Photo by Harry Benson
Regardless the medium, the message is of paramount importance to publishing veteran Joni Evans. She’s had a hand in bringing more than 100 books to the bestsellers lists, working with writers and celebrities such as John Gregory Dunne, Helen Gurley Brown, Ann Beattie, Mario Puzo, Woodward and Bernstein, Graham Greene, Jane Fonda, and Donald Trump. Whether talking about her professional or personal life, Evans, a former president of Simon & Schuster and founder of wowOwow.com, returns repeatedly to the principle of helping people to have their say.
Evans enjoys creating a venue in which people can tell their stories and share their opinions, whether between the covers of a hard-bound book, on the Internet, via radio airwaves, or at the dinner table. From brainstorming sessions to bestsellers, Evans says, “I believe books and words change the world more than sit-coms do.”
Words certainly changed her life. Evans claims to have been a terrible student while growing up in Larchmont—her beloved sister, Joyce Buchman, finds that self-assessment too harsh—until she fell in love with reading as a high school senior. “I get rocked by books that turn my head,” she says. “I can still remember how I felt when I first read Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.”
Evans pictured herself among the storytellers and earned a BA in creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh. But the more she read, the more certain she became that she lacked the word craft to be “a real writer.” She then set her eye on “the next best thing, being around writers.” Evans held down entry-level jobs at McCall’s Magazine and Ladies’ Home Journal in the early 1960s, followed by a stint at the Book of the Month Club newsletter. “The Book of the Month Club was like Amazon is today,” she says. Later, at William Morrow & Co., she worked her way from manuscript girl to senior editor.
For decades, although the publishing industry employed many women, it had not been particularly hospitable to them in leadership roles. By the late 1980s, while the number of women holding top jobs in the book world remained disproportionately low, Evans had beaten the odds. She had her own imprint, Linden Press; she was the publisher of the trade-book division of Simon & Schuster; and she was about to become president of a new imprint, Turtle Bay Books, at Random House, where she also was the publisher. Ironically, Evans’s Random House tenure is probably less famous for the titles that made it to the bookstore shelves—including Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen; Among the Porcupines by Carol Matthau; and What’s It All About by actor Michael Caine—than for one that never did: The Ruling Passion, a novel by Joan Collins. The manuscript was deemed unsalvageable and, after a lengthy legal battle, the actress was allowed to keep the $1.2 million advance.
However, one needs to understand that success in publishing inevitably involves many failures. Evans’s boyfriend of eight years, Bob Perkins, whom she describes as “a marketing research guru,” says Evans has “an adult view of what success looks like.” He explains: “In baseball, if you bat four hundred, they put you in the Hall of Fame. You have to keep your eye on your average, not yesterday’s game.”
Evans has “a preternaturally good sense of the market,” says strategic positioning consultant Stephani Cook of Pound Ridge. “She absorbs what’s going on in the market, what will work, what’s not going to work, and figures out how to get around the sticky parts.” Like many of Evans’s closest friends, the two met professionally—Evans published Cook’s memoir, Second Life, in 1981. “Joni read the manuscript, asked careful questions, gave suggestions, and challenged me, urging me to focus on what I wanted to say.”
She is also a very supportive and loyal friend. Declares Cook, “She’s the best ‘sister’ in the world.” She recalls leaving a voicemail to inform Evans about a family tragedy; within minutes, the publisher was pulling into Cook’s driveway, asking what she could do to help. Evans had driven over so reflexively that Cook wasn’t even at the house when she arrived. “She’s always there with whatever you need,” Cook says. “She does what friends really should do: she doesn’t ask; she just comes.”
In 1994, Evans left the publishing-house side of the aisle to become a literary agent, and, eventually, a senior vice president, at the William Morris Agency. Liz Smith, Quincy Jones, Peggy Noonan, and James Patterson were among the authors she represented. “She’s been in there battling for all of us,” Smith says. The two have been close for more than 30 years. “She talked me into writing my memoir, Natural Blonde, and got me a big advance,” Smith says with a laugh. “She’d lend me money if she had it. Joni’s my family.”
As the world moved online, so did Evans. “She saw the world going in the direction of the Internet and away from publishing,” Buchman, her sister, says. Evans found the content offerings on the web sadly lacking for women over 40. Ergo, wowOwow.com (which stands for “Women on the Web”), which has been described as a virtual cocktail party, complete with chatty but well-informed discussions on money, manners, culture, travel, current events, and more. Evans founded the site along with some of her closest friends and colleagues, including Smith, Noonan, Mary Wells Lawrence, and Lesley Stahl.
“We’re not going after news,” Evans says. “We’re going after community. It’s a group of accomplished women who want to hear from each other. We want to reach out and find unusual voices.” Besides regular postings, the site also has corporate speaking and mentoring programs, and a free daily newsletter, PureWow. (The two sites get 500,000 to 750,000 visitors monthly.) This summer, wowOwow launched a program on SiriusXM. Co-hosts have included Candice Bergen, Marlo Thomas, Liz Smith, and Jean Chatzky interviewing guests like Graydon Carter, Gloria Steinem, Mika Brzezinski, and Linda Fairstein.
The wowOwow site may be an online cocktail party, but Evans’s real-life dinner parties are memorable get-togethers. She’s established a dinner-table tradition of one conversation taking place at a time so everyone is discussing. “It’s like a focus group,” Perkins says. “People have their say, everyone listens and responds. Joni, the moderator, moves the group along to cover a good range of topics.”
As much as work and play overlap in her world, she cherishes her alone time, too, enjoying Westchester’s serenity and natural beauty. Canoeing, hiking, golfing, and taking long walks with her bearded collie, JB (named for the Scotch), help her unwind and regroup for her next challenge.
Evans shrugs off the suggestion that she has what it takes to write more than the occasional article for magazines or the web. Still there’s consensus among her friends that she has a book or two in her future. Says Perkins, “Joni will have an interesting future by design, not by accident.”
Elzy Kolb is a White Plains-based freelance writer, editor, and copy editor who enjoys covering a range of subjects for Westchester Magazine.