Lunch in Mayfair: Being Wooed by Mills & Boon

‘What distinguishes Mills & Boon from our competitors,’ boomed the senior editor, peering at me in a disconcertingly cross-eyed way over the starched linen tablecloth, ‘is that they are purveyors of one-handed books. We sell two-handed books.’ Around us, diners pricked up their ears. The junior editor, younger and with an English degree from Leicester University, topped up my glass with Krug. ‘Your story was written with great sincerity,’ she said. ‘We can always tell.’ My companion, an English professor, kicked me under the table, as the vision of a lucrative future as a successful romance writer floated before my eyes. And if champagne luncheons in Mayfair were standard treatment for Mills & Boon authors, bring it on, I thought.

Six months earlier I had won the national Woman’s Day/Mills & Boon ‘write-a-romance’ competition. Out of some 4000 entries, my short story won first prize: a trip to London for two (I took my eleven-year-old daughter) to meet senior editorial staff of Mills & Boon; a week’s accommodation at the five-star Athenaeum Hotel in Piccadilly; a computer/printer package and about a litre of Elizabeth Taylor’s Passion. I had written the story, ‘Hear the Music’, at the last minute. When I learnt I’d won, I was so bashful about both its literary merit and the stigma attached to the genre that I barely told a soul. According to various sources, romance titles account for a staggering thirty-five to forty per cent of all mass-market paperback sales. Over 800 titles are published annually in Australia by Harlequin Mills & Boon, and 130 million titles are published internationally: that’s about four books every second. A top romance writer can churn out four novels a year and rack up sales totalling more than seventy million. As the Americans say, you do the math.

That’s exactly what I was doing in June, 1993. With scandalised pleasure I cast my eye over the luncheon menu of one of London’s top restaurants, Stephen Bull of Mayfair. A bottle of Australian wine, which cost a few dollars at home, was the equivalent of $60; few main courses were under $50. ‘Order whatever you want,’ encouraged the senior editor, beckoning to the supercilious waiter with a rather flaky French accent. ‘This is our treat.’ The English professor, who had been eking out a sabbatical in grotty quarters in Finsbury Park when I called and asked if he’d like to have a free lunch in Mayfair, needed no encouragement. Nor did I: my last meal of any distinction had been served by Singapore Airlines. Double-baked cheese souffle, fried sweetbreads, fillets of red mullet and sardines, lobster risotto, summer vegetable salad, green grapes in caramel sauce, a stupendous creation of chocolate, whipped cream, chestnut puree and meringue… The total bill must have been eye-popping. Not that anyone cared. It was a cheerful meal and we all got steadily drunk. Insider information passed across the table, along with the condiments and the wine.

Can men write Mills & Boon romances, the English professor wanted to know, convinced it had to be more rewarding than writing academic tracts about George Gissing. Very few, it turned out, and all under female pseudonyms. And almost all were Anglo-Saxon. One man, however, was one of their most successful authors, regularly producing four books a year. At eighty, he lived on the Isle of Man (for tax reasons), and wore hairgrips – perhaps indicating that he had at least some feminine sensibilities coursing through his aged veins.

Was it true, we asked, that Mills & Boon received 5000 unsolicited manuscripts every year? Quite true – and it was up to the two editors to read most of them. Far from having a vast editorial department at the London headquarters, the two women across the table, along with a couple of secretaries, were it. The company assured aspiring authors that every submission was read, so how on earth did they work their way through such a slush pile? ‘Read, yes, but rarely to the end,’ the editors admitted cheerfully. ‘A couple of paragraphs are usually enough. We sometimes don’t get past the cover letter.’

Onto the reject pile go the totally illiterate (editors will persevere with the mildly illiterate as long as the story blows their socks off); Nazi spy thrillers; submissions from the wives of retired vicars, who last read a romance in 1946; and non-fiction, manuscripts about golfing, fishing or gardening. A lot of hopefuls, it seemed, employed the scatter-gun approach when it came to sending out their work. Out of this huge slush pile, perhaps three or four were published each year. Was I going to be one of them?

The author Ruth Starke has a PhD in English and teaches creative writing at Flinders University.

This is an excerpt from Kill Your Darlings 2, released this month.