Once upon a time, romantic book brand Mills & Boon was the ultimate in escapist chic. In the depression-laden era of the Twenties and Thirties its rose-tinted tales of love and romance entertained a generation of women for whom racy TV soaps, real-life mags and Bridget Jones-style chick lit were far in the future.
The Thirties also marked the rise of series publishing that made Mills & Boon – which publishes over 50 new titles every month – so successful.
Over the years it has struggled to stay relevant to its core female readership with an ever-increasing range of media and leisure opportunities competing for attention, but it hopes, in its 101st year, to change perceptions of a brand long-since perceived as “naff”.
Late last year publisher Harlequin Mills & Boon appointed agency St Luke’s to develop new advertising for the romance brand, which will coincide with new-look front covers (MW December 18, 2008). And earlier this month, it struck a licensing deal with the Rugby Football Union to publish a series of books around the Six Nations tournament next month.
Both are part of plans to revitalise the brand, which still sells a book every three seconds, and attract younger, more cosmopolitan readers as well as consolidate the core 50-plus readership. The RFU deal will see the brand extend beyond supermarkets and bookstore chains to rugby match sites and rugby stores. Mills & Boon sales and marketing director Clare Somerville says: “It may sound an unnatural move, but it is a fun project that can help us expand our franchise and get more readers hooked.”
Mills & Boon, founded in 1908 by Gerald Mills and Charles Boon, was originally a general publisher focusing on craft, sport and non-fiction titles. It gradually shifted to become an iconic, bestselling brand for romantic fiction in the Twenties and Thirties when there was a great demand for escapist romantic fiction. “When times are hard, Mills & Boon books do really well,” says Somerville.
Amid this latest economic downturn Somerville says the publisher is “cautious” but launching new marketing activities to build its profile.
Its biggest challenge, according to Cunning Stunts senior creative Aidan Hawkes, is remaining relevant in the post-Sex and The City era. “The trouble is people feel Mills & Boon died with [author] Barbara Cartland. Meanwhile, chick lit has come a long way. It’s still got romance, but is about the real world which readers can relate to,” he adds.
It is not just the passing of Barbara Cartland, who never actually wrote for Mills & Boon, that the publisher has had to cope with. Almost every decade following the Second World War brought fresh challenges for Mills & Boon – first TV, then women’s weeklies, and today the internet. Some experts feel that it has not reached its potential despite an extensive marketing exercise last year that focused on its centenary celebrations.
Yet the publisher can point to robust sales figures, shifting over 7 million books in a year in the UK alone and 200 million globally. In the last quarter of 2008, the adult fiction segment in the UK was down 17%, but Harlequin Mills & Boon was up 5%. And although since 2001, the adult fiction segment has grown 31%, Harlequin Mills & Boon has more than doubled at 101%.
The company attributes its success to its packaging and presentation and embracing digital media. Today, it has an online subscription and a dedicated online book club.
Long before the internet came into existence, Alan Boon, who took over from his father Charles in 1949, struck deals with media owners that were groundbreaking for the time, and commissioned advertising that ensured the brand was seen in the right place at the right time, and in the right format. In 1971, the company merged with Harlequin Books and today its books are sold in 107 countries with eversions available online.
In addition to special releases, Mills & Boon publishes 11 series, such as the “very sexual” Blaze, “provocative and sensual” Desire, Intrigue, History and Medical, where contemporary romances are set against the backdrop of the medical profession.
St Luke’s business director Liz Little says Mills & Boon is a “terrifically unique” brand within publishing and able to stand the test of time because the publishing brand and its various imprints is hero-led rather than author-centric. Its marketing model is equally unique because it publishes over 50 titles every month which are released then phased out or pulped after a set time.
The publisher is aware, though, that it must do more. The redesigned Mills & Boon will have a “more edgy, refreshing and contemporary feel to it”, says Somerville. Meanwhile, it will expand to offer more in subgenres as well as exploring initiatives such as the RFU tie-up.
St Luke’s has been tasked to help persuade younger women who already are “love-fans” to reconsider Mills & Boon through the brand’s first UK-specific above-the-line campaign in recent times. It will also develop social networking initiatives around the brand.
Hawkes, who has worked on chick-lit campaigns for rival publishers Hodder Headline and Orion Books, suggests a new push behind the century-old brand could work, particularly if it focuses on its place as the “mummy of the romance genre”. It may also benefit from a consumer appetite for nostalgia, chivalry and good old-fashioned romance borne out of uncertain times.
Additional reporting by Mary-Louise Clews
Mills & Boon:
1908 UK-based publishers Gerald Mills and Charles Boon found the company with £1,000, publishing mainly sports and craft titles
1920s Focus shifts to escapist fiction for women as the post-war economic depression takes hold
1949 Alan Boon took over the publisher following the death of father Charles
1971 Mills & Boon merges with Canadian paperback publisher Harlequin to produce romantic fiction as a “literary force” with a more realistic and readily identifiable profile
1990s Mills & Boon novels ranged from compelling romances with international settings to sensual, racy books. Heroines were liberated and more assertive
1997 The company’s name was added to the Oxford English Dictionary as a term meaning “romantic storybook” 2009 In January, Mills & Boon teams up with the Rugby Football Union to produce new titles featuring rugby heroes.