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The Transformation of an Imprint

Tor Here at the SF Site we deal with a lot of science fiction imprints. "Imprints" are those divisions of large publishing houses that are specifically focused on a single style or genre. St. Martin's Press, for example, publishes most of its science fiction and fantasy under the extremely successful Tor imprint. Warner Books does the same with its acclaimed Warner Aspect line, and the labyrinthine Penguin Books has no less than three major SF and horror imprints: Ace, Roc and Signet. It also publishes fantasy books for younger readers in its Puffin, Viking and Dutton lines.

So what's the point of this bizarre compartmentalization? To a newcomer it can seem rather artificial, the unexplainable machinations of large corporations attempting to manipulate the market. Or worse, the continuing trend to ghettoize the genre, keeping all that weird SF stuff out of the pure bloodlines of the older imprints.

Del Rey The truth is a lot simpler. Launching small, energetic imprints allows a monolithic publishing house to assemble teams capable of focused marketing, creating brand loyalty, and -- most importantly -- with enough breathing room to establish a unique identity in the marketplace. As much as SF readers today loudly resist anything that smells like packaging or cookie-cutter merchandising in their book buying, the reality is that each of the imprints has painstakingly crafted a very distinct personality, one that an attentive reader can use to help make intelligent book choices.

Aspect The rewards of a strong brand identity are very real, even though they're not always obvious. If you're like many long time readers of SF and Fantasy, it's quite likely that you've benefited from it without being fully aware of it. The next time you're in a bookstore, take a minute to glance over the bright treasures on the racks. Notice how your eye gravitates towards certain designs, even though they may feature the work of an artist (or author) you've never seen before. If the last three books featuring that design really grabbed you, you'll be that much more likely to pick that one up as well -- and just as likely to enjoy it.

Avon Most imprints are led by a handful of editors with distinctive tastes, and marketed by publicists and art directors with a keen sense of individuality. Once the discerning book buyer has come to respect and trust the editors' instincts, it's the latter's job to make sure that books in the same imprint are instantly recognizable -- not an easy task, considering a single imprint can publish horror, cyberpunk, military SF, urban fantasy, and sword & sorcery, with multiple cover artists and wildly varying design choices. It's a subtle balancing act involving careful placement of cover text, bold logos, typefonts, framing, and other minutiae, an ingenious art practiced in the margins and intended simultaneously to neither distract nor go unnoticed.

The Dawn of Eos

AvoNova We're not supposed to have favorites at the SF Site. Bad for business, you know. "A stern objectivity in the face of corporate marketing initiatives, large and small, is called for at all times" (Edward Hugginsly III, The SF Professional's Guide to Survival, Third Edition). But if you took an informal poll of the editors and senior freelancers working at the SF Site, there's one name that would edge out the rest. Avon Books, who in the last few months alone has published such important work as Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, Nancy Springer's Fair Peril, Donnerjack by Roger Zelazny and Jane Lindskold, Jack Faust by Michael Swanwick, Days of Cain by J. R. Dunn, and Rudy Rucker's Freeware -- not to mention such impressive first novels as Severna Park's Speaking Dreams and Expendable by James Alan Gardner -- has generated more office buzz at the SF Site than many imprints with twice their output.

AvoNova So it was with some surprise that we learned that Avon Books' SF imprint, AvoNova, is being shut down and re-tooled. The official announcement came last week at Worldcon in San Antonio, but the word has been on the street for some time. The shutdown will result in a five month hiatus, and a permanent retirement for science fiction's best palindrome, the AvoNova logo. It will be replaced in February by Avon's new imprint, EOS, named for the Greek goddess of the Dawn. Why the sudden and drastic retrenchment for one of the most critically successful lines in the business? Andy Heidel, Avon publicist, explains:

Although AvoNova has been putting out good SF/F, we have had a long negative history on the market and not much success with our SF line as a whole. By shutting down AvoNova in September and launching Eos in February, we are looking to become the hottest new thing in Science Fiction and Fantasy by creating a lot of excitement about the genre and what we are doing. We are looking to accomplish this by reinventing the way things have been traditionally done."

Cosm
Avon
Avon

One of the things being reinvented is their book packaging. Avon Eos has completely re-thought the way most SF books are put together. "For the past 20 years, packages have looked essentially the same, with either full-bleed illustrations or illustrations in boxes," says Lou Aronica, Senior Vice President and Publisher of Avon Books. "We're breaking those rules."

Aronica is in a position to speak with some authority. One of the true groundbreakers in the field, he created the highly acclaimed Bantam Spectra imprint before moving to Avon, acquiring and editing several bestsellers and a healthy portion of award winning titles. He was also one of the editors behind the monumental Full Spectrum series, one of the most successful new SF anthology series in recent memory.

Exactly how are they breaking the rules? "We are reworking the packaging," elaborates Heidel, "staying away from "cartoony" covers and going with an overall design oriented cover so that our books stand out." [Examples right].

Back to Basics

"The SF and fantasy field has been perceived as somewhat stagnant in the past few years," notes Aronica. "Outside of the 'star' writers and big books at the very top of the genre, it has been dominated by media related books. It's time to bring new voices and established writers to the forefront again, time for the literature itself to stir up most of the excitement and controversy."

Amen to that. As the man responsible for launching the Star Wars book juggernaut at Bantam Spectra, Aronica is well aware of the kind of impact a licensed property can have on the market, and how it can eclipse rising young literary stars, in a way that Terry Brooks, William Gibson, or David Eddings -- in other words, the 'star' writers at the top of the genre -- never really had to deal with.

In addition to their original and distinct packaging, the imprint intends to innovate in a number of other ways. Each month one of the Eos mass market titles will be priced at $3.99, part of an overall strategy to introduce new authors. A fewer number of hardcover titles will also be offered in a format similar to Avon's recent hardcover Bradbury reprints, at a price of $14.00.

Of special interest to readers of the SF Site is Eos' on-line plans. Andy Heidel again:

"On-line, Eos will have its own dedicated site which will celebrate the launch in January (February books go on sale early January), with an all day on-line Con featuring, among other things, panel discussions and workshops with Eos authors. This is really exciting since this has never been done by a publisher before. There will always be ongoing workshops with Eos authors, sneak previews of upcoming books, and discussion panels, among other things."
The online convention will include chat rooms where attendees can depart from the formal program. And to capture part of the meet-the-author feel of a con, autograph sessions with Eos authors will follow the close of the convention in local markets.

Avon Avon Avon Avon

Regardless of the packaging, the marketing, or the breathless breaking of rules, where an imprint stands or falls is in the quality of its fiction. And here at least Eos seems to be taking no chances. Their spring lineup includes new work from such names as Gregory Benford, Raymond E. Feist, Ben Bova, Severna Park, Eric S. Nylund and James Alan Gardner. In addition their schedule includes such gems as The Royal Four by Amy Stout, the sequel to last year's The Sacred Seven, and Prisoner of Conscience from Susan R. Matthews, the follow-up to her impressive first novel An Exchange of Hostages.

It's almost a cliché in the world of business that a successful corporation must re-invent itself every few years. That adage has seen less wear in the publishing world, but it's no less true. We haven't seen a re-tooling like this -- undertaken with this degree of creative energy and infectious enthusiasm -- in our history. And while we'll miss our favorite publisher in the five months it will take before the curtain is drawn back again, there's no denying the fact that the enthusiasm emanating from Avon's offices has deeply penetrated the SF Site. And we look forward to January with our fair share of breathless anticipation.


Thanks for listening. As always, let us know what's on your mind.

John O'Neill
Managing Editor


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