September 18, 2014

Entrepreneur Creates Publishing Powerhouse With Niche Romance Novels

Jaid Black aka Tina Engler of Ellora's CaveTina 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.

Ellora's Cave title

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.”

10 Comments ▼

Annie Pilon - Staff Writer


Annie Pilon Annie Pilon is a staff writer for Small Business Trends, covering entrepreneur profiles and feature stories. She is a freelance writer specializing in marketing, social media, and creative topics. When she’s not writing for her various freelance projects or her personal blog Wattlebird, she can be found exploring all that her home state of Michigan has to offer.

10 Reactions

  1. Annie – Really interesting and inspiring entrepreneur profile! I enjoyed reading this.

    Small Business Trends is headquartered in the small town of Medina, Ohio and about 20 miles from the headquarters of Ellora’s Cave.

    I remember a neighbor at a block party a couple of years ago telling me about the local romance publishing company. She herself was an romance author and just went on and on about how much Ellora’s Cave had helped her with her first romance novels.

    I didn’t put two and two together until this story came up. It’s nice to know about companies that help along other entrepreneurs, such as budding authors.

    – Anita

  2. I’m proud to be an Ellora’s Cave author since 2005, for some of the very reasons outlined in this article. Tina/Jaid and She-E-O Patty Marks have their eyes (and formidable brains) on the future and they treat their authors extremely well. As to Romanticon, I’ve been every year. If someone loves erotic romance (and hunky cover models a/k/a the Cavemen), this is THE conference to attend.

    • Cris, It’s good to hear from an “insider.”

      I found this a fascinating story myself. Nothing amazes me more than hearing how creative entrepreneurs start their businesses.

      Back in the late ’90s and early 2000s I was building and running websites, too, and it wasn’t easy to build your own website back then. It wasn’t even that easy to create a decent PDF back then. The “will” that it took to create an online business must have been staggeringly strong.

      – Anita

  3. What a wonderful success story! And to think it comes out of Ohio, one of my favorite states that I’ve lived in.

    Maybe there’s room for Engler to have me as their 801’st author with my ebook novel, Anyman Dreams of Love Everlasting, which explores cultural changes to love and romance from the 11th century, in the context of two lives set on a collision course that leads them to discover everlasting love where they least expect it.

    • I love it! A male romance author.

      Thanks for sharing and I hope it works out for you, Ron.

      – Anita

      • Thanks, Anita, although I feel, at times, completely in touch with my feminine side or, rather, the feminine viewpoint. You see, I have never personally identified either gender as “me.” I believe people have bodies, but they are not their bodies.

        My stories reflect that.

  4. Hi Annie,
    Since content is such an important part of marketing today and so huge a part of creating products and services, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if writers end up being among the most successful entrepreneurs in the new economy. Great to see this post shared with the BizSugar community.

  5. Congratulations on your INCREDIBLE success! I hope to attend one of your conferences in the near future.

    Cassandra Black
    Romance Writer

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