Why Mills & Boon is a bodice-ripping recession buster

Literary types may turn their noses up at it, but Mills & Boon is still selling 200m books a year.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Chances are that you don't know many people who admit to reading Mills & Boon books. But judging by the fact that the Anglo-Canadian publishing firm sells 200m books a year worldwide, clearly someone is. In fact, in 2008 its parent company Harlequin (part of the Canadian newspaper group Torstar) made profits of C$69m (£38m) on sales of just under C$500m, a 15% increase on the previous year - so if anything, M&B seems to be flourishing in the downturn. This month, MT has been exploring this trend-bucking performance…

It’s partly because the brand has continued to evolve. Most people associate Mills & Boon with timeless bodice-ripping historical romances, but in fact it’s continued to move with the times. The content of the books in its main imprint has got a little racier – just as our social mores have – and it’s also started two new brands: Mira, a general fiction imprint that turns out thrillers, crime novels and chick-lit, and its raunchy Blaze and Desire series, whose racy stories put the 'adult' into adult fiction.

But it’s also shown surprising alacrity in the digital sphere. Its e-books, which cost less than £1 in some cases, are selling like hot microchips – so fast, indeed, that they’re even starting to catch up with paperback sales. '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.'

Mills & Boon’s big challenge is to try and attract the Heat generation of younger readers. But since it’s managed to keep reinventing itself for new audiences for over 100 years, we wouldn’t bet against them. A true British success story, in other words – even though technically, given that now it's Canadian-owned (albeit quasi-autonomous), it isn't really British any more...

Click here to read our exclusive feature: ‘Mills & Boon: Bodice-Ripping Recession Busters’.

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