Keeping Romance in the Family

Sunday, August 18, 2013
Akron, Ohio — Ellora’s Cave publishes the kind of paperbacks that, before e-books, women might have hidden in a dresser drawer beneath their unmentionables. The books are hot and steamy, with covers that are just an inch or two from X-rated.

Patty Marks, who runs the company, wore a T-shirt that read “Cave Slave” during a recent tour of her Akron, Ohio, office building. Erotic romance books for women filled the shelves. Another area of the building housed clothing, hats, and, er, adult merchandise. Calendars with pictures of some of Ellora’s male dancers and models, known as Cavemen, were tucked inside cardboard boxes.

This enterprise is something of a Cinderella story. Financially strapped, Marks’ daughter, Tina Engler, once lived on welfare. Each night while her two girls slept, she wrote romances with explicit sex scenes. But this was more than a decade ago, before 50 Shades of Grey brought erotica into the mainstream. Romance houses weren’t hot to publish those kinds of books for women, thinking there simply wasn’t a market for them.

Engler believed that erotic romance literature, which she copyrighted as “Romantica,” was an untapped market. Convinced that women would buy the product, she maxed out a credit card to purchase e-book publishing software.

Her intuition was right. Sex sells, and women buy. Engler founded Ellora’s Cave and released her first novel, under the pen name Jaid Black, in late 2000. Today, the 41-year-old college graduate lives in Venice Beach, Calif., and is working on a possible reality-show pilot about Ellora’s Cave. She remains the majority owner of the multimillion-dollar business, while Marks is the company’s CEO, business guru and minority owner.

About working so closely with her mother, Engler said in an email interview, “It’s great about 90 percent of the time. I love, admire, and respect my mother and her business acuity. There is, of course, some locking of the proverbial horns between us a few times a year! She’s very logic-minded and calculating; I’m very creative and shoot from the hip; it’s a given that there will be clashes.”

The partnership is a successful one. In 2001, Ellora’s Cave sold a little more than one book a day and made about $30,000. Now, the company sells up to 200,000 books a month, grosses about $15 million a year, has about 800 authors and publishes between 35 and 45 new titles per month.

“I love the excitement brought on by forging our own path and place in literary history. I love having the freedom to work outside the box and provide women with engaging stories that appeal to their own sexual fantasies,” Engler said. “I love that my mom and I never played ‘the game.’ We did what we wanted, became successful beyond our wildest dreams despite the naysaying of others, and never looked back!”

Engler began delivering books online before there were e-reader devices like the Nook and Kindle. When someone bought a book online, she would send it out via email.

“Today, our bread and butter is e-books,” Marks said. Still, the company attempts to put everything in print within a year or two of its publication as an e-book.

“Back in the old days when there wasn’t Internet, a man would be more likely to go into the drugstore and buy a Playboy than a woman was to buy a Playgirl,” she said. Now, a woman who might be too embarrassed to go to a store and buy a paper copy of a sexy book can go online, buy a novel, download it to her e-reader and no one’s the wiser, Marks added. The dirty little secret has been removed from the panty drawer, replaced with a neat device that can be pulled out at the beach or at a boring PTA meeting.

In case you are wondering, Marks doesn’t read her daughter’s books. Some things just can’t be shared between a child and a parent — especially if the child’s work has been nominated for the Henry Miller Award for the best literary sex scene written in the English language.

“Tina asked me not to read her books because it would inhibit her writing if she knew her mother was reading what she wrote,” the 60-year-old offered. So when she reads, Marks picks up Robin Cook’s medical thrillers or a Stephen King suspense novel.

“My work is very sexually charged so when I write a book I have to pretend that nobody I know will ever read it,” Engler said. “If I didn’t carry on like that, the sex scenes would end up being stilted, boring and vague as possible. There are some things a daughter doesn’t particularly want her mother to know — sexual fantasies are No. 1 on that list for me!”

She has written about 50 books and novellas, most of which have been published through Ellora’s Cave.

While Engler is Marks’ only child, she has another baby. Ellora lives in one of the windowless offices inside the publishing company near the Chapel Hill area of Akron. She is long and sleek - a Colombian red-tailed boa.

“I just like having snakes around,” Marks said, triggering a smile from Angel Mehl, an IT assistant who shares quarters with the reptile.

“It doesn’t bother me. In fact, she bothers me less than humans do,” Mehl said, laughing.

“And she doesn’t bark or whine,” joked Randy Thompson, the company’s director of project management.

Raelene Gorlinsky is the publisher at Ellora’s Cave. When someone asks what she does for a living, she gladly tells them, offering to answer any questions they might have about being a publisher at an e-book company. But if someone poses a similar question to her mother, Mama fudges the answer.

“At almost 80, she thinks that one kiss in a book is quite sufficient. ... Otherwise it is smut,” Gorlinsky said, grinning. “She is very proud of me and proud of my position. She tells people her daughter is a publisher.”

And when people ask what she publishes, Gorlinsky’s mom says, “women’s fiction.”

Hanging on the wall behind the publisher’s desk is a display of whips. She maintains they have nothing to do with sex (yeah, OK).

“In publishing, it has always been the editorial whip. It’s a cliche in the industry that editors have whips to use on authors to meet their deadlines,” she said, laughing.

The room is also filled with walls of books, in genres that range from Exotika (hot sex with no strings attached) to Blush (a little more romance, a little less sex). Other themes include comedy and paranormal elements. Recently, Ellora’s Cave began publishing books for men, with less emphasis on emotional attachment and more on sexual adventure.

Gorlinsky said the company accepts manuscripts from anyone, not just authors represented by an agent. Editors read a manuscript and decide if it’s something that the company is interested in pursuing.

“The quality of things that come from an agent are likely to be higher quality and therefore more likely to be accepted,” she said, adding that agent-represented books are not automatically accepted and they take no preference over an author-submitted book. “The thing is — the agent doesn’t want to alienate publishers and editors, so they don’t inundate us with scads of junk to wade through.”

The company’s biggest competitors are self-published authors and New York publishers, Marks added.

Ellora’s Cave has 30 full-time employees scattered throughout several states, including Ohio, Florida and California. Additionally, it uses about two dozen freelance editors and several freelance cover artists. Gorlinsky said they are always looking for more.

And the empire may be expanding into other media. Engler said she is preparing to shop a reality show to television producers within the next few weeks. “The main premise of the show is depicting what it’s like for a mother and daughter to run a publishing empire together, but there are several ongoing subplots as well my continuous struggle with agoraphobia and panic disorder, my past journey from welfare mom to millionaire, what it’s really like to work with models (ever seen Zoolander?!), my mother’s business prowess, and so on.”

She said she is also writing a pilot for a “sexually groundbreaking fictional series.”

Marks chuckled when asked about the biggest misconception people have about those who write, edit and publish erotica books. She said folks often believe that their lives are filled with hot, steamy sex around the clock. But that’s a fantasy. Like everyone else, they do laundry, attend parent-teacher conferences and go grocery shopping. Sometimes they’re even bored.

But one thing they don’t want to do is bore readers. So they look for ways to spice up the sex in their prose.

Marks explained: “I once had an author say, ‘How many ways can you say penis? I’m trying to think of another way that doesn’t sound stupid.’ ”

Keeping readers hot and bothered, wanting more, is all in a day’s work.