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So What Do You Do, Joni Evans, CEO,

'The model for books was broken. I wanted to find a way to bring books to the Internet'

By Diane Clehane - December 17, 2008
Just ask Joni Evans -- sisterhood is powerful. Especially when those sisters share your dream of starting an online community and are willing and able to kick in their own cash to make it happen. When the publishing powerhouse ditched print to explore her options online, she found willing partners in her friends Page Six columnist Liz Smith, Wall Street Journal political columnist and former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan, 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl and legendary advertising executive Mary Wells. Each of the five women anted up $200,000 of her own cash to start, a site, says Evans, for "the self-assured woman who is just a little too old to care what everybody thinks."

It's as much Evans and company's connections and distinctive sensibilities as it was their cash (a second round of financing raised $650,000 from "contributors and friends") that has shaped Wow into a virtual lunch at Michael's. Drawing from a plugged-in and socially conscious circle of women that includes Whoopi Goldberg, Marlo Thomas and Candice Bergen, Wow's conversational content ranges from the frothy (the daily weather forecast includes a barometer on whether it's a good hair day) to the political (Cynthia McFadden covered the presidential election). There are lots of pithy comments about sex and shopping as well as candid insights on everything from aging to the economy from women who, prior to joining Wow's sophisticated sorority, were much more accustomed to reading stories about themselves than writing them. And, as expected with Evans at the helm, there's plenty about books and authors, including the 'Just the Right Book' vertical launched earlier this month in partnership with R.J. Julia in Madison, Connecticut. Evans is resolute to be at the forefront of the book publishing revolution as she sees it, and she believes it's happening online.

"There's so much talent, so much quality and so many gems that should make it -- and make it in a new way," she says. "I do believe it will happen. I think the Internet and the whole concept of being able to find your own interests at a reasonable price is going to happen. But it's going to take time."

While Evans admits Wow is "dwarfed" by the kind of funding Arianna Huffington recently got ($25 million from Oak Investment Partners), she's buoyed by $1.5 million Wow scored from Rime, a venture capital group, and Bob Pittman's Pilot Group. She sums up Wow's current state of affairs thusly: "We're women-owned. We've all put in our own money. We all have equity. We're very lean. We've done everything with our own dollars. It's huge at nine months old to have gotten what we did. We're very cheered here."

Name: Joni Evans
Position: CEO,
Resume: Prior to starting up Wow, was the senior vice president of the William Morris Agency's literary department. Over the course of her 35-plus year career in publishing, served as president and publisher of Simon & Schuster and publisher of Random House. Has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, New York and O, The Oprah Magazine. Got her start in publishing as secretary in the fiction department of McCall's. "I was doing everything -- reading all the slush, answers all the calls and getting all the coffee."
Birthdate: April 20, 1942. "I'm 66 years old! I was the youngest person in the room all my life, and just yesterday I turned out to be the oldest."
Hometown: Larchmont, New York
Education: University of Pittsburgh, BA in creative writing
Marital status: "Divorced, then divorced again, now madly in love with Bob Perkins, market research guru, with mutual non-intent to marry and to live happily ever after together."
First section of the Sunday Times: "The Style section. It's a soft entry to a long morning's read... a martini to cushion the news."
Favorite TV show: "I have no time to watch TV, but I do watch Morning Joe in the morning and Jon Stewart -- who makes me feel we just might live through what I heard in the morning."
Guilty pleasure: "Armani anything and Ghirardelli milk chocolate tidbits eaten best straight from the refrigerator."
Last book read: "I'm nearing the end of three at once -- Michael Lewis' Panic, Sarah Thornton's Seven Days in the Art World, Bryan Caplan's The Myth of the Rational Voter -- and I just closed The Black Swan by Nasim Taleb."

Where did the idea for come from?
I left William Morris about three years ago because I knew that the model for books was broken. I wanted to find a way to bring books on to the Internet. So, I got myself a little office on top of the fabulous old Madison Avenue bookstore which is since out of business. I was up there in one room alone and every day I'd come and log on and look for ways to bring books online. A funny thing happened while I was online -- I couldn't find anything for me to read. There was nothing on the Internet for a woman over 40 who is seasoned, savvy, smart, sexy and not looking for work, a man or advice. It was very much politics only, news only or I couldn't find a home for someone like me who really loves content. So I went to my authors who I'd been working with forever -- Peggy Noonan, Mary Wells Lawrence, Lesley Stahl and Liz Smith and said, 'Hey, let's start something!' They were all thinking along the same lines. That's how it happened. They all felt, 'Let's do this.'

How's it doing?
It's doing great. We launched March 8 [2008] and came out of beta in June. The month of November, we were 2,000 short of 600,000 uniques. This is the great part -- we're getting over four million page views and over seven minutes online. It's growing. We're very cheered here.

What's gotten the most hits? Is it a particular story or vertical?
It changes every day. When [contributor] Whoopi Goldberg does something outrageous like she did when Sarah Palin was announced [as John McCain's running mate], it goes bonkers, but there are surprises that get picked up from MSN, Drudge or Huffington Post. Margo Howard, a 'Dear Abby' daughter, has just joined our site -- she's moving from Yahoo to Wow. She can write a column that can go viral and never stop. We have a 'Love Goddess' who writes for us, and we did a thing last week on how to get your v-jay in shape and that went ballistic. We talk about everything and you never know whether it's shoes or the women of Afghanistan who are going to make the difference.

A few months back you added your first male contributor, Billy Norwich, to the site. Are there plans to introduce more guys to the mix?
Probably. Some of the audience doesn't like it, but Billy is just so female-friendly and just so much on our side we figure it's okay.

There are so many female-centric sites -- and more popping up every day. What's your competitive difference?
We're serving a demographic that has been underserved forever: women over 40 who are with it, accomplished and don't give a damn what other people think of them and are not afraid to speak the truth and to have fun. We're not mean, but we don't mind shaking it up. We're serving a community. We have hopes that this is a brand, not just a Web site that defines who women are and what we're capable of doing. Our dreams are so big.

What does that mean for the future? How does your recent funding figure in to your plans?
Our plan is to be profitable with that money alone. We're hoping to get the kind of [advertising] revenue where we don't have to add more. Who knows in this economic environment? But having the kind of advertising we started out with, we've been able to demonstrate to our advertisers that our target audience is upscale, sophisticated, and they spend. That's our model.

"Publishers are being turned into venture capitalists -- they go out there and make a bet on a new product. If that product doesn't work within three weeks, they drop it. Loyalty has gone out the window."

But it's a pretty perilous economic climate. What are you doing to attract new business?
We also do sponsorships and monthly events. Sometimes it's twice a month where we have groups that ask us to come talk to them. We can talk about mentorship, running your own business -- we can talk about anything. We just did an event for Citi's Women and Company. Marlo Thomas and Liz [Smith] came to that one. There were 500 people in the room and it was nonstop. Miss Manners [Judith Martin] just did one with Julia Reed in Chicago at Tiffany's. We've got a lot of these in the works for next year.

So when you put a proposal together for prospective sponsors, this is one of the programs they can take advantage of as value added?
Yes. We want to do our advertising different. We want to use the genius of feedback and interaction to find out what a Sony customer really wants or really thinks about or come up with the ideas that Sony can tailor for them, so we're pushing to make our advertising as creative as our editorial.

The other thing that happens is the community starts coming out and we start seeing Wow women in all these other cities. We don't want to be just New York and California-centric alone, so that's another way of making money. We've reached out to BlogHer and we're doing a big event with them next spring. Our business development people are everywhere.

At the moment, there is this sense that anybody in the media from print journalists to talking heads that has lost their job has turned to the Internet for their next act. Can all these people make a living providing content when most sites are paying little or nothing for it?
They are going to make a living. They're not making a living now. Maybe there are models that are pulling in loads of money, but right now we're right at that nexus point where old world media is coming online and all these tragic things I've read about [publishing] has all this talent [that] is going to do exactly that. They are going to go home and go on to the Internet. I think this medium is going to be where you find everything, including your own next job. That's when advertising is going to shift and communities are going to come on that people want to pay for. Right now, no, I don't think people are making money off of it. But they will be -- and they will be really fast.

"When the Web came on, rather than embracing it right away, it was really feared. I just don't think that reading online and marketing online is a danger -- it's an also."

Here's hoping. Do you pay your writers?
We don't. We have this feature, 'A Friend Stopped By,' and we invite everybody to write for us. We link to everybody, and we help sell books. We pay a couple of columnists very little money. My hope is that this becomes a real profit center and that we have advertising revenue that spills over, and we will pay those people who are bringing more traffic to the site. We never felt we weren't going to give money -- we've given equity to our contributors and we've given some equity to our staff. I would love for this to be a new model for women and women-owned companies.

How many paid staffers do you currently have?
Twelve people -- they were all at my house yesterday.

This is a dismal time for book publishing. How do you view the state of the industry?
It was inevitable. You could see it coming years ago.

Aside from the macro economic factors, how did it get this bad?
The model has been broken for 25 years -- the concept of publishing books that can be returned. The publisher owns the entire risk. They pay these enormous advances that don't get returned, they let books go out there that can be returned. The book store makes the publisher pay for the advertising and the real estate. Agents -- like Joni Evans at the William Morris Agency -- when they're disappointed in the publisher, move the book to another house. It was always a broken model.

When the Web came on, rather than embracing it right away, it was really feared. I just don't think that reading online and marketing online is a danger -- it's an also. Some people are really loving reading Kindle. How did it get this way? By not keeping up with the times. When I came into publishing in the 60s, talent was all -- the celebration of quality was all. It wasn't about the deal. You don't buy a book by buying a Random House book or a Knopf book or a Doubleday book, you buy good books.

How much more difficult is it these days for authors that don't have a marquee name to get a book published?
It's horrendous. Publishers are being turned into venture capitalists -- they go out there and make a bet on a new product. If that product doesn't work within three weeks, they drop it. In my day, you stayed with product for seven books. There was loyalty. Loyalty has gone out the window.

Tell me about 'Just the Right Book,' which you launched on Wow this month.
Our audience are readers. If you ask, 'What are you reading now?' we get so many responses, it's off the charts. When we speak to our contributors, they can't wait to tell you what they're reading and what they're loving. It's like a book club online. It celebrates books which we think our audience would like to read and allows authors to just write -- not necessarily about their own book but about their experiences that led to their book. We're putting in different programs about the classics. One thing we found is that our readers love slideshows. It's perfect for coffee table books that are very hard to promote in stores because half of them are in a plastic wrapper. Having them online has proven to be a great feature. People come on, go through 10 pages and order the book.

With online features like that and the advent of Kindle, what's going to become of the good old-fashioned book?
It's not an either-or. Nobody gets that. It's an also.

Since making the jump from publishing to working online, what's been the major difference in the way you work?
There's a hundred answers to that question. The speed is palpable. It's changed my whole life. The great thing is the reaction you get in two seconds from people. I love the forward feeling. In books and in magazines, you go over something 50 times. Although we do copy edit, we put it up and we see how it works. In five minutes, you know.

Are you working harder or just differently?
Well, because it's a start-up, I have absolutely no life. I am working 18 hours a day. I get up at 2 in the morning and work until 4:30. I've never worked that hard and my staff is working that hard with me. But that's going to change. It's much more labor-intensive but only because I'm a start-up.

Any lessons you learned really early in your career that still resonate?
Staying relevant. Making a difference. Survival. I always want to make a decision and change the world. I always wanted to make an impact. I've had big falls in my career. I've been shut down and passed over. Whenever something doesn't go right, I know it's for a reason. What it usually does is tell me, 'Get up, get out and do something else.'

What would you consider your greatest success?
Seeing what I liked and believed in become a best seller was dizzying. I never had an extraordinary education. I came from very humble parents. My favorite book that I signed, worked on and waited 12 years for was Julia Phillips' You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again which to me was the told it all. She was my best friend for years. It was so important to get her story out and let people know what Hollywood was really about. She was fearless, she was brilliant; she was trouble. She changed that industry and she changed the way certain kinds of memoirs would be written ever since. Things that strike to heart of reality and truth are my greatest successes.

What about your biggest disappointment?
I guess you could say Turtle Bay, which I believed in. [Turtle Bay Books was a short-lived imprint of Random House which Evans helmed.] I had great people. They tore us down in nine months. I don't know if that was my biggest disappointment as much as it was my biggest embarrassment. I really thought it was going to make it. My biggest disappointment? It hasn't come yet. Everything that happens does for a reason.

How would you say you've gotten to where you are?
I don't know where I am. I'm still beginning.

Do you have a motto?
I do. It comes from the French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience." I live by that -- let the winds of fate dance between you and your destiny. Don't keep pushing things. It's either meant to be or it's not.

Diane Clehane is a contributing editor to FishbowlNY and TVNewser. She writes the Lunch column.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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