“When I was younger, I wrote stories with white heroines. I thought, ‘If I want to be published, this is what I’ll have to do. No one wants to read about black people.’”
Romance writer Talia Hibbert is talking about her protagonists. Specifically, about the effort it took to stop imagining them as thin, white women and write characters who looked like her.
“I grew up reading all these romances that I loved and they were so important, but they were also the kind of books that said, ‘His hand looked so dark against her pearlescent blah, blah, blah.’” She rolls her eyes and smiles.
I’ve travelled to Nottingham to chat with Hibbert. She’s 22, graduated with a First this summer and, less than a year after publishing her first novel, is already a respected name in romance circles. “I was making a living [from book sales] in my third year of university,” she says, plainly. “When all my friends were having to look for jobs and internships, I was fine.”
In under a year, Hibbert has self-published nine books. She’s amassed over 900 reviews on Goodreads along with an average rating of 4.04, and signed with an American literary agent. It turns out writing about black women’s love lives can be lucrative. Yet, growing up in the UK, a country that in 2017 sold a romance every two seconds, very few of them about black women, Hibbert was not sure a market existed.
“It was reading self-published women of colour like Alyssa Cole, Alisha Rai and Rebekah Weatherspoon. I thought, OK, these people are publishing the kinds of books that I want to publish. Maybe the industry is wrong and they’re not up to speed on this, but we can be.”
Hibbert started writing seriously in 2017 after her great-grandmother passed away. In honour of a woman who had lived life fearlessly, Hibbert resolved to use the money she had inherited and do the same. “I decided I’m going to use this year and this money to see if I’m any good.” She put out her first book in October 2017. It was a novella called Operation Atonement about an Irishman who falls for a black ex-glamour model. It made £1.93. “I thought, ‘This is great! Two people have bought my book! I’m so happy!’” she laughs.
The following month, she published Bad For The Boss, the tale of an antisocial businessman who can’t keep his eyes off an employee. “Five thousand people read it. I was like, ‘What?!’ After that, everything moved really quickly.”
Hibbert’s heroines are full-figured black women who fall for, and are desired by, men of all races. She strays even further from the usual romance template by folding thorny real-world issues into her storylines. In her biggest seller, A Girl Like Her, the central character is an autistic black woman who barely leaves her home, has trust issues from an abusive ex and is bullied by the residents of her small town. These problems are not miraculously resolved when the town’s hot blacksmith moves in next door. Hibbert ensures that both her protagonist and the love interest do the hard work of fixing their internal problems before they find their happily ever after.
Readers don’t usually turn to romance novels for grit and real-world problems, but Hibbert makes it work with gripping plots and a warm, luminous writing style that makes you feel confident it will all come right in the end.
Plus, there’s all the sex. She laughs when I bring it up. “When I leave a manuscript alone and then I come back to it, every time I get to the sex scenes I’m like, ‘Damn! OK!’ And that is why my mother is not allowed to read my books.”
Part of Hibbert’s success comes from her ability to pound out 60,000-word first drafts in seven days, coupled with the voracious appetite of romance readers. “After the first [successful] book I put out, if I hadn’t put out another book the next month, I feel I would have lost the opportunity to gain a lot more fans very quickly.”
“Self-publishing is actually more of a viable income than trying to be traditionally published”
But it’s not just Hibbert’s steamy stories and her swift output that have her books selling like hotcakes. She has a business head screwed firmly on her creative shoulders. “Self-publishing is actually more of a viable income than trying to be traditionally published,” she argues. “Once you have your own business model, you can make money.”
So, what does the future hold for the writerpreneur? Her agent is currently hammering out a deal that will see her move into hybrid status, writing some books for a traditional publisher, while continuing to put out others under her own brand, Nixon House. She’ll be making the leap from digital to physical when she releases her Ravenswood series in paperback later this year. And Nixon House will expand to include more writer names. They’ll all be Hibbert, but the various pen names will denote different sub-genres.
“I feel like the people we prioritise in stories are people we value the most as a society. I want to contribute to it by becoming balanced. That’s why I write the heroines that I do.”