Publishers of mass market fiction have struggled with declining sales in recent years, but Avon, a top publisher of romance fiction in that format, has adapted over the years and continues to be an important romance house as it celebrates its 75th anniversary this year.
“For us the brand is about the author,” senior v-p and publisher Liate Stehlik said. Avon boasts some of the bestselling authors in the genre, including Kathleen Woodiwiss, Johanna Lindsey, Elizabeth Lowell, Julia Quinn, Lisa Kleypas, and Susan Elizabeth Phillips. Stehlik said the current market for historical romance “has not diminished. That and contemporary [romance] remain strong, and those subgenres account for most of our books.”
In this diamond-anniversary year, Avon plans to publish 65 original books and a projected 65–70 Avon Impulse titles. In July 2016, Avon will publish the 75th-anniversary commemorative edition of Shanna, with a foreword by Lisa Kleypas. (Shanna  spent 33 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, the longest tenure of any single Avon title.) Also in 2016, Avon will repromote 12 of its key historical titles in e-book format; all will be priced at $1.99 and supported via publicity, social media, Avon’s “From the Heart” newsletter, and HarperCollins’s Bookperk platform.
Avon began humbly in 1941 as a publisher of paperback reprints of classics and genre fiction—mysteries, westerns, doctor/nurse novels—and added mystery magazines and comic books along the way. By 1944 Avon had become firmly entrenched in the market for small-format paperback editions.
In 1969 Peter Mayer, who would later go on to become CEO of Penguin Books, was appointed v-p and publisher with a mandate to acquire better books and set the house on a new course. That also was the year Avon published its first paperback original—Jack Hoffman’s Reap in Tears, which became a bestseller—opening a new chapter for the company and the industry.
As Avon published more heavily in the romance genre, it discovered a gem in The Flame and the Flower (1972) by Kathleen Woodiwiss, the first Avon title to make the New York Times list. William Morrow and Avon were acquired from Hearst in 1999 by HarperCollins, which created the William Morrow Group.
Stehlik, who joined the company 10 years ago and also oversees William Morrow, further refined Avon’s focus on romance. “Now we do [all kinds of] romance—especially historical romance—and women’s fiction,” Stehlik said.
In 2011, Avon launched its digital-first Impulse imprint, which Stehlik said “has been a hugely successful model company-wide, growing sales and building successful author careers.” Impulse reached sales of 4 million books in 2015, and other Avon imprints, such as Witness and Voyager, have launched Impulse platforms.
Stehlik reports to Michael Morrison, president and publisher of HarperCollins, who leads the General Books group, including the Morrow and Harper divisions, with Avon Books, William Morrow hardcovers, William Morrow paperbacks, Dey Street, Voyager, and the digital-first Impulse imprint.
Along with being voracious book buyers, “romance readers like to congregate, in person and online,” Stehlik noted, so building community is very important. In 2014, Avon launched KissCon, a series of multiauthor bookstore events in different cities where fans can meet and interact with their favorite writers. The next event is in April at Changing Hands in Phoenix. “We hope to draw [romance fans] to these events, as well as bring readers together via social media and other digital activities,” Stehlik said. These include monthly “re-read”-along online events throughout 2016, beginning January 29 with romance author Sarah MacLean hosting a rereading of The Flame and the Flower.
Asked how Avon will survive in a tough mass market category, Pamela Jaffee, senior director of publicity and brand development, said, “Due to our expansion into the digital market, where we have seen definite growth through the Impulse platform, we are well positioned. Our list is a perfect size for the market, and we believe that we are publishing the optimal quantity of titles to meet marketplace demand.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated Liate Stehlik had been with Avon for 20 years; she has been there for 10 years, not 20. The article also included Harlequin as part of the General Books Group under Michael Morrison. Harlequin is a completely separate division and not overseen by Morrison.