Obituary: John Boon

John Boon was a shrewd and far-sighted publisher who skilfully transformed his family firm from a successful, though essentially parochial, business into an enterprise of global proportions and ferocious selling power (today, in Great Britain alone, one Mills & Boon novel is purchased every two seconds).

Even in its early days there was an emphasis on romance, the more perfervid the better. Set up by G.R. Mills and Charles Boon, two refugees from Methuen (a publisher notably careless over its more creative employees: both Frederick Muller and Andrew Dakers later left to set up rival houses), over the years the firm grew fat on the anti-Mormon melodramas of Winifred Graham, the sensational backstage dramas of Arthur Applin, the full-blooded adventure yarns of Jack London, and such roaring bestsellers as I.A.R. Wylie's Indian extravaganza The Daughter of Brahma and Beatrice Grimshaw's gaudy South Seas tale When the Red Gods Call.

Like many publishers of the day much of Mills & Boon's output, and all of its fiction, was aimed at the large commercial circulating and rental libraries, such as those owned by Mudie, W.H. Smith, and Boots the Chemist. Libraries purchased the publishers' wares in prodigious quantities throughout the inter-war years and well into the 1950s (although Mudie's, the breed's founding father, had collapsed 20 years earlier).

Television - particularly commercial television - killed the rental libraries off, and suddenly authors whose hardbacks had all satisfyingly disappeared on first publication into the libraries' avid maws discovered that without that guaranteed sale their editors had a tendency to gnaw at their lower lips and grow thoughtful. At Jonathan Cape Tom Maschler notoriously rejected Barbara Pym. Smaller suppliers of genre fiction thril-lers, war stories, and "oaters" by writers who had never been further west than Ealing Broadway, such as Wright & Brown, simply shut up shop. Mills & Boon, by now geared almost solely to providing library fodder, likewise seemed on the verge of collapse. It was a remarkable stroke of luck as well as John Boon's commercial acumen that proved the firm's salvation.

John Trevor Boon was born in 1916 and educated as befitted the son of a highly successful Edwardian and Georgian publisher (Felsted School in Essex and Trinity Hall, Cambridge). During the Second World War he served in the South Wales Borderers and was mentioned in despatches. After the war, together with his elder brother Alan, he doubtless envisaged a publishing career in much the same gentlemanly mould as that of his father. The crash of the library system and the wholesale demise of most of his outlets disabused him of this.

However, another - and far vaster - market quite suddenly presented itself: the Canadian publisher Harlequin Books needed quantities of cosy romances to stave off accusations of lubricity in their own product. Harlequin had retail outlets across not only Canada but the United States as well, and the Boon brothers discovered that their quintessentially British - indeed English - product was finding enormous favour with American readers.

What John and Alan Boon had created was a highly skilled and motivated corps of writers, mainly women, who could turn out not just one novel a year but three or four (in some cases, many more): nurse romances, Regency romps, Gothics, women-in-jeopardy and taming-the-beast tales, breathless sob-stories, pulsating dramas, quiet love stories. At a time - the 1960s - when publishing was in the doldrums, Mills & Boon were all at once in splendid shape.

An astute bargainer, John Boon took control of affairs when in the early 1970s Harlequin suggested a "sweetheart deal" takeover, selling the firm on unusually favourable terms which included a degree of autonomy for the British arm. He became vice-chairman of Harlequin, later joining the even larger board of the Torstar conglomerate which subsequently gobbled up Harlequin. Yet even today, thanks largely to John Boon, Mills & Boon itself retains a distinct identity throughout the world, its very name a label for a multitude of romance genres and sub-genres.

Jack Adrian

John Boon decided in the mid-1950s that there was a great future in school science publishing, writes David Waddington. He sought advice from Sir Owen Wansborough-Jones, his erstwhile tutor in Cambridge, who put him in touch, in turn, with two of the key figures in science education at the time, Robert Moss at Wellington College and Jack Goodier at Eton.

I was commissioned to write a school textbook, the first of what turned out to be a really significant series, and John received many requests to sell it on. When asked later why he had not asked me to submit a proposal or sample chapter he answered: "Real publishing is not about work plans; it is about people and one's own feelings." He and Alan, his brother, may be among the last of that breed of publishers, and what fun they gave authors and with what skill they chose and promoted them.

After a few years, I became the editor of the series and found John an enormous support. Getting into a taxi in about 1960 after a lunch in the Garrick, he turned to me and said "Next year, David, I really am going to take things a little more easy, hand over some of the work to others and have a chance to think." Last year, 35 years on, after another lunch at the Garrick, on getting into the taxi he said "Next year, David, I really am going to take things a little more easy . . ." He was indefatigable.

John Trevor Boon, publisher: born King's Lynn, Norfolk 21 December 1916; CBE 1968; chairman, Mills & Boon 1972-96; married 1943 Felicity Logan (four sons); died London 12 July 1996.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Motor Engineer

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Administrator

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company are a world leadin...

Recruitment Genius: Upholsterer

£9 - £15 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This company are seeking excellent indi...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Support Analyst

£20000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Managed IT Services Provid...

Day In a Page

On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral