Marmite, the M6 Toll road and the Oxford English Dictionary are just three of the many things which drew me to the archive of publishing company Mills & Boon.
Long before ‘twerking’ and ‘selfie’ the OED added the noun ‘Mills and Boon’, denoting ‘an idealized romantic situation’. More bizarrely, a section of the M6 Toll road was built with two and a half million copies of old Mills & Boon novels to prevent it from cracking. Quips about the road to true love and how the slushy novels helped turn the Tarmac solid soon followed. Mentioning Mills & Boon invites, at the very least, a wry smile. It can also provoke heartfelt defence from romance scholars and genre addicts, or equally passionate criticism from feminists and literary critics. Like Marmite, it’s a brand that people want to love or hate.
A household brand in publishing is a rare commodity. Mills & Boon and Penguin are the UK’s two internationally recognized heavyweights. For a specialist in ‘light’ fiction this is an impressive achievement. The history of Mills & Boon from the 1930s on is a study in the power of branding and building relationships. At a time when trade publishers must adapt to digital reading and consumption they would be wise to take a leaf from the Mills & Boon book of customer courting. The archives tell a rewarding story of effective sales and marketing and provide a blueprint for best practice in how to get close to readers and to develop and keep their loyalty (today a Harlequin or Mills & Boon romance novel is sold somewhere in the world every four seconds).
As a lecturer in publishing the idea of brand fascinates me. Author brand… publisher brand… there is much to discuss. But, I have to confess, my interest in the concept of Mills & Boon was sparked by borrowing books from the local library for my rather unromantic nana. With her regular and tantalizing request for “two doctors and a Sheik” my affair began. Being awarded a doctoral studentship to work in the company archives at Reading University many years later may have triggered a new obsession. Each week I am privileged to open files and letters knowing that I can add to the conversation about Mills & Boon as a publishing phenomenon. Perhaps the plot was always meant to end with me living happily ever after as Dr of Desire? That I am able to combine my research with my passion for writing about sex would have sent my nana into a swoon. No doubt ‘the Mills and Boon tall, dark stranger’ of the Oxford English Dictionary would have swept her up.
I’m studying for my PhD as part of a unique collections-based research project at the University of Reading. The working title of my thesis, which explores the nexus between publisher, author and reader, is The Limits of Desire: the Mills & Boon Romance Market, 1946-1973.
For those interested in further reading about the history of Mills & Boon and the brand’s creation I recommend Joseph McAleer’s Passion’s Fortune (Oxford University Press, 1999) as a starting point.