Love it or hate it? Mills and Boon at Reading

Today’s guest post from Judith Watts explores our Mills & Boon Collection. Judith is studying for her PhD as part of a unique collections-based research project at the University of Reading. The working title of her thesis, which explores the nexus between publisher, author and reader, is The Limits of Desire: the Mills & Boon Romance Market, 1946-1973.

m6 toll sign

Marmite, the M6 Toll road and the Oxford English Dictionary are just three of the many things which drew me to the Mills & Boon archive.

Long before ‘twerking’ and ‘selfie’, the OED added the noun ‘Mills and Boon’, denoting an idealised romantic situation. 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 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 a heartfelt defense 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.

Staff Nurses in Love

A household brand in publishing is a rare commodity. Mills & Boon and Penguin are two of the UK’s 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.

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 tantalising request for ‘two doctors and a Sheik’ my affair began. Being awarded a doctoral studentship to work in the company archives at Reading University may have triggered an 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.

For those interested in further reading about the history of Mills & Boon and the brand’s creation Judith recommends as a starting point Joseph McAleer’s Passion’s Fortune, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Images sourced from public domain or unattributed under Creative Commons licence except the book cover taken from the Reading University archive and website.

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