Imagine a private e-mail loop in which all the authors published by a single house are invited to let down their hair and swap publishing strategies and advice. Is it an idea whose time has come, or a publisher's nightmare?
For the 60 romance authors who are linked by the Avon Ladies Web site, it's clearly a good thing. Mostly, the site serves the function of an office water cooler, a place where far-flung authors can find moral support, practical advice and a lifeline when tragedy strikes.
"Someone on the loop might have 24 hours to think of a title that's better than the one the publisher is planning to use, and title suggestions will fly that day," explained Judith Ivory, the Avon author (Black Silk, June) who runs the site. Writers working on historical romances also find ready help with questions about, for example, British titles or how members of the nobility address each other, added Kathleen Eagle (You Never Can Tell, Apr.). "Or someone might ask if a particular expression is used in the Midwest. You can be going along in a story and need something like that, and be stuck for days." Sometimes, messages are posted every 15 minutes, "like after RITA award nominations or a big PW article," said Ivory. Meanwhile, a bad review can trigger long-running discussions.
Avon author Julia Quinn (Romancing Mister Bridgerton, July) hatched the idea of combating the loneliness of the writer's life with an online listserve in 1997. Then Ivory, who has two degrees in math and a Ph.D. in literature, made it happen. The Avon Ladies Web site she created has two facets: a public one that showcases the work of every romance writer at Avon and parent company HarperCollins (http://judithivory.com/avonladies/) and a private one that allows the authors to correspond. Both are entirely independent from the publishing house.
"The group started with 16 writers," said Quinn. "Our editors were nervous at first, thinking we would discuss marketing perks and the money we made. Now, they think it's a cool thing." The Avon editors' fears may have been allayed when, by almost universal consensus, the loop women agreed to avoid discussing advances, royalties and print runs. "It's one of those things you keep to yourself so you can have freer discourse about other things," said Eagle, who admitted that there's nothing to stop members from independently exchanging messages about such issues.
On the loop, the Ladies try to keep the atmosphere genial. For example, if a writer posts a synopsis of a novel and someone else mentions that she was about to propose a similar story, "we joke about the idea fairy who seems to circle around people's heads and drop the same idea on everybody at the same time," said Eagle.
All this ferment has also spurred some fresh book ideas for Avon. Executive editor Carrie Feron believes the forthcoming anthology The Further Observations of Lady Whistledown (Jan. 2003), which is based on a character created by Julia Quinn that was adopted by newer authors Karen Hawkins, Mia Ryan (the new pen name of an established writer) and Suzanne Enoch, would not have come about without the loop. "They worked it out online together," Feron says. "The loop made them bold enough to ask if they could write in each other's worlds, and then they came to me with a proposal."
The Avon Ladies have also answered fortune's hard knocks with good deeds. When member Nancy Richards-Akers was murdered by her husband in 1999, the women raised money for her children and for a safe house in her name in Washington, D.C. The year before, when author Lisa Kleypas (Only with Your Love, Nov.) lost her home in Texas and all her possessions in a flood, the Avon Ladies helped her out. "I got on the loop at my mother's," Kleypas recalled. "The message header was 'In terrible trouble, please read.' I wanted my friends to know what was happening." Within days, the authors had organized, and the goods started flowing in. "They helped with my material needs, and also gave me a feeling of being loved," Kleypas said. "They got me books for my research, a writer's most valuable resource. It was the farthest thing from competition. It was support and help."
Though none would go on record saying that the loop drew them to Avon or keeps them there (Avon's reputation as a great house is responsible for that), the women all said they treasure the loop experience. "They are incredibly organized and passionate about promotion," said Eloisa James, a first-time Avon author (My Last Duchess, Dec.) "I'm a lazy bum myself, but I get whiffs of ambition from them."