Romancing the Reader – Relationship advice from the Mills & Boon archive

Mills and Boon

This is a guest post from Judith Watts. Judith lectures on the Publishing Masters at Kingston University where she is Co-Director of Kingston University Press. She is researching for her PhD [The Limits of Desire: the Mills & Boon Romance Market] in The Archive of British Publishing and Printing at the University of Reading. She has worked in the industry for many years and has recently started two new reading, writing and publishing  businesses. She took a publishing career break to do an MFA in Creative Writing and is a published poet and author of Hodder’s Teach Yourself Erotic Fiction. 

At a recent Galley Club talk I confessed my passion for publishing archives. The past has much to teach us about relationship management. The thousands of intimate letters between publishers, authors and readers are a tale of the ultimate ménage à trois. While a partnership of two can be tricky enough the publisher can always tie the contractual knot with the author. But how can readers be wooed and kept close?

‘Between the covers of your books I can ignore the T.V., transistors, politicians and the weather.’

Mills and BoonOne of the stories the Mills & Boon archive tells is how the brand attracted readers by promoting the benefits of reading rather than the merits of particular authors or titles. They knew that reading is a process, not a product – it is an event. At the heart of Mills & Boon’s strategy lay the guarantee that readers would get a quality experience whatever they selected from their list.

‘Of all the 729 M&B books read only one I disliked very much.’ [91-year-old Canadian ex-nurse]

The company knew from ground-breaking market research that to meet readers’ needs they had to provide reading for pleasure – the relationship with the book was all about engagement. As a publisher they were selling a service – a ‘a get-away’, ‘an escape from reality’. But then, like now, competition was stiff. In the 1960s the average time spent watching TV was 20 hours a week. To counter this Mills & Boon pioneered ‘me time’ for its women readers – an opportunity to for those who wanted to be ‘lost to the world’ through fiction. The brand held its place in light entertainment – and still does.

‘The reader is the only boss in publishing’

Mills & Boon shared the view of the editor of one of the top selling women’s magazines of the 1950s: ‘You have to know who your reader is, be identified with him, know how to attract and hold him in bondage to the almost unbreakable habit (and habit is everything).’
Part of this knowledge is the understanding that not all readers are the same. There are a number of readers in the mix. Mills & Boon set out with a notion of ‘their type of reader’. The assumptions they had made about this ‘ideal’ reader were blown away by research into the market. As they listened to feedback their knowledge about different romantic tastes increased, enabling them to developed different strands, series and levels of lust. The company was also able to court the super readers who would walk miles for their next fix.

The archive shows that connecting with the reader’s motivation for reading was the key to cultivating a lasting and profitable relationship. It’s worth reminding ourselves this still applies – from genre and non-fiction to literary fiction. We read to be entertained, informed, and challenged – to experience new relationships. Successful authors and publishers understand their readers.

Here’s how to romance yours:

  • Make a good first impression. Mills & Boon had great covers. Reading and books are a fetish so make objects of desire.
  • If it goes well, make a new date. Mills &Boon readers can fall in love endlessly. Each read brings a new
  • Meet in the right places. Mills & Boon networked where romance readers were. Women’s magazines and circulating libraries like Boots Booklovers were the Goodreads and Google hangouts of the day.
  • Get close – what do they like, love, fancy, prefer? What are their penchants and predilections? What is their appetite for reading, their sweet spot, and their guilty pleasure?
    As a kiss and tell reader, this is want I want publishers to know. I want them to find me and give me what I want.



Special collections at Reading
The pleasant read – from the inside flap of a Mills & Boon hardback
Quotes taken from ‘The Romantic Novel: A Survey of Reading Habits’ Dr. Peter Mann 1969 in association with Mills & Boon

Special collections at Reading

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  1. The late Peter Mann was my father. He adored conducting the research for M&B and in the 1970s set up reader panels to gather information for the publisher so as to inform their editorial decisions. Readers were expected to read the titles published in a given month and then asked for their views regarding cover illustration, plot, characterization and so on. Authors were rated against each other so that a clear picture was formed of which were the most popular and which new ones were likely to do well.
    My father staunchly defended M&B books on the basis that they encouraged literacy among many social groups who would not otherwise have picked up a book, and he was full of admiration and respect for the authors whom he got to know well. Although ultimately he declined the offer of the job as Fiction Editor in the early 1980s, his work was very much respected by M&B and I am so glad to hear that it is still proving a useful source of research.
    Lucy Ellis, London

    1. Dear Lucy,
      I am hoping to make contact with you about the PhD I’m doing in the M&B archive and in particular I’m focusing on the relationship with readers – and so studying your father’s work. I especially promote his reading model. I contacted the library at Sheffield Uni to see if Peter left any boxes of the completed surveys anywhere but drew a blank – so I’d love to interview you if I may. I’ve just see that you replied to a blog I posted about M&B on the BookMachine site so I hope you you’ll contact me.

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