On a bright spring day, PW travels to New Hampshire to visit Janet Evanovich, the author of the bestselling comic crime series starring wise-cracking New Jersey bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. Evanovich greets us at the door of a long, sleek hilltop house overlooking the Connecticut River Valley, near Dartmouth College. The youthful-looking 60-year-old is very friendly, yet she also has a poised stillness that seems to combine the watchful apartness of a writer with the self-consciousness of a performer who is very used to being on stage. We can't help but be struck by the contrast between this complex woman and her self-styled public persona as "Jersey Janet."
"My name is Stephanie Plum and I was born and raised in the Chambersburg section of Trenton...," writes Evanovich at the kick-off of her latest installment, To the Nines, due from St. Martin's on July 15. What follows, as in the eight previous novels in the numbered series, is a zany adventure that takes Plum to Las Vegas. As always, however, the siren call of good Italian food, dinners with her dysfunctional family and her two hot love interests—hunky cop Joe Morelli and even hunkier bounty hunter Ranger—pull Plum and the reader back to her beloved "Burg."
As Evanovich leads us through her vast, quiet home, we are thinking that this is about as far as we can get from the small, crowded row house that is the major setting and the soul of the Stephanie Plum series.
As if reading our minds, Evanovich turns to us on a staircase. "My daughter calls this house 'the mall,' " she says with a smile.
This is no mall, we think. Stephanie Plum would be uneasy here. From the spare Danish modern feel of the place, Plum might even guess that the occupant isn't from the Burg at all, that she is, well, Danish-American.
"I'm actually of Danish descent," Evanovich tells us after we settle at a small round table in a large room that holds a treadmill and a view of the surrounding hills. "My relatives settled in the Perth Amboy area, and eventually found their way to South River and worked in the brick yards."
Evanovich, whose father ended up being a machinist and her mother a housewife, discovered her signature turf as an adult, after her parents moved to the outskirts of Trenton. "The Burg that I write about," she tells us, "is actually the Burg about 20 years ago, when it was probably 80% Italian."
Evanovich zeroed in on Trenton because it was a far more believable backdrop for a crime series than the little town of South River. She insists, however, that she grew up in a small-town version of the Burg. "I lived in this house with my Aunt Lena and my Uncle Mickey and my Uncle Andy and Uncle Chris." Danes may not be known for their lasagna, in other words, but in Evanovich's experience, they were a tight-knit immigrant culture that believed in the value of family and community, in "clean windows and making a good pie."
In 1987, Evanovich published her first book, the romance Hero at Large (Second Chance Love) under the name Steffie Hall. She was 47. A housewife and full-time mom, for a decade she had written novels that didn't get published—and then she tried romance. After Hero clicked, she sat in her suburban house in northern Virginia banging out romances with titles like Smitten (Bantam, 1990) and Naughty Neighbor (Bantam, 1992) until she had published a dozen. Then she just couldn't do it anymore.
"I realized that I liked writing the action parts more than the sex parts. I couldn't curse in them. I had to say things like 'peas and carrots.' It just wasn't satisfying."
"I wanted to write a romantic adventure," adds Evanovich. "But [my editors] couldn't see me moving beyond these little category books." She approached her new career "very analytically." Far from abandoning romance, however, she applied everything it had taught her.. "I knew that I wanted to have heroes and heroines. I knew that I wanted to give people a sense of family and community."
She also knew that she didn't want to compete with Sue Grafton, and that she didn't have an extensive background in law enforcement. Lightning struck when she watched Robert De Niro play a bounty hunter in Midnight Run.
After about a year and a half spent "retooling," drinking beer with cops and learning enough about bond enforcement and Trenton to hang a story on, Evanovich came out swinging in 1994 with One for the Money (Scribner). It delighted critics. Dwight Garner in the Washington Post Book World said "it comes roaring in like a blast of very fresh air." Evanovich was 51.
If any writer is a clear example of the energy and sheer delight that can be unleashed when they claim their own voice it is Janet Evanovich. Yet she is anything but a literary snob.
"I am an entertainer," says Evanovich. "I think that I'm a television substitute."
"I try to give people a sense that there is goodness in all of us. I let them know that people aren't perfect but, hey, if Stephanie Plum can get through a day, God, anybody could. She lets people know that if you just have some tenacity and a sense of humor you can be a survivor, too."
"Janet is a great comedian like Lucille Ball," says Sally Richardson, the publisher of St. Martin's Press, who has worked with Evanovich since St. Martin's acquired Four to Score in 1998. "Her books are fun and sexy and lively but they are so very successful because they are also full of profound truths about life. Stephanie's relationship with her Grandmother Mazur would reduce you to tears if it didn't make you laugh."
Everyone who knows Evanovich agrees that her Lucille Ballsey—ness extends to her keen grasp of marketing and promotion, to her ambition, and to the sheer hard work she's willing to do to succeed.
"Janet is hugely ambitious," says John Sargent, the CEO of Holtzbrinck Publishers, which includes St. Martin's Press, Picador USA, Tor/Forge, Henry Holt, and Farrar, Straus & Giroux. "She sees very clearly where she wants to go."
To help get where she wants to go, which is to the top, Evanovich turned to Robert Gottlieb, the literary agent who left William Morris in 2000 to become the chairman of the Trident Media Group, who has pioneered the art of branding—of pushing authors, not just books—in the publishing industry.
"Robert is a big thinker," says Evanovich. "He's totally out of the box."
PW meets with Gottlieb on a morning when he happens to be sitting surrounded by boxes. He is getting ready to vacate his midtown offices and move downtown.
"Branding has to do with the concept of building out your audience and then getting them back to the core business," Gottlieb explains. "The way I brand my authors is to get them into as much publishing space as I can in as in as many formats as I can."
In the case of Evanovich, expanding the brand has meant getting her back to her romance roots with the Full series—a four-book series of mass market paperbacks that Evanovich is co-creating if not exactly writing with a romance writer friend, Charlotte Hughes. In a way, the Full series lets Evanovich come full circle—back to the romantic adventures she wanted to write way back when. Full House (an expanded version of a romance Evanovich originally wrote in 1989 for the Second Chance at Love Series as Steffie Hall) and Full Tilt are now in print. Full Speed will be out in September, and Full Blast will follow sometime in 2004.
"The Full series promises the Janet Evanovich experience," explains Jen Enderlin, who has been Evanovich's editor at St. Martin's since she acquired Four to Score. "If you like positive characters, if you like laugh-out-loud lines, if you like sexual tension, you'll like these books. It has the same small-town values, the same wacky, dysfunctional characters; it has heroes and heroines who really play off each other."
Expanding the franchise of late has also meant capturing the Christmas market last year with a shorter, less-expensive holiday novel, Visions of Sugar Plums. Most of all, however, it has meant a deal for two stand-alone novels with HarperCollins. Gottlieb calls the book, which is to be published in fall 2004, a "classic Evanovich but she's revving it up. It's going to be more exotic, with characters spread out in different locales."
We ask Gottlieb if the new deal has anything to do with the fact that Evanovich sold the film rights to the character Stephanie Plum to TriStar, now owned by Sony, meaning that no matter how many Plums she writes, it's up to Sony alone to decide whether to make a film—or not. Definitely, he tells us. We ask him if the deal with HarperCollins is also a way to get both publishing houses to rev up their efforts. He confirms that it is. "We thought it was a good time to create an environment where there's some competition. Let St. Martin's now do their best work in the face of the fact that HarperCollins is now in Janet's life, and we expect HarperCollins to do their best work as well."
On a warm spring day, Sally Richardson greets PW in what has to be one of the great office locations in Manhattan, a spacious, three-sided office in the famous, three-sided Flatiron Building that stands at the intersection of Broadway, Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street. Friendly and animated, wearing a chic black dress with an electric pink sweater tossed over her shoulders, Richardson seats us at a conference table and draws our attention to yet another big poster of the bright orange cover of To the Nines. Ushered from the publicity department to editorial to here, we have glimpsed "Janet Evanovich" in bright yellow against hot orange at least four times. We have an impression of a product by a trusted brand—the novel as the Cheese Doodle that Evanovich adores.
Richardson describes the care that has gone into the packaging of both the hardcovers and the paperback backlist, making it appeal to men as well as women, making it brighter "so you can see it a mile away in the bookstore." PW suggests that the relationship between a publisher and a franchise author like Evanovich seems to be like a marriage, evolving over time.
"It is like a marriage," agrees Richardson. "A wonderful marriage." The key to this wonderfulness, according to Richardson, was the way Enderlin and the rest of the team at St. Martin's were quick to grasp the special magic that set Evanovich's comic crime novels apart from the pack.
Richardson asks if we've heard about "the events." We have.
If St. Martin's had any doubt left about Evanovich's flair for promotion and marketing, it was dispelled after the book party that was held at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square in downtown Manhattan in June 2001, for Seven Up. Evanovich wrote a script for readings from the book that included parts for a midget and a drag queen. She also requested a rock band and a gorgeous man sitting on a Harley-Davidson. St. Martin's publicist Dori Weintraub got the drag queen and the band. Matthew Shear, the publisher of St. Martin's press paperbacks, played the midget, scuffing around on his knees in a costume made by Weintraub out of a pair of her young son's trousers with little shoes attached.
"After that event we realized that we had moved to a new plane," said Richardson. In June 2002, the "new plane" landed in Town Hall in Manhattan and at the Trenton Marriott, where around 3,000 fans showed up for a "Burgival" in celebration of Hard Eight. The event featured appearances by the mayor of Trenton and other local celebrities, along with goodies from the bakeries and restaurants mentioned in the series.
"We learned that people were traveling huge distances to come to my signings," Evanovich explains. You can't just sit at a desk and pick your head up for 40 seconds and say 'hi' and sign your name when someone has been in a car for five hours."
Richardson asks us if we have seen "the Web site." We have. The Web site has become a wildly interactive community, a virtual Burg that gets three to four million hits a month, according to Evanovich. Festooned with her daughter Alex's animal cartoons, it features contests and polls about whether Stephanie should choose Morelli or Ranger, say, or what Janet should call her next book. There is an online store and, lately, fans can view digital snapshots of Alex's St. Bernard puppy, Barnaby. The Web site breaks down the wall between a famous author and her fans.
"It's probably the most effective author Web site there is," confirms Richardson. "Our one-day lay-downs of her books have been hugely effective. But she and Alex have been busy on her Web site, reminding fans to go out and buy it that day or that week. "
St. Martin's is about to double their efforts to get To the Nines into the stores. "Janet is selling about 400,000 to 500,000 copies of each new Stephanie Plum hardcover," Richardson tells us. " Now the challenge for us is to get her to the million-copy mark."
St. Martin's decided to spend, she adds, "a huge amount of money and double the number of copies in the in the lay down." St. Martin's will conduct a "two-tiered" campaign for the book, paying for longer initial front-of-the-store promotions in Barnes & Noble and other stores in July; then they will go back and sign up for programs in August. St. Martin's intends to pay to run ads longer as well.
"We decided that now is the time to make a major push," Richardson emphasizes. "We have eight more Evanovich books signed up—three more Plum novels, two Christmas stories, two paperback originals [the Full romance adventures] and a nonfiction book" (about bounty hunters, which Evanovich intends to write with her son Peter).
Richardson confesses to feeling sad but sanguine about Evanovich's upcoming project with HarperCollins. "I would like to have all of Janet but she made it very clear that she wants to make a change. I'm glad we have what we have."
One afternoon, PW walks around the corner from our offices and travels to the 37th floor of a building on lower Madison Avenue to talk with John Sargent. We sit in a hushed waiting area for about 10 minutes, until a lean, fit-looking man in khakis and a short sleeve denim shirt rushes off the elevator, apologizing for being late. Sargent introduces himself and leads us into a huge, airy office. We sit across from the youthful CEO, who looks a bit like Sam Shepard crossed with a boy scout, facing a master-of-the-universe view: the glittering gold dome and gargoyles that top the Metropolitan Life building, the spire of the Empire State Building, open sky, the big picture.
"When Janet came to us with Four to Score, we knew that she had all the goods. The key for us was to get her on a graph that goes like this," says Sargent, gesturing in a steep, upward diagonal. "I don't mean just up but exponential growth."
PW asks Sargent to explain the "goods." How does a house pick which author to push?
First and foremost, he says, an author has to be able to sustain the quality of their books year after year. With the ninth, 10th, and 11th books in the Plum series now under contract, the house can confidently take a big risk. Equally important in the case of highly commercial fiction "is that the author be a commercial driving force in themselves."
"Janet really knows how to push and drive the market," says Sargent. "She's in touch with her fans all day every day through her Web site. She's hugely understanding of what her audience wants. When she goes out on a book tour she's immersed in the world of Stephanie Plum and she comes back with tons of feedback and makes decisions based on her understanding."
Echoing Richardson, Sargent characterizes Evanovich as a "business partner who has a singular and very loud say about where we go next." The partners have cleared several hurdles together already. The first was to make the New York Times bestseller list; the next was to make it to number one.
"To go from this level to the next is the hardest jump," confirms Sargeant. "There's a very small group up there at the top. But Janet clearly understands her audience and where she wants to be, and we clearly understand Janet's potential. We're going to pump all kinds of resources into it and spend an awful lot of money and put a plan together and I think we're going to get there. We're going to put a lot of books out in the market place and Janet's going to work very hard driving the book."
He leans back in his chair and considers. "My guess is that it's two steps off. This one will put her in a very rarified group, and then there will probably be one more step after that that will put her among the top 10 people. She could make it in one step, but my guess is two."
"Of course it's a gamble for us but it's a gamble for Janet as well," Richardson adds. "The road is littered with people who took too big a step and the returns went up and they weren't perceived as a success anymore. "
PW asks Sargent how he feels about Evanovich's move to HarperCollins.
"It doesn't impact on this plan at all," he says. "The Stephanie Plum series is on a track and we've got to continue to make those next steps happen." He believes that while Evanovich might feel the need to try new projects and new houses, the Plum series will always be Evanovich's big books. "The Plum series is what drives Janet."
Sargent tilts back in his chair and thinks for a beat or two. "I hope to be sitting here at 65 as she is publishing her 29th or 30th Stephanie Plum."
Cristal and Cher
"We are delighted to be working with Janet Evanovich as she strikes out into new territory with a big new thriller," counters a vacationing Cathy Hemming, president and publisher of the Harper Collins General Books Group, in an e-mail to PW.
Hemming reports that the hardcover and mass market teams had already begun to work with Evanovich. She adds that they hope to "make this her most successful book yet."
Meanwhile, the big event for To the Nines will take place on July 21 at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.
"Go find those slutty purple platform shoes you've always wanted," the Web site urges.
Back in New Hampshire with Evanovich, our interview concluded, PW accepts an offer of a ride into nearby Hanover and lunch with the author. Evanovich drives an Audi sedan but tells us that she will soon buying a new Porsche. We note that her husband has a Porsche, and we remember that she told us that Gottlieb has one, too, and that he drives around Manhattan "like a maniac."
We notice that Evanovich wears extremely unslutty slim black loafers, more like Audrey Hepburn than Stephanie Plum. As we pass the Dartmouth campus and throngs of Dartmouth students, however, Evanovich punches on the CD player and Eminem comes blasting on. The author pronounces him "a genius."
"Two trailer park girls go round the outside...." raps Eminem. "I don't know what that means, but I think it must be something dirty," says Evanovich.
The author does a U-turn in the middle of a crowded street and pulls into one of the only parking spaces for miles around, right in front of the Hanover Inn. "How's that for parking?" she crows. "You're a real Jersey driver, Janet," we say, trusting that she will accept this as a compliment.
We settle into a big booth in the little café in the ground floor of the inn and order lobster club sandwiches. Evanovich tells us that she and her husband plan to go to a Cher concert with some Trenton cop friends soon. Cher, along with Sandra Bullock, is one of the stars that Evanovich has offered as her choice for the movie role of Stephanie Plum.
For now, however, Evanovich is up and at the computer by 5:30, then it's the family business from about 1 p.m. on. (Evanovich's son, daughter, and husband all work for Evanovich Inc.) In the evening, she tells PW, she likes to relax in front of a happy program on TV with a glass of good champagne, preferably Cristal. We had been thinking that we could describe Evanovich as taking a working-class approach to her career... until she mentions the Cristal. Then she adds that Cristal can be hard to find and speculates that rappers are hoarding it. We decide that very expensive champagne is beer for very successful, working-class people.