Mills & Boon has always thrived in harsh times, when more people need a romantic read to banish grim reality. But the Anglo-Canadian publisher (founded 1908) leaves nothing to economic chance, finding digital pathways to a global readership. Rhymer Rigby reports.
Penny Jordan has sold about 80 million books, which puts her - numerically, at least - in the same league as Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming. Hands up who's heard of Ms Jordan? Or how about Debbie Macomber (60 million) or Nora Roberts (an astonishing 280 million)? No? Well, that's probably because they're all Mills & Boon writers. As the company's MD, Guy Hallowes, says: 'They're the bestselling authors you've never heard of.'
The hyperbolic numbers don't stop there, either. Mills & Boon sells around 200 million books a year worldwide. The UK market is about 10% of that - one every second and a half, with 60 titles published every month. They are printed in 26 languages and, the odd scuffle with the censors notwithstanding, available virtually everywhere. Over the past decade, the adult fiction market as a whole grew by 31%; Harlequin Mills & Boon's sales more than doubled in value.
Priced at only around £3 each, Mills & Boon's novels provide an extremely affordable dose of escapism that should prove resilient to the recession, too. Hallowes' claim that the company 'is a great British success story' sounds, if anything, rather modest. Except for the fact that, being Canadian-owned if quasi- autonomous, it isn't really British any more.
Mills & Boon was founded in 1908 by Gerald Mills and Charles Boon as a general fiction publisher. By the '30s, the company had moved solidly into women's light fiction, and, by the '50s, its florid historical romances had become a part of the national tapestry. The first sex scenes (intramarital, of course) appeared in the '60s, and the content has steadily become saucier ever since, embracing masturbation, lesbianism, bondage and other steamy indulgencies of modern fiction. As well as providing a barometer of social mores over the years, the company has diversified. Alongside the short romances it is best known for, it now also has Mira, a general fiction imprint that turns out thrillers, crime novels and chick-lit, not to mention its Blaze and Desire series, whose racy stories put the 'adult' into adult fiction.
Based in Richmond, Surrey, the business was independent until 1971, when it was bought by its Canadian distributor, Harlequin. Both are now ultimately owned by Torstar, the Canadian newspaper group, and are turning in a performance that puts many of the company's struggling papers in the shade. Last year, Harlequin had sales of just under C$500m (£275m) and earnings of C$69m (£38m), up 15% or so on 2007. Editorial offices are in New York, Toronto and London, and most of the company's 1,300 authors are based in these countries, although not all - it recently signed its first author in India.
However, although the brand is an undoubted commercial success, it has always been the cause of sniggering among those who are not its readers - as the old joke goes, no-one you know reads Mills & Boon, but everyone you don't know does. The company's response here has always been that it's proud of its books, noting that some other publishers are sniffy even about their own romantic fiction. That is just plain wrong, admonishes Hallowes; you may not believe the product is haute litterature, but you have to believe it's good.
'We get a lot of submissions from people who think it's easy money,' he adds, 'and you can normally tell after a couple of pages. I always say to people: before you try and write a Mills & Boon book, read a hundred.' If that doesn't put you off, nothing will.
A slightly stickier charge has been that the books are antediluvian in their attitudes to women; the feminist writer Julie Bindel recently described M&B's core message as 'misogynistic hate speech'. Yet, while girly romance and the modern alpha female may be uncomfortable bedfellows, the business at least has a good record on the gender issue. Marketing director Clare Somerville notes that, in the 1940s and '50s, the company was one of the few that provided women with decently paid, intellectually stimulating jobs.
In a similarly contrarian vein, Mills & Boon is rare among publishers in encouraging unsolicited manuscripts; indeed, it runs competitions and writing courses. 'In the UK, we get around 2,000 manuscripts a year, and use 100,' reveals Hallowes. Thus we are presented with the irony that a publisher doing a great deal to encourage new authors is one that many would-be writers turn their noses up at. They shouldn't - M&B gave both Jack London and PG Wodehouse their first break, as well as turning down Helen Fielding, later of Bridget Jones fame.
The big surprise for those who see the brand as anachronistic is that its digital business 'has exceeded all expectations'. E-books - available to download from the Mills & Boon website at prices starting from less than £1 - are booming. They may not yet sell quite as swiftly as the paperbacks - maybe one every five minutes in the UK - but they're catching up fast. It's a performance that other publishers, no matter how highbrow, would love to emulate.
'Digital and the internet is one of our big growth areas,' says Donna Haynes, CEO of Canadian parent Harlequin Enterprises. 'We do enhanced e-books - Regency romances with clickable historical context. And in Japan we do romantic digital manga. Most people read it on their cellphones - it's been an enormous success. We usually have top 10 bestsellers on the Yahoo comics website for Japan.'
The company's new efforts may be doing well, but what about its core business - the series books, the popular romances with titles such as The Timber Baron's Virgin Bride, The Cowboy and the Princess and The Disgraceful Mr Ravenhurst? Are they really relevant for today's Facebook, celebrity and reality TV-obsessed young women?
'We won't disguise the fact that we want more younger readers,' says Hallowes. 'Our heavy buyers tend to be older. But we do have young mums, the people who read Grazia and OK. Once people get hooked on the brand, they stay with it. It's getting them hooked ...'
It's the usual story - attracting new customers without alienating your base. To this end, in Britain the company has begun re-imaging its books in a less fussy style, as well as doing tie-ins such as a recent one with the Rugby Football Union, whereby the romantic encounters are with fictional rugby hunks.
There are plenty of opportunities with new markets such as India, an upcoming launch in China and further expansion, says Haynes - Turkey and Russia are in the firm's rose-tinted sights. What is perhaps surprising here is the universality of the books. Most titles go global.
Romance travels well, it seems, and just because a story is set in Regency England doesn't mean it won't sell in 21st-century Mumbai, Moscow or Montevideo. The company is also broadening out into non-fiction - self-help, tales of real-life inspiration, that kind of thing; in the US, 60% of book sales are non-fiction.
And what of the more immediate and troubled future? Well, M&B is well positioned to survive the downturn. For one thing - as we've noted - its products are very cheap. Heavily sold in supermarkets, they often account for only a tiny percentage of a weekly shop - 'a necessity and a habit, like buying bread,' says Somerville. The historical precedents are good. 'In World War I, there was a paper shortage, but the ministry of information made an exception for Mills & Boon because the women working for the war effort needed the books to keep them going; similarly, in the Depression, production was ramped up.'
Will the same be true in the great recession of 2009? Hallowes seems to think so. 'In difficult times, people look for a happy ending. We guarantee them a happy ending.'
WRITING A GREAT M&B ROMANCE
First stop for any aspiring Mills & Boon author should be the company's website. The classic 'series' books, it explains, 'might be short romances - but they're not short on story ...' Furthermore, 'the reader experiences that amazing "rush" through the heroine.' She must be 'warm, easy to like and to engage with', whereas 'he's always strong and charismatic'.
Explains M&B editor Tessa Shapcott: 'You have a framework in series books. You're delivering a certain expectation. Each series (eg, Medical, Historical, Desire) has a set of guidelines, a level of sensuality and the characters are identifiable. You have sexy lines and less sexy lines; some are set in hospitals, some are international, some are historical.'
Series books come out once a month and the company, says Shapcott, 'commits to deliver a certain kind of read - we ask the authors to deliver on that promise.' However, she adds: 'We're not forcing (the authors) with a hammer and saying "You have to write this way", because the books would all be the same. The trick is to deliver on the signposts in a story, but ensure they all have their own writing voice. Regular readers do have authors they like, in the way that people like John Grisham.'
A typical book takes between six weeks and six months to prepare, depending on genre: a Regency-era romance requires far more research than an emotion-based romance. 'The authors are really draining their hearts and souls into these books, and that's what people outside underestimate.'
M&B deals with its authors like any commercial publisher. 'It's a popular misconception that we write all our books in-house. We have about 1,300 authors around the world. They have contracts and get paid royalties and advances like any other writers.'
Authors, range from professional journalists to people who left school at 16, but most are women. 'We have a few men, but it's half a dozen at most and they tend to write under female pseudonyms. Men don't really do romance. It's a very girly world.'