Avon Books was founded in 1941 by the American News Company (ANC) to create a rival to Pocket Books. They hired brother and sister Joseph Meyers and Edna Meyers Williams to establish the company. ANC bought out
J.S. Ogilvie Publications, a dime novel publisher partly owned by both the Meyers, and renamed it "Avon Publications". They also got into comic books. "The early Avons were somewhat similar in appearance to the existing paperbacks of Pocket Books, resulting in an immediate and largely ineffective lawsuit by that company. Despite this superficial similarity, though, from early on Meyers differentiated Avon by placing an emphasis on popular appeal rather than loftier concepts of literary merit." The first 40 titles were not numbered. First editions of the first dozen or so have front and rear endpapers with an illustration of a globe. The emphasis on "popular appeal" led Avon to publish ghost stories, sexually-suggestive love stories, fantasy novels and science fiction in its early years, which were far removed in audience appeal from the somewhat more literary Pocket competition.
As well as normal-sized paperbacks, Avon published digest-format paperbacks (the size and shape of the present-day Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine) in series. These included Murder Mystery Monthly, Modern Short Story Monthly and Avon Fantasy Reader. Many authors highly prized by present-day collectors were published in these editions, including A. Merritt, James M. Cain, H. P. Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler and Robert E. Howard.
In 1953, Avon Books sold books in the price range of 25¢ to 50¢ (for the Avon "G" series, the "G" standing for "Giant") and were selling more than 20 million copies a year. Their books were characterized by Time Magazine as "westerns, whodunits and the kind of boy-meets-girl story that can be illustrated by a ripe cheesecake jacket". At around this time, Avon also began to publish under other imprints, including Eton (1951–1953), Novel Library, Broadway and Diversey. Avon's 35-cent "T" series, introduced in 1953, also had strong mass-market appeal and contains many outstanding examples of the then-popular juvenile delinquent story. The T series also contained many movie tie-in editions and the stand-bys of mysteries and science fiction.
Avon was bought by the Hearst Corporation in 1959.
In 1972, Avon entered the modern romance genre with the publication of Kathleen Woodiwiss' The Flame and the Flower. The novel went on to sell 2.35 million copies. Avon followed its release with the 1974 publication of Woodiwiss's second novel,
The Wolf and the Dove and two sexy novels by newcomer Rosemary Rogers, Sweet Savage Love and Dark Fires. The latter sold two million copies in its first three months of release.
In 1999, the News Corporation bought out Hearst's book division. Avon's hardcover and non-romance paperback lines were moved to sister company Morrow, leaving Avon as solely a romance publisher.