I, like many AAR readers, have been avidly awaiting Courtney Milan’s most recent book, The Suffragette Scandal, which she released this week. I asked Courtney if she’d answer some questions and she agreed to do so. She is also giving away in five copies of The Suffragette Scandal to five lucky AAR readers. (To enter the drawing, just make a comment below.)
Dabney: You’ve been busy since you last spoke to AAR. (December, 30th, 2013) You’ve published another book, The Suffragette Scandal, and have re-released enhanced versions of several of your early works. Let’s begin with the latter. Enhanced books? Tell me about that.
Courtney: Enhanced ebooks are books with additional non-book content–in this case, author commentary, some deleted scenes, audio clips, and pictures. I’ve tried to make my enhanced ebooks accessible to everyone, including those who don’t like the idea of enhancements, by allowing people to either jump back and forth between the book and the enhanced content, or to read through the book itself and then read all the content at the end.
It’s kind of like an extended, integrated Author’s Note.
Dabney: Why did you pick those books?
Courtney: Because these are the books where I felt it would most make a difference. To be specific–I did this with the books where the rights to the underlying unenhanced text were licensed exclusively by Harlequin. I did it for a number of reasons. First and foremost, because I have felt for years (more years than I have been self-publishing) that the marketing for my first books was not as good as it could be–and by “marketing” I refer to the complete package: product, pricing, packaging, placement, as well as promotion. I don’t think that the covers, particularly for the first two books, reflected the aesthetic of the modern historical romance; I don’t think that Harlequin did anything with back matter that would grow my career the way I could, and I felt like the pricing meant that we weren’t drawing in any new readers with those books; the people who were reading them were people who were discovering my self-published books, falling in love, and then glomming my backlist.
I wanted to be able to run price promotions to find new readers; I wanted to price the books at a level that would mean that more of my readers–and particularly my international readers–would be able to afford them.
From a purely financial perspective, my estimate was that at a minimum, I was leaving well over six figures in the immediate future on the table by not putting out enhanced ebooks–and if you counted potential revenue over the next thirty plus years, which would be the length of the contract in question, it would be close to a million.
Dabney: Do you see doing more with this technology?
Courtney: I’m planning on putting together some boxed sets using the above books, where I’ll have a little bit of additional content for some other books, but other than that, no, I’m not planning on doing much more with this technology. It’s not that I don’t think that it’s useful or that people wouldn’t like it; it’s just that it is very demanding on my time to put these together, and a lot of the work involved cannot be outsourced to others (unfortunately).
All told, setting these books up probably took about three or four months worth of writing that could otherwise have been used to produce a new book. I think that my readers would rather have more books than have more enhanced content. I could fix this by outsourcing the process entirely, but then the additional content would just be what an employee finds through googling–in other words, it would have nothing of me or the process in it. I just don’t see that as being a huge draw.
Maybe time and technology will change my mind, but I wouldn’t do this with books where I own all the underlying rights.
Dabney: Your Brothers Sinister series has received critical acclaim. These books, which you’ve self-published, are also successful commercially. Is there a causal connection there?
Courtney: The Brothers Sinister series has been my best-selling work to date, and I’m so grateful to my readers for making them so. As to the success of my books, it’s hard to say how self-publishing has affected them. Without being able to walk through all worlds, I don’t feel comfortable saying that I couldn’t have been successful publishing traditionally, or even that this series could not have happened through a traditional publisher.
I have some amazingly successful friends who are very happy, and very successful, in their historical romance careers with traditional publishers.
From a purely financial perspective, though, I think that as a self-published author, I was able to do one thing more quickly–and that is to retire from my day job and write full time. I might have been able to do the same as a traditionally published author, but it happened more quickly this way.
Dabney: I’ve just finished The Suffragette Scandal. It is easily the most, for lack of a better word, feminist romance novel I’ve read. I agree with the assessment of the Smart Bitches reviewers who deemed it “the most blistering, uplifting, inspiring #yesallwomen tweet EVER.” Its heroine, Free, runs a press “By women—for women—about women” in 1877. Was there such a press? Where did your idea for Free come from?
Courtney: There wasn’t a press exactly like the one Free ran–or if there was, it didn’t have as wide a circulation as the one that I invented for her, and I didn’t find it.
But if you want to read more about female-owned presses, the National Women’s History Museum has an online exhibition on exactly that subject: http://www.nwhm.org/online-exhibits/womenwithdeadlines/wwd1.htm
As for Free, I imagined her as an investigative reporter first, and when I started doing research to figure out if there were female investigative reporters in her time period, I found Nellie Bly–who was so utterly bad ass (I have no other words for her, seriously) that she overwhelmed my preconceptions about what women could do. I bought a copy of her complete works on Amazon (here: http://www.amazon.com/Complete-Works-Nellie-Bly-Seventy-Two-ebook/dp/B00EMJKI48/) — and read it all over the course of a few weeks. I was so, so impressed by what she had done and what she had accomplished.
I read a good number of books authored by women in this time period, and the one thing that impressed me over and over is how much the typical history we tell ourselves underestimates what they did and how they accomplished it. We’ve been told a version of history that is much sanitized, where the contributions of women have been minimized in a number of ways. We’re told that women “struggled” to get rights, but until you read what these women have to say about what they experienced and what they did in their own words, rather than as a distant history text, I think it’s easy to downplay.
I particularly recommend the autobiographies of Josephine Butler and Emmaline Pankhurst (July 15th, the release date of The Suffragette Scandal, was her birthday! although that was an accident). Those were both very emotional reads for me because some of the things they talk about happening to them–the way they were treated and talked about by men–are still happening to women today. We’ve come so far, and yet not far at all.
Dabney: Nellie By was astonishing. I wrote a paper on her in college and was reminded of her as I read The Suffragette Scandal. Free, like Bly, is an inspiring woman. Reading her story made me want to work harder to change my world. Who are a few of the woman who inspire you?
Courtney: There are too many to name. Honestly. I could put up a list three hundred names high, and then I’d feel badly for leaving someone off.
But as a personal matter, there’s one woman who heads up that list, and it is Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (now retired, which means in her case that she works constantly, but not deciding cases before the Supreme Court). I don’t agree with all her jurisprudence (who does?) but she is an extraordinarily awe-inspiring individual, and her story of how she became the person she was–one of the most powerful women in America–is amazing. She graduated as one of the top people in her class from Stanford Law, and was promptly offered jobs by the top firms in the country…as a legal secretary, because nobody believed women lawyers could exist. She basically invented her own position as a deputy attorney in San Mateo when she was told they weren’t hiring by offering to work for free and prove that they couldn’t do without her.
As a (former) woman lawyer, I have so much respect for what she accomplished, and how many barriers she shattered.
But I was also lucky enough to serve as her law clerk for a year. This left me more in awe of her than you can possibly imagine. She is not just a great woman; she is a great person. One of the first conversations I had with her was in September, shortly after I started. I had sent her some materials for some cases we had coming; after we had discussed those, she said, very seriously, “There’s something very important I have to talk to you about.”
My heart started pounding. I thought, “Oh my God, I screwed something up and she’s mad at me.”
She said, “I want to make sure you have plans for Thanksgiving. It’s very important to me that you don’t spend the holiday alone. If you’re not going home, I can make arrangements with some people I know here in town who would love to have you.”
When my car broke down in January, she reached into her purse (without a second thought) and handed me her keys and said that I needed to use her car until mine was fixed, because she was going to be out of town for the next few days. As a note, it was her entire key ring–keys to her car, her home in DC, everything. She didn’t even think anything of it.
Like any of her clerks, I could tell fifty stories like this about her–examples of both her brilliance and her humanity. Even though she was one of the most powerful women in the country for decades, she never stopped caring about people as individuals. That, to me, is the most inspiring thing about her. She is the most stubborn, successful, opinionated women I have ever had the honor of meeting–and she also has one of the kindest, most gracious, hearts.
Okay, that is kind of a long answer to the question–but I thought you’d rather have one personal detailed answer than a list of impersonal names.
Dabney: Edward Clark, the hero of The Suffragette Scandal, is a self-professed scoundrel. I’m not sure I agree with his assessment of his character.
Courtney: Well, of course he is. I don’t think he is as amoral as he sees himself, but he is a liar and a manipulator, and he has no problems lying to people and manipulating others. What else would you call him if not a scoundrel?
Dabney: Um, hot. And complex. With admirable musculature.
Courtney: Uh…yes. That. Mmm.
Dabney: If you could sum up the secondary romance in a phrase, what would that phrase be?
Courtney: Oh, I am so bad at this “sum up X in Y.” How about: sisters are great, and so are lovers.
Dabney: Is there a typical Courtney Milan heroine? Or a typical Courtney Milan Happily Ever After?
Courtney: Well… Yes and no. I feel that the typical Courtney Milan Happily Ever After is about two people discovering how to be the best person for each other, and how they complement each other rather than tearing each other down. But the way that’s achieved will depend on what everyone wants.
For a typical Courtney Milan heroine… She’s usually clever in her own way, whatever way that might be. And I don’t think I have ever written a heroine who “fits in.” I don’t know that I understand “fitting in” enough to write about it.
Beyond those similiarities, though, I hope that I’m writing a wide range of people.
Dabney: Are there heroines or heroes you’ve no wish to write? In our last interview you said it would be unappealing to write Lady Cosgrove’s story (a character in your novella Unlocked) because she was married. Do you think you’ll ever write an adulterous heroine?
Courtney: I will never say never, but I do not have any ideas that touch on adultery at this point, either male or female, and it’s not one of those ideas that I find inherently appealing on either an emotional or an intellectual level.
Dabney: You began the Brothers Sinister with a marvelous novella, The Governess Affair. You’ve written as many novellas as you have novels. Is your process for creating both the same? If not, how does it differ?
Courtney: Well, it’s the same in the sense that I write them both out of order: I write the scenes I know are happening, and then fill in gaps, and then edit and try to make it not-boring from start to finish.
It’s not the same in that I think the underlying structure is different. I feel like the character arcs in novellas are…simpler, more straight-forward. I feel like the biggest emotional climax in a novella tends to come at the 50% mark, rather than around the 85 or 90% mark–mostly because I feel like a good emotional climax needs at least 15,000 words to resolve, so if you push the climax to the 90% mark, you have to either give yourself a climax that is easy to resolve (and therefore not very emotionally taxing), or you have to accept an inadequate resolution.
Dabney: What can readers look forward to next from you?
Courtney: There’s one last novella in the Brothers Sinister series–called Talk Sweetly to Me, and the hero is Stephen Shaughnessy, who is the only man who writes a column for Free’s newspaper. You’ll see him (and his column) in The Suffragette Scandal. (And, um, elsewhere–do read the backmatter of my books, sometimes there are surprises!)
Stephen is outgoing and sarcastic, and by the time the book starts, a nationally-recognized author of satirical novels. The heroine, Rose Sweetly, is a mathematical savant, and she’s shy and a little awkward. Naturally, she’s going to give him a run for his money. That will be out in August.
After that, comes the first book in the Worth Saga—Once upon a Marquess. Short version: Lady Judith Worth, struggling to keep her family together by teaching deportment, is given a proposition she can’t refuse: enough money to save them all, but in return, she’ll have to help an old family enemy–the man who prosecuted her father for treason and destroyed her life.
Dabney: Thanks for taking the time to talk with AAR, Courtney.
Courtney: Thank you again for having me!
Books mentioned in this piece are available here: