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Interview with an Editor Series: Liate Stehlik, Publisher, Avon

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Liate Stehlik was named the Senior Vice President and Publisher of Avon in October of 2005. Prior to her move to Avon, Ms. Stehlik was a Vice President, Associate Publisher at Pocket. Avon has been a mainstay in the romantic fiction genre for decades. I have treasured keepers from the 80s that were published by Avon. In more recent years, Avon has become synonymous with regency historicals and funny contemporaries made popular by authors such as Julia Quinn and Rachel Gibson. I remember once speaking with an author at an RWA Convention several years ago. She yearned to be an Avon author because Avon authors made it on the New York Times bestseller lists. In February, Avon had three books on the Times Bestseller Paperback fiction list: What Price Love? (Cynster Novels) by Stephanie Laurens, Bite Me If You Can by Lynsay Sands, What A Lady Wants by Victoria Alexander.

Q. What is the role of a “publisher” at HarperCollins?
A: As I see it, the role of publisher is to be sure that every book on our list has the best possible chance of succeeding in the marketplace. That means everything from acquisition to on-sale, and being sure everything comes together in between.

Q. How many editors do you have? How many books do they acquire, on average, in a year?
A: We have seven on our editorial staff that acquire titles for our romance/women's fiction line. Other editors at HarperCollins also acquire books for our mass market and trade paperback lists.

Q. There appear to be four different Avon imprints at HarperCollins that encompass everything from historicals to chick-lit to erotica. How would you define these imprints? (i.e., how many books are released from each imprint each year?)
A: While we are fortunate at Avon to have many of the top authors in historical romance on our list, we publish the full range of women's fiction on our mass market list, including romantic suspense, paranormal, and contemporary women's fiction

In our trade paperback group we are just relaunching our Avon trade paperback line as Avon A. In this line we are seeking to broaden the imprint by including general commercial women's fiction as well as quality nonfiction.

Avon Inspire is launching in May 2007. This is our new inspirational fiction line that includes both historical and contemporary books.

Avon Red is devoted to erotica titles.

Q. I read an online article that quoted Jane Friedman saying that she wanted to brand books by imprints, instead of by authors. I see Avon as being successful in this, as readers see Avon as synonymous with a certain type of historical romance. With reports of historicals on the decline, is this imprint branding still a strong marketing concept? Or are the reports of historicals on the decline much ado about nothing?
A: We believe that Avon is synonymous with quality women's fiction, whether that be stories that are historical, contemporary, paranormal, suspense or any hybrid of these. With the Avon brand, readers should feel they are getting the best of whatever category they are choosing from.

Q. How many romance books do you release each month? (ie. is there a set amount released in month and under what imprints?)
A: We offer at least five mass market romance/womens' fiction titles each month.

Q. Are there any trends you see growing, expanding or contracting? What do you think is driving these trends?
A: Paranormal romance is still very hot. But as with any trend, it always comes down to the author's voice and unique perspective on a common theme. If an author is doing something amazing in a nontraditional setting, we are always willing to give it a try and let readers be the judge of where the next trend may go.

Q. Do you get to read for pleasure? If so, do you have favorite authors?
A: I still read for pleasure, and luckily what I read for “work” is often very pleasurable so the two blur for me.

Q. In regards to the contemporary paranormal romances that are filling the shelves these days, do you think this is a particular type of fiction that will grow, or fail?
A: As with any trend, the writers who do it well will continue to find an audience.

Q. We’ve heard some about the loss of young readership, as romance is plagued as an “older” genre. Is this stigma true? What are you as a publisher doing to try to attract the younger readers? We’ve heard some about the loss of older readers because of lack of content which is reflective of their lives, specifically baby boomers? Is that still the case? What are you doing to attract older readers?.
A: I think the demographic concern is purely one of perception. If you attend any of the romance conferences or frequent any of the romance websites, you see the full range of ages that are interested and passionate about romance. What we are doing at HarperCollins to address an aging readership is launching HarperLuxe, a format aimed to provide a more comfortable reading experience. HarperLuxe editions feature a more readable 14-point size font with 20-pt. leading and wider margins. We are expanding the number of titles we are doing in the program, including romance authors such as Stephanie Laurens, Rachel Gibson, Kinley MacGregor, and Teresa Medeiros.

Q: Have you considered writing a book yourself?
A: No, I will leave that to the experts!

Q. Erotica vs. Inspirational – It seems as though these are two very diametrically opposed growths. Are those fringe trends or will they become more mainstream?
A: I certainly don't see either category as fringe or “here today, gone tomorrow” trends. I think the longevity of both has already been proven and as traditional retailers become more accepting of them, the sales will only continue to grow.

Q. While you are probably excited about all of the books that you have in your catalog can you share with the readers a few that we should be anticipating? Any new authors or existing ones that have exciting projects for 2007?
A: We have a lot of exciting things coming up, but a few highlights coming out in the next few months are: Wrong Place, Wrong Time/Andrea Kane (on sale 2/27), The Scent of Shadows: The First Sign of the Zodiac / Vicki Pettersson (2/27/07), And Then He Kissed Her/Laura Lee Guhrke (2/27/07), Bedding the Heiress /Cathy Maxwell (3/27/07), Be Still My Vampire Heart (Love at Stake Series, Book 3)/Kerrelyn Sparks (3/27/07), and Not Quite A Lady/ Loretta Chase (3/27/07).

Thanks so much!

As a Post Script, my own stupidity led to this interview with Liate Stehlik from Harper Collins. I was working on the interviews for the ebook industry and a very kind publicist from Avon was setting that up for me. She had sent me two names who were going to help me out. I got confused and sent Ms. Walsh, Ms. Stehlik’s assistant, my ebook questions. She sent those back and said, Hmm, are you sure these are what you want to send? And so, I said, “of course not”, not really knowing what I intended. I sent her the editor questionnaire. She replied, “well, these are questions more for an editor.” and then I realized, with not a little humiliation, that I had no idea who Liate Stehlik was. Quick Google. My humiliation went from a little to alot.

I called Ms. Walsh and explained how ignorant I was. She and Ms. Stehlik took pity on me. So, there you go, the story of how Jane messes up but it actually works out for all of us.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

16 Comments

  1. Kristie(J)
    Feb 26, 2007 @ 06:25:35

    I’d best not comment on what I think of Avon – wait – that is a comment isn’t it.

    *snort* readers should feel they are getting the best – right! The best in mediocrity maybe.

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  2. LinM
    Feb 26, 2007 @ 09:08:43

    I’m an aging baby boomer with deteriorating eyesight – aging is OK, the deteriorating eyesight infuriates me. I buy a hundreds of books each year. Perfect target for HarperLuxe? Absolutely NOT. Give me ebooks instead where I can control both the font and the point size.

    I googled HarperLuxe to lookup the physical size of the books and found this quote:

    The imprint will feature nonfiction titles and other works that might appeal to baby boomers, Stehlik said. “We won’t be doing Meg Cabot titles in large print”

    If I was stranded anywhere, I would probably choose the cereal box over book 5 in “The Princess Diaries” but I like Meg Cabot. I may have been disappointed in the latest Heather Wells but I will buy at least one more title in the series. I would definitely choose Meg Cabot over Stephanie Laurens (hundreds of titles – all the same book), Rachel Gibson (Meg Cabot is funnier), Kinley MacGregor (never tried), and Teresa Medeiros (gets good reviews but in general her books don’t work for me).

    Damn, an imprint aimed at my demographic group and I dislike the form factor and the content. Am I out of step?

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  3. Jane
    Feb 26, 2007 @ 09:26:14

    LinM – HarperCollins, for all its faults, is really good at releasing its books in ebook format. I think all of Cabot’s recent releases are ebooks. I wish they did a better job of pricing and of getting all the books out in ebook format, but compared to other publishers (warner and penguin), they are doing a decent job.

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  4. The Good, The Bad, The Unread » Blog Archive » Dear Author does Avon… sort of
    Feb 26, 2007 @ 10:13:46

    [...] Their interview today is with Liate Stehlik, the Senior Vice President and Publisher of Avon. [...]

  5. PSJ
    Feb 26, 2007 @ 10:19:04

    Any books that Avon has the rights to publish in e-book edition will be made available to the public in e-book edition. You’ll be seeing that it’s a huge percentage of the list, going forward.

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  6. LinM
    Feb 26, 2007 @ 13:15:32

    OK – I do appreciate the HarperCollins website. The upcoming releases are clearly identified by title/author and format. Kudos.

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  7. seton
    Feb 26, 2007 @ 14:02:46

    If Avon is the best in mediocrity, surely the loss of Christina Dodd is an addition by subtraction? Meow.

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  8. Jane
    Feb 26, 2007 @ 14:11:09

    Ouch, Seton. LOL. Is Dodd’s move to Signet for good or is it just for her paranormals? I guess the Avon stock would go up with signing Chase’s book (which I have read and thought was much more emotional than her previous efforts, but it could have just been the subject matter); and Julie Ann Long.

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  9. Ann(ie)
    Feb 26, 2007 @ 15:43:41

    I don’t buy on House loyalty. My loyalty is to an author so I’ll buy her book if I want it, regardless of who puts it out. If the author starts writing stinkers, though, she comes off the list fast.

    I don’t care if she wrote 15 hot, fabulous books. I’m not buying her reputation. I expect product each and every time.

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  10. seton
    Feb 26, 2007 @ 16:11:58

    [quote comment="23766"]Ouch, Seton. LOL. Is Dodd’s move to Signet for good or is it just for her paranormals? [/quote]

    It looks like Dodd’s leaving is for good. Dodd is now off the Author List on the Avon Author Forum and the verklempt fangurls there have mentioned that Dodd only currently have contracts for paranormals and contemps.

    You read Chase’s new one? I am so, so jeluz. To me, Chase will always be an Avon author so the move back dont phase me. Same with Laura Kinsale. I wish Avon would just bite it and offer whatever astronomical amount that Kinsale wants for her next contract.

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  11. Kristie(J)
    Feb 26, 2007 @ 17:03:15

    I don’t buy on House loyalty.

    I don’t either, but I’ve seen what has happened to some of my favourite authors once they move to Avon – and it isn’t pretty. Avon wasn’t always like they are today. But they have found a formula that works for them and when not feeling bitter, I say more power to them. But woe to those who write outside the formula. I can see why many authors want to write for them. It’s almost a guaranteed success. But as a reader who is looking for something different from a book, I’m not going to find it at Avon.

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  12. Robin
    Feb 27, 2007 @ 12:26:11

    *snort* readers should feel they are getting the best – right! The best in mediocrity maybe.

    I’m willing to buy that Avon believes they are putting out the “best” — after all, look at the Avon Authors board and tell me how easy it would be to see that you are doing ANYTHING wrong?! That one book I read last year was so riddled with grammatical and word choice errors that I would have failed it as an undergraduate essay did not seem to rate with hordes of seemingly happy readers.

    Here’s where I have greater difficulty, though. From Avon’s own submission guidlines:

    Our program allows us to publish the most unforgettable voices in historical and contemporary romance.

    Interestingly, the contemp guidelines call for

    stories of emotional complexity, written by authors with unique voices.

    While the historical blurb calls for

    deliciously romantic historical novels for all parts of the list

    So maybe that’s the problem right there — that the historical category at Avon doesn’t even aim for complexity or uniqueness. Certainly many of us have that complaint about Avon (and the fact that Loretta Chase indicated that her contract with Avon calls for shorter word counts sent chills up my arm, and they weren’t chills of passion).

    Where I have the problem is reconciling that with the “unforgettable voices” line. I KNOW this is a subjective indicator, but looking back at Laura Kinsale’s early books with Avon, and then thinking about some of the recent pubs from their house, I feel a real frustration — a sense of injustice, even, that leadership in the Romance industry is characterized in ways that IMO condescend to women. That’s right: CONDESCEND.

    When did it become the case that comfort came only with trite familiarity? When did formula become conflated with sameness? Sonnets are reltively short and rigidly formulaic, but Shakespeare managed to write more than 150 of them without becoming trite or inane. Who decided that historical Romances “are love stories set primarily in Great Britain and the United States before 1900″? If we’re abiding by that ridiculous stereotype, shouldn’t all the sex be in missionary position and the women thinking of England? When did it become acceptable to believe that entertainment did not involve any higher thought processes? That complexity was the enemy of comfort — easy answers the key to enjoyment?

    The complexity of women is boundless — that we can think and feel at the same time, while still chewing gum and tending the younguns is a marvel of nature, god, or whatever power you want to invest yourself in. Why can’t leadership in Romance fiction be shaped around honoring and respecting our strength, our intelligence, our capacity to understand and feel so deeply? Why have we gotten to a point where we believe that depth and complexity are a burden on instead of a liberation for our fantasies and imagination?

    In my experience, people either live up or down to our expectations. If Avon is setting the curve, I’m afeerd for the direction we’re headed, NOT because their authors aren’t talented and their books terrible — because for the most part, neither is the case. But I’m afraid because we seem to be roaming farther and farther from a place where we embrace the importance of diversity — its life-affirming power and its vital role in the process of renewal, whether it be for species or for cultural literacy or the vitality of our fiction (art in the broadest sense of the word). ANYONE can enjoy a well-crafted and dynamic book, but the opposite is NOT true of those books that shoot low. And to me, one of the greatest ironies in Avon’s publishing philosophy is that while it wants to aim to the greatest number of readers, I actually think it’s limiting its appeal.

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  13. Jane
    Feb 27, 2007 @ 12:44:06

    I don’t think any publisher wants to limit readers because I think that is self destructive. What I think it does do, and this is across the board, is to drive trends until they are dead. Part of the decline of the historical, imo, is the glut of romances stuck in the Regency period making readers equate historical with regency and thinking, I am tired of that.

    Vampire hunting novels are reaching that peak for me. I feel like that there can’t be anything new to be written about it.

    Sometimes I think publishers are listening too closely to the readers in following trends and should try to foster and set trends themselves. I think that they can do this through advertising and promotion. If one publisher found a really awesome Western and bought ads, built up reader buzz, wouldn’t that sell just as well? I tend to think sales, many times, are self fulfilling.

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  14. Robin
    Feb 27, 2007 @ 16:21:22

    What I think it does do, and this is across the board, is to drive trends until they are dead.

    Oh, yes; I mean, heck Teresa Medeiros is writing a vampire series for cripes sake!

    Sometimes I think publishers are listening too closely to the readers in following trends and should try to foster and set trends themselves.

    They’re selectively listening to readers, that’s for sure (they’re not listening to me or KristieJ or the many other readers complaining about the state of Romance all across the Internet). And they know, let’s face it, that they can drive one trend into the ground, and as soon as it stops selling, they can sell another one into the ground. And if one of those trends if complex and nuanced historicals, all of us who are now complaining will buy those books and so as far as a publisher like Avon is concerned, they’re doing okay.

    I ABSOLUTELY think that part of leadership is, well, leading rather than following — and even still, you’ll NEVER convince me that readers drive these trends alone. When you have a closed market, our choices are limited to begin with, and with the power of reader loyalty to the genre as a whole, I think readers are taken advantage of regularly by publishers trying to cash in as much as they can on a trend they have had a heavy hand in creating and perpetuating.

    If Avon just put out crappy books, it wouldn’t be such an issue for me — I’d write them off without a second thought. But to me it’s worse than that. I see any number of authors with potentially powerful writing and storytelling skills sending out uninspired, uninspiring, deadly dull clones of one another. I find myself LOOKING for something unique in quite a few comptently written books because the current market for historicals is so anemic. And just to be clear, I’m not talking about a choice between Dostoevski and Julia Quinn — I’m talking about the purposeful cultivation of books rather than products, of authors rather than scribes. I realize those books take more time to write and refine, and that fewer books may come out of the gate at a time — but I think more readers would be buying them.

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  15. Kristie(J)
    Feb 27, 2007 @ 18:24:08

    I realize those books take more time to write and refine, and that fewer books may come out of the gate at a time

    I think that is SO true. I visit their author board every so often (and get blinded by those inane blinky things when I do) and it’s all “oh write faster, write faster” And I want to say SHUT UP!!! (except I’m not registered. I refuse to do blinkys or revolving pictures) I would much rather an author take her time and come up with a more complex story than piggy backing on the previous in a series and recreate pretty much the same characters over and over *cough-Stephanie Laurens – cough*. Give me a Jo Goodman who puts out one book a year any day, than 2, 3 or 4 books a year. (and just in case she’s reading – I am excluding JD Robb aka Nora Roberts). But alas, some of us are in the minority on that one. But – MORE IS NOT BETTER!

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  16. Robin
    Feb 27, 2007 @ 18:36:22

    I agree, Kristie, and I found FORMER Avon author Lisa Kleypas’s comments on the AAR ATBF board quite inspired:

    I think and hope the success of Devil In Winter on the bookstands was a sign of changes happening in the historical romance marketplace. It seemed for a while that the lighter, less intense romances were more in demand than the darker ones, and that as a result there was sometimes a “homogenized” feeling to the available selections. I enjoy both varieties, but I’ve always felt that a deeper, more intense romance novel can reach different places in your heart than the lighter ones . . . and readers certainly deserve to have a choice. I think (and this is just my opinion) that no matter what the genre or subgenre, readers right now are asking for an intensity of experience, that they would rather authors err on the side of “too much” rather than blandness.”

    If only more authors were speaking out about this, I think we’d be in a different place, even if I don’t share Kleypas’s assessment of the current market as it does or doesn’t cultivate “deeper” Romances.

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