Tina Engler didn’t set out to start a multimillion dollar publishing company when she began writing romance novels in the late 1990s.
She just wanted to write the kind of books she wanted to read. Those kinds of books weren’t widely available from popular authors at the time.
Like a lot of entrepreneurs, when she couldn’t find what she wanted on the market — she created it.
Engler, who is best known to romance novel fans under her pen name Jaid Black, happened on — some say invented — a niche. The niche was erotic romance novels.
Engler’s novels were rejected at first by traditional publishers. That’s because she shunned the typical euphemisms used in romance novels, instead using explicit language paired up with a romance story line. Publishers at the time said her descriptions were too graphic.
Those rejections just spurred her on to publish her own stories electronically. She built a website herself and sold stories as PDFs at first.
Soon she was publishing stories written by other authors, too. Voila, she had moved from author to become a publisher.
Today her company, Ellora’s Cave, grosses about $15 million per year and sells nearly 200,000 books each month.
Engler’s mother, Patricia Marks, is the CEO, although Engler is still the majority owner. The company also produces an annual conference for romance fans, called Romanticon, now in its fifth year.
Expanding far beyond the days when Engler offered one book that she had written, Ellora’s Cave now has over 800 authors. A number of authors make in the six figures and at least one, Laurann Dohner, reportedly will make 7 figures this year — proving there’s money in writing and in publishing.
Books are now sold as ebooks and print books, through booksellers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble — and through the company’s own website. The company even has its own male models for cover shots — shots that will seem risque to those outside of the romance publishing industry. The company, headquartered in Ohio, has even trademarked a name for erotic romance: “Romantica.”
Publishing Electronically – Before the Kindle
The company sold books electronically long before there was a Kindle e-reader. Marks tells their startup story in an interview at Publisher’s Weekly:
Ellora’s Cave started out selling e-books with a PayPal account. Engler, Marks said, would stay up late e-mailing stories to her customers. By 2001, Engler had set up a Web site with a shopping cart and began publishing other writers. As revenues began to rise, Marks — she calls herself an “overbearing mom” (with a business degree) — was watching and helping out where she could. “I helped her set up spreadsheets and figure out royalty payments and other stuff. By 2003 she was making enough money to hire me,” she said.
By the time the Kindle came along and got popular, Ellora’s Cave already had annual sales in the millions.
The Kindle, however, added to the company’s success. “The popularity of the Kindle has undoubtedly affected our revenue for the better and made us even stronger,” Engler said.
Ellora’s Cave still focuses primarily on ebooks. It also sells print-on-demand paperbacks.
While growth in ebook sales has slowed somewhat in the past year, there’s still plenty of runway. A report from the American Association of Publishers and Book Industry Study Group concluded that ebook sales made up 20% of net sales in publishing in 2012, compared to 15% in 2011.
And romance fiction is huge. The Romance Writers of America estimates romance fiction sales from 2012 to be about $1.3 billion.
The erotic romance genre got wider attention in the past two years with the mainstream popularity of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” But Engler said the book hasn’t had much impact on her company. “The only thing Fifty Shades did was bring the media up to speed on what readers were already buying,” she said.
Advice for Authors and Entrepreneurs
The Ellora’s Cave startup story is all about a “follow your instincts” approach and a refusal to be held back by traditional standards. It’s disruptive innovation brought to fiction writing.
It’s also about being “real.” The unusual culture of Ellora’s Cave, and the personality of its owner, come through in the company’s communications, its deep red website, its annual conference, and in everything they do. It’s not a plain-vanilla business. It doesn’t try to be a conservative corporate publisher. So it stands out. It’s memorable.
For authors who are considering self-publishing or selling e-books, Engler aka Jaid Black has some advice. She says that it is important to not just fall in line with what is popular at the time. Instead, find, invent or expand on a genre that has the potential for demand but very little supply.
For entrepreneurs, she offers this advice about differentiating: “If you can find a new spin on the market, your chance of success is higher than the person who tries to imitate what’s already out there.”
You also need focus. “Do one thing and do it well,” she said. “Don’t expand into new territory until you have the first one conquered and claimed.”