Seeking respite from the cursed credit crisis, Claire Black dives into the pool of romance that is Mills & Boon, and discovers that millions of others are doing the same
ADAM SMITH'S law of unintended consequences – isn't it a hoot? Who could've known that allowing people to take multimillion pound bonuses on the back of gambling – sorry, I mean investing – other people's money would lead to trouble? Or that allowing house prices to skyrocket so that we each ended up with a personal debt to rival a that of small country would lead to grief? You can just never tell, it seems.
One thing you can be sure of, though: as the news gets worse, the need for some kind of escape gets all the more pressing and where there are losers there are always, always, winners.
Talk of this kind may be perceived as a little unseemly when three million of us are in danger of sliding into negative equity and doyennes of consumption like India Knight (author of The Thrift Book: Live Well and Spend Less) are now extolling the virtues of Argos, but hey, economics aren't personal – it's the law of the market and the fact is when things are heading down the dumper for some, they're looking peachy keen for others.
So, who's a winner in the current meltdown? (Don't fret, I'm not about to wax lyrical about McDonald's, where 4,000 new jobs are to be created to cope with the two million extra customers a month.
The victor in this case is romance. There, doesn't it make you feel better just reading that? Or perhaps it would if I'd written it more breathily, full of sensual glances, smouldering eyes and unbridled passion. The real winner in our economic meltdown, you see, is the book publisher Mills & Boon.
With one of its titles – Her Sworn Protector, The Italian Surgeon's Christmas Miracle, Strokes of Midnight – being bought every three seconds, it seems that as we fear our pension fund is nose-diving and we need a bridging loan to afford our weekly shop, the world of Italian stallion business tycoons, mysterious sheikhs and an endless supply of young virginal hotties for them to seduce, is truly irresistible.
Sara Craven wrote her first Mills & Boon novel – she calls them "fairytales for grown-ups" – in 1975 and she's written a further 70 since then. She's not in the slightest bit surprised that sales of books like hers are rocketing in the current climate.
"Remember that the time of the Great Depression in the 1930s was Hollywood's Golden Age," she says. "Films like the Busby Berkeley musicals took the world by storm, because people just desperately needed cheering up."
It seems we are pretty desperate now, because we cannot get enough of them.
I say 'we' because, despite having never opened a Mills & Boon novel, I'm not going down the road of easy snobbishness about books which are published in 26 different languages, sold in more than 109 international markets with millions of readers.
Love 'em or loathe 'em, Mills & Boon's stories clearly do something for us. If the economy had been built on them rather than, well, whatever it was built on, we'd probably be doing a lot better than we are now.
Mills & Boon, celebrating its centenary this month, is enjoying its most successful year to date. We may be tightening our belts, but that doesn't mean that there's no room for romance. And Mills & Boon novels, at 2.99 each, are according Clare Somerville, retail marketing and sales director of the company, "an affordable pleasure".
Sounding curiously like an investment manager describing a sure-fire portfolio, Somerville explains the success of Mills & Boon.
"They're a package and you know what you're going to get," she says. "Within that there's a degree of the unpredictable, because each one's different, but they will deliver in line with your expectations."
When Mills & Boon Limited was launched in 1908 it was as a publisher of general fiction and etiquette guides. But it didn't take long for founder Charles Boon to clock on to the fact that romance was the way to financial success. During the First World War, sales of the romance-filled novels enjoyed their first peak and it's something that's continued ever since.
"In 1917 the Times said people seek distraction from the worry of the times in the reading of works of imagination," says Somerville. "Our sales figures would indicate that that's been true throughout our evolution."
When times are tough, and men are scarce, Mills & Boon saves the day. It's not that there are no men around at the moment – I can even see a few from where I'm sitting – but it doesn't take much of a stretch to imagine that as the macho world of the trading room falters and falls, so the need for real heroes increases.
OK, so they're made up, but how else do you explain it? Do women want to read about manly men, triumphing manfully?
"I think they do," Craven says. "Even if it isn't fashionable or PC to say so, the alpha male who strides through the pages is a very desirable prospect in these hard times.
"We've been brainwashed to think that we all need these New Men… but I'm not so sure that a bit of the old Adam cropping up occasionally doesn't do us the power of good."
The trick of Mills & Boon for Craven is that although the men are of the alpha variety, they also need the women to make them complete. "The men in Mills & Boon are not just survivors – they win. And they win the heroine," she says. "But these heroes aren't absolutely invulnerable and that's a great thing. They're not monsters of ego and they do have their problems: whatever they bring to the heroine, she brings a healing touch to them. It's a two-way street.
"I'm writing fairy stories for grown-ups. I'm writing 'once upon a time' and 'they all lived happily ever after'."
Adaptability is one of the strengths of the novels, according to Somerville, but she tells me there are no plans to release a "credit-crunch romance". Shame: I think that could be a goldmine.
• Sara Craven's latest Mills & Boon novel, One Night With His Virgin Mistress, is out now.