Cover pearls

Romantic fiction imprint Mills & Boon has opened
a new chapter in its history with a series of rugbythemed titles, but its continuing success is due to strong branding and consistent design, as much as
content innovation, reports Sarah Woods

Whether you adore their romance and happy endings or tire of their clichéd plots, the tremendous success of the stories from Mills & Boon cannot be ignored.

The romantic, and sometimes raunchy, Harlequin-owned imprint boasts a rich heritage, which dates back to 1908. Flying off the shelves at a rate of a book every few seconds, Mills & Boon novels have become instantly recognisable by their iconic jacket design, usually featuring a romantic embrace. Originally known as the Books in Brown for their distinctive brown binding, the books and their design have evolved and expanded over the 100 years they have been in existence.

As if the portfolio of ten products within the current Mills & Boon series, ranging from traditional romance to steamy passion and love in the medical profession to medieval sagas, wasn’t enough, the publisher has teamed up with the Rugby Football Union to launch a line of eight limited-edition titles. The books will launch on 1 February and feature tales of great, imaginary rugby moments and sporting heroes, along with passion, glamour and romance.

The cover design for the series aims to make the books look slightly different from the regular products so that they stand out. The appearance is based on the publisher’s Modern series, and features the obligatory embrace in a luxury location, as well as incorporating the RFU logo and the author’s name.

‘Mills & Boon thought it would be fun to create the rugby books,’ says Steve Wells of Steve Wells Design, who has designed the jackets, spines and backs. ‘The changes for the series are quite subtle. Things like the blocking, the shape of the typography and the colour have been altered. We needed to distinguish them from the Modern series clearly, but create a template that was easy to implement.’

Wells has worked with the publisher in the past during his time at design consultancy Radio in Bath. Two years ago, he revamped the complete series, as well as designing the latest logo. The publisher redesigns fairly regularly to retain its readership and attract a younger audience. ‘The books are not really designed for designers, but they do have a lovely heritage,’ he adds.

In the case of the romantic novels, the often-cited phrase ‘never judge a book by its cover’ should be disregarded. Each sub-brand carries a different colour and look appropriate to the content of the book and the product range they come under, so readers know what to look for. ‘For example, Romance is soft and pink, while the Blaze series is fiery,’ Wells says.

Last year, Mills & Boon celebrated its centenary and claims to be the UK’s market leader in romance fiction publishing. The publisher uses an army of authors and has signed up some big names in the past, including PG Wodehouse and Hugh Walpole.

The heavily branded books have developed visually over the decades. The brightly coloured covers became a trademark for the brand, and in the mid-1930s Mills & Boon advertised its Half-Crown Library series with reproductions of covers as ‘jackets that pull’.

Later came the retro illustrations of the 1950s and 1960s, which now feature on a set of gift cards and have been the subject of a travelling exhibition in the North of England. During the latter part of the 20th century, modern photography took over from illustration for several of the series in an attempt to project realism.

Linda Fildew, senior editor at Mills & Boon, has been with the company since 1975. During that time, she has seen many changes to the iconic books. ‘The images changed in the 1930s and 1940s because there was a big rise in women going to the cinema,’ she says. ‘There is an element of escapism and romance to the books. This time saw a big change to the jackets. They are quite dramatic, which was very appropriate to the time. After the war, women were going to work and becoming more independent, which brought in the working woman aspect. The covers had to reflect these changes.’

She adds, ‘We do go for a mix of photography and illustration. It would seem a bit anachronistic to use photography for the Historical romance titles, so we still use illustration. But we like to go for realism and this is where photography works – especially the Modern series, which is very true to life.’

Rugby and romance is hoped to be the latest combination to add to the success of Mills & Boon. The first title, The Prince’s Waitress Wife, will be published in February, with more to follow each month until September.

It is clear that over the years the branding and consistent design of these novels has guaranteed a high profile for Mills & Boon. In keeping with its own tradition, the Mills & Boon story comes with a happy ending.

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