Obituary: John Boon

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The Independent Online
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.