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Making sense of Mills and Boon

April 13, 2012
tags: ,

Jack Elliott

Mills and Boon coverMills and Boon coverMills and Boon cover

If you’re not already a fan, you might not even notice the Mills and Boon novels at supermarkets, bookstores, or your local library. Your eyes slide off the covers, packed as they are with shirtless men, clutching bashful waifs in their well-muscled arms. Those covers hide a secret world – with new novels are published every month, Mills and Boon is one of the largest publishers of Australian writers anywhere. Its parent company, Harlequin, is one of the most prolific publishers of anything in the entire world.

Of course if you are a fan, then you already know the little tag on the front cover promises a particular sort of romance, and Mills and Boon has something to suit you. These are known as categories, and each category guarantees something special. Some are set in hospitals (Medical), some emphasise the family (Blush) and others have a historical setting (Regency). There are categories for supernatural romance (Nocturne), romance with a hint of danger (Intrigue) and more erotic romance (Blaze).

Because Mills and Boon publishes so much, in so many different categories, it’s close to impossible to read it all, but we can get some surprising facts by studying the names of the books, together with the year they were first published. We’re just going to take a look at some of the titles from two of Mills and Boon’s imprints – Blush and Sexy. All my information comes from the United States, where these categories are known as “Harlequin Superromance” and “Harlequin Presents” respectively.

Here is a plot of the early period words of the family-oriented Blush category. It’s pretty boring! There’s only one word in this period: “Love”. The red lines mark out our mid and late period, and are placed on the years 1995 and 2003.

But wait, here’s the graph for our 1995 to 2003, showing the characteristic middle period words. The technique I use for plotting is better at pulling out trends rather than accurate prediction, but it gives a great flavour for the use of the words in the titles. In this middle period, the emphasis is on “family”, “children”, and “daughter”. Oh, and someone has a thing for, apparently, “Texas”:

Note the shape of the word-use with a long buildup and slow decline. Here are the late period words, showing the trends after 2003.

It’s a striking change from “wife”, “mom” and “daughter” mid-period words to late-period “cowboy”, “father” and “son”.

The Sexy category is even more interesting. This category emphasises exotic locations, heated passion and, of course, a powerful, ruthless man (known in the trade as an “alpha”, or “alpha-male”).

Here’s the plot for our early period Sexy, running from 1973 to 1996. Again, the red lines mark out our periods. An interesting set of words, here, and we can clearly see that “love” is the most important word. The only hint that we might be in for anything sensual is the word “touch”.

And running from 1996-2004 we can see the change in the shape of the words, as they start off slow in the early period, but most continue on into the late period. We can also see that the type of word changes dramatically. We see the emphasis is placed on the heroine, “pregnancy”, “her” and “bride” are all words associated with this period.

But take a look at the period from 2004 onward. There’s much more activity, but we can clearly see there are many more words here, and they bring the ruthlessness of the hero to the forefront (indeed, “ruthless” is one of our words):

That’s a lot of “millionaire”, “billionaire”, “Spanish” playboys, but our (“innocent”, “secretary”, “virgin”) heroines are fighting back (when not “pregnant” or “captive”). Though “blackmailed” and “bedded” they are still “defiant”.

Next time you come across a Mills and Boon novel, take a look. If you’ve got a Sexy or Blush novel, take a closer look at the title. If you see the word “love”, it’s most likely printed before 1995. “Texas Daughter” is probably a Blush title from 1995 to 2003. “Cowboy Father” is definitely after 2003. “Island Paradise” is from before 1996, “The Tycoon’s Baby Secret” is 1996-2004 and “Pregnant with the Sheikh’s Forbidden Love-Child” is almost certainly published in the last few years.

Congratulations, you’ve now entered the secret world of Mills and Boon.

Jack Elliott is a PhD student at the Centre for Literary and Linguistic Computing, University of Newcastle. You can email him at

7 Comments leave one →
  1. April 23, 2012 10:59 am

    Below is a comment received…from Helen
    Your research is really interesting! Harlequin Mills & Boon are highly market-driven – it’s not about creating a piece of obscure art, but about entertaining readers. So it would be really cool to correlate these trends with trends in other forms of entertainment like movies, television series and pop culture, or social trends in general.

  2. April 23, 2012 11:00 am

    and a reply from Jack Elliott, the blog post author
    Thanks for the feedback! In fact both changes in the titles can be tied to financial pressures at Harlequin. The Mira imprint was created in the mid 90s to stop brain drain of harlequins best authors. The change in the mid 00s is due to a bad financial year harlequin had at the time. The changes we’re seeing now are due to more financial pressures at harlequin, the transition to digital publishing is particularly fraught.

    One thing I do know, but cannot prove is that bad financial results were due to the impact of Harry Potter. 2003 (I don’t have the exact year in front of me) was the year of HP and the order of the Phoenix, the first HP book after the films started to be made.

  3. kayre permalink
    April 23, 2012 8:09 pm

    That is so interesting m&b truly reflects our wishes but more importantly our fears

    • Jack Elliott permalink
      April 30, 2012 1:11 pm

      Hi Kayre

      I don’t know to what extent M&B reflect our fears. I tried my hardest to correlate these changes to financial crashes, shifts in government – anything in the wider culture. I came up empty. I suspect, because they sell all over the world, M&B are insulated from shocks in any one country.

      If these were a reflection of financial insecurity, titles would be more like “The Well-Off Man with a Bright Future but a Need to be Loved” or “The Financially Secure Bachelor”. But they’re about billionaires and sheikhs, princes and tycoons. Not anyone you’re likely to meet.

      I think they are a better reflection of fantasy.

  4. April 28, 2012 8:44 pm

    Jack, the stats alone are interesting, but your comment above on the factors that affect titles is fascinating. I’m interested to know if your research extends to Carina Press as well?

    More generally, I’m curious about the subject of your thesis. Is it focused specifically on romance fiction, or is the Mills & Boon research part of a broader topic? (We met at Customs House Library, but unfortunately I didn’t catch you again before you left.)

    • Jack Elliott permalink
      April 30, 2012 12:49 pm

      Hi Kat. I’m focused on Harlequin Presents for my PhD. Harlequin Presents is the most prolific of these categories, and it has the most continuous history (Harlequin Romance has a longer but more complicated history). HP is probably the first ‘modern’ imprint in the way that we would understand it.

      Category romance is part of an entire world that we did not really understand existed before. I selected category romance because I wanted to study something that was not tractable using traditional techniques (there’s too much of it) but was contemporary and thinly studied. Some theorists claim that what we don’t study forms a ‘basement’ of literature – imagine my surprise when category romance turned out to be the mall next door! Much larger, much more popular and much more visible than the grand old mansion of classic literature.

      What is Carina Press?

      • Laura Vivanco permalink
        August 4, 2012 8:20 pm

        Jack, Carina Press is Harlequin’s digital-first press.

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