Avon Fail

by Sarah on May 21, 2009 · 12 comments


Edited to Add: Pamela Jaffee, head of PR at Avon, issued an apology (sort of) to AAR’s Lynn Spencer. Jaffee had accused Spencer of misquoting Avon reps.


For a lesson in what not to do to promote your publishing house, look no further than All About Romance’s interview with Avon editors May Chen and Lucia Macro and Lynn Spencer’s follow-up commentary. Apparently, Ms Cheng and Ms Macro do not believe that the online romance community has a significant impact on their sales figures. 

Strange, then, that my first introduction to Avon Romances was through Julia Quinn’s website. Another bestselling Avon author, Eloisa James, has arguably one of the most lavish author websites out there. Many – if not most – Avon authors participate in group blogs, blog tours and host bulletin boards for their readers. Why would they bother investing their time and money into promoting themselves online if they didn’t feel it helped sell books?

While I realize the exact impact of online buzz is impossible to quantify, common sense would dictate that it works. With increasing numbers of people turning to social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, the opportunities for fast and effective promotion are limitless.

Therefore, the following assertion by Lucia Macro blew me away:  

We are all very plugged in, but many casual readers are just picking up a book at their local Walmart and barely have time to watch TV, much less wrestle the computer away from their kids.

Is she fucking kidding me? Apart from my 86-year-old grandfather, who isn’t online these days? People use the internet to get information on pretty much everything, so why not books? With the economy in the toilet, wouldn’t a ‘casual’ reader with a ‘casual’ budget be more inclined than ever to vet the books she’s interested in buying?

With portable reading devices such as Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader gaining in popularity, e-book sales are bound to surge in the near future, if they haven’t already. For a reader intending to make an e-book purchase, where’s she going to get information on the book? Online.

I’m delighted Avon feel comfortable in perpetuating their outdated marketing strategies. Given HarperCollins widely reported losses and layoffs this year, it’s obviously working out for them.


Kat May 22, 2009 at 01:33

I think when they were talking about the “online world” they were thinking mostly of independent review sites. So when you talk about finding new books through author sites, it supports Avon’s statements that author endorsements have more weight when it comes to selling books. I think that’s actually a fair call. First, it targets the existing readership for that author, and it also gives people an idea of what the book will be like (i.e. similar genre/style/etc.).

I also think the interview questions led to ambiguous answers: “Has Avon changed its thinking in this area? Avon, also, seems not to include many online reviews in books. Are there any plans to change that policy?” To me, it sounds like Avon just answered the last two Qs, not the first one, but you’ve read it differently. And so did the interviewer, because her next Q starts off with: “I noticed that both May Chen and Lucia Macro indicated that they don’t see the internet as much of a factor in marketing,” which Avon refutes in its reply: “The internet is a factor in marketing.”

That said, I think it was silly of Avon to downplay the impact of the online community when, clearly, that community is the audience for the interview.

Sarah May 22, 2009 at 10:48

@Kat I suspect AAR’s main beef with the interview was Avon’s apparent dismissal of AAR and other online review sites as being suitable for cover quotes. As I don’t take cover quotes seriously, I didn’t even address that aspect of the interview. On that point, though, I suspect the Avon editors might be correct. I’m sure there are many readers who will buy a book on the basis of an endorsement from an NYT bestselling author. Having witnessed the sycophantic crap that occurs on author message boards and websites, I take such recommendations with a grain of salt, particularly when the authors share the same publisher.

Did you see that Pamela Jaffee, director of public relations at Avon, commented on Lynn Spencer’s blog piece? It read as though the PR department and the editors at Avon don’t communicate. Pamela J. asserts that Avon places great emphasis on author websites, blog tours, etc. In other words, she appears to recognize the potential of the internet as a relatively inexpensive and effective advertising tool. This is in glaring opposition to editor Lucia Macro’s comments on what she perceives to be the ‘casual reader’ and the person they are targeting when they purchase new manuscripts. Honestly, in times of economic hardship, I highly doubt readers are as inclined to randomly pick up a book at Walmart simply because of the prerequisite man titty and Avon label. It might work for Harlequin because their books are cheap, but many newer Avon titles are priced at $7.99.

I also have no respect for authors commenting anonymously, as a couple have done on Lynn’s blog. Say who you are and I might take you seriously.

Kat May 22, 2009 at 13:09

Ah, I haven’t read Avon’s response. I can’t seem to get into the AAR site. I have to access it through Google cache and I’m guessing it’s not up to date.

Based on your comment, though, I still think the original answer was answering a different question. I don’t know for sure but it seems to me that people who buy books based on cover quotes are more likely to be casual/impulse buyers.

Personally, I’ve seen a few books with cover quotes from review blogs, and even as someone who blogs and reads numerous blogs, I didn’t recognise most of them. I guess my feeling is that those quotes are targeted to print buyers, and people who are making buying decisions based on what they see in print. When buying online it doesn’t matter that much because buying decisions are made AFTER reading the review.

Um, am I making sense???

(As an example, I was talking to around 10 other readers last month and a couple of them had never heard of the Smart Bitches. To me, that just seems bizarre, but there you go. And one of those readers is a heavy book buyer (thinking of converting 2 empty bedrooms into libraries–OMG, I’m jealous!). She visits just one blog and it’s an author-run blog.)

katiebabs May 22, 2009 at 15:26

When I reviewed for AAR, some there were obsessed with getting a quote in a book they reviewed, so much so they couldn’t understand why lesser known sites were placed in a book and not AAR.
Honestly, I don’t think a review quote in a book or a quote from an author will sell more books for an author.

Kieran May 22, 2009 at 15:29

I think what bothers me about the whole thing is the implication that buzz via social media has no appreciable impact on sales – basically, that online reviews and blogs don’t make or break books. Lots of people have mentioned that, but I think it’s offensive because romance readers are generally better networked and are more involved in their niche than, say, literary fiction readers.

To dismiss a tool that gives readers some degree of control over their relationship with the publisher is to say that Avon wants to maintain a very static author-publisher-reader relationship. As pointed out above, Avon PR knows this will not fly; it’s only the editors (and only those two) who think that their readership is important only at the register.

Sarah May 22, 2009 at 16:14

@Kat I can imagine that author quotes still hold more weight with customers. For now. With more and more people discovering online review sites, I suspect that could change in the very near future. I got the impression from the Avon interview that they are firmly rooted in what’s worked for them in the past and don’t seem to have a strategy for adapting to a changing market.

@Katiebabs While I visit AAR regularly and admire what they’ve achieved, their reviews hold no more weight for me than those of review blogs or other sites. In other words, I wouldn’t buy a book solely on the basis of a cover quote from AAR.

@Kieran Yes, that bugs me, too. While it’s probably impossible to quantify the exact effect of online buzz on sales, I’m sure there must be one. I’d love to know if the authors featured in DA-SBTB’s ‘Save the Contemporary’ campaign noticed a difference. I know I bought all the books they’ve featured so far.

Kat May 22, 2009 at 17:09

I disagree to an extent. I think a quote from an author with a very loyal fan base can be a boost for a book in a similar genre or with a similar style.

I didn’t get that impression, and that’s why my opinion is slightly different from yours. I think they were trying to be honest about their view of the current market, but they could have done it with a lot more tact.

Sarah May 22, 2009 at 18:11

@Kat On the issue of tact (or lack thereof) we are in complete agreement! I’d say there are a few sore heads at Avon today.

katiebabs May 22, 2009 at 18:21

Kat :@katiebabsI disagree to an extent. I think a quote from an author with a very loyal fan base can be a boost for a book in a similar genre or with a similar style.

I guess it can be personal preference. I would really love to see the statistics on how well a book sales based on a quite from an author.

Sarah May 22, 2009 at 19:28

@katiebabs I’d also love to see those statistics. But how would they get them? It’s probably all guesswork. I’d love to know how Avon are so sure that their ‘casual’ customers didn’t hear about their books online before purchasing them at Walmart. While it’s impossible to prove that they did hear about them online, it’s equally impossible to prove that they didn’t.

Common sense would dictate that pursuing potential readers online is the way of the future. Avon seem firmly rooted in the past. If that works for them, great, but reports in ‘Publishers Weekly’ would indicate otherwise.

Kat May 23, 2009 at 03:31

@Sarah There are ways to find the information through surveys, market research, etc. Much the same as how Harlequin could possibly know that Billionaire Sheikhs sell. I’m not saying Avon HAS the data. I’m just saying it’s possible to make some reasonable conclusions about marketing strategies.

On tact, I wish the AAR reviewer had pressed more. I mean, if most people are going to come away and rip the answers apart–and surely that could’ve been foreseen–I think the interviewer should have made more of an effort to clarify and challenge Avon’s answers.

@katiebabs Might be worth asking some authors (quoted and quotees).

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