Dan Smetanka, Editor

Dan Smetanka has worked in publishing for two decades, as an Executive Editor at Ballantine/Random House, and at Maria B. Campbell Associates, an agency that facilitates placement of American authors in international markets. He is currently an Executive Editor for Counterpoint and Soft Skull Press where his recent projects include Rockaway by Tara Ison, All the Dead Yale Men by Craig Nova, Rake by Scott Phillips, and The Last Animal by Abby Geni.

Dan Smetanka

Photo: Aydin Bengisu

Smetanka lectured at Antioch University, Los Angeles in June on the business of publishing, and shared the fruits of his experience as an editor with MFA students looking to break into the sometimes-confusing world of publishing.

Lunch Ticket editor-in-chief Lise Quintana spoke to Smetanka by phone recently about his views on the current state of the publishing industry.

Lise Quintana: How long have you been an editor? To someone new to the publishing industry, how would you describe your role?

Dan Smetanka: I’ve been in publishing since the early 90s. Back then, as a California native, one didn’t have much choice. You kind of had to go where the work was, which of course was New York City. After a summer internship with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, I came back to Los Angeles and finished up my last year at UCLA (University of California at Los Angeles) and then made the plunge and moved to New York, where I was for about 13 years, most of that time as an executive editor at Random House, which is one of the largest book publishers now in the world, with all the mergers.

The job of an editor, simply put, is to find books that we want to publish, and then to support and help the writer through the editorial process, to make the text as strong and good as we possibly can. Then we are their guides through the publication process, which entails everything from the production of galleys through copyediting, through the book jacket through design, and then anything that happens to the book once it’s on sale.

The job of an editor, simply put, is to find books that we want to publish, and then to support and help the writer through the editorial process, to make the text as strong and good as we possibly can. Then we are their guides through the publication process, which entails everything from the production of galleys through copyediting, through the book jacket through design, and then anything that happens to the book once it’s on sale.

LQ: How much is your individual opinion responsible for getting a book into the publishing pipeline, and how much of it is the judgment of a committee/group at the publisher?

DS: It’s different at every publisher. At a very large corporate house, there are a lot of approvals you need to get in order to move forward with a book, and those decrease a little as you get to a smaller house. In the best scenarios, you’ll find houses that are really guided by the tastes and the expertise of the individual editors who make up that house. Historically, that was always true in New York. I don’t think it’s so true there anymore, but if you go to some of the smaller houses – Norton, Grove Atlantic, Counterpoint, and then some of the even smaller ones – Milkweed, Akashic, Two Dollar Radio – you’ll find that the lists are very much guided by the tastes of the people who are there.

LQ: You moved from Random House to Counterpoint.

DS: I left New York in 2005 and had some other positions before I joined Counterpoint about three and a half years ago. I felt in sync with what they were doing. They are one of the largest independent presses in the country, but they are also located on the West Coast. So that was, of the many changes that have happened in the American publishing scene, very interesting to me – that an independent on the West Coast could thrive and maintain a national profile in terms of the kind of writers they were working with, in terms of review attention, and of their outreach into the author community

LQ: When editors change houses, is that more about the house looking for a skill set or contacts that the editor has, or are both looking for an editor/house that represents a body of work with which each can relate or feels well versed in, so it’s a good match?

DS: I would say all of the above. The reasons for leaving a house can be many, and the reasons for joining a house, similarly, can be many. As an editor, you want to align your individual tastes and whatever you feel is your mission with the house you’re joining. If what you want to do isn’t the same as what the house wants to do, you’re probably not going to have a really good time there. An editor with really commercial sensibilities who wants to do big, commercial fiction and nonfiction, you don’t see a lot of those kinds of editors at the smaller, more independent houses. The smaller indie houses tend to be author-driven, tend to be focused on the makeup of an author, their language or their style, their intent, what they want to do, as opposed to at the large corporate houses, where it can sometimes become more of a numbers game.

LQ: Are there any houses that were started by editors or agents who said “Look, I’m not seeing the thing that I like to read represented in the marketplace, and I feel like I should make a place for that”?

DS: I don’t know if they started them, but I think you definitely see a split right now where you have the big houses getting bigger – because of this marketplace and because of some of the retailers they have to contend with, and some of the terms of business they have to contend with – and the small are getting a bit more savvy and a little bit bigger. And what I mean by that is that you have some really great independents that are filling the gap in terms of their literary presence and their ability to get their books into many different places. That wasn’t always true in the past. The biggest challenge for independent presses in the past was how they were going to get on the same stage with the big houses. They’re really good at doing that now, so you’ll find [Counterpoint’s] books, as well as the books of other independents, at stores all across the country. Of course, the technology and the digital revolution have completely leveled the playing field because our books can be on all of the online bookstores just as easily as the big houses’. And then you see the exodus of writers who did not have a great experience or were no longer wanted and desired by the large houses, you see them coming to [independent publishers] in droves. Many of my authors from Random House have joined me at Counterpoint because they like that experience of being at a smaller, boutique house where they know the people that are working on their books and they have access to the people who are working with them.

LQ: You’ve mentioned that about 350,000 books are published each year, and another 350,000 are self-published. Of the first 350,000, how many of those are published by the Big Five versus published by indie publishers?

DS: Those are estimates, but I don’t really know. I doubt anyone has counted them. The big houses are the big houses because they’re the lion’s share of the market. But new publishers are popping up every day, and I’m probably not aware of all of them. At a place like Counterpoint, which is one of the largest independents, we’re doing about twenty-five original books per list, so that’s anywhere from 70 to 80 originals a year, which is a lot. Multiply that out.

The self-published figures came from Bowker, the company that gives you the ISBN numbers. There are probably a lot of self-published authors who don’t go through that process and don’t worry about getting an ISBN number, so that number is probably even greater than we think.

LQ: But without an ISBN number, distribution becomes a little bit tougher.

DS: A little bit tougher, yeah.

LQ: You’ve worked in and around the publishing industry for quite a while. What would you say is the single biggest change e-books have made to the industry?

DS: Power to the people. Absolutely. Ease of distribution and access would be a very close second, but there is no longer an island of people dictating what is published in America today. And that’s what it’s been in the past, right? You had to go to New York, you had to have some sort of entree in, you had to know somebody who knew somebody, you needed some sort of access to that very concentrated hold that scene had on what was published in America, and that isn’t true anymore. The digital revolution, all of this decentralization of American publishing has meant that many, many more people have access to it, whether that’s through technology or a stronger regional publishing scene in many places around the country, it’s decentralized, and by that definition, more people have access to it.

LQ: Do you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing?

DS: It’s probably both. There are really good parts to it and there are probably some more challenging parts to it. One of the more challenging parts is that the field is now really crowded. I can make a traffic analogy, since we’re both in California. Using those rough estimates of 350,000 books published a year is a lot to contend with. Double that, that’s really a lot to contend with. So what do these retailers do, what do the brick-and-mortar stores do, what do the reviewers do? That’s a huge issue for them, because if review space is shrinking, we’re losing a lot of our review spaces in newspapers and other places around the country, where do you go to hear about these books? And where can these books go to get some attention? I think that’s the single biggest issue that everybody contends with.

LQ: Right. You’ve said that “self publishing makes traditional publishing more difficult.” Is that part of it?

DS: That is absolutely part of it. But take away the “I’m a publisher in America” lament and just look at the concept of intellectual property. If I’m a writer and I’ve had some success and I’ve been traditionally published by large houses and I’m trying to sell my books and I’m trying to make a living, and there’s an influx of people with no real knowledge of the market and no publishing history and they’re putting their stuff out online for free or for a very low price, which may be a great marketing strategy for them, but at some point, we have to contend with the idea of the price of intellectual property. Why do we pay 99¢ for a song? It’s because Apple told us to. And then they told us that we had to pay $1.29. We were somewhat trained to do so. At some point, it’s the leaders in the field training the consumers for what they pay. If e-books now, thanks to the Department of Justice, are going to cost a certain amount, what does that mean for all of the other people just giving it away for free or for 99¢, or for $1.99, or for $2.99? At some point, all of this will have an impact for every writer in America.

The goal isn’t just to be published; the goal is to be published well, with terms and in a situation where you’re comfortable.

LQ: But don’t you think that those people who are selling their own e-books, giving them away for free, selling them for practically nothing, are kind of doing themselves a disservice?

DS: I don’t know. If that’s the way they get their foot in the door. Some people just have to take the long view. If I’m a writer and I don’t know what to do and I’m just selling my stuff for 99¢, and that works for the first couple books and I have a following of 30-, 40-, 50,000 people and a publisher notices that and gives me a traditional deal for a million dollars, then no, it didn’t hurt me. There are so many different experiences a writer can have, that it gets hard to make any kind of proclamation. That’s what it means to be decentralized. We’re all living in the Wild West right now because of all these changes and all these different ways to go. In the past, there was a path to publication. I don’t think that’s necessarily true anymore. I think there are five or ten or twenty paths now. It just depends on what you want. I stressed that point in my talk at Antioch. The goal isn’t just to be published; the goal is to be published well, with terms and in a situation where you’re comfortable. If I’m writing really cool zombie books and I want to get a really fast mass following, the self-published model might speak to me. But if I’m a literary writer with an MFA and good relationships and a beautiful piece of work and I want to be taken very seriously by the best reviewers in the land, I don’t know if the self-publishing model is going to help me. You need the curation and you need the support and the relationships and the legitimacy of a traditional publisher behind you.

LQ: Should a writer have an agent before submitting to a publisher? What does an agent provide you, the editor?

DS: Yes, yes, capital Y Yes! Especially for fiction. There are some publishers, probably very small publishers, who will still read what we call “unsolicited” material – material that is not agented – but to get to any of the big houses, to get to any of the bigger independents in this country, you still need a literary agent. There’s just too much material, and there’s no way that any kind of house can get through that if it was unagented. From a business point of view, you want an agent involved. You want them to negotiate your deal, you want them to deal with the contracts, you just want that service, so you don’t have to deal with it as a writer. It’s kind of like real estate. Whenever you see a sign that says “For Sale By Owner,” you think “Oh no. I wonder why.” Can you sell your own house? Sure you can. Absolutely. Do you want to do that? I don’t know – it’s probably easier to have an agent to handle all that for you. That’s what we counsel writers. Again, every single publisher has a website and they all have submission guidelines on their websites. Any writer looking to submit directly should check the submission guidelines. At Counterpoint, we cannot. We simply cannot, for fiction, take unsolicited material because we are getting a couple thousand fiction submissions a year that are agented and we try to read everything that comes in. We need agents involved to help with the curation and submission process.

LQ: So that’s what agents provide for you—that curation?

DS: Yes. And it’s also a partner in crime. The best thing an agent does is to be a matchmaker. It was true when I was in New York and it’s true today. An agent’s job is to guide the writer, to be the matchmaker, to say “I love your book and I love your style and I know five editors who also love this kind of style of writing, so I’m going to send it to them.”

An agent will also help protect your interests, defend your intellectual property and help guide you through the process too. Publishers both big and small are very busy. Having an agent there to help the process along is a really good thing.

LQ: It used to be that a writer would find an agent, hook up with a publisher and the three would co-exist in harmony until somebody died, but it seems now that publishing houses don’t have the same loyalty to their writers that they used to. I know writers who have an agent, they’re producing work, but every book is put out by a different publisher. Is that normal now?

DS: Maybe it’s the new normal. Again, there are so many different kinds of experiences; I don’t think we can make big, broad statements. Of course publishers are loyal to their authors, of course editors are loyal to their authors. If that wasn’t your first impetus, you probably wouldn’t be an editor. Yet, things happen. The makeup of houses change, what they can and can’t publish changes, so that’s probably where you see the movement. It’s difficult for writers today because at some of the larger houses it can be a numbers game, and what I mean by that is that if you’re a writer and you have a first book and it does okay, and you have a second book and it doesn’t do so great, it’s going to be really hard to make a case for why a publisher should continue with your third book. Of course numbers are important, they’re always going to be important. This is a for-profit venture, we’re all trying to run a business and keep everybody happy. At some point, you do have to have that numbers conversation. I wouldn’t say it’s a mark of disloyalty or some kind of mustache-twisting evil; it’s just that it becomes a complicated scenario. Any author who has a contract is the luckiest author in the world, and any author who has a good relationship with their editor and their agent and sees their book published well is the luckiest person in the world, because that doesn’t always happen.

LQ: You don’t even have a mustache.

DS: Not today, no.

LQ: Let’s talk for a minute about finding an agent. Every writer has been told to find an agent or a publisher by finding work that is like their own, but what does that mean? “Like” in terms of subject matter? Genre? Style? Voice?

DS: All of the above. Yes, it’s harder and yes, it’s complicated and crowded, but writers today, this generation of writers today has more information at their fingertips than any generation of writers that ever existed. Flannery O’Connor and all of those people, they couldn’t go online and Google and find access to agents and publishers. A big part of that is just the prospective writer being smart and savvy and doing their homework. I find prospective writers today don’t do that, and you need to. If my desire is to publish a collection of short stories, I need to know what are the five most successful collections from last year. You don’t need to go out and buy them, but you can go to your library or go online and read a little bit about them and read the actual stories and you can see what publishers were publishing. Who’s had success with that particular genre. All the publishers are there, available, because you can see who’s publishing the book; look in the acknowledgement sections of these books because very often the editor and the agent are thanked. That’s how you begin figuring out where you, the prospective writer, are going to fit on the bookshelf.

LQ: What do you do if the person that you most write like is either dead or publishing in another country?

DS: You should find better touchstones closer to home. If you think “most writers have never written anything like me,” that’s probably not true, sorry to say. Put your feet on the ground and do some really cold, hard searching, because you need some business savvy. The days when a writer could just lay on the fainting couch and work on their beautiful prose are long gone. Sorry, but they are. Get some real-world knowledge under your belt, because you’re going to need it if you want to publish your work.

LQ: When I interviewed Peter Riva, he said that there are no more editors like Bob Loomis (late of Random House). How has the role of editor changed since the heyday of big-house publishing?

DS: See the comment I just made about the fainting couch. Back in the day, you would find your editor, you perhaps might be in the middle of Central Park, clutching your beautiful pages in your ink-stained hands and an editor would appear in a handsome suit with an ascot and they would recognize your genius and they would whisk you away and take care of you and plan your career and you would be published by them forever. There was a great bit about that in a recent review of Boris Kachka’s book Hothouse, about Farrar, Straus & Giroux, where back in the day, Roger Straus and his minions would look after Susan Sontag’s apartment and they would pay her rent while she was out of the country and that kind of stuff, which is a little bit egregious. I don’t think that happens at any company in any industry anymore. Pensions are shrinking or falling by the wayside and you just don’t see that in American business anymore.

The role of the editor has expanded because the market is more complicated. There are more things pressing on us, there are more things we need to get done, there are more stresses on our time than ever before. All of that changes the role of the editor. My job is not only pen and paper, working on the author’s text. Of course that’s important, but there are other things we have to get done now to bring a book to the marketplace, in order for me to protect my author and protect our interests and do the best job publishing the work that we possibly can. So a lot of the complaints that “editors don’t edit anymore” come from that fact. I get nervous when people say that because your first impetus, why you got into it in the first place, is because you wanted to work with writers and you wanted to work on the prose and the style and all of that. And again, every experience can be so different. I can say that independent presses like Counterpoint pride themselves on the fact that authors still get that kind of old-school editorial experience – that’s why authors come to us. They don’t come to us because they want a huge advance so they can buy Porsches. Now, there are many wonderful editors at really big houses who still do that too, you just have to luck into finding them, and that’s what a good agent will do. If you’re the kind of writer who really, really wants that, then an agent is going to try to find that kind of editor for you.

LQ: A more handholding editor.

DS: Yes. A more hands-on, a more old-fashioned editor.

LQ: You talked about all of the other things that editors are doing now that they didn’t used to do. What should writers be doing right now, before their book is even finished, to give themselves a better chance of success?

DS: Learn about the marketplace. This is not a difficult thing to do. There is so much information online. There are free newsletters given by Publisher’s Weekly, which is the industry magazine; and Publisher’s Marketplace, that’ll send you Publisher’s Lunch; GalleyCat is a blog run by MediaBistro. All of these have free daily newsletters. They’ll send them to you; they’ll be waiting for you in your inbox. And you can just read something, because we’re all reading online now anyway, while you’re at lunch or on hold with a phone call, rather than read about celebrities or Miley Cyrus’s performance at the Video Music Awards. You should be reading about this.

LQ: What should we be reading for? What are we looking for in this?

DS: You’re reading about the business. What are publishers doing? What are the major online retailers doing? What does the Department of Justice ruling mean to your royalties. Just learning and, through osmosis, familiarizing yourself with the structure of the business. Then you start to read things like “Little, Brown just bought this.” “Harper Collins is doing this.” “There’s a new imprint here.” Just kind of general-knowledge learning. Don’t stress yourself out. Just read it as if you were reading about another planet that was just discovered–just begin there. There is no successful writer that is not also a successful reader. You need to read everything you can get your hands on. You don’t need to bankrupt yourself by buying books (although that would be a fine thing to do), read it online, check it out from the library–you need to know. So many times I go and visit MFA programs or I give talks where, inevitably, someone will stand up and say, “I’ve got a first novel. Do people care about first novels anymore?” And I’ll say, “Of course they do. Can you name me five successful first novels that were published last year?” “No, I can’t.” And that always dumbfounds me because if you want to participate in this business, how come you’re not reading about people who have succeeded at what you want to do? You absolutely should be doing that. You need to educate yourself. There’s so much to learn from people who have successfully walked the path that you want to walk. That’s where the successful reader comes in.

You need to educate yourself. There’s so much to learn from people who have successfully walked the path that you want to walk. That’s where the successful reader comes in.

LQ: In addition to not doing basic market research, what other mistakes do you see writers making over and over?

DS: Going to the wrong people for help, which ties into not doing your homework. Time and time again, I will get queries from writers directly trying to get me interested in their fiction. It very clearly states on our website “We do not take unsolicited material for fiction.” They’ve wasted their time in writing to me, because I can’t help them. The company guidelines won’t let me help them. And I find that time and time again, new writers are going to people expecting help, and the person they’re trying to get to can’t help them. Similarly, when they query agents. If I’m writing a romance novel, I need to go to agents who represent romance novels and who have had success in that field. A constant complaint I hear from agents is “Why are they querying me for this? I don’t represent this kind of book.” Again, all the agencies have websites, and all agents on those websites put up submission guidelines for what they represent, and, more importantly, what they don’t represent. If I’m writing a cookbook, I’m not going to query agents who’ve never sold a cookbook before. That’s where so much of this traffic comes in. There are so many people doing that, and doing it wrong, and it just makes everything more crowded.

LQ: How important is it for a writer to be able to nail down what genre they’re writing in, because fiction is broad, and usually you want to narrow it down a little more. How narrow do you have to get that, or is the pitch about the story itself more important?

DS: I think they’re both important. It’s not like you need to become king of market research for publishing in order to start querying agents. But you need to have some sense of where you’re going to fit in on the bookshelf. Of course there are crossovers and of course there are breakouts, and a good agent and a good publisher will help you throughout the process refine your pitch, but you need to have a very basic awareness of that. If you’re writing a thriller about the FBI, you don’t need to go to the agent who just got three Pulitzers and a Nobel Prize who are working with super literary material. You want to go to that great agent who just sold three FBI thrillers. This particularly becomes important with certain genres–mysteries or fantasy or sci-fi or romance or erotica. Agents are very clear about what kind of genres they will represent and what they won’t represent. By getting these agent names in books that are similar to yours, by doing some online research and going to these agent websites and reading their submission guidelines and seeing their client lists, you will start to get a sense of that. Say that, for example, Wild by Cheryl Strayed is your favorite book and you went on a solo canoe ride for three weeks and you want to write about it and what you learned from that experience. You go to Wild, you look in the acknowledgements, you see Cheryl’s agent is Jane, you go to Jane’s website and you see that she’s accepting submissions. There–you have a name. So then you send Jane a query. “Dear Jane, I’m a huge fan of Wild, the book really spoke to me. I’m working on a similar book.” That kind of tailored query means a lot more to her than if you said “Dear agent, I have a nonfiction book. Can you look at it?” No agent’s going to respond to that. Taking the time to tailor your query will set yours apart from the rest, and that’s what you want.

LQ: Do you have any parting words of wisdom?

DS: In the immortal words of Captain Peter Quincy Taggart: Never give up, never surrender.

2012-02-19 20.06.21Lise Quintana is Editor-in-Chief of Lunch Ticket. She’s a current MFA student at Antioch University, LA, and her fiction has appeared in The Weekenders, Children, Churches & Daddies, and Willow Review. She is currently seeking representation for her first novel, so that she can have that person send it to Dan, which she obviously can’t do herself.