Why One Romance Novelist Didn't Think She'd Write a Billionaire Hero


For decades, romance was a tried-and-true avenue for talented, creative women to bring in some extra money. (Or, in some cases, a fucking fortune.) But the business has changed, with the proliferation of digital publishers and self-publishing options. How’s one author handling it?

The Billfold chatted recently with romance novelist Courtney Milan. She’s really interesting for two reasons in particular: Her historicals wrestle frankly with thorny issues like class and patriarchy, and she’s self-published. The two are likely not unrelated!

Most recently she published a contemporary “new adult” novel, Trade Me, about a pair of college students who swap places. Blake is a billionaire’s kid; Tina is the child of Chinese immigrants. I haven’t gotten to it yet (sorry, been tearing through everything Carla Kelly ever wrote, no I’m not available for weekend plans, I’m busy), but reviews are downright glowing. Apparently she’s managed to put a new spin on the ol’ billionaire hero, which is one of the things I love about the romance genre—there’s no trope so beloved SOMEBODY can’t turn on its head. (I’d argue even the HEA has been tinkered with. Sure, you’re still supposed to end with a happy relationship, but it can be childfree or relatively budget-conscious, for instance.)

The interview is a really interesting peek into how the book came about. For one thing, Trade Me exists despite the fact that Milan once said she could never write a billionaire romance:

There was a point where I told someone, “I could never write a billionaire romance because …” Fill in the blank there. The thing, though, is that every time I tell myself I can’t do something, I figure out how I would do it.
Part of the reason I might say I have difficulties writing a billionaire romance is that as part of my background, I’m a former lawyer/law professor, and so when I think about billionaires, I think about people skirting the rules of Sarbanes-Oxley, about people who never pay ordinary income tax and usually only pay capital gains tax, and so forth. I don’t think of them as … super-sexy beings who have an infinite amount of money.

Thank you! Although remember in the ’80s and early ’90s when all those boardroom romances revolved around domineering billionaires doing things that, in retrospect, even if they weren’t a compliance problem certainly would constitute an HR headache? Also, hostile takeovers? God, people used to love hostile takeovers. Good times, good times.

This bit is particularly incisive: “Blake is so wealthy that his currency is time, not money. It wouldn’t occur to him to try to woo Tina with money because money is not how he has processed any show of affection anywhere. He woos her with time.”

She also speaks about why she opted for self-publishing:

In terms of why I self-published, there are a handful of reasons, but the two main ones were this:
1) I wanted more creative control over the entire process: what I was writing, how it was presented to the market, and so forth.
2) I wanted a greater royalty share.
In terms of how it’s going, it’s going way better than my wildest predictions. I’m a spreadsheet kind of girl, so I can actually look at my wildest predictions, and yes, they were far too pessimistic.

The whole interview is here and worth reading in full, with lots of detail about Trade Me and why Milan made the authorial choices she did. BRB, gonna go stand outside Bergdorf’s and guess which patrons look boring enough to be billionaires. (Trick question; they probably send their assistants to do their shopping for them.)

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