When Dan Smetanka moved to New York City from California’s Orange County in 1991 for a summer intern job at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, he was only vaguely aware of the significance of working with Jonathan Galassi and Roger Strauss. “When I got to New York I didn’t know anyone, and I didn’t know anything,” said Smetanka. “I stayed in a residential hotel for the elderly on the Upper West Side. It was like the hotel in The Shining, with huge empty rooms and strange people wandering the halls. I was terrified.”
Smetanka, executive editor at Counterpoint Press, has nothing to fear at this point in his career, however, as he looks back on the meaningful author relationships he’s cultivated and the bestselling books he’s edited over the past 23 years. “My first paid job was at PEN West, where I worked in 1990 for Carolyn See. She was one of my UCLA professors and became president of the first West Coast chapter of PEN. It was a huge effort, putting together a literary community for everything west of the Mississippi. I learned how to assemble writers for a cause and a shared vision.”
Two days after graduating from UCLA in 1992 , Smetanka moved to New York. “I had good leads, but FSG had just laid off a bunch of people, so Jonathan didn’t have a job for me. He put me in touch with Maria Campbell, the premier scout for foreign publishers, and she hired me on the spot to work in her agency,” said Smetanka, who today lives in West Hollywood. During his six years with Campbell, Smetanka familiarized himself with how foreign markets work, as well as the process of book-to-film adaptation. “It was like a graduate school course in publishing, really. I learned about agents and what they were selling, publishers and what they were buying, and the whole landscape of American and international publishing.” The job polished Smetanka’s taste in literature and prepared him for his next move. “I was ready for an editorial position and to discover writers for my own list.”
He joined Ballantine in 1998 as a senior editor, the year it was acquired (along with Random House) by Bertelsmann. “At the time, they had an incredible paperback backlist—John Irving, John Updike, Jane Smiley—but not much of a frontlist. It was made up mostly of romance books and Star Wars novels,” Smetanka recalled. Under Bertelsmann, Smetanka was allowed to acquire significant titles. “We started with The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips,” he said. “Janet Maslin gave it a full-page New York Times review. I was floored.” Smetanka also published Dan Chaon, Elizabeth Rossner, and Thomas Steinbeck while at the press. “I’m proud to say I’m still working with some of these authors,” he noted. After Ballantine was integrated with Random House, Smetanka was one of the editors laid off in the restructuring.
Returning to Los Angeles after a dozen years in New York, Smetanka took on a “voluminous” amount of freelance editorial work. “I was pleased to see how much L.A. had changed from a literary perspective—what an interesting and fertile place it had become,” he said. He joined Phoenix Books “for a short spell” before it abruptly closed in 2009.
Even the Phoenix experience helped convince Smetanka that he should remain in Los Angeles, and when he joined Northern California–based Counterpoint in 2010, he didn’t move. Shortly after Smetanka took his list from Phoenix to Counterpoint, he had hits with Thaisa Frank’s Heidegger’s Glasses and Los Angeles Diaries by James Brown.
“We hear a lot about the resurgence of indie bookstores and how they’re thriving,” said Smetanka. “The same can be said for indie publishers. Counterpoint is growing and seeing an editorial resurgence, with a great group of authors and books. We see a lot of support for our titles, especially from the indie [bookselling] community.” Two of Smetanka’s books—The Last Animal by Abby Geni, and If Only You People Could Follow Directions by Jessica Hendry Nelson—have been chosen for the new Indies Introduce Debut Authors program. Smetanka also has high hopes for Lisa Bloom’s Suspicion Nation, about the Trayvon Martin murder trial, due out this month (see Author Profile, p. 38). As part of his current role, Smetanka also acquires books for Soft Skull, Counterpoint’s edgy imprint.
Smetanka is thoughtful when asked about the process of finding the right books. “As an editor, I think it’s something you just have,” he said. “It’s instinctual. The life you live, and the things you believe in, lead you to books. It’s all connected.”
Current title: Executive editor
Higher education: B.A. in English, emphasis on practical writing and editing, from UCLA
The Journals of John Cheever (“Every young adult in New York should read it”); The Passion by Jeannette Winterson (“Every young editor should read it; not one word is wasteful—true efficiency of language”); Among the Missing by Dan Chaon (“You finish the book a different person than when you started—revelatory” ).