Bodice-Ripping Recession Busters

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Mills & Boon has always thrived in harsh times, when more people need a romantic read to banish grim reality. But the Anglo-Canadian publisher (founded 1908) leaves nothing to economic chance, finding digital pathways to a global readership. Rhymer Rigby reports.

Penny Jordan has sold about 80 million books, which puts her - numerically, at least - in the same league as Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming. Hands up who's heard of Ms Jordan? Or how about Debbie Macomber (60 million) or Nora Roberts (an astonishing 280 million)? No? Well, that's probably because they're all Mills & Boon writers. As the company's MD, Guy Hallowes, says: 'They're the bestselling authors you've never heard of.'

The hyperbolic numbers don't stop there, either. Mills & Boon sells around 200 million books a year worldwide. The UK market is about 10% of that - one every second and a half, with 60 titles published every month. They are printed in 26 languages and, the odd scuffle with the censors notwithstanding, available virtually everywhere. Over the past decade, the adult fiction market as a whole grew by 31%; Harlequin Mills & Boon's sales more than doubled in value.

Priced at only around pounds 3 each, Mills & Boon's novels provide an extremely affordable dose of escapism that should prove resilient to the recession, too. Hallowes' claim that the company 'is a great British success story' sounds, if anything, rather modest. Except for the fact that, being Canadian-owned if quasi- autonomous, it isn't really British any more.

Mills & Boon was founded in 1908 by Gerald Mills and Charles Boon as a general fiction publisher. By the '30s, the company had moved solidly into women's light fiction, and, by the '50s, its florid historical romances had become a part of the national tapestry. The first sex scenes (intramarital, of course) appeared in the '60s, and the content has steadily become saucier ever since, embracing masturbation, lesbianism, bondage and other steamy indulgencies of modern fiction. As well as providing a barometer of social mores over the years, the company has diversified. Alongside the short romances it is best known for, it now also has Mira, a general fiction imprint that turns out thrillers, crime novels and chick-lit, not to mention its Blaze and Desire series, whose racy stories put the 'adult' into adult fiction.

Based in Richmond, Surrey, the business was independent until 1971, when it was bought by its Canadian distributor, Harlequin. Both are now ultimately owned by Torstar, the Canadian newspaper group, and are turning in a performance that puts many of the company's struggling papers in the shade. Last year, Harlequin had sales of just under Cdollars 500m (pounds 275m) and earnings of Cdollars 69m (pounds 38m), up 15% or so on 2007. Editorial offices are in New York, Toronto and London, and most of the company's 1,300 authors are based in these countries, although not all - it recently signed its first author in India.

However, although the brand is an undoubted commercial success, it has always been the cause of sniggering among those who are not its readers - as the old joke goes, no-one you know reads Mills & Boon, but everyone you don't know does. The company's response here has always been that it's proud of its books, noting that some other publishers are sniffy even about their own romantic fiction. That is just plain wrong, admonishes Hallowes; you may not believe the product is haute litterature, but you have to believe it's good.

'We get a lot of submissions from people who think it's easy money,' he adds, 'and you can normally tell after a couple of pages. I always say to people: before you try and write a Mills & Boon book, read a hundred.' If that doesn't put you off, nothing will.

A slightly stickier charge has been that the books are antediluvian in their attitudes to women; the feminist writer Julie Bindel recently described M&B's core message as 'misogynistic hate speech'. …