Romance Publishing Legends
Avon is a legend in the romance field. It would be fair to rank them equal to Mills and Boon/Harlequin in importance to the industry’s history. They pioneered the historical romance genre and invented the bodice ripper.
Avon’s stable of writers were called “Love’s Leading Ladies,” which was formed by the many of the great originals: Kathleen E. Woodiwiss, Rosemary Rogers, Johanna Lindsey, Laurie McBain, Patricia Hagan, and Shirley Busbee. They released Bertrice Small’s first two books before she moved on to Ballantine. Jennifer Wilde would later join Avon in the 1980s.
Avon Books was founded in 1941 by the American New Company as a rival to Pocket Books. They purchased J.S. Ogilvie Publications, a company that published cheap paperbacks, later renamed “Avon Publications.” Avon’s resemblance to Pocket Books was noted by that publisher, who tried to sue them without much success. Rather than reprinting literary fiction, Avon focused more on mass-market appeal, printing westerns, romances, and mysteries with colorful covers.
Their business plan worked, as the next decades would see them sell millions of cheap books, even as they were treated with contempt by mainstream publishing houses.
In 1959 Avon was bought by the Hearst Corporation. The company made some controversy in 1969 with their publication of Anton La Vey’s Satanic Bible, which has become a huge cult classic.
1972 would be a year of monumental change for Avon when they released Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’ sexually explicit romance, The Flame and the Flower. This was followed by 1974’s The Wolf and the Dove, another bestseller.
That year would also see the release of Rosemary Roger’s Sweet Savage Love, which was made Woodiwiss’s purple-prosed love scenes seem tame in comparison. Whereas Woodiwiss’s heroines would be virgins who only slept their heroes, Rogers had heroines who were more sexually experienced from the outset or had relations with other men besides the hero in their books. Both authors would sell millions. Their books were released not just as mass-market paperbacks but also in trade editions and hardcover.
Avon had officially changed the romance game. Harlequin would create their Presents line, which was more sensual than their previous romances. The 1970s was the decade of female sexuality, with more blockbuster hits released to the appreciative masses. Woodiwiss’ Shanna spent 33 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List. Rogers’ Wicked Loving Lies sold 3 million copies in its first month alone. The covers for romances became more lurid, with naked men and heaving bosoms, but also of better quality, with noted artists like Robert McGinnis or H. Tom Hall producing artwork for Avon.
By the mid-1980s, Avon would release special monthly romances. These books were labelled with the “Avon Romance” banner and included authors like Brenda Joyce, Virginia Henley, Jane Feather, and Susan Wiggs. Other big-named authors that were also published in the 1980s were Catherine Coulter and Christine Monson.
In the 1990s, Avon would have special releases under the “Avon Romantic Treasures” name, which usually meant a respectable-looking front cover, and the clinch printed on the back. Authors such as Lisa Kleypas, Connie Mason, Stephanie Laurens, Beverly Jenkins, Lorraine Heath, and Julia Quinn joined their ranks. In the new millennium, writers like Eloisa James, Sarah MacLean, and Tessa Dare have released books through Avon. The authors who have published romance through Avon are too numerous to mention; it’s truly the house that historical romance built.
Avon Books Today
After Newscorp purchased the Hearst Company’s book publishing division in 1999, Avon became a publisher of romance alone and would no longer release other genres, such as fiction. As of 2010, Avon is an imprint of HarperCollins, which also owns Harlequin.
AVON BOOK REVIEWS
Barbara Ferry Johnson