Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The publisher of romance novels is celebrating its centenery, and is set to defy the credit crunch with a new series of racy titles!

Quoted from THE FIRST POST October 20, 2008

How big is Mills & Boon?

Huge. Harry Potter may have shifted 400m books in 11 years; Mills & Boon sell the same amount every two. In the UK it releases 50 romantic titles a month. Its novels, translated into 25 languages, are sold in 109 international markets, and this year it began publishing for 300m English readers in India, where the books, uniquely, are popular with men as well as women. There are also editions in Polish for immigrants to the UK, with titles such as Tejemniczy Ukochany (Mysterious Lover) and Ksiaze Pustyni (Desert Prince). In fact, in the time you've taken to read this, 10 Mills & Boon books will have been sold in the UK – the company calculates that one is sold here every three seconds.

Do they all follow a tried and tested romantic formula?

Yes, a formula already clearly marked out in pre-WWI titles such as The Virgin's Treasure: a Romance of the Tropics ("This was not England but the tropics, where blood runs hotter, and where incredible things happen with amazing swiftness"). The action takes place over 188-192 pages; man and woman meet; there's conflict, but, against the odds, true love will out. The absolute certainty of the plot-line is a key selling point. "Your troubles are at an end when you choose a Mills & Boon novel," read a postwar advert. "No more doubts! No more disappointments!"

So are all the books much the same?

Yes and no. They come in ten distinct, highly stylised, colourcoded genres. Medical Romance – involving pretty midwives, hunky surgeons and "Mediterranean Doctors" ("French medical heroes are winners with Medical readers," says the senior editor); Historical Romance ("Regency tales remain ever-popular with our readers and cover the range from drawing room antics to the salacious underworld inhabited by pickpockets and prostitutes"); Modern Romance (where heroes are invariably "swarthy" and with titles like Taken by her Greek Boss; Surrender to the Sheikh); and so on. Some genres, eg the flame-coloured Blaze, are more lust-fuelled than others (in the pink Romance genre, there is "a lower sensuality level", says the editor, "and more focus on emotional depth"); but the overall flavour is much the same.

How sexually explicit are they?

Sex scenes between married couples first appeared in 1963; by the 1970s, unmarrieds were at it, too. In 1973, masturbation makes its first appearance, and in 1982, oral sex. ("There are other places to kiss," says the swarthy hero of Antigua Kiss, as the heroine surrenders to "waves of ecstasy".) Under its new Canadian owner, Harlequin, which bought M&B in 1971, the couplings (lesbian, interracial) got saucier. And now it is introducing a new genre, Spice, which will feature casual sex and bondage in a context where there may be no "emotional connection between heroes and heroines". The first in the series, Spies, Lies and Naked Thighs, will go on sale in the UK next year.

Would this horrify the founders?

Possibly not. The publishing house founded by Gerald Rusgrove Mills and Charles Boon back in 1908 may have started life with
books on solid, worthy subjects (eg travel and crafts) and published well-known authors like PG Wodehouse and Hugh Walpole; but it always had a keen eye on the bottom line. Its first romantic novel, Arrows in the Dark, was such a success that exploiting the romantic longings of its female readers soon became its stock in trade. "I'm certain the bulk of novels are devoured by women before they reach the men," noted Charles Boon in 1913, who made the use of new marketing techniques a key part of the brand.

What sort of techniques?

It was Charles Boon who started to develop a "personal" touch with the readers by offering a "souvenir chapter" free to any home address, a policy refined by Harlequin in the 1970s, when they started delivering books directly to readers' doorsteps, along with special gifts and reader questionnaires. Mills & Boon seldom misses a trick to attract new readers: for example, when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, it sent staff into the streets to hand out 750,000 free copies to the romance deprived women of East Germany. And it is also renowned for the way it attracts authors to its stable: Charles Boon, determined to make the company "the Promised Land" for budding writers, started the idea of offering housewives the chance to become pioneer novelists, and today the company still receives around 1,500 unsolicited manuscripts a year. Every one of them is read by its team of 20 editors, though only a dozen are accepted. Writers come in all shapes and sizes: the renowned Jan Tempest, for example, was an elderly recluse (real name: Irene Swatridge) who ran a Devon sheep farm.

And is M&B likely to continue for another century?

Almost certainly. Although regularly slated by feminists for perpetuating the idea of the dominant male, its strong, masterful heroes continue to find a vast audience. Back in 1970 one of its popular authors, a shy spinster called Violet Winspear, caused an outcry by saying that her male characters "must frighten and fascinate. They must be the sort of men who are capable of rape." That may have overstated it, but the editor's instructions to would be authors are still clear on the point. The hero "must have achieved a certain level of wealth and success. He's alpha, in that he's strong; he oozes beguiling confidence and charm (he's got a great body!)". And there's good reason for this intransigence. When the company tried an experiment with ordinary-Joe "beta" males ("like Tom Hanks") as heroes, reader enthusiasm was dismal.

Can it survive the credit crunch?

Undoubtedly. It has always done well in hard times: it prospered during WWII and regards the Great Depression as its golden age. If there's one industry likely to boom when things are going bust, it's escapism
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