There's a Mills & Boon romance novel sold every four seconds. Danielle Wright ventures into the surprisingly studious world of romance writing to meet some of the unpublished hopefuls waiting for their lucky break.
As we're ushered into the ballroom of the Crowne Plaza hotel we're each given a large bag full of goodies courtesy of the Romance Writers of New Zealand (RWNZ). It's a little different from the usual low-key literary book events in small libraries offering a cup of cold tea and a biscuit.
Although romance writers tend not to mind being a figure of fun, the atmosphere in the room is not jovial, but one of reverence - lots of note-taking and nodding, definitely no slouching in seats for these writers. Everyone is here to learn.
We're listening to Bob Mayer, an ex-Special Forces agent and New York Times best-selling author, giving advice to a room filled with around 50 women, as well as one brave man sitting in the front row.
"There are so many racing hearts in a romance novel I'm surprised there aren't more heart attacks," Mayer teases, then spends a full day teaching how to hone the romance writing craft, as well as insights into that fascinatingly simple male mind.
While we've had our fair share of successful romance writers in New Zealand, there are still many around the country joining critique groups and writing their hearts out in the hope their romantic reads will one day be picked up by a publisher.
What are the chances of becoming the Next Big Thing in the romance-writing world?
"As an industry it is tough, really, really tough," says Jackie Coates, PR for RWNZ and part of an online critique group with romance writers in Australia, the United States, England and Ireland. She has been writing for 20 years.
"I've been submitting for three years now and have had editorial interest in my stories, have won contests, etc, but haven't been published yet. And three years is nothing. Some people have been doing the same thing for more than 20 years.
"Honestly, sometimes I think that if I could give up, I would. But writing is something I just can't stop doing, so I keep hanging in there."
"In our communities we hide in plain sight - we work hard at our day jobs, take our kids to school, look after our grandchildren - and have little characters in our head that won't be quiet until we've got their story on paper," says Tyree Bidgood, who has been writing romance since 2008 and is still waiting on the big sale.
And while it's often easy to mock romance writing from afar, by all accounts it's a thriving and rewarding genre for those who dare.
"Romance writers have a lot of guts," says Bidgood, "It's a genre that often gets ridiculed even though it has an incredible market share. Contrary to popular thought, there is no 'formula' to writing a romance novel - a formula would bore our readers by the fifth page."
It's also a lucrative literary pursuit and the writers I spoke to are clear to let you know it's a business and not just a leisure activity.
"Compared to other New Zealand literature, the potential to live off your earnings from romance writing is much greater- if you can get published, that is," says Coates.
Iona Jones, a tax lawyer by day, says: "My other job is about as far from romance as you can get and consequently I love diving back into the world of my characters and helping them find their happy ever after. Ultimately I will be published and hopefully I will then be getting some money out of it as well."
Seeing the commitment they bring to their writing, it would take a cold heart not to hope these women do end up writing themselves a happy ending.
Starting out in the romance genre
Read as many books in the romance genre of choice as you can. For genre-virgins like me, here's what you need to know:
* There are many types of romance fiction including contemporary, historical (with Regency being a sub-genre), suspense, paranormal (vampires, werewolves), inspirational (usually with a Christian message), medical, military, time travel, young adult, science fiction and erotica ... and those are just the main ones. Other genres also overlap into romance, such as chick lit, historical, fantasy, literary and crime. There's also a distinction between Category Romance and Single Title Romance. Category refers to romances predominantly published by Harlequin Mills & Boon, where the books are shorter and usually published monthly. Single Title refers to longer romances released individually and not as part of a numbered series.
* A good place to start is Barbara's Books, which is New Zealand's only specialist romance bookshop. Visit barbarasbooks.co.nz or phone (09) 263 5002.
* If the book's cover or title embarrasses you, it's good to know they also do mail order, or opt for romance from an ebookshop such as eharlequin.com.au. Chapter, in Mt Eden, also has a good range of romance titles.
* Join Romance Writers of New Zealand ($59 per year) for access to competitions, critique groups, a lending library, a monthly newsletter and the annual conference.
* If you can find a copy, watch the recent film festival documentary Rom-Com Guilty Pleasures by Julie Moggan, even if just to find out why a romantic hero cannot be a redhead named Roger.