There are two fascinating bits of information to come out of this New York magazine profile of Jaid Black, the founder of independent erotica publishing house Ellora's Cave: as recently as 2012 the company was making $10 million a year, and Amazon could bring that to an end.
Black, whose real name is Tina Engler, thinks that Amazon is intentionally competing with Ellora's Cave by favoring similar works by other authors who self-publish with Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing system.
…Engler holds Amazon responsible, claiming that it’s started competing with Ellora’s Cave titles by offering similar works by other authors, many of whom self-publish via Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), at free or discounted rates—even when customers search specifically for one of her company’s books. Engler’s eyes well up at the first mention of the online-retail behemoth. “Without them, I never could’ve risen to the heights that I did,” she says. “It’s feels like we’re going through a painful divorce.”
This small action has had a dramatic impact on the amount of money Engler makes every year.
As recently as 2012, Ellora’s Cave was netting more than $10 million per year, an unfathomable sum to Engler when she started the company in 2000 as a way to self-publish. Most of the money was flowing in through Amazon at a rate as high as $500,000 or $600,000 per month, according to Patty Marks, Engler’s mother, who works as Ellora’s Cave’s CEO. But in 2013, revenue dropped by more than $2 million, a trend that continued in 2014 and seems destined to continue this year.
Engler was an ebook pioneer; the article details her early days of selling via PayPal and sending each book to customers individually. She's a self-described feminist who has changed the world of romance writing by including actual sex scenes and describing body parts in realistic ways (gone are the "throbbing manroot" that littered the scene), which is no small feat. But Engler is also successful enough to be considered a media giant on her own terms, according to some of the comments and community reaction to a lawsuit she filed against blogger Jane Litte. Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a popular blog that reviews romance books. Engler filed a suit against Litte in September 2014 for defamation after she wrote this post detailing the alleged financial issues the company was facing and the fact that many Ellora's Cave writers hadn't been paid. She also detailed other instances when other parties also filed lawsuits against the company, and court records showing a healthy amount of unpaid taxes.
Word of Ms. Engler’s increasingly erratic behavior surfaced on odd places on the internet and then came the lawsuits. In 2008, former employee Christina Brashears filed suit for unpaid monies against EC. EC countersued. Brashears, Publisher and Chief Operating Officer, left and formed Samhain. Bad blood existed which culminated with EC agreeing to a settlement of undisclosed amount. The damages were alleged to be in the high six figures to low seven figures. EC’s behavior during this lawsuit was so egregious, the judge commented on it in his ruling ordering damages to be paid to Brashears. In 2009, EC filed suit against Borders accusing them of illegal business practices. The suit went nowhere.
In the Brashears lawsuit, EC was accused of inappropriately diverting funds to Tina Engler through overpayment of rent. In 2009, the prevailing market rent for the space EC was occupying in Akron Ohio was around $40K but EC was paying Engler close to $100K per month. EC was providing loans to various officers at no interest and there was no indication those loans were ever repaid.
Amazon has had very public disputes with publishers before; it doesn't seem that Engler is bringing a case against Amazon (or even has the legal right to), but it is interesting to see how this will shake out.
Danielle Henderson is a lapsed academic, heavy metal karaoke machine, and culture editor at Fusion. She enjoys thinking about how race, gender, and sexuality shape our cultural narratives, but not in a boring way.