Hildred Billings is the bestselling lesbian romance author of over 100 titles and is the owner and operator of the small and niche Barachou Press, where she keeps a handy stable of pen names focusing on multiple brands of romance, epic fantasy, and literary fiction. Hildred, however, is the “real” woman and the one behind a long career of indie publishing.
I am from a small coastal town in Oregon, although I currently call Portland home. Writing has been a passion of mine since I was four years old, when I wrote my first “novel” by cutting pieces of printer paper and handwriting on them. My first known story is an illustrated fantasy tale about my grandmother as a child, who is visited by a pegasus late one night and goes on an adventure. Sadly, this piece of classic artistry has been lost to histroy.
During school, I was fortunate and privileged enough to have mutliple teachers who encouraged me to write and to share my works with others. While everything I wrote as a child is understandably “not good,” I still have many fond memories of coming home after school and sitting down at the family computer to bang out a chapter or two before dinner. I wrote my first full-length, three arc plotted novel at eleven years old. Please don’t ask to read it. It’s painful enough I remember what it was about!
I began what would later become my first fantasy series when I was thirteen years old. Although as of yet unpublished when writing this, that series has undergone many transformations as I grow older and not only hone my craft, but consider what I want my fantasy tales to really tell my readers. At this rate, it will probably be officially rewritten a third and final time to be published in my… forties. Sometimes, slow and steady really is the answer.
It was while writing fantasy stories, however, that I discovered how much I love romance arcs and subplots. Should probably come as no surprise that I wrote my first Genre Romance novella when I was fifteen-ish. I’m still excited to rewrite it one day.
However, although I had many supportive adults and peers in my life, one thing was clear: one does not make a living with their writing. I was part of the crop of millennials that had to go to college no matter what, and that meant picking a so-called “real” job to pursue. I ended up majoring in Japanese Studies at Willamette University, where I was incredibly mediocre at all things not writing related. And, according to the one creative writing instructor I had there, even at writing related things. Go figure.
My interests in Japanese language and culture definitely go back to being a stereotypical anime-head who happened to catch a rerun of Sailor Moon on TV when she was ten. While I soon lost interest in anime as a whole, I became enamored in Japanese pop (J-pop) as soon as my family hooked itself up to the internet. Today, my J-pop CD collection totals at several hundred. It’s a thing.
After graduating, I moved to Japan to teach English for a year (this was my third time overall living there, however.) I am not a teacher, and I am definitely not the kind of person you leave children with if want them to actually be around a responsible adult, so I left as soon as my contract expired. When I returned to my parents’ house in America, I faced the same quandary many of my peers did back in 2012: find a way to pay those student loan bills, or perish! PS: nobody is hiring. Nobody even wants to interview you!
Luckily, I had a friend ask if I knew that Amazon had recently launched its KDP platform, which allowed randos off the street to upload ebooks and make money off them. Why, no! I had not heard of such a thing! You mean, instead of facing the hopeless situation of querying agents only to probably have them ask me to de-gay my fantasy stories, I could just… upload them to Amazon and start selling them to other randos off the street? Amazing!
Much to my family’s dismay (after all, if I wasn’t “pounding the pavement,” I wasn’t doing anything productive,) I sat down to write a romance novella, since I not only loved romance stories, but knew it would be much easier for me to write one in a decent amount of time instead of completely reworking the fantasy series that had been on hold since forever.
Phase One: Super Niche Lesfic
I launched my first book, and by extension my business, on September 28th, 2012 with the release of “Daisuki.”, a romance novella about a polyamorous Japanese couple who also happed to be lesbians. To say it was super niche is an understatement. Even back in the days of the Kindle gold rush, it was a tough sell. First, it was lesfic (before I knew that term,) and second, it featured a non-white couple. Tacking on polyamory at that point was moot. Nevertheless, I continued cutting my teeth on self-publishing by writing more books about the same couple.
Over the course of about two years, I had a sizable catalog featuring the series Ren’Ai Rensai alongside the spinoffs The Story of Love / Jiai Jouwa and Ren’Ai Rensai: Gaiden. This phase of my early career is best explained by having spent so much of my early adult life living not only in Japan, but being immersed in what lesbian scene there was, since homosexuality in Japan is much more underground than it is in the West. The culture of gay bars, support groups, and self-published mailers is something I greatly treasure and became the inspiration for many of the stories I told back then. My aim was to give a fantasical erotic story alongside a more realistic depiction of what life in Japan is like. Since, no matter what, a majority of my audience is Western and English-speaking, it was important to me to strike a balance between conveying everyday life while also explaining the unique aspects of life in a simple way.
It should also be noted that, during this time, I launched my first pen name in 2013. This was a short erotica pen name that focused on lesbian encounters. The branding for that pen name is now defunct, although I may revive it again one day.
Truth is, especially back then, it was incredibly difficult to make a decent living in lesfic. The readership was small. KU was a glint in Amazon’s eye. On top of that, I wrote in a niche of a niche. I was also ready to start the next phase of my career, and I knew that if I wanted to move away from my hometown and have a chance at a more interesting and fulfilling life, I needed to hyperfocus on the market. This meant switching to contemporary straight romance where all the damn money was. Until that point, I was not ready to tackle straight romance. I still had a lot of trauma associated with heterosexual relationships and wasn’t sure I could realistically write them to readers’ satisfaction.
But the appeal of a better income finally convinced me to give it a go. I knew I would have to craft a new pen name completely separate from my real life as a lesbian with little romantic interest in men. Thus, Cynthia Dane was born.
Phase Two: Cynthia Dane
The name “Cynthia Dane” doesn’t have any special significance to me. I picked it purely for marketing purposes. I like the name Cynthia, and it’s quite romantic, yes? Very pretty. Soft and easy to remember. The name “Dane” brings a simple strength to the whole name. Cynthia Dane is romantic and feminine. She will also stand up for herself and tell the billionaires she writes about to kindly sit down and STFU when she’s talking!
(Never underestimate the power of an easy to remember and an easy to spell pen name, folks! It can spell literal money!)
There are a ton of subgenres and niches in contemporary romance. Picking one I found interesting was paramount. As a lover of Cinderella stories, I decided to ride the billionaire romance wave that had started when Fifty Shades of Grade paved the way for the niche to be popular again. I took inspiration from romance-writing friends who were killing it with books that hit all the tropes while bringing their own unique spins to the genre.
The Billion Dollar Contract (Spring, 2015) was not technically the first title as Cynthia, but it was the first to establish my eventual brand and led to me making actual freakin’ money for the first time in my career. Here it was, folks! i was in it to win it! This book was followed by other bestsellers His Domination and the eventual cornerstone of Cynthia Dane’s brand, Dom Vs. Domme. All three of these books featured the trope of BDSM-loving billionaires and the Cinderella escapsim they inspire. What made it fun for me was creating heroines who weren’t afraid to tell a man they were being ridiculous, and heros who had quirky, slightly-goofballish sides to themselves. The sex was scorching hot, and the banter off the charts. Turned out that I not only tolerated writing billionaire romance, it was actually fun! Go figure, right? Mixing passion and money? Whoda thought.
Of course, this meant my lesbian titles had to fall by the wayside since I am but one woman who has bills and debt to pay. For a couple of years, my lesfic titles were limited to the likes of The Longest River and Love, Yumi, which honestly is probably the magnum opus so far of my career. Just saying. Go read it. Those books bombed, however, like all my other lesfic titles, which solidified the fact I had to focus on M/F romance if I wanted to build a sustainable income.
So, I did. Other notable titles from this time include The Monroe Trilogy and Empowered, although I also strayed from my New England setting to incorporate a Portland-based stock of characters with The Nightingale Trilogy and Damaged Goods. However, interest in billionaire romance was finally waning. Everyone I knew was moving on to biker gangs, stepbrothers, and eventually reverse harem.
Then, September, 2016 came for my head.
Phase Three: The Dane-Billings Saga
If you say “September 2016” to a romance author who was around back then, you might see them shudder. Because it was a really shitty month for one big reason.
The Amazon algorithms? They ripped the carpet out from beneath many of our feet.
Suddenly, the ranks on my books plummetted. Everything I wrote bombed in ways that could not be explained, especially after a long run of successes. My income went the way of my ranks. Authors were bailing out of contemporary romance left and right, some of them moving to new niches and others changing genres completely. “What the hell happened?” showed up on many author groups with few to offer reasonable explanations. Suddenly, Cynthia Dane was poison. To keep writing was probably to go out and get some full-time job that would prohibit me from writing much. Things were pretty bleak for a while.
Rgiht around this time, though. I was working on a side project. Throughout many of my Cynthia Dane romances, I had two characters who popped in to create drama between one another. Their names were Eva Warren and Nadia Gaines. Eva, the sister of His Domination hero Henry Warren and BFF of Dom Vs. Domme MC Kathryn Alison, had the hots for the secretary from The Billion Dollar Contract. Their crazy tale mounted in the sequel, The Billion Dollar Wedding, where heroine Jasmine is tasked with setting the pair up while planning her wedding.
It was a fascinating saga unveiled across multiple books. And none of my readers or reviewers seemed put out that I was littering my super sexy straight books with lesbians and gay guys as side characters. Some even found Eva hilarious. (Keep in mind, Eva literally just waltzed into a scene in His Domination without any input from me. I didn’t even know she existed until I wrote that scene. Henry had a gay little sister? Well, I’ll be! Congrats! We should all be so blessed!)
I decided to write a book about Eva and Nadia. I had been itching to write a billionaire lesbian romance after two years of straight people, anyway! Problem was, I had to go back through all of those books and piece together their relationship. It was like solving a puzzle. Taking scenes out of books, creating a timeline, and somehow, somehow creating a coherent and totally-not-hair-pulling story that would be satisfying to romance fans.
I also had the problem of how to market it. The characters belonged to the world of Cynthia Dane. However, it would be branding suicide to include Hard to Get under my pen name. On the flipside, I still wrote lesbian romance as Hildred and wanted those readers to know about this book! I also wanted to make it clear to them that I had written it!
Finally, we get to the good stuff: I decided to put both names on the book. Cynthia’s billionaire romance brand and cast of characters with Hildred’s flair for the Sapphicly dramatic.
By the time I finished the book, I thought it would be a one-off. I was also really, truly, utterly and deeply sick of it. I can’t explain what a pain in the freaking ass writing this book was! By the time I wrote the end, I was ready to throw those two idiots into the sun and be done with them. Forever.
Besides, we all know that lesfic doesn’t sell. That’s what everyone had been telling me for the past few years, and it’s what my own data said. I have quite the collection of messages from naysayers over the years. It’s funny, the older I get, the more people discourage me from writing. But I digress!
Hard to Get was released in September, 2016 as my anniversary release. Yes, that fateful September. The one that killed the soul of Cynthia Dane’s backlist and almost killed her too.
I didn’t market the book outside of sending it to mailing lists. I hardly looked at it. And it performed about as well as I expected. Not many sales. Fewer KU page reads. Reviews trickled in, however. Good reviews. Great reviews. The people who picked it up, including people who had never read me before, were impressed with this convoluted story that made me gnash my teeth and swear I would never do it again.
Then it climbed the charts. Slowly. Steadily. It entered the top 10 of lesbian romance weeks after release. It eventually became one of my best earning titles of the year, and single-handedly salvaged my ability to pay my rent and bought me time to, as we say in the indie publishing world, pivot.
Quick! Put out another one! Hire the same cover artist to make another cover like Hard to Get so people will pick it up! I wrote the only related story I had at the time. I took the drama between Adrienne and Amber in Hard to Get, my feelings about the presidential election, and my hail-mary pass to create a new brand, and wrote On the Rocks.
By some really weird and probably stupid reason, Dane-Billings lesbian billionaire stories became a thing. They quickly became my full-time gig. Lesfic was finally maturing into a viable genre for those who wanted it, and yours truly was putting out between 4-5 books a year. This absolutely alienated Cynthia’s straight readers (like, duh, I sabotaged that brand) but that meant I could write one or two Cynthia stories a year without worrying about how they performed. It also meant I could start writing lesbian romances again. Not just billionaire, but small town stuff like A Year in Paradise and more experimental stuff like Bound, which had been an idea kicking around in my head for a few years.
Since 2017 until now, this is where I’ve been. I’ve got big plans, of course. Resurrecting my epic fantasy series under the name Hildred M. Billings will be coming late 2020. A new pen name, currently unannounced, for dark lesbian romance may be launching in 2021. As the market matures and saturates, I’ll always be looking for new ways to tweak my brands so I can keep writing full time. I’m living the dream of my childhood, and I couldn’t be more artistically fulfilled.
Thanks for reading!