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Friday, August 10, 2007


Formula romances

Naomi raised an interesting question in the last thread; what do we think?

Maybe I'm a cynic, but it just seems like cheap, lazy filmaking to me, with built-in audiences to guarantee a blockbuster, which in turn guarantees a sequel... and so on...

Do you think this applies to books as well? There's got to be a reason why Mills and Boon pump out so many Secret Baby/Millionaire/Cowboy books.

It's a good question. I actually have quite a bit of respect for Mills and Boon; they don't pretend to be doing anything other than what they are, which is writing books on a formula; that's fair enough, to honestly do a formula and do it well. But while I think that predictability of sales, hence safety of investment, is undoubtedly a driving force, I think there's something slightly different going on from what you get in movies.

The Secret Baby/Latino Surgeon/Desert Sheikh patterns remind me of nothing so much as the specificity of porn categories - you know, All-Asian girl-on-girl/Black men with white women/Office Hotties in Business Suits/whatever. I say this with no intent to insult, as I don't have any particular animosity towards porn per se (or at least, I have a lot of animosity to some examples of it, but none to the basic idea that people like to look at pictures of other people frolicking around in the nudd). In both cases, the market is appealing to variants of the primal mating impulse, and while in reality that impulse is governed by chemistry and opportunity, in fiction it's much harder to create chemistry. What you can substitute is a set of preferences, for physical type, social persona, demeanour and so on. So you can have dark-skinned wealthy alpha-male, or blonde debutante submissive, or exotic-looking professional supportive male nuturer, or Afro-Caribbean good-time-girl, or whatever you want; put the details clearly on view, and people who want that kind of thing will know to buy it.

I realise I may sound as if I'm cheapening romance by saying this, which is not my intention. Any company that can sell 6.6 books per second has my sincere admiration, and many Mills and Boon books are rather nicely written. Mills and Boon gives a lot of pleasure to a lot of people, and in fact, a couple of friends of mine, both smart, cultured, successful women, are long-term devotees of the books and really love curling up with them. But if the book is there to deliver a specific thing - a romantic fantasy - rather than something more nebulous like 'an aesthetic experience', categorising by taste seems like a natural consequence.

I think reader questionnaires have a lot to do with the focus on categories that Mills and Boon display as well. Rather than pumping out advertising like the movie industry, Mills and Boon take continual feedback from their readers, processing forms in which customers say what they'd like more of. This isn't always a good thing for art - if you're trying for the aesthetic experience, then it can wind up with professionals who know how to write taking direction from amateurs who don't, which is bad for quality - but if what you're selling is less individual works of art and more crafted variations on a formula, it's a good way to keep business running. But the nature of a questionnaire is to have ticked boxes and specific categories; translate that into actual books, and you wind up with lots of different imprints with very defined remits, which is what Mills and Boon have.

Movies, on the other hand, have a more unpredictable and unwieldy audience. People don't sign up for membership and ensure regular consumption of, say, Paramount movies, which you can do with Mills and Boon, so there's always the element of bottling lightning, predicting chemistry, trying to create attraction when one side of that attraction - the audience - isn't in the room with you. There's a lot of guesswork that has to go on. Movies are also trying to cater for a more complicated set of desires than just a sexual or romantic fantasy, so the questionnaire system wouldn't really work. You can just imagine it:

Do you like your films to be:

- Exciting
- Boring
- Overhyped
- Badly made
- Entertaining

Everyone is going to be ticking the same boxes, but it's harder to fulfil their requests. If everyone wants an Arabic doctor in a book, you can just put in an Arabic doctor, but if everyone wants a good film - well, you knew that already, but you're no further forward in working out how to deliver one. And, as I said, I think that too much consumer input for anything other than the most basic craft is a bad idea when it comes to specifics; the really good directors are popular because they have a natural knack for coming up with stuff that people like rather than because they've taken surveys, and if someone doesn't have that knack, then no amount of requests for a giant robot, a love interest with raven-black hair, a comedy frog and a musical score written in C major are going to help. You'll just wind up with a grab-bag of stuff that was put there by an incompetent director who was trying to tick the list rather than to make a good film.

I think books, on the whole, are seldom marketed in advance as heavily as movies. The pre-hyped ones tend to be hyped because the author is already famous, and in that case, all that's being hyped is that 'this book is by Marian Keyes/Thomas Harris/Steven King', which is a requirement that it was pretty easy for the author to supply. Say to Marian Keyes, 'I'd like you to write a book by Marian Keyes', and guess what? You're in luck. But with other books, we're back to trying to create chemistry. And in that situation, all any of us can do is try our best and hope things will work out.

So...I take it that Mills and Boon is rather like Harlequin in North America? I think they are a Canadian company, but in the U.S, they are synonymous with formula romance.
...and they sell like crazy.
It's Harlequin Mills and Boon - same company. Mills and Boon is the UK branch. Here's the wikipedia article on them:


Apropos of the rumours they mention that everyone writes to a set of guidelines: based on my own experience, I think it's an urban legend. I've heard friend-of-a-friend stories about being sent a set of guidelines, but I've never seen one - and I have met actual Mills and Boon employees. I once had a job interview for a position there (didn't get it - they said they liked me, didn't think I had enough experience at the time, but never mind, it was nice meeting them), and I asked about the rumour. They looked surprised and said, 'No, not at all!'

What they do have is both staff and writers who actively enjoy the kind of romance that the company sells, not just as a commercial property but as stories to read - that was something they emphasised at the interview, that you had to really love romance stories. I suspect the similarity between books is partly because imprints are guided by the editors' taste and experience, but also because most of their writers are also readers. More a group ethos than a set of rules, I think.
There's also a GREAT deal more money sunk into the making of a film and most films desperately need repeat viewers to recoup what they've shelled out, so they are naturally inclined to play it safe and work with what's worked before, or a thinly disguised version thereof. And they've got to be a bit more one-sixe fits all, or at least one size fits THIS demographic pretty well (or did the last time we made this exact same film with actors of slightly different hair color.)

But with Mills and Boon (or Harlequin with me and Bran Fan) ... you know, I guess it's just that if people are going to do something with their spare, non-hectic, non-work time, more often than not they'd prefer for it to be something easy, I guess. Familiar. Most of my favorite books tend to be things I find pretty upsetting, but that's not exactly normal. (I've gotten to that point with films, actually -- if I want to think Deep Thoughts I will (and do) read a book, but the reason I watch movies right now is to relax. A comedy frog sounds pretty nice right about now, actually. And now of course I can't get the song 'Rainbow Connection' out of my head...)
Random related anecdote: I worked in WH Smiths a few years ago (back in the wild days of my teens, sigh) and our biggest sellers were Mills and Boon and Black Lace (which I suppose is sort of Mills and Boon with whips). Every time the new M&B titles came in, the same customers would appear, buy up their preferences and vanish.

One particular lady would then reappear a week later to return them. When I asked why she said it was because she'd never re-read them, all the plots were the same. And yet she'd be back next month to buy the new titles and it would start all over again.

(With the Black Lace books, people were always careful to buy a magazine they could hide it behind.)
Ah yes, Black Lace. I had a friend who wrote for them. I was always rather entertained by the questionnaires: do you like your hero to be gentle/modern/dominant/adventurous/nuturing...? Do you like your sex to be man with woman/man with man/woman with woman/threesomes/orgies? Do you like your sex vanilla/romantic/kinky? She told me that the biggest reader demand was for books with modern heroines with high-flyer careers and a sadomasochistic twist. It was a bit of a problem for the authors, as it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to work out scenarios for group sex in such an office setting that are on even waving-from-a-distance terms with plausibility - and the imprint warned everyone that they'd already published enough Roman orgies to last them a lifetime.

Did anyone have a word with the lady about using the shop like a library? Or, like, suggest she go to a library? Because I know my local has a whole revolving rack of Mills and Boon.

Were they a wide variety, the Mills and Boon/Black Lace clients? Or did they all seem the same sort of age/demeanour? It's always interesting to hear an insider's view.
Did anyone have a word with the lady about using the shop like a library?

I know of some used-book stores where they keep the thinner romances in a stack/bin by the register, and when you buy new picks you can help yourself to a couple of romances, and when you come in to sell other books you can donate your read romances by placing them in the bin. (I'm semi-surprised a new-book store would put up with this, but then there was a Dillon's back in the day that let me return a couple of books because I hated them. The cashier told me that next time I should say they were an "inappropriate present.")

Stores in general, especially big chain ones, are pretty laid-back nowadays, I think. Customer satisfaction and all that.
A lot of Black Lace buyers were guilty-looking men who made sure there was a man on the till to buy from. One persistent offender would stand flicking through the books, then put them back somewhere else, like in the kids' section. Always fun going round at closing, gathering up Black Lace books.

You'd also find them hidden in random places in the stock room, usually with the pages bent and the spines cracked, lol.

Mills and Boon had a better cross-section of buyers, ranging from old ladies to young ones. Medical romances seemed to be the most popular from what I can remember.
Men? Really? Well, that puts my theory about men being stimulated by pictures and women being stimulated by prose pretty thoroughly in the dustbin. Who'da thunk?

Actually I think it's kind of nice if a man wants to buy an erotica book written with female tastes in mind. Suggests a basic preference for women having a good time.

The one time I bought a Black Lace book, I do remember wondering how to go about it. I had an iron-clad excuse - I knew the author - but obviously if I told the salesperson that, I'd look like a pretty pathetic fibster; it would be about one step above 'Thanks for selling me this copy of Hustler; I do so enjoy their editorial bylines.' So I decided the only thing to do was to be totally shameless. I was buying a Black Lace Book? Why yes, yes I was. Was I going to feel embarrassed? Why no, no I wasn't; I was all grown up and could buy porn if I wanted to. It made me feel pretty cheerful, in the end.

Was your book-moving pal trying to make some kind of statement by leaving you a kind of Black Lace Easter-egg hunt, do you think? Or did he just want to read them anywhere in the shop but under the little sign reading 'erotica'?
Men? Really? Well, that puts my theory about men being stimulated by pictures and women being stimulated by prose pretty thoroughly in the dustbin.

It doesn't entirely mess with your theory -- if the prose in question is extremely visual. (Contrast some erotica written by men with similar stuff written by women. Women will tend to go off on emotions and feelings -- I mean tactile feelings, sensations -- and then consequences, whereas men will tend to describe physicality and will get very technical about the Tab-A-Slot-B-and-REPEAT WHOO HOO! business, any "consequences" not being anywhere near as directly related to the sex.) I'm oversimplifying a great deal, and sparing you examples. :-)
I think he was trying to avoid being seen in the erotica section, personally, but then again, WH Smith used to put erotica in the same section as "Action and Thrillers." Maybe he just got confused...
Poor sod. Why shouldn't he read Black Lace if he wanted to?
Tis the love that dare not speak it's name...
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