An Interview with Publishing Manager Porscha Burke
February 22, 2018
by Greg Stewart
Porscha Burke is a Publishing Manager at the Random House Publishing Group. Throughout her career in book publishing she has worked with award-winning and bestselling authors including Maya Angelou and the former Chief of Police in Dallas David Brown. In this interview, Porscha provides insight into the intersection of her life as a Queens native and her role of writing about hip hop and working with seminal African American voices. She grew up in a thriving arts and culture scene, and then broke into the book industry as an assistant to Random House Publishing Group president and publisher Gina Centrello. Recently, Porscha finished an MFA in nonfiction from Goucher College, and now teaches there as an adjunct professor. She has also taken part in the SLICE’s annual writers’ conference. Porscha discusses how editors function behind-the-scenes at Penguin Random House, the role of books in the world of hip hop, and much more.
How did you find your way into the role of Publishing Manager and Associate Editor at Random House Publishing Group?
Getting the job as executive assistant to the president and publisher at Random House in 2004 was an answered prayer. Though I wasn’t the typical English major applicant fresh out of the Columbia Publishing Course, Gina Centrello (President and Publisher, Random House) saw something in my credentials as an experienced admin and gave my inner (or very visible) grammar nerd a shot at her dream job—more than once over the past 14 years.
Can you tell our readers a bit about how you ended up as the editor for Maya Angelou? What was it like working with her through her various projects?
In 2007, I had the great fortune to assist the inimitable Bob Loomis, Dr. Angelou’s lifelong editor. Though my formal tenure with Bob lasted only a few months, it was then that I first spoke with Dr. Angelou, matching her rich, velvety voice with formal greetings and laughter over the phone. When Dr. Angelou delivered her second cookbook, Great Food, All Day Long, Bob invited me to edit alongside him (I was assisting our cookbook editor at the time). That summer, Dr. Angelou would call me to go over edits. She filled those calls with stories about her mother, Vivian Baxter, and her brother, Bailey Johnson. She spoke of dinner parties she hosted in Harlem and Winston-Salem, the names of old, dear friends as dazzling as the recipes themselves. When Bob retired, he and Gina suggested to Dr. Angelou that I remain her point of contact at Random House. Dr. Angelou called and invited me to be her editor—working with her through the publication of what would be her final memoir, Mom & Me & Mom and her tribute poem to Nelson Mandela, His Day Is Done.
Hearing her signature, “Hello, Ms. Burke,” always signified a good day—although perhaps a little stressful because I always wanted to please her and didn’t know what request she might put forth. But the most unique of her requests was just to be sure to add a real note—preferably hand-written—at the start of any of our written communications. I could feel—in every conversation we had—she just wanted me to do well. She always just wanted everyone to be their best selves. What a blessing she was—and continues to be.
It was an honor to be with her, to hold her hand, to hear her sing my name—to get to add stories to the almost infinite bible of encounters so many amazing people have experienced with her. I am so thankful, so thankful that prayer works.
I’m curious if you can talk about your MFA program a little bit. I am wondering how an MFA can help someone who works on the editorial side of book production. Also, can you tell us a little bit about your thesis, “Midnight Marauders: A Quest Narrative?” Will this ever see the shelves of a bookstore?
My initial goal entering an MFA program was to get a clearer understanding of the building blocks for nonfiction—to know, once and for all, whether you must outline first or if you need unflinching clarity about who your audience is before writing a single word. Instead, it crystallized for me how each writer is different—how the method that works best is the one that gets your butt in the seat and staying in it until our draft is done. Moreover, some of the most beautiful and powerful literary magic occurs only when you share that draft with a community of other writers and readers. The insights of your literary community can transform a frog of a first draft into an award-winning prince.
The writers I worked with and learned from at Goucher College helped me find my own voice and, hence, prepared me to more consistently edit in my authors’ voices—distinguishing between what I think it should sound like if I wrote it versus the tone of their strongest, clearest prose.
My thesis was so much fun to write—until Phife passed away. Then I had to stop writing for a month because what had been just a passion project—bigging up St. Albans, Queens and sharing stories from my life watching these guys blow up from several vantage points (a neighborhood girl, the daughter of one of their managers, a young fan dancing to rap and just learning about jazz music)—now had a heavier responsibility. It would be my method of paying tribute to a group whose music epitomized my coming of age and affirmed for me that I didn’t have to be hard to be cool or militant to embrace and celebrate my blackness.
As someone who writes in the intersection between hip-hop and literature, can you speak to the world of hip-hop literature a bit? What role do you think the book industry should have in historicizing hip hop?
I wish there were more rappers with book deals. Seriously.
Rappers are modern-day griots, their slick punchlines and syncopated storytelling can cover complex, thought-provoking subjects and lightweight humor alike. Rappers don’t have to be memoirists only. The spectrum from, say, The Message to A Children’s Story, Steve Biko to Money, Cash, Hoes to Alright is as broad as all the literary genres—narrative nonfiction and history to memoir and poetry. Of course, poetry.
We’ve been fortunate to see books like Jay Z’s Decoded and Prodigy’s Commissary Kitchen highlight how dynamically hip-hop can be represented on the page. (Likewise, all of Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson’s books differ from each other.) Novels like Styles P’s Invincible (which he wrote on his Sidekick, by the way) and Dana Dane’s Numbers prove rappers with strong storytelling skills on the mic can translate those to the page. And the oral histories (Brian Coleman’s Check the Technique and Shea Serrano’s The Rap Year Book, for example) lend context and historical import to the art form, legitimizing it for those who still need convincing. (As if Nas’s Harvard fellowship isn’t enough!)
I don’t think book publishing’s role is just to historicize hip-hop—books are art as much as music is. I think books offer an opportunity to advance hip-hop, to communicate its beauty and power and legacy to new generations who will grow up in a world where Kendrick Lamar is old school. Books about hip-hop and by its artists can show readers what’s possible if they grab a pad and a pen, a mic and a beats tape, and let their imaginations fly. Especially for young people of color—who all too often get a message that they’re worthless or not as valuable as others—exposure to hip-hop in books can exemplify how staid margins can be transcended.
I am excited about the opportunity for books about hip-hop—by hip-hop artists and journalists, and/or influenced by the culture—to expand and counter some of the negative perceptions out there about fans of the music not reading, or fans only being made up of a niche demographic. I watched hip-hop grow from underground party music to international mainstream music before I was of legal drinking age. I hope that before reaching retirement age, I get to see it grow from a niche in books to a widely accepted, promoted, and marketed mainstay atop the NY Times bestseller lists.
Can you take us through a brief telling of the timeline of a book for someone in your position? What shape is a manuscript usually in when you get it as a submission? What kind of work do you do to change it, and how do you accomplish that work? How involved in the final processes of publishing are you?
Because most of my projects have been nonfiction, they’re generally incomplete when we start—a strong proposal and chapter outline, a sample chapter or two. I enjoy early conversations with writers at that stage—getting to know them, to understand their passion for the subject, what drives them to share this content with others. After those discussions, they set off to write without interference from me, only bringing me back into the mix if they’ve hit a snag. Often, I’ll get back a full, super rough draft—and try my best to resist line-editing it. (That’s my favorite part of editing, truth be told—getting the grammar right.) Any editor will tell you multiple reads of that draft are necessary—at least one without marking up the text at all. Some authors have all the necessary parts in that early draft and just need them rearranged to tell a compelling, cohesive story. Others might be missing critical information and need help getting out of the weeds and pulling back to give outsiders a big-picture view. (This is another skill the MFA program cultivated. I thought my writing made clear who was who and what was what, but those who hadn’t been listening to Hov since day one couldn’t always follow.)
Sometimes my editorial notes are mostly bullet points—I love clear, well-organized notes. Other times, they’re letters—intense book reports conveying what did and didn’t work. Usually it’s some combination of both. We repeat this process as often as necessary until we have the best possible text. And then, once the manuscript is transmitted to production, my role becomes more like a project manager—liaising between author and design, production, sales, and publishers. We go on like that until it’s time for publicity to begin, when publicists take first place—managing most of the authors’ requests and itineraries—and my role becomes something like cheerleader-in-chief.
As gatekeepers of literature, editors do far more than just fixing grammar. Can you tell our readers a bit about the most important elements of the editorial role in your opinion? Also, do you have any advice that you might give to editors, both junior and senior?
I see my job as an editor as helping people who have something important to say deliver that message as clearly and powerfully as possible to the readers who need that word. That requires I listen (and read) much more than I critique (or annotate). That also means I communicate as clearly and powerfully as possible on their behalf. Well-informed advocacy and passion could make the difference between me acquiring a book or having to pass because no one else understood it. It’s my job to learn enough about our business—publishing overall and my company’s goals and strengths in it—to understand how a book I want to buy might impact our bottom line.
What is a typical day at work like for you? Give our readers a breakdown of how editors really spend their time.
While I was an editor, I also had assistant responsibilities, so I never got to know how editors really spent their time! What I do know: The picture of an editor reading in her office all day is a myth. My daylight hours—even when working in editorial exclusively—were always dedicated to the business of the book, contracts, and catalog copy, and conference calls, and comp titles, and the like. The reading and editing work always happened for me after 5:00 pm—or 12:00 pm on summer Fridays.
For the past fourteen years, Porscha Burke has been a key member of Random House, where she has helped nurture the careers of new and established authors, supported publishing executives, and acquired works by Dr. Maya Angelou, Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, and Chief David O. Brown, among others. She also curated Rainbow in the Cloud: The Wisdom and Spirit of Maya Angelou and spearheaded the publication of new editions of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and The Black Book, originally edited by Toni Morrison. A Queens, New York native and graduate of the University of Virginia, Porscha received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College, where her thesis centered on hip-hop legends A Tribe Called Quest. She also teaches book proposal writing as an adjunct professor in that same program.
Greg Stewart is a writer and a student attending The New School in their Master’s program for Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism.