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January 10, 2002 - Addendum to Issue #131

Interview with Carrie Feron,
Avon Executive Editor

We've had some spirited discussion on a couple of our message boards as a result of the current issue of At the Back Fence in recent days about reader anger, and where it might be coming from. Some suspect that rather than individual authors, readers might be frustrated with the genre as a whole, which would mean asking an editor might make a whole lot of sense. As the discussion continued, Carrie Feron, Executive Editor of Avon Books made herself available for an interview.

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Many readers emailed questions and were used in the final list I sent to Ms. Feron. Based on some of her answers, follow-ups were asked as well. Ms. Feron responded very quickly to every question put to her for this interview. I'd like to publicly thank Ms. Feron for putting herself on the hotseat; given the genesis of this interview, many of the questions were rather negative. You might find some of her answers surprising, but as an interviewer I can only ask the questions, not dictate the answers.

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Laurie Likes Books: What is your editing history and what changes have you seen since you began in the business? Are there subjects, time periods, or themes that you actively encourage authors you work with to pursue, or discourage them from pursuing, in their work? If so, have these changed over the years you've been an editor? If so, what's led to these changes and what would make you change your mind on these areas?

Carrie Feron: I first want to say that I have always read romance. From the time I was small, my favorite bedtime stories were fairytales; when I was in fifth grade and had pneumonia I read Jane Eyre and my life changed forever (truly - I even have a daughter named Charlotte) and when I was 12 Kathleen Woodiwiss wrote The Flame and the Flower. So I am not someone who decided at some point that romance novels might be interesting to work on; I've always felt strongly about these positive life stories and the wonderful people who write them.

My first job was at Pageant books, and there we "tested" a lot of books that others wouldn't publish. Books set in Africa; books set in Roman Britain; books that were out of genre. Some of these books were cancelled when Pageant ended, so they never came out. But they live on in my heart. I then worked for Loveswept with authors such as Janet Evanovich and Billie Green; then to Berkley where I worked with Laura Kinsale, Nora Roberts and Suzanne Forster. And now I'm at Avon.

I don't actually look to authors to write themes. I look for strong voices in the authors themselves.


LLB: I've heard from authors that many editors of romance novels are "baby editors" working their way up the publishing food chain and don't particularly care for the genre. How would you respond to that?

Carrie: Not editors who work for me.


LLB: Many readers of romance (and authors I've talked to as well) believe that romance novels are the step-child of the publishing industry. They earn a lot of mass market dollars but are not respectable. What do you say to that?

Carrie: This is really not true. I don't know what else to say.


LLB: When I pick up an Avon, I generally only see blurbs from other authors and an occasional tiny snippet from a major magazine. Why so few review snippets, and why so very few from the major online publications? Why is Romantic Times the standard bearer when they are known in the publishing industry as a fanzine? Do reviews from sources like All About Romance and The Romance Reader count for anything after so many years online? Does the online community simply account for too small a readership to include?

Carrie: Reviews on books often serve two functions. One at "sell in" to grab the attention of a bookstore owner, and later to grab the attention of a consumer. I feel that the on-line community is so "of the moment" that to use an "old" on line comment wouldn't really make sense. Also Romantic Times reviews all the new books before they land on the shelf, so a savvy reader of RT would already be aware of a book and its rating. Therefore putting a RT quote wouldn't really make sense.


LLB: Just as music buyers are a lot more savvy about music sales and you'll now find grosses for movies in every newspaper, why does it seem so difficult to find sales information about books in general and romances specifically? Getting an author to even talk about the size of a print run or sell-through percentage is next to impossible. Why is that? Are romance sales constant, increasing, or in decline?

Carrie: Getting an author to talk about a print run often feels to them like someone is asking their salary. Therefore, they'd rather not discuss, and I have to support that. But just as movies have grosses, usually you can find print runs in Publishers Weekly (both weekly and year end issue) and the Wall Street Journal does a good job tracking hardcovers.


LLB: How many letters do you receive saying yeah or nay to individual books, themes, etc? Do most come via snail mail, and is more consideration given to those than mail that comes via the Internet? Does anyone at Avon troll some of the online message boards? Does reader input other than sales help determine trends in publishing? If you were to describe either the typical Avon reader or the Avon reader you would like to see, how would you describe her?

Carrie: I actually get very few letters about books. If anything I get the letters about mistakes in books. The authors themselves get the fan letters. Do I troll the online message boards? Not as much as I'd like because I have such a large volume of work. But I do look at sales figures weekly, and sometimes daily. I find that I get most of my "trend" information from looking at sales figures. Sales figures to me are readers voting with their hard-earned dollars.


LLB: Anyone who has watched television in the past 15 years knows that they used to give more time for certain shows to catch on than they do now, particularly critical successes. Now it's pretty much sink or swim. Can the same be said about the publishing industry and how long an author is given to succeed? How much help do you give authors, how long are you willing to stick with a talent, and what methods other than sales do publishers use to determine whether or not to grow an author? Who decides how to spend advertising and other marketing money on the authors you publish? It sometimes seems as though the authors who get the marketing are those who don't need it.

Carrie: This is a very different medium, but believe me a lot of effort goes into books for a long time before they are even published. Say for example we go to contract with a new author and we buy two books. It usually takes a minimum of nine months to get that first title to the shelves. So we've been working with someone at least nine months before the book even comes out. Then it takes at least a year for sales to be considered pretty final on that book. Usually we have a second book in the pipeline, and we make the necessary preparation for that book. So in terms of time, there is usually a long investment. And keep in mind that we are the ones that have bought the book with high expectations. We only want success - nothing more.

Every case is different, but we have done many things to try and push and author's career when it seemed not to be working. Often we blame ourselves and switch gears. We ask did we give someone the wrong cover? What could we do better the next time? We are actually often harder on ourselves than you might expect.

I know of one author where we changed her name three times because the accounts were not as excited as we were. And we believed in the author, so we believed there must be a way to make it all work. And there is another author that had a very weak track record at another house (I would say about a 33% sell through), but I bought her books and published her at a high level simply on faith. And it worked out. That's what I want to happen - success stories.


LLB: Many readers have commented that many Avon authors seem to be writing humorous romances. For every Karen Ranney, say, there is a Julia Quinn and a Stephanie Laurens and a Susan Andersen (who changed from dark romantic suspense to light contemporaries when she went to Avon). Why does it seem that the light romance is the favored romance from Avon? And, do you actually publish more light romances? Do they sell better? Here is an actual reader email from yesterday directed to you: "For a while I've only been seeing light-hearted regency romps, so-called zanny, snappy, feisty heroine contemps, romantic suspense/no wait it's romantic comedy suspense that crowd the bookshelves? Why can't we have serious books with emotional depth? Everything seems so sanitized. Where did the anti-hero go? Are we going to see in-depth emotional books or gritty, dark, morally ambiguous heroes, like Anne Stuart writes?" (On this last point, I gotta say, Anne Stuart's Avon historicals were her best; none of her later historicals equaled A Rose at Midnight or To Love a Dark Lord.)

Carrie: The challenge Laurie, is that this is not a moment in history for moral ambiguity. I am not sure who the "anti heroes" are in popular culture in general. For example, Harry Potter is probably the biggest "hero" on the page, and there is nothing ambiguous about him. That is not to say that someone couldn't write a great anti-hero, and that we wouldn't be thrilled to publish that writer, but in general we are finding readers are responding to "good guys."


LLB: Avon is considered one of the premiere romance publishers among many of our readers. And yet there are authors published by Avon who have been reviewed by five different reviewers and each reviewer gave that author a grade of F. We have actively asked within the online community to hear from readers who like some of these authors and can't figure out if our tastes are just so different from the readership in general or whether name recognition is enough for these authors to sell. Then there are authors whom we believe are buried treasures - at Avon one would be Lorraine Heath, whose books are excellent, have won major awards, and yet whose career has not skyrocketed. Even those of us (including myself) who don't generally read western historicals seem to love her. How do you get the word out more successfully on authors like her?

Carrie: I understand that five of your readers might not like a book, and things like that happen on my side of the desk as well. Many editors, more than five, turned down John Grisham. Don't they wish they hadn't? We have to look at the readership as a whole, and not miss the forest for the trees.

In my career I have backed "horses" that I truly believed in, loved, packaged with care, marketed with good money, and the books haven't worked. Sometimes personal passion isn't enough.


LLB: For most romance authors, it takes many books and often years to get published in hardcover. And yet, when they do, there are complaints about many that either their books aren't truly romances anymore (they've been watered down to appeal more to a mainstream audience) or that they finally made it to hardcover after their writing had reached it's peak or they had "jumped the shark," so to speak.

Carrie: Never heard of jumping the shark before. That's sort of fun. But I disagree that from the point someone is in hardcover her career is on a downward arc. I actually can't think of a person whose sales went on a downward arc at this company once they went into hardcover. But anyway, I think all writers continue to evolve their style through the years. If they didn't, wouldn't readers soon become bored?


LLB: How has consolidation among publishers and distributors affected the romance market? Now that Avon is part of HarperCollins, is there a difference you've seen in terms of risk-taking when buying manuscripts? Will an unusual setting be more or less likely to be published now, for instance?

Carrie: The acquisition has not made a difference in the staff, thus there is no difference.


LLB: It would be impossible to conduct an interview about romance novels without mentioning covers. Avon has different looks for its different level of authors, mid-list authors getting the worst covers that often include heroes and heroines with different hair color and looks than in the book. What is your philosophy of the clinch, the icon, the hero-alone, the landscape, the cartoon, which Avon more or less pioneered?

Carrie: This is frustrating to us and the authors too. We often are required to package books long before the final manuscript arrives. So sometimes things change. Other times, artists have a different conception about what "sandy" means, etc. At Loveswept we used to use the Clairol color guide, but I tend to think this shouldn't be necessary. I hope in general our books are attractive.


LLB: Many readers think there are too many connected books and sequels; I can name several series that went on one book too long. One gets the impression that some authors go into some of these sequels half-heartedly - is that sometimes true? Is the sequel trend changing at all as you see it? Does the impetus for sequels come from the author, her readers, her publisher, or all of the above?

Carrie: In my experience readers - and writers - love sequels. We certainly aren't twisting authors' arms to do connected books.

One of the most interesting talks I ever heard from a writer happened years ago. There was a famous children’s book writer who for years had avoided writing a sequel to his most famous book. Finally he felt the requests from his fans was overwhelming, and he wrote a sequel. Complete bomb.

What's the lesson here? I'm not sure. Maybe readers aren't always sure of what they want, until they get it.


LLB: What overall trends do you see in the romance market? Are contemporary romances more popular these days? What about historical romances and historical sub-genres (medieval, regency, western)? And, why does it seem that historical authors move to contemporary romantic suspense? While my impression is that they are doing it because they want to, many readers seem to think they are pushed into it from the publisher end. How would you respond to that?

Carrie: I'm so tired of hearing the historical is over. I think good strong books are here to stay. And I'd like us to have even more of them.


LLB: I'm definitely a reader who thinks the length of most Avon romances is just right, but there is a large large group of readers longing for that earlier, epic-style story. Books like Diana Gabaldon's and Paullina Simons' The Bronze Horseman, (which was not well received critically but which romance readers loved) are longer and more epic. These books, though, are considered more "fiction" than "romance." But since they are successful, how would you answer the reader who asks "why don't they publish longer and deeper epic historicals like they used to?"

Carrie: Diana Gabaldon is very successful, but not all books of these sort have been successful. In fact it's hard to think of a large number that are.

And the truth is if more longer and deeper epic historicals were successful, we would publish more.


LLB: Not long ago Linda Marrow left Pocket and one of Avon's major editors left for Pocket. I realize publishing shake-ups happen fairly often, but since many of Marrow's authors went with her, what happens to the other publishing houses when there is a shake-up like this?

Carrie: I think this is a question for someone at Pocket Books, not for us.


LLB: Is there a "house style" at Avon? a "house style" at Avon. For instance, Susan Andersen went from gritty romantic suspense at Zebra to humorous contemporaries at Avon. Christina Dodd's books changed as well when she went to Avon. And Judith Ivory's writing also changed when she switched to Avon. In each instance, of course, the author became more popular, but there was a distinct change in their writing. To what do you attribute those changes? Is it solely author-directed or in collaboration with the publisher? Please teach us because as readers we really don't know.

Carrie: There is not a "house style" per se. I have four people on staff buying books, and the readers out there are legion. So there is no way that four personalities can possibly provide the variety of books that every reader out there would like. That is why so many books are published - not only by us but by other houses - and I'm happy to see a wealth of author voices out there. In fact, I think more types of books are published now than ever before.

And sometimes a house is seen as buying only one type of book. For example we'd love to buy more romantic suspense, but that isn't our reputation. So authors go to other houses first. Sometimes we miss out of things that we wish we hadn't.


LLB: What are the different types of editors at Avon? There are copy editors who make sure the spelling and grammar are correct, I assume. Are there any "fact checkers" like there are at magazines? Are copy editors considered fact checkers? Are the editors who buy the books the ones who work with the authors throughout the writing process? In other words, walk us through a book from its purchase as a manuscript to its final release and the editing steps in between. And, is there ever a point when the editor will tell an author, "This is not working; you'll need to start over again."?

Carrie: We have an enthusiastic editorial staff:

We are the ones who buy, edit and package all these great books. Each editor works in a different way with her authors, so I can't really walk you through this. I think the details of the production process are probably covered in the RWR Magazine or other publications. Copyeditors do both grammar and factual checking.

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Any questions and comments you may have about this interview should be posted on our Potpourri Message Board.

Questions for you to consider and possibly respond to:

this image is owned by All About Romance and may not be used without express permission Did the questions reflect readers' concerns?

this image is owned by All About Romance and may not be used without express permission Were the answers what you expected and/or hoped for?

this image is owned by All About Romance and may not be used without express permission Did any of the answers give you cause for concern? If so, explain.

this image is owned by All About Romance and may not be used without express permission Do you feel more or less knowledgeable and/or hopeful about the romance genre than you did before reading the Q&A? If so, why? If not, why not?

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Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board
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