, the engagement, and I loved it.
Given the increasing attention on how people of color experience the publishing industry, how has your own ability to enact change grown over time?
It’s evolved as I’ve gained expertise and developed my sense of self. Who you are at 22 is different than who you are 20-plus years later. You’ve experienced enough life to know you might as well do what you want to do, bring your expertise to it, and just speak it plainly to people. I think the industry has evolved as well. A lot of what I’ve seen as steps forward, or mistakes that publishers have made, kind of feel inevitable because publishing is part of American society. Everything the country is reckoning with, publishing is reckoning with alongside it.
I think that I was prepared for the shift that’s happening. My taste today is the taste that I had in 2001. It’s just that people are listening to me now, and part of that is because I stuck around and got better. But I am certain that there are people in and outside of the publishing industry who are like, “Well, how good could she really be? She only got hired because ….” But that’s not a new feeling. I’ve been Black the whole time, so I don’t let that bother me. It’s just part of the fabric of my working life.
Which of the books you’ve brought to market stand out to you?
The first book I published at Beacon is about corporal punishment within the Black community: Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America. The writer, Dr. Stacey Patton, is a historian and child welfare advocate, and it’s probably one of the most important books I’ve ever published. People are very dismissive when it comes to parents’ right to be able to hit their children, and she just dismantles any argument you have.
Some people told me they didn’t finish the book because they didn’t want to change their minds, because it’s harder to parent in a way that’s different than how you were parented—and that also forces you to reckon with how you were parented. That one is deeply special to me.
Do you foresee any future trends or changes on the horizon that will impact the industry?
Diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives industry-wide [pushed publishers] to hire more people of color, and there’ve been some recent senior-level hires. People who were hired a year ago, their books are going to start getting published. I’m curious to see what those are. Books are a major part of our culture, so the books that get published, even if it’s happening in a subtle way, influence the way that we think. It’s often a slower process, so the hires that are made can actually change culture over time.