Set apart from the dozens of mystery writers at this year’s Edgar Awards, Janet Evanovich is hamming it up for a photographer — fedora tilted rakishly on her head, smirk plastered firmly on face, flute of champagne clutched in her manicured hand. And as author of the best-selling Stephanie Plum series, Evanovich will have further reason to chug Cristal when 1.25 million copies of Twelve Sharp — the latest comic mystery starring her New Jersey bounty hunter — hit bookstores June 20. The last six Plum novels have all debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller chart, and Evanovich, whose deceptively laid-back demeanor masks an intensely serious business mind, knows precisely what got her there.
”If you want to cry, you’re not going to like my books,” she says briskly. ”If you want a really good plot, you’re not going to like my plots. My books have pizza and cussing and sexy guys.” Evanovich, 63, can’t recall the last time she herself read a literary novel, though she’ll happily talk about the Donald Duck comics piled up in her house in Naples, Fla. (one of three homes), her NASCAR obsession, or her belief that no one should have to struggle to read a book (”I don’t want my readers slowed down by long passages of narrative”).
Raised in a blue-collar New Jersey family, Evanovich spent a decade as a stay-at-home mom writing ”esoteric” books that never got published. Books that don’t make you a millionaire, like the one about the pornographic Irish fairy. She switched to romance, but that didn’t win editors over either. Evanovich was ready to pack it in.
”I took all of my rejection letters — there must have been thousands of them in a huge box — and I went out on the curb and burned them all, crying, sobbing,” she says. ”The next day I got a job temping.” A few months later, she sold a manuscript to Bantam’s now-defunct Loveswept line. She stuck with romance for several more years, making barely enough to help her mathematician husband put their two kids through college. After watching the Robert De Niro bounty-hunter movie Midnight Run, she dreamed up Stephanie Plum and wrote One for the Money — possibly the most appropriate title to ever kick off a hit series. It couldn’t have come at a better time. ”We were living in this little house in Virginia, and on our front lawn were all the shingles that had blown off the roof,” she recalls. ”It was then that my agent called and told me that TriStar had bought the movie rights for over a million dollars.”
That was a dozen years ago. Since then, she’s enjoyed a string of best-sellers, a streak that she partly attributes to her decision to go into business with her family. Husband Pete handles contracts, son Peter deals with finances, and daughter Alex has arguably the most important responsibility — guarding her mom’s website. On it, Alex has constant interaction with fans, answers scores of e-mails, runs contests (fans have come up with the titles for the last nine Plum novels), and makes very sure everyone knows the exact date a new book comes out. It’s an almost foolproof strategy: Get most of your fans to buy your book in a given week and you’ll top the list every time. Even Evanovich’s second series — launched in 2004 with the Miami-set Metro Girl — debuted at No. 2, despite lighter sales than the Plum series. ”I would have liked to have seen them do a little bit more with the book,” says Evanovich of HarperCollins (St. Martin’s is her primary publisher). ”It’s very hard to sell a new series.”