"Next year's going to be an important one for us," she confides. "We'll be looking at changing the logo and cover design and revamping the packaging -- all of which has stayed the same for the past six years. We want to market like any other FMCG brand, which means we ought to be continually evolving the books, not opting for revolutionary changes."
It is to be noted that the speaker, Heather Walton, joined Mills & Boon in 1982, fresh from three blissful FMCG years selling flour for RHM.
Her background helps to explain why the Mills & Boon name -- seen on row upon row of garish, loudly-coloured paperbacks stacked in libraries, book shops and newsagents up and down the land -- is so firmly lodged in the collective unconscious.
Mills & Boon books, you see, are not like other books. Flogged like cigarettes and signposted with slogos such as "The Only Pick-me-up for Incurable Romantics", they are priced around 1.60 pounds to compete head-on with women's magazines. Noble tales of heroes, heroines and happy endings they may be, but as Walton succinctly sums up, "We're after multiple, impulse purchases." Not surprisingly, therefore, these love stories have a calculated average reading time of two-and-a-half hours.
To understand the phenomenon that is Mills & Boon - a company with a 55% share of the UK's 70m pounds paperback romantic fiction market -- you must first get to grips with some of its eye-popping vital statistics.
Every year 15 million books (or "one every two seconds") are sold under the Mills & Boon imprint -- some 25 titles every month. However, that famous name is only one of many brands owned by the company and its Canadian-based partner Harlequin (both subsidiaries of Canadian publishing group Torstar since the late 70s). The same product -- ie novels written by Mills & Boon's stable of around 200 regular authors -- is sold in different packaging in 20 languages and in over 100 countries. When you add them all together you get the almost obscene figure of 210 million books sold annually.
And another thing. Did you know that Dame Barbara Cartland, close relative of Princess Di and the world's best selling author of books about chaste young ladies and honourable young gentlemen, does not write for Mills & Boon? Apparently many people think she does, and it's a sore point with Walton.
"If we still had virginal heroines who waited to be courted for three years before holding hands -- which is the Cartland style -- we really wouldn't get anywhere. What we do is reflect what's happening in modern society."
Whether or not you see it as reflecting society -- particularly since the company's core customers are predominantly CDs and DEs, and since its books are now available in so many different societies, from Abu Dhabi to Zimbabwe -- there can be no doubting the efforts on Mills & Boon's part to satisfy its ever expanding consumer base.
There's no such thing as a plain old Mills & Boon nowadays. You have to choose from seven apparently different sub-brands, including Contemporary Romances ("simple, modern love stories"), Temptation Romances ("passionate, sensual novels"), Medical Romance ("nurses and doctors find time for love in busy hospitals"), Masquerade Historical Romances ("the past brought alive with romance") and Gift Packs ("the perfect gift for Mother's Day, Christmas or holidays").
Or perhaps madam fancies something a little racier? Something more appropriate to her youthful years (somewhere between 16 and 24, say?) and her career-oriented lifestyle? Then feast your eyes on the five-year-old Silhouette range, featuring Silhouette Desire ("provocative, highly sensual love stories with heroines who could be older and wiser than their heroes"). A hefty 16 titles in this series are printed each month.
All this is a far cry from the type of books published by the company's founders, Gerald Mills and Charles Boon, at the turn of the century. …