A piece in today’s Telegraph:
The news that Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, is writing a historical romance novel for Mills & Boon has puzzled many. Is Mills & Boon, that supplier of quaintly erotic “happily ever after” fantasies, still around – and why on earth would a celebrity author want to write for them?
In fact, this is likely a canny, and lucrative, venture for Brand Fergie. The Duchess’s novel, Her Heart for a Compass, is inspired by her great-great-aunt, Lady Margaret Montagu Douglas Scott, who spent time in the court of Queen Victoria – allowing for parallels with Fergie’s own royal experiences. Veteran author Marguerite Kaye, who has produced more than 50 historical titles for Mills & Boon, has collaborated on the project.
Despite the contempt – or outright dismissal – it receives from many, romance is seriously big business. More than five million romance novels were sold in the UK in 2017, while in the US, where royal tales like Fergie’s usually go down a treat, it’s a billion-dollar industry. Founded in 1908, Mills & Boon originally produced a wide range of genres, including crime fiction, travel guides, Shakespeare and children’s books. Early signings included Hugh Walpole, PG Wodehouse and Jack London.
From the 1930s, they began focusing on romance novels, capitalising on the need for escapism. The strategy since has been lightning-fast turnover. The company publishes over 700 new titles every year from more than 1,300 writers. Every 10 seconds, they claim, there’s a new Mills & Boon book sold within the UK. Romance accounts for seven per cent of UK fiction sales, and Mills & Boon – the market leader – has 16 per cent of the UK’s romance market.
The rise of e-books has likely helped too. Self-conscious readers can hide purchases on their Kindles, rather than publicly displaying covers shouting Her Playboy Crush, The Doctor’s One Night to Remember, Have Me Devoured, or The Cowgirl’s Surprise Match. Additionally, Mills & Boon has been undergoing a brand revamp. In 2017, they adopted a sleeker logo and new covers, as well as developing commercial partnerships – such as pairing up with Asda for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. They’ve run campaigns like commissioning short stories from local authors to celebrate the UK’s most romantic spots, as chosen by the travel industry, from A Scandalous Liaison on Skye to A Passionate Portmeirion Proposal.
Mills & Boon is now also engaging directly with bloggers, social media influencers and reality stars. Georgia “Toff” Toffolo, of Made in Chelsea fame, is writing a four-book series. The second instalment, Meet Me in Hawaii, will be published in March – think sun, surf and sex. And Amber Gill, winner of the 2019 Love Island, is reportedly turning her steamy holiday flings into semi-fictionalised tales. Romance has crossed over into mainstream entertainment, too, with TV hits like Outlander and Bridgerton, and EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey series dominating both publishing and movie markets.
Where does Mills & Boon fit in this landscape? It now offers seven long-running series, supposedly catering to all tastes: Modern – seduction in luxurious international locations; Medical – hot doctors; Historical – Regency rakes and rugged Highlanders; Heroes – mixing romance with danger; True Love – emotional overload; Desire – passionate plots; and Dare – the “sexiest ever” series, launched in 2018.
However, although the female characters have gained agency in recent times, most titles still feature forceful alpha men in positions of power: royals and nobles, billionaire businessmen, surgeons and soldiers. It’s part of the genre conventions – and Mills & Boon doesn’t deviate from readers’ preferred format. Feminist author Julie Bindel has criticised the genre for its “misogynistic hate speech”, and described Mills & Boon novels as rape fantasies. In 2011, a British Medical Journal article said that such novels were a cause of marital breakdown, adulterous affairs and unwanted pregnancies, because women were unable to distinguish between these idealised relationships and making practical decisions in real life.
To its credit, Mills & Boon has started featuring more serious subjects, including bereavement, bullying and adoption. And, if the recent success of Netflix’s Bridgerton is anything to go by (63 million views and counting), the traditional bodice-ripper can still be a big hit if packaged in a millennial-friendly way: escapism with a dash of feminism-lite. If Fergie does the same, she could well be looking at a right royal payday.
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