|Ellora's Cave: Publishing Outside the Box|
You could call it the little publishing house that could -- or better yet, a dream come true. Started by Tina Engler, a single mother who worked her way off the welfare rolls, Ellora's Cave became the first electronic and print-on-demand (POD) publishing house to meet the Romance Writers of America's recognition standards in 2004. Ellora's Cave now enjoys all the trappings of publishing success, including a corporate headquarters, and full-time employees with benefits and 401Ks.
More importantly, the company liberally shares its success with its writers. In 2003, the company grossed over $1.2 million and paid over $500,000 in royalties. Engler (writing as Jaid Black) and many of her fellow Ellora's Cave authors are now bestsellers in pixels and in print. Ellora's Cave Chief Executive Officer Patty Marks and Chief Operating Officer Christina Brashear anticipate even bigger things of 2004, not to mention 2005. Crescent Blues caught up with Marks and Brashear at DragonCon 2004 and pumped them for the secrets to their company's success.
Crescent Blues: How did you get involved with Ellora's cave?
Patty Marks: (laughs) Jaid Black is my daughter.
Actually, I have a business background, and I was the director of a small company in Ravenna, Ohio. I got involved when Jaid got to the point where she needed more help with the business aspect of it.
Christina Brashear: I was tripping on the internet looking at ebooks. I used to be in Information Technology (IT) and in IT, as a computer operator, you don't have anything to do all day, when everything works, when you do your job right. So we used to read ebooks so that people who had to work all day actually doing something didn't get jealous.
I was doing some book reviews on Amazon.com and Tina Engler had posted a review on a book. So I wrote to her because I'm like that; I'll ask questions. We got to talking and she suggested I try the web site that she was opening in a couple of months. I said, okay I'll go check it out. It was on my list of daily rounds -- every day I was surfing the Internet I'd go check Ellora's Cave to see if it was open yet. I was their first customer. I bought the Empress' New Clothes and was hooked from then on out.
I wrote to Tina and exchanged emails with her on a daily basis -- 'til I felt like I was getting to be a nuisance -- and then I didn't one day. About 3 o'clock in the afternoon, she wrote me: "What's wrong? Where are you? What happened? Where are you today? You haven't' written. Is something wrong?" I wrote back saying I didn't want to be a nuisance. She wrote, "No, I like exchanging emails."
About eight months later, she sent me a manuscript and asked me my opinion on it, because we'd had long conversations about different books, plots, story lines, characterizations and stuff like that, and what I hated and liked in romance novels. I wrote back to her and told her what I thought of the manuscript, and she asked me if I'd like to help her with editing. Back then it didn't pay much, maybe ten, fifteen dollars a book, but what the heck, it was something that I wanted to do. And it was fun. So I said sure. And it just grew from there.
Crescent Blues: Ellora's Cave is now a publisher that provides both income and insurance for its employees.
Patty Marks: We have 11 full time employees. We have a building. We're no longer scattered all over the United States. We still have authors and editors all over.
Christina Brashear: We contract editors across the continental U.S.
Patty Marks: We have our own graphics. We have an administrative division with --
Christina Brashear: Eight people in the office, three people outside the office.
Patty Marks: We provide benefits, regular payroll…
Christina Brashear: 401k.
Patty Marks: Yes, 401k.
Crescent Blues: Do you get many opportunities to use your payroll experience?
Patty Marks: I don't get the chance to pay our staff because we are small
Christina Brashear: That's the way it was when I first started. As it grew, the pay increased, and I became [Tina's] first employee.
Crescent Blues: Where is Ellora's Cave located? I heard something about Ohio earlier?
Christina Brashear: It's Stow, Ohio. It's north of Akron -- south of Cleveland, north of Akron.
Crescent Blues: How has not being in New York affected Ellora's Cave as a publisher?
Christina Brashear: We're so completely outside the box that we don't know (laughter). We just trip along doing what we think is right. We once talked about taking some courses in publishing, but we didn't want to ruin our mojo. We know nothing about what New York does or how they do it.
The company was founded by somebody who couldn't get into a New York publishing house, because they told her that her stuff was too hot for futuristic and paranormal. Nobody wanted to buy that. It was out of frustration that she created her own little company, and look where we're at right now. Now the New York houses are trying to catch up to us.
Patty Marks: Not being in New York isn't very significant, because we have a fantastic relationship with our fans, and we're P.O.D. (print-on-demand). We send editors packets over the Internet. We still have editors in Australia. We have them from all over the world, its not even necessary to be in a location. Now that we have so much business, however, it's necessary to have an address for accounts payable and all that stuff. But as far as publishing, what's in New York besides a lot of traffic?
Christina Brashear: We have a relationship with Borders, and they stock our print titles.
Crescent Blues: Do you distribute through Ingram?
Christina Brashear: We do, yes, but Borders came directly to us. We're distributed through Ingram and Baker & Taylor and on Amazon.com
Crescent Blues: When I've seen Ellora's Cave books in Borders, they've been shelved in the Romance section, not in Erotica.
Christina Brashear: Some of the Borders shelve us in Erotica, because they see the blurb on the cover. We're about to launch a campaign addressing those issues with the Borders managers, because each store manager has autonomy on what they stock and where they stock it. So it's just a matter of educating them that our books are romance novels that tell a real story.
Women don't need to be protected. They don't need the flowery prose to describe sex. We know what sex is. We have children. We have to know what sex is. Obviously, there is a big market for it, because the women that we know are buying our books… And the men -- 25 percent of our sales here at DragonCon have been to men.
Crescent Blues: Is that true of your demographics overall?
Christina Brashear: I really don't know, because I don't have the tools yet to see that kind of information. But based on the husbands of the writers, who absolutely enjoy their wives' writing; the husbands, who thank the authors who write it for spicing up things in the bedroom, because every time their wives read one of our books they get jumped -- we have a lot of men reading us.
Crescent Blues: Do you have any men writing for you?
Christina Brashear: Yes, we do. Some of the "women authors" are men in disguise.
Crescent Blues: Do you know who everyone is?
Christina Brashear: Oh, yes. My favorite authors are the ones who write under their own names. Next in line are the ones who have only one pseudonym. The ones that are living dangerously are the ones who have three or four pen names.
Crescent Blues: How many people have three or more pen names -- not just the men, but women authors too?
Christina Brashear: I'd say less than ten.
Crescent Blues: Does it make a difference in sales depending on whether the writer is male or female?
Christina Brashear: It does.
Crescent Blues: How does it break out? Do the men do better or the women? Or is dependent upon whether they show their gender?
Christina Brashear: I think it really does matter whether they show their gender. If they are incognito -- I'm thinking of one person in particular who writes books that really hit the market, and he does really well. But he writes under a pen name. There's one male author, who writes as a man, who writes FemDom [Editor's note: female dominant], and FemDom just does not sell. The female fantasy is to have an alpha male, not to be an alpha female over a beta male.
Crescent Blues: Is there a certain plot that sells better than others?
Christina Brashear: What our readers gravitate towards, what they want is a strong man. And they want a strong woman with him.
Patty Marks: That's the baseline.
Christina Brashear: The alpha male is the male they want to read about. They may not want to marry him, but they want to read about him.
Patty Marks: That's what we put on our advertisement on the back of the DragonCon program book: "Kick-ass heroines and alpha male heroes." That's what they want. They want the alpha male, but they want strong women. They don't want the women dominating the men.
Christina Brashear: But they want to have the women stand up to the men and be almost at an equal level in some sphere and live their own lives.
Crescent Blues: So you don't get, for example, a lot of female cops among your strongest sellers.
Christina Brashear: The thing is, you can have a kick-ass heroine who's a [submissive] in the bedroom. Emotionally, they're very strong. They're not wimpy, fainting heroines. If there's a fight going on, they're going to be kicking ass with their mates.
Crescent Blues: What was the origin of the name Ellora's Cave?
Patty Marks: Tina's -- my daughter's -- best friend for years is from India. She was using it as an email address. Not Ellora's Cave, just "Ellora." Tina asked her about it. It seems there is a town in India named Ellora with a bunch of caves with ancient artifacts. So Tina decided to name the company Ellora's Cave after these caves in India. It also has a kind of sexual connotation. People have asked us if "Ellora's Cave" refers to a vagina, but they're actually just the caves in Ellora.
Crescent Blues: How would you define what Ellora's Cave does? How would you define the kind of book or the genre Ellora's Cave specializes in or has created?
Patty Marks: We call it "Romantica." It has the love, it has the relationship. It has to have a plot.
Christina Brashear: A storyline.
Patty Marks: It's erotic. There may not necessarily be a monogamous relationship in the book, but there has to be special relationship with a partner.
Crescent Blues: What are your taboos?
Chistina Brashear: Pedophilia. Nobody under 18. You can have a character remember an event that happened before 18, but you cannot have a character have a sexual relationship under the age of 18. That is a hard and fast rule. I will not allow it. Most of us are mothers. We don't cross that line.
We try to stay away from "secret baby" stories too. I had an author who wanted to have a baby carriage on the cover. I said no. This is erotic romance. We don't even want a hint. We don't want the right wingers coming down on us, because they think we're promoting pedophilia. Pedophilia is wrong.
No necrophilia. No bestiality -- though with respect to bestiality, we've had to subdivide it. No common earth animals. If it's a shapeshifter or a sentient being from a different planet, that's another story.
Crescent Blues: I would think there would be one exception to necrophilia too -- vampires.
Christina Brashear: It all depends on how you write your vampires. If you look at Christine Feehan -- her vampires aren't vampires, they're Carpathians. It all depends on how you write it.
We also decided that "golden showers" and other bodily functions were just gross, and we don't use those.
Crescent Blues: How would you distinguish Romantica from traditional erotica?
Christina Brashear: Erotica -- from what I've read of it -- is just a series of encounters. There's no storyline outside of having sex. Romantica is a romance novel that has erotic sex in it. There is a plot. There is something that is driving these characters from point A to point B.
Crescent Blues: Do you think there's a relationship between the growth of Romantica and the increasing power of women in our society?
Patty Marks: I think there is. I think women recognize their sexuality. They're not embarrassed. They don't have to have flowery terms to describe sex in their books.
Christina Brashear: "Throbbing manhood…"
Patty Marks: Most of us who grew up in the '60s, '70s and '80s are familiar with these words. We aren't going: "Oh my God, somebody said 'fuck!'" Women can say it too. Women can do it, and women can enjoy it. There's nothing taboo about it. There's nothing that has to be covered up.
Christina Brashear: It's not dirty. It's something that's there.
Patty Marks: People do it every day. We might as well say it.
Crescent Blues: Do you have one particular type of book -- contemporary, futuristic, historical, vampire -- that seems to resonate more with your readers?
Christina Brashear: I would say anything paranormal sells better than a contemporary or historical. Under paranormal, I'm encompassing futuristic, sci-fi, shapeshifters, fantasy. But there are people who will write something else that does very well. I don't know if it has to do with their marketing on the Internet.
We had one author who recently put out a historical romance. Historicals traditionally don't do well. But she must have done her marketing, because her sales were like Wow! A normal historical won't do that well -- and those sales were from her first book. Her second book is selling even better. She captured an audience, and they're staying with her. What she wrote, how she wrote about it really resonated with the people.
Crescent Blues: You've got a very good track record of authors who come to Ellora's Cave for their first book and were later picked up by larger New York publishing houses. To what do you attribute your success in that area?
Patty Marks: They come to us. They submit to us. It's the same thing that happened to Jaid Black. When she could not get accepted by agents or New York houses, she decided to try it herself. When she succeeded, she made an opening for other authors to do the same thing.
There are talented people everywhere. You can go into a neighborhood bar and see talented bands that will never make it, because they don't get into the right place at the right time. It's the same thing with authors. There are talented people out there, but some of them don't have the confidence [after a rejection] to go after an agent or another publishing house.
Christina Brashear: I don't understand the big houses saying they're only going to accept submissions from a specific number of agents or certain authors. I get a lot of questions about whether we're open to submissions. I don't see how anybody can be closed to submissions. I'm always open to submissions.
Patty Marks: We have a very talented staff of editors.
Crescent Blues: Are there any particular qualities you're looking for in a writer?
Christina Brashear: First of all, you read the [submission] as a reader and a lover of romance books. You need to see something that captures your attention. You need to see a good storyteller. Then you look at the technical end of it.
We have a few writers who are dyslexic and take a phenomenal amount of editing. After ten or twenty passes through proofreaders and line editors, you still find errors. You can't catch everything. But their imaginations are so phenomenal. They build truly wonderful worlds and are able to tell a story to match. Those are the kinds of books you really want to read.
Crescent Blues: How would you define your reader base?
Christina Brashear: Avid, sometimes fanatical -- in a good way. We are an anomaly in the industry in that our reader base is loyal to the company. I don't buy everything that Ballantine publishes. I buy Nora Roberts. I buy Linda Howard. I don't look at the publisher. I go straight to the author I like.
We have people who buy every single book we publish. Every Wednesday, they go out and place an order. They want us to set up a subscription service for them so they don't even have to do that. I think it's fabulous and amazing that we have that.
Patty Marks: I was searching eBay recently, and I came across a book that was described as "like Ellora's Cave." It wasn't like a Stephen King or like a Linda Howard. It wasn't one of our books. That's a nice thing, to have that kind of brand name recognition among our readers. It's something we're really proud of. They do count on us to put out quality books.
Ellora's Cave didn't do an ad until November 2002 -- and that was a group of authors who bought an ad in Romantic Times. That was the first ad. What we had done up to that point was all word of mouth. Somebody would find a book and tell people. I got an email from someone who had bought one of our books, then went to one of the review sites and told everyone: "You've got to go to Ellora's Cave and get this book. It's wonderful. It's fabulous." That's how it got going.
Crescent Blues: Where does the company want to go from here?
Patty Marks: We're starting a mainstream imprint, Cerridwen Press, it's because we have some very talented authors who are getting a little tired of writing erotica.
Christina Brashear: And we get submissions that are very good but they don't fit our genre.
Crescent Blues: What advice would you give to authors who want to be published by Ellora's Cave?
Christina Brashear: First of all, finish writing the book; stop editing it. Then get a critique partner -- another set of eyes with a degree of separation from it. Get somebody else to look at it, because you're always going to be too close to it to really judge if it's ready or not.
Our editors will always give you feedback. We won't just say, "We're not accepting manuscripts at this time," or whatever the traditional decline letter is. Our decline letters give you feedback. For example, your hero and heroine did things that were not in the characters that you established. We give you actual feedback on your manuscript, and a lot of times, we'll tell you what to fix. So you can fix it and submit it again.
But again, you can't be published until you actually write it down.
Crescent Blues: What about artists? Do you have an artist submission process?
Christina Brashear: Write to Darrell King [the Ellora's Cave Art Director] at firstname.lastname@example.org. One of the reasons we're here at DragonCon is so Darrell can schmooze and find more artists. But one potential artists have to remember is our core audience. Our readers like men, so [an Ellora's Cave] artist has to be comfortable depicting the male body as well as the female body.
Teri Smith and Jean Marie Ward
I just read your article on Ellora's Cave. Fantastic! As a new Ellora's Cave author, I was thrilled to learn new things about the company that has welcomed me in its fold. Your article is funny, informative, and insightful. I love the pictures too. I've communicated with Chris, but had no idea what she looked like! LOL