Nalini Singh is trying to convince me to read a love story starring bears. The tiny author is tucked up under a huge scarf in a cafe on a freezing August day in Melbourne.
The bear in question is Valentin Nikolaev, the Russian alpha of the StoneWater changeling bear clan and hero of her 41st book, Silver Silence. It’s a continuation of Singh’s immensely popular Psy/Changeling series, set in a dystopian future where Psy, human and Changeling forces battle for control of the world.
In the past 16 years the 41-year-old New Zealander has written 43 books, not counting novellas, and sold more than 7 million copies worldwide. She is, by any measure, a success. She is not alone. In the conference rooms above us sit dozens of Australia’s most successful authors. They are New York Times bestsellers and Amazon chart-toppers; women who make a comfortable living writing for traditional publishers, and others who make six-figure salaries through self-publishing.
Yet to the broader Australian literary community, these women – and they are overwhelmingly women – are mostly unknown, their success either ignored or dismissed.
It is the 28th annual conference of the romance writers of Australia. More than 300 writers gathered for two days of workshops on topics from how to negotiate a contract to how to choreograph a fight scene.
For years this conference could not attract anyone from the Australian industry to attend. Now Australian publishers are cashing in.
“We were portrayed in the media as a joke,” says author Anne Gracie, opening the conference. “A bunch of frustrated housewives churning out trash to a formula.”
Gracie is a best-selling writer of historical romances set in the Regency era. When she first signed with Mills and Boon in 1999, she says, Australian writers were forced by disinterested local publishers to go overseas: to Mills and Boon in London and to Berkley, the PRH imprint that publishes Gracie, Singh and many other big romance authors in the US.
In pushing romance aside, the Australian literary scene unwittingly caused many romance writers to find commercial success abroad. Gracie recalls being told 10 years ago that only 12 people in Australia could earn a living from writing fiction.
“That’s funny, because every month in Melbourne I have lunch with about 16 of those 12 and right now I’m here with about 30 or 35 more of those 12, who earn a living,” she says.
A 2015 survey of the Australian book industry found that the average amount earned by Australian authors for their creative works each year was $12,900. Authors of genre fiction, including romance, were among the top earners: 13% earned more than $101,000 in the year the survey was conducted.
“It’s always been a potential income,” Gracie says. “If you can crack the Mills and Boon market, in particular.”
There are currently 75 Mills and Boon authors based in Australia and New Zealand. The publisher sells one book every 1.2 seconds globally. If writers can keep a regular pace – some like Australian Claire Connelly are writing one 40,000 word book a month – it’s a middle-class existence.
That it is carved by writing books that often feature explicit sex scenes is beside the point. Sex scenes, says Gracie, are difficult. It takes skill to do them well.
“There’s an awful lot of writers where I go, ‘Oh, a sex scene’,” she says, and mimes skipping pages. “Because it’s just story, bonking, story, it doesn’t work. But there are some writers whose sex scenes further the characterisation and further the story, and that’s what I want mine to do.”
Keri Arthur wrote her first few books around working split shifts as a chef, until the stress of those long hours put her in hospital. Then her Riley Jenson Guardian Series, an urban fantasy about werewolf-vampire hybrids, became a New York Times bestseller.
She sold it to a US publisher after trying for several years to get it picked up in Australia. It was a blessing in disguise: if she had been picked up by a receptive local publisher, she says, she would still be donning chef’s whites.
“The money difference is huge. I can actually survive with what I was earning in America; I couldn’t survive in Australian publishing.”
Three years ago, after losing her contract, Arthur turned to self-publishing. Her 48th book is due out in October.
Self-publishing has facilitated financial success for many writers of romance and other genre fiction, allowing them to earn up to 15 times more per book.
Perth-based Michelle Diener publishes her own historical and science fiction romances and has produced 16 books since 2011.
“I’m making the best money I have ever made in my life,” she says.
Sarah Williams uses her ability to manage the business of self-publishing to support other authors. She now makes about 60% of her income from her own self-published rural romance novels, and 40% from her small press, Serenade Publishing.
Serenade’s submission guidelines are an effective summary of the genre: split point-of-view, classic romance tropes and a happily ever after. The genre is overwhelmingly white and straight but publishers are now asking for diverse voices.
After Singh’s first paranormal romance was published, she received letters from readers who were overjoyed to see a brown heroine in a genre traditionally dominated by white protagonists.
“That was the only point I realised, ‘Oh, I’ve done something different’,” she says. “That’s my natural way of writing: I write diverse worlds, because I live in a diverse world and that’s what comes out when I sit down to write.”
Some tropes – like alpha heroes, surmountable obstacles and happy endings – remain. “If you write a genre book you’re making a promise to the reader,” she says. “I don’t think of that as a commercial way of thinking, I simply think that this is the genre I choose to write in and I have to respect that genre.”
The romance industry has been accused of shutting out non-white authors but London-born author MV Ellis, who received six offers for her first book, says that mainstream non-white romance sells well.
“There’s a misconception that if you read a book by an author who is not white you’re going to have to do some kind of work,” she says.
“You can be not-white and write a book that’s quite fluffy and have characters who are not white or not straight and not able-bodied – and those books [can] still give readers the same feeling and the same experience as books that don’t have diverse characters.”
The conference program, like the genre itself, is a mixture of fun and business. There are research sessions with obscure experts like Dr John Harrison, an apothecary in a purple coat and top hat who is keen to ensure that writers of historical fiction do not swap out English lavender for French. (One is calming while the other is a stimulant, Harrison says.)
Outside the workshops, historical author Erin Grace is living her genre by wearing full 19th century garb, complete with bustle. It’s living research to ensure her fiction is accurate, and extends beyond wardrobe. “My house is like a museum,” she says.
Later, a police officer, firefighter, paramedic and midwife sit at a long table in the grand ballroom and talk an eager audience through the most technical aspects of their job. Firefighters, says Shane McClusky, do not all look like the calendar. The crowd laughs but ignores him. This is romance: six packs are the order of the day.