'There's an art to it': with one sold every 10 seconds, what's Mills & Boon's secret?

Mark Brown Arts correspondent
·4 min read

It is easy to mock a fantasy world of personal assistants taming playboy princes, nurses unlocking the passions of surly surgeons, or chambermaids bedding brooding billionaires. Less easy to mock is the wild and continuing popularity of Mills & Boon when one of its romances is sold every 10 seconds in the UK.

Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, was this week revealed as the latest recruit to the publishers’ roster of authors, with a novel loosely based on the passions of her great-great-aunt, Lady Margaret Montagu Douglas Scott.

She joins a publishing institution, founded in 1908, which releases more than 700 new titles every year and accounts for 16% of the UK’s romance fiction market.

The writing of the novels is not as straightforward or formulaic as some might imagine. “There is an art to it. There isn’t a formula,” said Sharon Kendrick, a writer of more than 100 Mills & Boon novels with sales of 27m books.

She said: “People assume that because they are quite easy to read, they are quite easy to write. Believe me, they are not. You want to get it right and it is quite a challenge … It’s not the story; it’s the telling of the story, which you want to make powerful and compelling.

“There is a lot of scope for brilliant writing and you can break all sorts of rules as long as long you make the stories believable.”

There may not be a formula but there is a given that the story is “about love and powerful attraction, or how when you fall in love it completely overwhelms you”, said Kendrick.

The success of Bridgerton on Netflix and the popularity of Mills & Boon books show – if anyone ever doubted it – that people “crave pure escapism and that is rather wonderful, isn’t it?” said Kendrick.

People make assumptions about Mills & Boon all the time, she said,that the stories, for example, are about simpering women in thrall to powerful men. Not true, according to Kendrick, especially not today. “The books follow very closely what is going on in society at the time.”

Annie O’Neil, the writer of 25 Mills & Boon books, said people will say to her face that the books are easy to write, that she follows a formula. “I say to them, ‘Have you ever fallen in love? It must be exactly the same way my husband and I fell in love’ and then they go, ‘Oh … I see what you’re saying.’

“People are dismissive but no one is ever mad at Friends for being comfortable, or familiar. Or Law & Order. Or the Marvel films. There is something about romance … because it is about feelings. Yet literary fiction is all about feelings.

Related: Duchess of York’s first novel to be published by Mills & Boon

“One of the joys of Mills & Boon, one of the reasons people go back to them again and again, is for that wonderful, amazing, endorphin-filled moment where you are falling in love … You want to go on that journey with the characters.”

O’Neil believes a lot of snootiness comes from people who have not read one for years. “They are contemporary, they have changed with the times. They are very empowering to women and tackle some really tough issues.”

For some, Mills & Boon lays itself open to mockery with its titles. Favourites of fans from the past include Grace Before Meat, A First Time for Everything and The Italian Duke’s Virgin Mistress. Last year, the company published the titles Redemption of the Untamed Italian, Craving His Forbidden Innocent, and Her Boss’s One-Night Baby.

Kendrick said she leaves the names of her books to the publishers. “They are the experts. Sometimes I don’t agree with the title and they will change it.”

O’Neil said Mills & Boon readers were voracious and wanted to know straight away what the book was about. Her bestseller is Her Hot Highland Doc. “It does what it says on the tin … there’s a doctor, he’s sexy, he’s in the Highlands. Sometimes you just need that.”

The Duchess of York’s book, due out in August and written with the established Mills & Boon author Marguerite Kaye, is titled Her Heart for a Compass and is described as an “immersive historical saga”, which sweeps from “the drawing rooms of Victoria’s court and the grand country houses of Scotland and Ireland, to the slums of London and the mercantile bustle of 1870s New York”.

It is about a woman who wants to break the mould, to find her raison d’être, with Ferguson drawing on “many parallels from my life”, she said.

Mills & Boon today publishes books in different sections such as “modern”, “historical”, “medical”, “true love” and the more raunchy “dare”. What they all have in common is that there is always a happy ending.

Kendrick said the popularity of her books and the genre more widely is because “women love relationships and they love to talk about love. You can live out an affair vicariously by reading one … You can be swept away.”