Behind the fountain-flanked entry to The Village of Bayberry development in Middletown is a suburban dreamtopia. Elegant pastel homes, grass deep enough to lose a bocce ball in, kids’ bike paths winding in dizzying loops—it’s not exactly the backdrop you’d expect for one of the internet’s reigning queens of risqué prose.
Willow Winters, a USA Today and Wall Street Journal No. 1 bestselling contemporary romance author, says her neighbors might be surprised to learn who lives next door.
“So much of the romance world exists online, so the connections I’m making are typically there,” she says. “I don’t leave my house, really; quarantine hasn’t been hard for me.”
Mom to two kids under age 6, her second pregnancy turned the former bioscience major and Ph.D. candidate into the head of a self-published romance empire. “I lost sense of me. I felt like I lost potential,” Winters says, recalling that at one point someone said to her, “Oh, I forgot you were smart.”
Feeling low, Winters fell into her old habit of devouring romance novels.
“Romance is the genre of hope,” she says. “And I needed [that].”
Addicted to the high that reading provided, Winters decided to try writing.
“It seemed intellectually challenging, considering I’d never done it before,” she says. “Plus, I was so sick of people looking at me blankly when I’d say, ‘I’m a stay-at-home mom.’ I wanted to create something so that when someone asked me, ‘What do you do?’ I could say, ‘I’m a kick-ass romance author.’”
The initial response wasn’t what she expected.
Instead, people would ask, “So what does your husband do?” Winters recalls, “As in, ‘OK. You don’t make any money. Next.’” These days, her husband—a former chemist—works for her.
The constant “ding” of messages on Winters’ phone—even this interview proves challenging with so many interruptions—is from a growing fan base eager to sink into her next story. And with a life span of only two months from start to publish, Winters can barely keep up with the demand (or her own ideas). She’s already at 13 books and counting.
“I don’t write fluffy, damsel-in-distress books,” Winters asserts. “I write gritty stories, often with crime families, the Mafia; the atmospheres I create are very alarming. Most often, the women in my books are coping with something really difficult but choosing love and to let someone be there for them.”
In the backdrop of page-turning plot lines, locals will spot familiar Delaware hangouts like the Rockford Center and the defunct Red Room on the Riverfront. “You’ll see pieces of Wilmington and Claymont, where I grew up,” she says.
Winters acknowledges that the publishing industry looks down on writers who self-publish, or who work mostly in e-platform.
“E-books is where the opportunity is,” she says. “And while I have to do everything—the editing, the social media work, choosing cover photography—you lose so much money going the traditional route. I’ve been offered several contracts, but I have zero reason to ever go with a traditional publisher.”
Winters finds readers of romance to be dedicated and insatiable—sometimes devouring a book in a day, she notes.
Thanks to their support, “I get to continue to empower and embolden women,” she says, noting the importance of talking openly about sex.
Winters has parlayed her reputation into a brand. Beyond books, her garage is filled with boxes of mugs, wine glasses, pillowcases, tank tops, hats, rose copper tumblers—you name it. She’s even had to hire a friend to run the merch side of the business.
Winters has also tried her hand at charity work with Live a Million Lives, an initiative to get MP3 players loaded with audiobooks into the ears of incapacitated readers who can no longer hold books.
“I thought of a way to leverage the position that I’m in, where romance authors can come together and contribute,” Winters says. “We hope this grows massive, because I think giving this gift to people will be incredibly meaningful.”
Winters, who likes to walk late at night and listen to music to get her creative juices flowing, says there are moments when it all can feel overwhelming.
“Lots of mom guilt, for starters,” she says. “And it requires a lot of discipline. But that’s when I say, ‘I don’t have to write. I get to write.”
Visit willowwinterswrites.com or follow Winters on social media for more about her novels. Published as “Suburban Steam” in the July 2020 issue of Delaware Today magazine.