The insatiable demand for romance novels

Romance fiction is big business, and Kiwi authors are getting a piece of the action

American romance author Candace Havens addresses the crowd at the New Zealand Romance Writers Convention
Chris Skelton

American romance author Candace Havens addresses the crowd at the New Zealand Romance Writers Convention

I know a girl who's tough but sweet. She wears a dress covered in lipstick kisses and guzzles Diet Coke. Her name is Candace Havens, but in her nasal Texan accent the 52-year-old insists we call her Candy.

Candy stands before 55 aspiring romance authors, who are seated at round tables in a poorly lit conference room. She is a short, upbeat woman who makes snappy jokes and rambles at length; brash in a way that's "very American", says the woman next to me. "I'm a bitch every day of my life and I love it," Candy says.

There are just two men present. The air swirls with floral perfume and Earl Grey tea.

Aspiring romance writers learn the tools to writing their first book
Chris Skelton

Aspiring romance writers learn the tools to writing their first book

She's got everything this crowd desires. Since publishing her first book in 2003 (about a foul-mouthed witch who protects the British Prime Minister), Candy has built a successful career writing romance novels. She's the first speaker at this year's Romance Writers of New Zealand conference, an event for authors to catch up with their peers, learn from international speakers, and pitch their book ideas to literary agents.

Today, Candy is teaching attendees how to write a 280-page, 70,000-word book in a fortnight. That's 20 pages, or 5000 words, a day. "I've taught this to thousands of students through the years, so I know it will work for you," she says. The crowd listens and nods and scribbles thorough notes as she talks.

To write a romance novel, she says, do this: Start by getting yourself into the right headspace. Send your internal editor on holiday and dedicate a solid fortnight to churning out your draft. Have your characters and research prepared before you begin. And: "Believe in the magic."

Conference-goers take notes during Candace Havens' presentation
Chris Skelton

Conference-goers take notes during Candace Havens' presentation

According to Candy, the key to writing is not talent, but discipline. Make yourself accountable to someone, so at the end of each day you will deliver the 5000 words you need to. "There are no excuses. Ever," says Candy. "My grandma died; I still wrote that day."

Start your story with a "cute meet", a scene where a couple meet. Develop their relationship in "fun and games" scenes where they realise they're in love. Introduce a conflict – a reason they can't be together. An 'all is lost' moment arises, an emotional low-point where the characters lose hope. Throw in an unexpected romantic gesture by one character that brings tears to the reader's eye. Finish with a fist-pump ending, leaving the characters happily ever after, or happy for now. Season with sex scenes.

Generally speaking, says Candy, this is the structure of every single romantic novel out there.

Sitting at a table taking tidy cursive notes is Sapi Siavalua Heald, a 39-year-old Aucklander who writes romance during the day and spends her nights working at Auckland Hospital, handling patient information. Heald, who has a tidy crop of black hair and a cheery face, has taken the day off work to attend the conference.

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She's been working on her first novel, a historical romance, for more than a year. "I'm going to be 40 next year so I want to have my first book published by then," she says.

Still, Heald knows a lot about the genre. She's been reading the books since she was a 15-year-old living in American Samoa. "An American man was renting one of the houses on our land. He had a few books on him and he gave me a Danielle Steel book called Star. I couldn't put it down," she says.

"I read it when nobody was around, ha ha. Ran off and read it in private so nobody knew what I was reading. That made me want to read more."

Heald has actually taken this writing workshop before, and follows the transcript she's printed out as Candy reaches the end of her script. "I've given you the tools to do something spectacular, and I expect big things from you," she finishes. The crash course is complete: Candy has created a room of romance-writing robots.


Aspiring romance writer Sapi Heald. Photograph/ Chris Skelton

***

The Waipuna conference centre in Auckland's Mt Wellington is a deeply unsexy setting for a romance writing conference. There is no mystery or allure, no secret passageways or breathtaking views. From the windows of the main conference room, you look out to the mucky Panmure basin.

There is a flash of glamour, however, at a cocktail party on the first evening of the conference. The dress code is 'suspense' and several authors wear fedoras and masquerade masks. One woman has handcuffs dangling from her necklace.

In a bar bustling with more than 100 guests, there are three men, but two are there to support their wives. "It's an intensely female-dominated industry," Courtney Miller-Callihan yells above the din. She's an American literary agent who's come to New Zealand in search of new authors. They need to be able to write at least two books a year; some of her writers produce as many as six.

"Generally speaking, the people who run the big publishing houses around the world are men, but everyone who is directly involved with the acquisition and production and writing are almost entirely women. It's a sisterhood."

Women writing love stories for women: it's a lucrative business. Harlequin, the world's romance publishing powerhouse, sells a book every second, says Cristina Lee, operations and commercial director for Harlequin's Australia and New Zealand branch.

Worldwide, the romance publishing industry was worth US$1.08 billion in 2013, according to Romance Writers of America. Local data from Nielsen BookScan shows that in New Zealand, roughly three percent of the books sold in the last year – NZ$1.5 million worth – were romance titles.

"Romance readers are quite voracious," says Lee, on the phone from her office in Sydney. "They tend to buy three or four times more than the average fiction reader. The romance reader, she likes that 'me' time, the ability to pick up a book and feel good after reading. The books provide a level of escapism, a feel-good factor."

Readers are as prescriptive as they are hungry. They want characters who are likeable, and feel-good endings, and a bit of saucy action. "Romance readers are able to pinpoint, much more so than readers of mainstream fiction, exactly what they do and don't like about the books they read, because a lot of them read an incredible number," says Miller-Callihan.

A key part of the publisher's job is packaging the story so that readers know exactly what they're in for. Titles on sale at the conference include: Seducing his Enemy's Daughter, Falling for her Fake Fiancé, and Tempted by a Cowboy.

"The reader knows they can pick up a Harlequin book and get the same level of quality again and again and again and again and again," says Miller-Callihan. "It's new versions of the same story."

***

The star of New Zealand's romance literary scene is unassuming and gentle, and at the conference she greets star-struck stares with a wide, obliging smile.

Nalini Singh is one of New Zealand's few full-time romance writers. Her story is folklore among conference-goers: the resource management lawyer who wrote romance books after work, during the weekends, on the bus, before landing her first book deal in 2002. The bookish child who moved to New Zealand from Suva, Fiji, when she was 10, who grew up reading sci-fi and fantasy before discovering romance novels as a teenager, and made a career of blending the two.

When Singh addresses an audience of about 40 on day three of the conference, the 38-year-old is commanding and direct, and people gobble up her wisdom and tweet it to their followers. Don't think about marketing until you have enough books to sustain a fanbase, she tells them. Don't reply to negative reviews. If you're using a nom de plume, make sure it's not a porn star's name. "At the moment there's a lot of pressure to write fast and produce with speed because of the way things move in the internet age, and how fast readers consume things. That can mean sacrificing quality. You need to find a sweet spot with your natural pace," she says.

Singh releases three books a year – one for each of her series. "I'm giving them a good book each time, something they can't get with anyone else," she says. Two days after her lecture, her book Archangel's Enigma (in which a powerful vampire and a young scholar are sent to protect an endangered archangel, with sexy consequences) is released. She has another, Rock Redemption (in which a wild rock star and his heartbroken ex-girlfriend must pretend they're in a relationship for the media, with sexy consequences), coming out on October 6.

Singh is, unquestionably, one of New Zealand's most successful authors. Since 2003 she's published 32 books and 12 novellas – some through traditional publishing houses, some self-published. She's sold more than six million copies of her books worldwide (that includes print copies and e-books, but excludes audio books). She's been on the New York Times' bestseller list 28 times. She has more than 55,000 Facebook fans and 26,000 Twitter followers.

Yet, Singh is strangely underexposed in New Zealand. She was only invited to speak at the Auckland Writer's Festival for the first time this year. "For a long time I was very successful and had no – zero – attention here," she says.

There are two reasons for this, she believes: at first, her work was published only in America, so New Zealanders' access was limited to imported copies. But also, "we tend to focus on the more 'literary' fiction here, and always have," she says.


Bestselling romance author Nalini Singh. Photograph/ Chris Skelton

Her comment hints at a stigma that casts a shadow over the conference: romance fiction has an unshakeable brand as trashy, low-brow literature. The books are criticised for their flowery style and formulaic plots, and written-off as fantasies for horny housewives. "When people talk about bad writing, the first example most folks will use is a badly written romance novel," says Miller-Callihan.

Professor Pamela Regis, of McDaniel College in the US, provides a tidy summary of the criticism hurled at the genre in A Natural History of the Romance Novel: these books are seen as badly written, anti-feminist, capitalist tools, fostering the belief that women can only find happiness in men. In 1970, feminist activist Germaine Greer characterised the books as enslavers of women. "Greer is the first to accuse the romance novel of putting the reader in bondage, and her charge echoes through subsequent critical condemnations," Regis writes.

This line of criticism doesn't fly at the conference. Miller-Callihan believes there's a sexist element to it: "I think, largely because they're written by women, for women, it's easy to dismiss it." Regis supports this argument, saying men have traditionally controlled book reviewing, and while it's easy for women to pick up a book marketed at a man, men find crossing that gender barrier much more difficult. "It's difficult to understand a kind of literature you don't read," she writes.

Miller-Callihan adds: "Also, it doesn't get a tremendous amount of respect, I think, because it is – really unabashedly – a commercial genre." There's a sense that, because authors are so prolific, the writing is easy and unworthy of critical attention.

Singh struggled with the stigma towards her work early in her career, but now she blocks it out. Her success is her validation. "I do think [the stigma's] out there, but a lot of the time it's from people who say: 'I haven't read any romances, but…' Their opinion doesn't matter to me. They have zero idea. Every day I'm surrounded by people who love romance."

***

On the final day of the conference, over little bowls of fruit salad, authors Kris Pearson and Julie McKechnie are talking about writing sex scenes. They met at this event several years ago, and since Pearson lives in Wellington and McKechnie Auckland, most years this is the only time they see each other.

Pearson, 67, says: "Sometimes a day after writing you'll read a scene and think, 'Where did that come from? I've never done that, ever, ever in my life!'"

McKechine, 63, says: "I write what they call 'sweet', so it's behind-the-closed-door. It's not the really descriptive stuff. My mother is an avid reader and I knew she'd want to read my books. I have to have it so my mother can read it and my kids can read it and I won't feel embarrassed."

Pearson says: "That's the thing – I have no children, so I don't have that restraint. I have no idea why I write sexy books."

McKechine knows: "Because people like them."

"I don't set out to write them though," says Pearson.

Then why does she? "The money. Because it's a big, big market. And I enjoy reading romance."

"That's right," says McKechine. "I've read all sorts of books. I do enjoy reading the romance books and it's something I felt I could write. I don't know if I could write murder books."

"I don't read horror," echoes Pearson. "I don't particularly like people in jeopardy. I'm kindly."

"And romance is actually about life, isn't it?" interrupts McKechine.

"It's life as we see it. Whereas murder, I'm not in the mind of a murderer. I would find that quite hard. I like writing about love because I believe in love."

 - Sunday Magazine

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