When Maisey Yates sold her first billionaire romance novel, in 2009, the 23-year-old mom was living in a single-wide trailer and barely scraping by on public assistance. The recession was in full swing, and escaping into the arms of someone who could make it disappear was pretty appealing. Her instincts were solid: Within a few years, E.L. James’s record-breaking Fifty Shades of Grey (whose next film installment arrives February 10) would carve out a place for brooding industrialists in the hearts of tens of millions of readers.
Publishers have since reaped a windfall of new romance fans, most of whom are less concerned with whips and chains than extraordinary wealth and the stormy, unpredictable men who wield it. “It’s not about reality, it’s really not,” Yates explained from her comfortable home in small-town Oregon. “Readers are getting what they want a billionaire to be. He needs to have that power, he needs to have that assurance, he needs to be completely confident within himself, he needs to be the alpha.”
As of 2008, romances were attracting some 75 million sets of eyeballs each year — by 2014, billionaires were the ninth most popular trope in the hugely popular genre. “Fifty Shades of Grey really put [billionaires] over the top,” said Harlequin senior editor Stacy Boyd. While he still shares the shelves with sheikhs and heirs, Boyd says, “the billionaire has become more popular than just the tycoon or the CEO or millionaire, but that might be inflation.”
All of which might not be quite so noteworthy if it weren’t for the powerful, plays-by-his-own-rules billionaire now dragging the nation toward autocracy — and the fact that the very women who clamor for billionaire books are virtual mirrors of the demographic that helped to elect him.
The most recent industry statistics suggest romance readers are both overwhelmingly female and overwhelmingly white, with an average age of 42 and annual income of $55,000. While e-books dominate, 2014 figures showed that Walmart and Target take the second and third most popular spots for brick-and-mortar sales, after Barnes & Noble. According to a 2015 Nielsen report, “data shows that romance book buyers are more likely to be from the South and Midwest regions, tend to be retired, and identify as Christian.”
If romance readership has held steady — which broader recent studies on American readership suggest it likely has — more than half the number of people who cast ballots in the election read a romance novel in the past year. A quarter of romance book buyers read more than one a week and 80 percent at least one a month. Editors at Harlequin alone said the romance behemoth devotes two imprints to revenge-obsessed oil barons and bootstrapping real estate moguls, publishing about a dozen billionaire books every month. (By way of comparison, the company puts out two paranormal love stories and another six medical melodramas over the same period.)
It would, of course, be reductive to imply that millions of American women mistook Mar-a-Lago’s mendacious cheese-doodle for a strapping storybook plutocrat. Still, white women in the South and Midwest helped to hand him the White House. Given the gravity of recent events, it’s worth asking how mimeograph megalomaniacs became heartland heartthrobs.
“The line [in these books] is that women are so overworked and overburdened by doing double duty, working and still being the primary homemakers, that they like the fantasy of being totally taken care of by a man,” said feminist blogger Jackie Horne, who has written about romance and the Trump electorate. “It’s addressing that overburdened life that many working-class and middle-class women are living.”
“I think that women today have so much on our plates — most of us are working and balancing family life and staying on top of all this stuff,” said the bestselling author. “I think it’s women who are taking care of everything who find these ultra-alpha heroes to be compelling.”
Nearly 50 percent of the U.S. labor force is female, while 40 percent of American mothers are either the sole or primary breadwinner for their families. Like the romance heroines they read about, many prefer to work full time, yet childcare and housework remain disproportionately gendered, and even many two-income households are struggling. Never mind that Trump’s policy proposals — a stagnant minimum wage, the erosion of labor protections, and an all-out war on family planning providers — are bound to make their predicament worse. To harried readers, the fantasy financier is as alluring for what he does have (a private island) as for what he doesn’t: namely, the money woes that plague modern women.
“Through love, the heroine gets to ‘have it all’ — a strong relationship with good sex, a fulfilling career, and a family if she wants one,” Boyd explained. “With the billionaire hero, she also gets freedom from economic worry,” a potent aphrodisiac for anyone who buys their fantasies at Walmart.
I was at the supercenter near my in-laws’ in Los Angeles picking up Pampers and a vaporizer for my croupy one-year-old when I happened on Defying Her Billionaire Protector, a $3.93 paperback from Harlequin Presents, the imprint Yates calls “a high-octane fairytale with sex.” The steamy tale of a musclebound security magnate and his buxom paraplegic charge shared real estate with about three dozen other Harlequin titles, among them an inordinate number of cowboys and a book called An Amish Reunion, the fourth in an Inspire series I’d borrowed from the Brooklyn Public Library’s e-lending service the night before. (Unlike most of the chaste titles written by and for evangelical Christians, Amish romance has a significant New York following.) I’d also checked out Billionaire Doctor, Ordinary Nurse, one of hundreds of billionaire romances currently available there.
Part of what makes romance novels such a sensitive social barometer is that they are acutely responsive to demand. More than any other genre, romance lives and dies by the e-reader, and category titles like Harlequin’s must increasingly compete with self-published authors, whose success is entirely predicated on a feel for the pulse of the market. Want to know what’s got hearts racing this month? Check the alpha du jour.
“Right now there’s a trend of the blue-collar billionaire,” Boyd told me. “It’s the billionaire fantasy, but also he’s making it every day, dealing with the recession or whatever. We haven’t started to acquire those, but we’ve started to ask for it.”
If that mantle seems familiar, it’s because Trump slithered into it over the course of the campaign. A blue-collar billionaire has New York money and heartland values, a private plane and grease in the beds of his nails. Nested within this oxymoron is the idea that outrageous wealth is the natural reward for hard work, specifically the gendered, physical labor of the type so publicly mourned by the Trump electorate.
(To be fair, you can also find “blue collar” takes on other popular romance tropes, such as in the paranormal series Blue Collar Wolves (Mating Season Collection).)
But the blue-collar billionaire also signals something important about romance as a genre, something non-readers — and men in particular — tend to overlook.
“They’re very moral,” said Professor Pam Regis of the Nora Roberts Center for American Romance at McDaniel College in Maryland. “People don’t see that, because all they see are the sex scenes.”
In the moral universe propounded on the campaign trail, and affirmed by no less than Mitt Romney in the op-ed pages of the Washington Post, money itself is a virtue, the culture that surrounds it a vice. That’s not quite how it works in the billionaire romance, whose loaded hero arrives at an invariable epiphany.
“It’s not about the yacht. It’s never been about the yacht,” Yates explained. “In the end he would walk away from it for the heroine,” a grand gesture brought on by the inevitable “black moment,” as she puts it, when the heroine rejects the hero’s money and forces him to choose between her and gilded loneliness. “When the heroine leaves, he’s the one who can’t go on — the heroine emerges stronger.
“Actually, the woman is quite powerful in the story.”
For Yates, the fairytale her readers crave has long since become a reality. The author now makes her living conjuring pregnant princesses and lovesick cowboys for thousands of devoted readers, all thanks to the fictional billionaire who swept her from a single-wide to the American Dream.