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Boon, Charles (1877–1943), publisher, was born on 9 May 1877 at 42 Castle Street, Westminster, London, eldest among the six children of Charles Boon, brewer's servant, and Margaret, née Wheatley. His childhood was deprived: the family lived in Seven Dials, above a brewery where Charles's father worked. On his father's death Charles, then twelve, left school and took a series of odd jobs, including work in the brewery and a boot factory. He was also influenced by early jobs in a bookshop and Mudie's circulating library, gaining insight into sales, distribution, and popular authors. In 1893 Charles Boon joined Methuen & Co., publishers, in London, as an office boy and warehouse clerk. In ten years he rose to become sales manager and general manager. There he met , who joined the firm in 1903 as educational manager. Methuen was an excellent training ground for the future publishing partners, and a number of authors on the Methuen fiction list, including Harold Begbie, E. F. Benson, and Jack London were later published by Mills and Boon. Methuen was also a successful educational publisher, and several authors of Methuen textbooks were also later published by Mills and Boon.

Boon and Mills decided to strike out on their own in 1908, registering their company, Mills and Boon, on 28 November (Mills provided most of the initial investment of £1000, which entitled him to put his name before Boon's). The firm, known today as a purveyor of light romantic fiction, was in the beginning a small, diversified, but profitable publisher. Boon oversaw the fiction list and marketing; Mills, the educational and non-fiction lists. Boon, who was charming and energetic, had a gift for finding new talent, and his literary discoveries, particularly women authors, including Ethel Stevana (E. S.) Stevens, Ida Alexa Ray (I. A. R.) Wylie, Beatrice Grimshaw, and Victor Bridges, generated much publicity. But perhaps Mills and Boon's biggest coup as a young publishing house was signing up Jack London, then at the height of his worldwide success, in 1911.

On 1 June 1911 Boon married Mary Alice Cowpe (b. 1877) of Burnley, Lancashire, daughter of Thomas Cowpe, cotton manufacturer. They had four children: Charles, , [see under ], and Dinah. In the 1930s all three sons joined Mills and Boon: Charles worked in production, Alan on the editorial side, and John in finances. Of the three John and Alan emerged as natural publishers and carried on their father's legacy after the Second World War.

During the First World War Boon served in the Royal Navy, assigned to the hydrophone service as a radio operator. In the 1920s Mills and Boon's prosperity waned as competition intensified from larger and more established publishers such as Methuen, Macmillan, Collins, and Hodder and Stoughton, who were all expanding their fiction lists. But the economic circumstances of this period also allowed a denser exploitation of the publishing market, due in part to rising living standards and a growth in leisure time. The social and political changes created by the war revealed for publishers a vast, untapped market: the female reader. Larger lists of simply designed, popular fiction were produced to increase revenues and offset spiralling production costs, and to appeal to middle- and working-class women, who patronized the biggest growth market, the circulating libraries. Charles Boon, recognizing the potential of this trend, nurtured a section of his fiction list which was selling quite well: romantic fiction.

Gerald Mills's unexpected death on 23 September 1928 was a devastating blow for the firm. In financial difficulties, Boon nevertheless resisted a merger with or take-over by another publishing house. He found a new partner in-house, Joseph W. Henley, who worked in book production. Boon became the dominant shareholder, and from now on shaped the direction of Mills and Boon. He remade his company in the 1930s, setting it on a new and irreversible course as a single-genre publishing house, concentrating on romantic fiction. With commercial libraries opening across the country, particularly during the depression, publishing as a ‘library house’ was safe and profitable. In the 1930s the modern Mills and Boon publication emerged as a formulaic romantic novel with a distinctive look: bold and colourful jackets, brown bindings, expressive blurbs, flashy advertising. These branding techniques, credited to Charles Boon, were imitated by other publishers.

Commercial publishing relied on volume, a large list of titles that could be reissued many times in cheaper editions, and Boon encouraged his authors, who were all women, to be as prolific as possible; some wrote as many as eight novels in a single year. On average in the 1930s between 6000 and 8000 copies of each title were printed, and Mills and Boon issued two to four new titles every fortnight. Authors promoted their books at libraries and women's institutes to court their loyal fans. Ida Cook, who as Mary Burchell wrote 150 romances in fifty years, recalled that Charles Boon would urge her, ‘never pass a Boots shop in Eastbourne, anywhere you are, without going in and making yourself known’; this was the ‘personal touch’ (private information).

In the 1930s Charles Boon brought to fullest fruition this ‘personal touch’, a marketing tool which promoted sales by encouraging close contact, even a sense of kinship, with readers. The end-pages of each Mills and Boon romance, which listed the complete catalogue, opened with a full-page notice headed ‘To Fiction Readers: Why you should choose a Mills & Boon novel’. Boon was determined that each reader feel extra-special:
Mills & Boon issue a strictly limited Fiction List, and the novels they publish all possess real story-telling qualities of an enduring nature. It is not necessary for Fiction readers to make a choice from a Mills & Boon new Fiction List. They can rest assured that each novel has been carefully chosen, and is worth reading. Therefore ask your bookseller or librarian to put on your list every novel published by Mills & Boon. (Mills and Boon catalogue, c.1938)
Readers did, and by the Second World War Mills and Boon enjoyed unprecedented prosperity, if little critical acclaim. Charles Boon had shaped a genre and a marketing style which exist to this day. Readers learned to ask for ‘Another Mills and Boon, please’, rather than a specific author, a triumph of branding. The Mills and Boon romance came with a ‘guarantee’ of an escapist romance with an obligatory happy-ever-after ending. Wartime enhanced this demand for escape, although paper rationing limited production, and profits.

Charles Boon, who had few interests outside publishing, died on 2 December 1943 from a cerebral haemorrhage at his home, 42 Aylmer Road, Hornsey, London. On their return from the war Boon's sons ran Mills and Boon and steered the firm to even greater heights of prosperity.

Joseph McAleer

Sources  

J. McAleer, Passion's fortune: the story of Mills & Boon (1999) · J. McAleer, Popular reading and publishing in Britain, 1914–1950 (1992) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert. · private information (2004)

Archives  

Harlequin–Mills and Boon Ltd, Richmond, Surrey, archives


Likenesses  

portrait, Harlequin-Mills and Boon Ltd, Richmond, Surrey, archives; repro. in McAleer, Passion's fortune

Wealth at death  

£28,798 8s. 5d.: probate, 28 April 1944, CGPLA Eng. & Wales