Inside the largest publisher of erotic romance in the world

Cave of Lust 

Inside the largest publisher of erotic romance in the world

At 11:30 Tuesday morning, when Joey Hill took her usual break for lunch, she waited to bite into her vegetarian Boca Burger sandwich until Omar was safely in chains, Freda was blindfolded, bound, gagged, and thoroughly contented in the bedroom, and Jake was driving across town to join the couple in their usual ménage a trois.

Although Joey herself has been a practicing submissive whose husband has long indulged her interests, following lunch she would spend the remaining few hours continuing to have her way with the three people she was briefly leaving in her office. There were no other concerns as great as meeting her self-imposed deadline to get her latest BDSM novel to her publisher, Akron, Ohio, based Ellora's Cave, which had already published more than two dozen of her books.

As for Omar, Freda, and Jake, Joey was never certain in what directions her novel's characters would take her but she did know that by the time she helped them finish their adventures, they and their readers would all have smiles on their faces.

***

WARNING: The following article contains explicit language and graphic descriptions of better sex than you're having.

***

    Akron, Ohio, was once called the rubber capital of the world, a place where car manufacturers, the military, aircraft companies and the like purchased the tires that helped keep the nation on the move. Today it might still be considered the "rubber" capital, at least in the demand for condoms purchased for those men lucky enough to have girlfriends, wives, or lovers who have discovered Akron's newest industry – erotic e-book publishing.

For more than a decade, Ellora's Cave has been shattering the myth that women have little interest in sex and almost no interest in reading explicit stories that involve graphic descriptions of every pleasurable variation a couple (or more) can enjoy. Or as one reporter attending last year's Book Expo America, a gathering of the top professionals in the publishing industry, commented, an Ellora's Cave novel might be described as "boy meets girl, girl ties-up boy, and they live happily ever after."

The story behind Ellora's Cave, the nation's largest e-book publisher of erotic romance, is really the story of the frustrations of single parent Tina Engler. More than a decade ago, she realized that the reading of romance novels, her personal escape from the cares of paying bills, taking care of children, and finishing her education, had gotten boring. Not only were they formulaic, they did not reflect real life. The language, always explicit between lovers in real life, was filled with euphemisms. Tina didn't mind reading about a man's cock but she did get annoyed with "the man root." And the explicit "cunt" was far better than "the mound of Venus."     Finally Tina had enough. Her life was difficult, the demands on her time leaving her exhausted. Romance novels had once eased the frustrations, but women's fiction had not kept up with the realities of a woman's life. She wanted real life, real sex, and just when she thought such books were as rare as a man who preferred taking her dancing to taking her to the Super Bowl, she read that one!

The novel, the name of which was forgotten long ago, was an Irish historical romance, chaste and unbelievable.  "There was just no sex and it bored me to tears," said Engler, never realizing that her frustrations and a return to school to learn e-commerce would be the key to unexpected, great personal wealth.

"I do remember that the [heroine of the Irish romance] was a real wuss, but in romance novels you want the fantasy of the Alpha Male. In real life he'd probably drive you insane."

The timing for Engler's frustration was critical. It was a period just before the Millennium when book stores were still thriving and even the smaller stores carried hundreds of titles in their romance sections. It was easy to see what was available and what wasn't, and seemingly every publisher tried to have a romance or erotica line. In addition, computers were just becoming a marketing tool: e-commerce was more a fascinating area of study on the college level than a fully understood sales tool.

Engler did not think about e-commerce at the time. She was a writer, not a publisher. All she wanted to do was read a more honest romance, and if that meant she had to write one, that was fine with her. She decided the type of book she wanted to read, giving birth to a hybrid of romance and erotica that what would later be called Romantica®, Engler's creation under the pen name Jaid Black. The latter was the perfect name for a sensitive, skilled, yet slightly hard-boiled writer who was not afraid to have her heroine tell the hero "fuck me!" or to grab his erection and start the process herself.

Black did more than use explicit language. She recognized that being in love often leads to bawdy humor in a relationship, adding that reality to her novel in progress, The Empress' New Clothes. She was certain women would relate, certain they would enjoy her writing, and no matter how far she deviated from "tradition" in romance writing, she made certain there was always a happy ending.

***

Zor buried his face in Muta's breasts to ease the vile stench that rose up as a result of Kita's overly zealous snorting. He glanced towards his brother and snorted. "You will allow the pugmuff nothing with beans in it whilst we are on our quest."

Dak nodded, his own eyes stinging. "Aye, brother, no beans a'tall." – The Empress's New Clothes published by Ellora's Cave and written by founder Tina "Jaid Black" Engler.

***

Zor turned Kyra around so that her back was against his chest. Opening his knees to spread her legs wide, he freed his erect shaft and impaled her on it. She cried out, her slick folds wrapping around him, accepting him fully inside of her. Zor resumed his intimate stroking, one hand making lazy circles around her clit while the other played with her nipples..." – From Jaid Black's The Empress' New Clothes.

***

The reaction of the New York publishing houses was what Engler both expected and was frustrated to encounter.

 "[The structure of a published romance] was standard in the industry. When sex was presented, it was really glossed over. For example, the woman [in a romance novel] is getting a massage, and the next thing you know she discovers the joys of being a woman. It was like 'WHAT?' How did...? And I'd read and reread. I gotta be missing something. Even slamming the bedroom door [in the face of the reader] is better than nonsensical stuff.," explained Engler.

Publishers of the day divided the romance novels they purchased for publication into two types. They put out both the "sweet" romances -- think original Harlequin with a chaste kiss at the end -- and they published erotica. What you could not find, Engler realized, was erotic romance, a form of writing that combined a well-written story, strong characters, and explicit sex told in the context of its being a natural part of a loving relationship. It was also a style stressing sex for women readers to enjoy without proving to the New York publishing houses that enough women would enjoy reading about sex to publish such books.

Still Engler was disgusted. As she explained, "It was kind of like when you leave the sex out of the romance, which to me, and to anyone, I would assume, sex is one of the most important things in a healthy relationship.

"It's like leaving the plot of the murder mystery out of the mystery. It just doesn't make any sense.  Otherwise, why is it romance? You're providing the happily ever after and you kind of leave the troubles of real life behind for a little while and escape. Luckily, I turned out to not be a deviant and I wasn't wrong because I was in this New York house that I submitted to and it was 'all good writing but you have to tone it way down because women don't want graphic sex.'"

    The Empress' New Clothes evolved as the type of love story that Tina had not been able to find in the bookstores. It was a futuristic erotic romance that reflected the way real people experience that most intense of human emotions. No matter how the characters met, what they did, or the conflicts that arose for them to resolve, eventually they were going to arouse one another and fall into bed. It was normal, as is the next stage of more intense touching, working to give one another pleasure and using words that publishers were afraid to put in their books yet real people used every day. She was hopeful the New York publishing houses would recognize all this but it was not to be.

The New York houses made a number of mistakes when talking with Engler and when looking at the market that then existed for what would become the familiar e-books. The editors with whom Engler interacted all loved her writing, and most were willing to give her book a chance in the marketplace if  she would drastically tone down or eliminate the sex. They did not understand that one of the points of the Jaid Black novels and shorter works of romance Engler was writing was meant to take the romance reader to a higher level of writing than the relatively simplistic "sweet" romance novels.

    The other mistake the New York houses made in those early years was forgetting the reality of the books Engler wanted to sell. A hardback or paperback novel has a cover that will likely be seen by friends, neighbors, and co-workers. A woman's husband might be shocked by her previously unexpressed interest in sexual variations even if he has a stack of Playboy and Hustler magazines hidden under the bed for use as his quick starter for sex.

A woman whose status in the community – pastor or spouse of a pastor, community leader, corporate executive, and the like – could be drastically diminished if she was found to be buying such books in the local stores or carrying a paperback in her purse.

(As for what moves those actual books: Women want to see men's chests. Focus groups, casual conversations with enthusiastic Ellora's Cave book buyers, and other studies have all shown that a man must be topless on the book jacket to have the greatest likelihood of an impulse purchase. It does not matter how realistic the circumstances – he could be an Alpha male knight with a sword and spear about to go into battle and, presumably, the book will sell best if he has no shirt, no breast plate, nothing above his waist except muscles and flesh glistening in the sun.)

And Tina Engler fully recognized that the concerns some women face when buying erotic novels mean that she would also not be likely to buy Romantica® at the corner independent bookstore or news stand, and certainly not in a shop selling sex toys. However, this has nothing to do with her not being anxious to read such material.

Engler understood that electronic marketing, then in its infancy, provided the perfect vehicle for distributing a highly desired product the buyer could not purchase in a store. She returned to college to learn how to create an effective web site, how to establish an e-commerce business, and generally how to lay the foundation for what has become Ellora's Cave.

***

  Engler has made Ellora's Cave state of the art to assure access by anyone who has learned of the company and its books through friends or the website – ellorascave.com. The books can be downloaded on every type of e-reader. An estimated 6,000 titles are available in English, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, Tagalog, German, French, Thai, Italian, and Turkish. Nine or ten new titles -- novellas or novels -- are unleashed every week.    

The e-book business as the primary vehicle for selling books which women are more comfortable buying in private seems obvious today. And the idea that other forms of sales would provide a healthy market for more traditional books – hardbacks, paperbacks, anthologies – also seems logical. But when Ellora's Cave was in the earliest stage of development, before Engler became a multi-millionaire and sold enough books to make her more prolific writers extremely rich, there was hostility within the romance publishing industry and questions about how effectively the buying market could be utilized.

    "When I first started you've got to understand there wasn't hardly even any e-book companies let alone erotic romance. But then we were also fighting within our own industry for recognition as being legitimate. And I got so tired of 'oh, you're not a real writer because you're not RWA (Romance Writers of America) recognized. You're not in paperback. You're not...' And here I am making like 20,000 times what they are.

    "All right. I'm sorry. I'm a writer. Whatever. So you had to fight with that whole legitimate thing. It was just like a lot of growing pains that anything new goes through; a lot of the old guard in romance just didn't want erotic romance in there, anything to do with that."

    Trying to understand at least some of what was happening, Engler said, "I think they (the old guard) were just afraid they'd be replaced. To be honest, I mean I'm not going to get into too much stuff, but it's cattier than the cat walk. I'm not going to name any of the names but some of the women are pretty vicious. It's really sad, you know, because you would think that the women would want to help other women. Noooo. You always are going to have people who are unhappy no matter what, but the vast majority of our authors love us. They stay with us because they love us. Even if they go with New York, they stay with us."

Ellora's Cave takes the time to help their newer, less experienced writers with not only their writing but also their marketing. There are book publishers that are legitimate – no fees, no vanity publishing, cooperative with marketing help – that actually make a meaningful portion of their sales to the author.

    Ellora's Cave recognizes that the more books a writer has to her credit, the more money both the writer and the publisher will make, especially since royalties on e-books are approximately a third or more of the selling price compared with a graduated royalty schedule for traditional hardback books that top off at around 15% of net. The authors are further encouraged by the EC staff to treat writing as a business, producing a stream of books that will bring regular income to everyone.

Joey Hill is the type of author Ellora's Cave has made extremely successful. She is a delightful woman in her mid-40s living a non-traditional lifestyle except in one important way. She has long known that writing books is a business. She knows that the more stories she can have available for purchase, the greater her income. She understands the publishing term "backlist" which refers to books that have been for sale for a period of time, remain in demand or can have demand renewed through a fresh marketing effort. You have to write to sell. You have to promote all that you've written to make the most money from the work.

    What all this means for Joey is that she is in her home office, sitting before her computer at 8 o'clock in the morning just as would be expected of her in what others consider a traditional job. She allows herself a relatively brief lunch break, not taking the time to eat until her characters are in positions to which she will have no problem returning to finish the scene or the chapter.     Evenings are for relaxation but they may also involve what, in other careers, would be classed as overtime. If there is a deadline to be met and there will not be enough time during her eight hour shift, she knows she must work evenings and/or weekends to get caught up.

    There are also limits to the workday. No matter in what type of intimate, hobby, or community activities a writer might be involved, the relationship with lover or spouse will not work if the writer is working full time. For that reason, Joey W. Hill leaves the computer every Thursday night to be with her husband. That is their time away from promotion, from interviews, from plotting or writing or anything related to business. For a woman who looks like a kindergarten teacher, has the speaking voice of an angel, is one of the queens of BDSM novels, a skilled writer, and a success in the publishing business, her relationship with her husband, the man she considers her best friend, will only grow if she nurtures it.

    This is the type of information the staff of Ellora's Cave wants their writers to have. They want them to understand marketing, the importance of an effective web site, the changes in the marketplace, and the myriad of details writers need but few seek out and fewer still will get them from their publishers. How important is this? By following this formula for the business of writing, Ellora's Cave made $12-million last year.

Another reason for Engler's success is that her company publishes literally every field of romance and seemingly every possible way people fall in love with and fuck one another. There are books for readers who want twosomes, threesomes, and possibly "more-somes," traditional couples, men with men, women with women, inter-racial couples, vampires, shape shifters, period romance, cowboys of the old west, cowboys of the new west, BDSM, and on and on. But while some critics think Akron, Ohio, based Ellora's Cave publishes pornography, nothing could be further from the truth.

In house the corporate culture is different from traditional publishing companies as well. Ellora's Cave is located in a remodeled glove factory, the warehouse of which is a massive space that can be used for creating, storing, and packing wall size displays and backdrops for the various conventions they attend. One section holds several thousand paperback books, a tiny fraction of their sales. There is also what Chief Operating Officer Susan Edwards calls "swag" – give-aways that range from T-shirts and  Ellora's Cave caps to penis-shaped key rings. There is a high powered motorcycle, two expensive high performance cars, and other props for photos, the shows, and other needs.

The office space is family friendly in many ways. Tina began as a writer, but by the time her sales had reached what might prove to be the limits of her marketing skills, she approached Patty Marks, a woman with a well-paid, successful career in management who also happened to be her mother.

To her credit, Marks refused, instead helping her daughter with such matters as creating the spreadsheet to keep track of author royalties. Her background was accounting and business, and she had enough experience that she refused to do more than assist her daughter until Tina's company earned enough to pay Marks a salary equal to her current position. Once she made the move to CEO for Ellora's Cave, she guided its sales and expansion, making Tina a millionaire in her own right and driving an estimated $12 million in net income in 2012.  And from Engler, one single writer pumping out copy under multiple pen names, to a company touting 800 published authors.

The family friendly atmosphere is obvious in two ways. With no time to do executive searches, many of the employees truly are family who were hired because they had the skills needed at the moment. Patty Marks is the mother of Tina Engler, the founder. Patty's nephew, Randy Thomas, handles IT support, and niece Kendra Rumschlag supervises print production. And Tina's cousin Kelly Newkirk handles Copyright enforcement. There are also both part-time and full-time editors and other personnel outside Patty and Tina's relatives. However, what adds to the image of the close knit group is the plethora of oddities, from baby gates at office entrances to a cage with a pet rat, fish, and a terrarium with a pet snake.

The baby gates are not for babies -- Ellora's Cave has a full-time daycare facility for the young children of the staff members. The gates are meant to confine the various dogs owned by employees.

The welcoming image is further maintained by the web site. For example, Raelene Gorlinsky, Leader Publisher for Ellora's Cave, is presented on the EC web site like a slightly eccentric, very successful aunt. "Strangers know her for those fabulous hats," the site notes. "Editors, authors, agents and staffers know her for her maniacal attention to detail, her prodigious organizational skills and capacity for work, and her knowledge of and leadership in the romance and epublishing industries. Her corgis [regular visitors to the office, well behaved and behind a baby gate when their human leaves her work area] simply know her as Mom."

***

Ben had soaped her all over, then had her stand with one foot on the built-in seat while he shaved off the fuzz that had grown on her cunt in the past few days. It was all she could do to control herself as his fingers pulled her labia this way and that and brushed against her sensitive clit.

Turning off the shower, he dried them both and carried her to the bed.     --- From Rodeo Heat, an Ellora's Cave Contemporary Erotic Romance written by Texan Desiree Holt. Ms. Holt, a widow who is the author of one-hundred romances, is 76 years old.    

***

The age range and background of the Ellora's Cave authors can be as varied as the types of novels the company publishes. It is easy to forget that the older one becomes, the more experiences she has had. Love has usually come more than once and in different forms depending upon age. Sex has provided deep commitment to the other person and also the most enjoyable recreation someone can have. And a lifetime of work, perhaps in more than one field of endeavor, has brought a wealth of knowledge that can be used when creating a protagonist.

Such is the case of the Texas writer Desiree Holt. She celebrated her 76th birthday and her 100th novel during the same year. The writing, which she cannot imagine ever stopping, takes advantage of her previous career of booking musicians into clubs and other performance venues throughout the state. Her heroes are sometimes cowboys, among the most popular men with readers of Ellora's Cave novels and a profession she knows from her travels around the state, or musicians of the type she booked for clubs, or almost anyone else with whom she has talked in depth in the decades before she started writing.

Holt's path to success began with a traditional romance with neither explicit sex or language and only limited sensuality, the type Engler considered "sweet." Holt only shared one experience in common with the Ellora's Cave founder – rejection. 167 rejection slips all retained as a way to keep her humble.

Holt's world of writing changed in 2006 when she sent a new manuscript to Ellora's Cave. Not only did they buy it, they asked her to submit another. Today Holt has 90 novels and novellas with Ellora's Cave and another 46 or 47 with other publishers who have long since changed their minds about rejecting her work.

    Readers are sometimes shocked to discover that the woman who has written the erotic romance is a widowed grandmother. The books also occasionally take her into worlds she could never have entered when young. For example, when given a chance to attend a private BDSM club by a member who vouched for her discretion, she assumed that she would be a witness to some forms of potentially violent or physically extreme sex acts. Instead, while sex apparently was a part of the evening for the attendees who met in a large auditorium-like facility with an area for the show and private rooms for members enjoying what might be called kinky intimacy, the high point of the evening, she quickly discovered, was to be provided by one member treasured for her special skills – home baked cookies in enough quantity for everyone, even Desiree, to enjoy.

Sex with a coffee hour. Only in the world of Ellora's Cave.

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