It’s no secret that writing can be a solitary business. “People talk about just how isolating it used to be,” says author Angie Fox (the Accidental Demon Slayer series). “They’d type their stories in a vacuum, send them to their editor, and get something in the mail back. I know many writers who wrote several books having never really befriended other authors.”

Nowadays, if you write romance, you’ll probably belong to a loop—one of the millions of virtual watercoolers hosted online. These groups help keep authors connected to one another, sharing news, gossip, and vital tips on building a writing career.

Some loops come with the territory. Upon joining the Romance Writers of America (RWA), a writer gains access to a slew of genre-specific loops, from the wildly popular (historical, paranormal) to the more obscure (medical romance).

“Connecting with authors is the number one benefit,” says author Jennifer Ashley (the Shifters Unbound series). “Romance authors in particular are very sharing. If one of us has an experience, good or bad, that we feel will help others—if only to warn them—we post it.”

Before Dorchester Publishing officially collapsed in 2012, the Leisure Ladies loop, an author-moderated, private online group for Dorchester romance authors, was buzzing with advice on how to survive the coming disaster. “Loops are absolutely helpful when it comes to situations like that,” says former Dorchester romance author Kathryne Kennedy (Everlasting Enchantment).

Most romance writers find out about loops through word of mouth, blogs, or membership in an organization like RWA. “It helps to be plugged in to the industry,” says Julie Leto (Dirty Dare), romance writer and president-elect of the writers’ group Novelists, Inc.

Today, it’s not uncommon for romance writers to belong to multiple loops. “I’m active on about half a dozen loops, and I probably belong to about 10,” Fox says. “I’ll check in in the morning and see what everybody’s talking about and then usually check in at the end of the day. Otherwise I could spend all my writing time there.”

The love of loops and the ease of loop-creation have spawned a vast number of them. No statistics are available, but they come in all shapes and sizes—open, public loops that welcome all romance writers; private, closed, unlisted loops of friends who keep their loop’s name secret for fear of hacking; loops that allow promotion and loops that don’t; active loops with large memberships; tiny loops with only a few subscribers; loops that are moderated, with strict membership criteria and privacy policies; and loops that have no rules at all.

Leto believes that there are many reasons behind the large number of loops—some good and some not so good. “Writers join loops because they want to talk with like-minded people, but sometimes the dynamic doesn’t work. Maybe a loop becomes dominated by people who are really opinionated and don’t want discussion. Sometimes, the levels of experience are too mismatched. People will leave or start new loops to meet their needs. It’s a cycle.”

When self-publishing started booming, indie loops sprang up to connect indie authors—loops like Indie Romance Ink (IRI), now with more than 2,000 members, or romance writer Marie Force’s popular Self Publishing Info Swap, which is open to all genres but dominated by romance, with just under 1,400 members.

“We’ll speak very openly on the indie loops,” says writer Jenna Bennett (Before You), “and if someone has a question about a publisher, for instance, that I happen to have experience with—and not all good experience—I’ll take that ‘off-loop’ and email the individual that’s asking rather than post it to everybody.” She says writers on IRI contact her off-loop a “couple of times a week, maybe” to talk privately. “And yes,” Bennett says, “we do talk about money.”

Although the public sharing of sales numbers and other financial information is “not frequent” on Force’s loop, it does happen. “I think people are less afraid to air out these things in a more public manner than they were in the past,” Force says.

“More knowledge is definitely gleaned from a writers’ loop than from your editor and agent,” says writer JoAnn Ross (the Shelter Bay series). “But it’s still up to each author to decide what to do with that information.”