Though she started her career working on staff for New York trade publishers, Rakia Clark worked as a freelancer for six years beginning in 2009. In fact, she said that even after she joined Boston’s Beacon Press in 2015 as a senior editor, she “still got freelance requests, because a lot of people only thought of me as a freelance editor, not as an acquisitions person working in-house.”
In 2019, Clark was recruited to be a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt by former HMH publisher Bruce Nichols (now publisher of Little, Brown). She had been looking to expand the range of authors she acquired, and, as it turned out, Nichols was looking for an editor to do something similar at HMH. “The list I was building at Beacon—thought leaders, big idea books on race, gender, class, and feminism—he was hoping for more of that,” she said. “HMH ended up being a good place for me. It’s bigger, and it was going to offer me more of everything, but it also felt small enough, like a big imprint.”
At HMH, Clark acquires books by journalists, public intellectuals, and culture critics, in literary nonfiction and fiction, on topics such as pop culture, technology, sports, media, history, and current events. Currently, she has nine authors on her roster, and forthcoming titles include Punch Me Up to the Gods: A Memoir by Brian Broome (May 2021), a debut collection of autobiographical essays about growing up Black and gay in Ohio that was her first HMH acquisition. “It’s not a direct commentary on the current moment, but it is about Blackness, masculinity, and what it’s like to try to be a man when everything around you is trying to beat it out of you,” she said.
In October 2021, HMH will publish The Redemption of Bobby Love by Bobby and Cheryl Love, a couple who are the subject of a post on the Humans of New York photoblog in early 2020. “Bobby escaped from prison [in the late 1970s], moved to New York, took on a new identity, met and married Cheryl—who didn’t know who he was until the police came to rearrest Bobby in 2015,” Clark said. “Until his arrest he had been able to live as a model citizen, be a partner to his wife, raise his babies, and mentor young Black men in Brooklyn for 40 years. What would his life and community have been like had he served his original 25-to-30-year sentence? Would he have been more rehabilitated? This book looks at all of that.”
Another Clark acquisition was born from a tweet she posted this past summer. “All the submissions I had been receiving were so doom and gloom,” she said. “So I tweeted out my frustration, saying it would be nice to see a submission about Black joy.”
That tweet resulted in The Black Joy Project (a working title), by author and educator Kleaver Cruz, who reached out to Clark in response to her tweet. The book combines essays with imagery of what Black joy looks like across the global African diaspora. It will be published in 2022.
A native of Atlanta, Clark earned her undergraduate degree in English at Haverford College in 2001 and attended the Columbia Publishing Course the following year. She began her publishing career in 2002 as an editorial assistant at HarperCollins and went on to hold editorial positions at Viking Penguin and Kensington Publishing. For her innovative publishing work at Beacon, she was named a PW Star Watch honoree in 2018.
At Beacon, Clark focused on books that examined social justice, among them The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism by Howard Bryant (named a Library Journal Best Book of 2018) and The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy, which was published on Clark’s last day at the press in September 2019.
Asked about the state of diversity in publishing in the wake of a national reckoning over police brutality and systemic racism, Clark said, “Things are different in the book industry in a more positive way than when I started—but that’s not saying a whole lot. When I started, it was stunning how few Black people there were in publishing: I was an assistant at Viking, and there was an associate editor at Avery, and we were the only two Black people who worked in editorial for all of Penguin before the merger. And that was 15 years ago. I think there’s way more diversity at junior levels than there was before, but what is retention going to be like? How many of them are going to feel supported?”
Clark said she strives to acquire books by authors from diverse backgrounds: “I think a lot about my increased responsibilities when it comes to acquisitions. Some people will see that as power, but it feels more like a responsibility than like a superpower. I think publishing has gotten the memo about what they’re choosing to acquire loud and clear. Now, they’re going to have to put their money and their resources where the talk is.”
Another source of pride for Clark is the two years (starting in 2012) she spent teaching in the Publishing Certificate Program at City College of New York. The program was founded to train members of the diverse student body of CCNY to work in book publishing. “Am I still teaching? There’s no time anymore!” Clark said. “But I enjoyed it.”