Friday, June 24, 2005

For This Author, Writing Is Only the Beginning

ETNA, N.H. - Slouched on a sofa in a faded T-shirt and jeans, a tousle of dyed-auburn hair trending gray at the roots, Janet Evanovich looks less like the chief of a budding media empire than a mother trying hard to be her daughter's best friend.

And there, next to her, is the daughter, Alexandra, whose dyed platinum-blond hair befits her stint as a freelance graphics designer for a heavy-metal band's fan site and her love for her red Ducati motorcycle, looking nothing like a corporate marketing guru.

Yet the two women are all of those things - best friends, metalheads and meticulous businesswomen. Together with Janet's son and husband, both named Peter, who handle everything from investments to the packing of signed books for shipment to stores, they make up the family enterprise known as Evanovich Inc.

And they have transformed Ms. Evanovich, 62, from a failing romance writer who once burned a box of rejection letters on her curb into a mini-industry whose success is beginning to emulate the sprawling domains of authorial heavyweights like James Patterson.

Last year, she sold an estimated one million books in hardcover and three million more paperbacks, earning more than $3 million in royalties from the paperbacks and several million more in advances and royalties on the hardcovers. The empire now includes two continuing mystery series: one featuring the sharp-elbowed bounty hunter Stephanie Plum, published by St. Martin's Press, whose latest installment, "Eleven on Top" went on sale June 21, and a second, published by HarperCollins, which began last fall with "Metro Girl."

While her success speaks to her tenacity and devotion to family, it owes as much to marketing prowess. When fans, impatient for her next novel, began asking her to recommend other writers like her, Ms. Evanovich hired one instead. Thus began a separate line of paperback romance-thrillers with Charlotte Hughes as co-author and St. Martin's as publisher. Four books in that series became best sellers.

And rather than risk having a previous publisher reissue her romance novels from more than a decade ago, Ms. Evanovich bought back the rights from Bantam, an imprint of Random House Inc., and resold them to HarperCollins, which has begun publishing them in a revised and updated format.

Ms. Evanovich acknowledges that her strategy is little different than it might be for selling toothpaste. "When you're trying to expand your business, it's about real estate in the stores," she said in an interview at her hilltop home in rural western New Hampshire, and more products in more categories mean more shelf space.

But while her relentless self-promotion has attracted more fans, it has also created some tensions. Michael Morrison, the president of HarperMorrow, the HarperCollins division that published "Metro Girl," said the interplay of multiple publishers and product lines is not ideal. "I'm a believer that a publisher and an author should have one primary relationship," he said. The sales of "Metro Girl" did not match Ms. Evanovich's previous best sellers, but Mr. Morrison said that over all he was pleased with her work.

"It's much easier to work with an author and orchestrate a publishing career if you have all of the books under one house," he said.

But Ms. Evanovich does not apologize for flooding the market with a new book every two to three months, nor for her calculated efforts to send her new novels straight to the top of the best-seller lists.

It has now become a rite of summer: each of the last five books in the numerical series featuring Stephanie Plum - from "Hot Six" in 2000 through "Ten Big Ones" last year - was No. 1 on The New York Times's hardcover best-seller list its first week on sale. Last fall, "Metro Girl" also had its debut at No. 1.

To put that feat in perspective, long-running series by James Patterson and Sue Grafton cannot match that current streak of immediate No. 1's.

Ms. Evanovich plots her first week of promotion to include book signings at big stores that report their sales to publications that publish best-seller lists. As in past years, the publication of the new Stephanie Plum novel will include a Stephanie Plum Daze festival in Trenton, the setting for the novels. Featuring live music, food, a character dress-up contest and historical-society tours of Trenton sites mentioned in the series, a festival on June 25 is expected to attract several thousand fans. Barnes & Noble will be there selling books.

She does not simply plan an event and expect people to show up, however. Evanovich Inc. constantly reminds its audience of a coming book, using its Internet site and a snail-mail newsletter, television commercials and radio spots. Ms. Evanovich oversees the design of book covers and the production of advertisements; she recently fired the agency that was devising commercials for "Eleven on Top" and enlisted her family and publisher to come up with a new pitch.

Behind the marketing machinations is Alexandra, 32, who writes the newsletter and illustrates both it and the Web site, Until recently, she also managed the online store that sells hats, mugs and other paraphernalia, but its growth forced the family to outsource the job to a company in Florida.

The task of running Evanovich Inc. has grown so rapidly that last year the family decided it needed office space away from their hilltop home, where all four family members live at least some of the time.

Ms. Evanovich's son, Peter, 35, who manages the finances, oversaw the purchase of a $480,000 fixer-upper ranch-style house in Hanover near the Dartmouth campus for office space. Other recent family acquisitions include a $6.2 million waterside estate in Naples, Fla., and twin $1.6 million Boston condominiums - one for Mom, one for daughter - overlooking Boston Common.

Ms. Evanovich's husband of 40 years, the elder Peter, applies his Ph.D. in mathematics to the study of her contracts and the sales and distribution information generated by publishers and bookstores.

"I feel like I never would have been a success and gotten published without my family," Ms. Evanovich said. Throughout the years collecting rejection slips, and even as she began to earn a few thousand dollars per book for her early romances, "they never said, 'Why don't we go on vacation like other families?' " She added, "They just told me, 'You take your time and write.' "

The fans clearly love it. According to Nielsen BookScan, they bought nearly 300,000 copies of "Ten Big Ones" and 175,000 copies of "Metro Girl" from traditional book outlets. Ms. Evanovich's publishers say the numbers are far higher, perhaps twice as much, because a large portion her fans buy their books at Wal-Mart, Sam's Club and other stores that are not counted by BookScan. Clearly, her sales are big, though still well short of the levels reached by the likes of Nora Roberts, Mr. Patterson and John Grisham.

The critics have sometimes been less than enthusiastic. Writing in The New York Times, Janet Maslin said Ms. Evanovich's works were "the mystery-novel equivalent of comfort food." And more than once, her writing has been called formulaic.

Ms. Evanovich does not deny that; she simply wonders what is wrong with it.

"I'm a writer, but this is a business," she said. "You have to look at it in the way you would look at any business. You have to have honesty to the product. You have to meet consumer expectations. You give them value for their money and give them a product that they need. I don't see anything wrong with all these things. And I don't think it's a bad thing to meet consumers' expectations."

For This Author, Writing Is Only the Beginning - New York Times

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