The Scandal that Brought Down Ellora’s Cave Publishing Inc.
By Caitlin Carter (2020)
Before 2000, both e-books and erotic novels were extremely difficult to find. Ellora’s Cave Publishing Incorporated (EC) changed that. Founded in 2000 by a romance writer named Tina Engler, Ellora’s Cave was the first platform to publish novels that were sexually explicit in nature. For years, the company did well, bringing together readers and writers who were frustrated with the lack of sexual content used in most romance novels at the time. In fact, “As recently as 2012, Ellora’s Cave was netting more than $10 million per year,” (Reilly 2015).
The company’s success began to falter when one of its shareholders, Christina Brashear, filed a lawsuit claiming that her earnings were being withheld. The news shook the romance community, and many other authors implied that they too had been mistreated by Ellora’s Cave. As more information about the company’s shady accounting practices came out, it became clear that Tina Engler was going to great lengths to cover up the extent of the financial mismanagement. Authors were afraid to speak up for fear they’d lose out on money owed to them. Tina Engler denied her authors and shareholders the money they were due in the pursuit of personal financial gain and went to great lengths to cover up her misdeeds and silence those who would be inclined to speak up. This blog will explore the details of the scandal, from the 2008 lawsuit to EC’s closing in 2016.
Background on Ellora’s Cave
Tina Marie Engler founded Ellora’s Cave Inc. in 2000. Engler decided to start Ellora’s Cave when she was unable to sell her sexually explicit novels to traditional romance publishers. She intended for the online publishing house to serve as an outlet for authors like her to publish erotic romance novels, which at the time were generally barred from the mainstream romance industry. Ellora’s Cave allowed and encouraged authors to write books that went beyond the traditional coded terminology used to describe sexual encounters. Engler was able to tap into a latent demand for these kinds of novels, and Ellora’s Cave brought in millions annually in its first few years. The company was likely successful because its authors had few other places where they could publish, and readers had few other places where they could buy (Frantz and Selinger, 47). Essentially, EC gained a monopoly within a niche market.
Many best-selling authors got their start through Ellora’s Cave. Bella Andre, Lori Leigh, and Christine Warren were all originally published using the platform that Engler created (Litte 2014). Women who had never been published before were suddenly empowered – EC’s best sellers were making up to six figures (Litte 2014). Authors received royalties of 40-45% of their books’ profits (Reilly 2015). This is considerably higher than today’s industry standard of 25% for digital books (Reilly 2015). Along with her authors, Tina Engler herself profited massively from Ellora’s Cave’s operations (Reilly 2015).
It is also important to note that Ellora’s Cave was founded before the creation of e-books as we know them today. Engler was able to distribute books digitally by emailing PDFs to readers, who would then pay the company via PayPal (Reilly 2015). This unconventional business model proved highly effective in an era where there were few options for digital readership. Ellora’s Cave not only provided on outlet for a new sub-genre within the romance industry, it also introduced a new way for people to purchase and read novels.
Ellora’s Cave’s downfall began with a lawsuit filed in 2008. Christina M. Brashear filed a suit against Ellora’s Cave Publishing Incorporated. Brashear was a 5% shareholder of the company and served as its President and COO before she was fired in 2005. The suit specifically named Ellora’s Cave’s founder and majority shareholder, Tina M. Engler, as well as its CEO, Engler’s mother Patricia L. Marks (Christina M. Brashear vs. Ellora’s Cave Publishing Inc. 2008).
There are numerous claims listed in the suit. Brashear had many disputes with Engler and Marks over the management of Ellora’s Cave and the distribution of revenues. A key claim stated that “assets, resources and business opportunities of EC were being diverted improperly to the Related Companies for the benefit of Engler, Marks, the Related Companies and the Related Companies’ other shareholders,” (Christina M. Brashear vs. Ellora’s Cave Publishing Inc. 2008). In short, the suit accused Engler of scamming EC employees out of their share of the company’s income by diverting funds through other entities. For example, Ellora’s Cave was paying Engler $100k a month in rent when Akron, Ohio’s market rate for rent at the time was around $40k (Litte 2014). Brashear’s suit implied that Engler was pocketing the extra cash.
The suit goes on to claim that Engler would not show Brashear the company’s accounts, despite the fact that she was legally entitled to see them as a minority shareholder. It states, “Brashear…demanded inspection of the books and records of EC, which has been refused without justification,” (Christina M. Brashear vs. Ellora’s Cave Publishing Inc. 2008). Brashear likely assumed the intention of hiding EC’s books was to prevent her from finding out how much cash was actually coming in. The suit later implies that Brashear realized she was not being paid her allotted share when the income taxes she was required to pay did not align with the money EC was giving her. Further, Engler refused to honor the shareholders’ Buy-Sell Agreement when Brashear wanted to cash out her share (Christina M. Brashear vs. Ellora’s Cave Publishing Inc. 2008).
The suit was not limited to fiduciary responsibility – it also touched on interpersonal disputes between Brashear and Engler. Two of the claims include libel and wrongful termination. Fact 11 of the lawsuit clearly states, “Engler, without privilege to do so, has willfully defamed Brashear by libel and slander, including, without limitation, by wrongly accusing her widely and publicly of illegal acts of discrimination, of other improper actions as an officer of EC and of lacking a suitable temperament to conduct business appropriately, thereby injuring Brashear in her trade and occupation,” (Christina M. Brashear vs. Ellora’s Cave Publishing Inc. 2008).
The suit leveraged some weighty claims against Ellora’s Cave. In reading the language of the lawsuit, it is clear there was no love lost between Christina Brashear and Tina Engler. Brashear requested a baseline $25k in damages (Smart Bitches Trashy Books 2008).
Throughout the legal proceedings that followed, Marks and Engler employed various tactics to delay a ruling. Just as they refused to show Brashear their books, they withheld their accounts from the court as long as possible (Little 2010). They blamed their failure to deliver the necessary documents on their first lawyer, who they fired, but they continued to delay the proceedings even after they acquired new counsel.
As a result of these evasion tactics, Brashear filed a motion for sanctions, essentially imploring the court to punish Engler and Marks for their lack of cooperation. The court granted the motion after EC did not show up for a hearing. In a brief regarding the sanction, the court said: “Defendants willfully evaded the production of discovery, resulting in unnecessary delays of this case and increased legal fees. Defendants’ actions in this case have crossed the line from a zealous defense to malingering, malfeasance, sabotage and delay,” (Little 2010).
The case was quietly settled. The details of the settlement are not in the public record, but the damages were estimated to be six or seven figures (Little 2014). This is significantly higher than the amount originally asked for in the lawsuit. The large payout indicates that Ellora’s Cave was willing to shell out a lot of money to keep information off of the public record.
Initial Reaction within the Romance Community
Unsurprisingly, the romance community was quick to react to the news of Brashear’s suit. The story of the lawsuit first broke on romance blog called “Smart Bitches Trashy Books” about a week after it was filed. The blog provided the basic details of the suit, as well as a link to the official filing.
Commenters shared a variety of views on the story. One commenter, Tori Anne, had a personal interest in the matter. She wrote, “Hmmm, I just submitted to EC. I’ll be watching this matter closely.” (Smart Bitches Trashy Book 2008). Many comments called into question EC’s business practices, as well as the behavior or Tina Engler specifically. “DS” wrote “I don’t know anything about the plaintiff, but the defendant has enough information out there to put her lifestyle on trial rather than the issues,” (Smart Bitches Trashy Book 2008). One of the most interesting comments, shown below, came from someone called “WMM,” who claimed to be an EC author.
Screenshot from comment section of Smart Bitches Trashy Books blog
WMM’s comment is important for a few reasons. First, it confirms the lawsuit’s complaints of sketchy accounting and payment practices. Second, it raises the idea that many authors felt mistreated by Engler and EC but were too scared to say anything. Most EC authors had never received payment for their writing before being published by EC, and at the time few other platforms accepted the erotic works that EC did. A comment from “Another Anon” followed the same worrying theme. The commenter wrote: “Heaven forbid an author asks an intelligent question like, “when is my ebook coming out” or “will you be buying an ad for this book?” they are labeled as a troublemaker and served with cease and desist papers from the EC attorney. Maybe that’s where the money is going?” (Smart Bitches Trashy Book 2008).
After the publication of this blog in 2008, the case went dark for a few years. In this period, Brashear and EC quietly settled. No substantial updates were published online until a blog called “Dear Author” blew the case wide open.
Dear Author Blog
In September 2014, a blog called Dear Author published a lengthy post about the Ellora’s Cave Scandal. Titled “The Curious Case of Ellora’s Cave,” the blog post points out that “in 2010… EC’s revenues were $5 million but a reported $6.7 million in 2006,” (Litte 2014). It posed the obvious question: how were EC’s revenues declining when digital book sales were increasing rapidly? To answer this question, the blog goes on to describe the shady accounting and payment practices alluded to in Brashear’s lawsuit. If all of the allegations in the blog are true, then it is clear that Brashear’s complaints were just the tip of the iceberg.
The Dear Author post provides details of Brashear’s lawsuit, as well as even more serious allegations against Tina Engler. The blog mentions a group of authors who had not received royalty payments for six months. In fact, the blog alleges that “the total sum of unpaid royalties, editor fees, cover artist fees [was] in the several thousands, perhaps approaching six figures,” (Litte 2014). The author of the blog, Jane Litte, claims that she received several emails and direct messages from EC authors, complaining about their mistreatment but begging her to maintain their anonymity (Litte 2014). Litte claims these authors “[spoke] of a vindictive company who will be unafraid to retaliate,” (Litte 2014) – implying that authors were avoiding coming forward because they did not want to lose the money they were owed.
Interestingly, the Dear Author blog also goes into personal details about Tina Engler. It reveals that Tina Engler owed thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes. It goes as far as to list tax liens put on her by the state of Ohio. Litte notes that though she failed to pay her taxes, Engler would boast on social media about property purchases and elaborate shopping trips.
Dear Author also mentions Engler’s erratic behavior. The post below, from a Facebook page using an alias of hers, is a prime example. It is unclear who she is calling out in the post, or whether she really had an intelligence officer tracking them down, but it is clear that she was extremely paranoid.
Screenshot from Dear Author blog
Ellora’s Cave Sues Dear Author and the Romance Community Reacts
In response to the Dear Author blog, Ellora’s Cave sued Dear Author for defamation. EC named the blogger, Jane Litte, as the primary defendant. According to the Los Angeles Times, Engler sought “injunctive relief, monetary damages of $25,000 or more and the identity of the blog’s commenters,” (Kellogg 2014).
The language of the suit seemed to imply that Engler wanted the names of the authors who had complained anonymously (Reilly 2015). Many members of the romance community with no direct connection to Engler or to Ellora’s Cave began to speak out on behalf of the authors. Courtney Milan, a self-published romance author who’d never written for Ellora’s Cave publicly stated that “The point of this suit [is] to prevent people from speaking.” (Reilly 2015). In response to Engler’s suit, the author of the Smart Bitches Trashy Books blog Sarah Wendell started a fundraiser to help with Jane Litte’s legal fees. According a 2014 blog post on the blog “Karen Knows Best,” the GoFundMe raised $50,000 in less than four days (Scott 2014).
Some Ellora’s Cave authors did speak out, despite EC’s scare tactics. Author Lolita Lopez wrote about her royalty checks arriving later and later each cycle, even citing an instance in which she received a check dated 6 weeks earlier and had to pay a fine to the IRS for underpaying taxes once she reported the additional income (Lopez 2014). Lopez ends her post saying that she made the difficult decision to end her book series rather than getting into a legal battle with EC over the handling of her content (Lopez 2014). Angelia Sparrow issued a public notice to EC on her blog requesting the rights to some of her novels, stating “I hereby serve notice to Ellora’s Cave… that I claim all rights to Spellbound Desire and Heart’s Bounty as my own. You will cease and desist publication at once,” (Sparrow 2014). Further, authors took to Twitter to share their negative experiences with Ellora’s Cave using #notchilled. @SidneyBristol claimed her royalties were sent to the wrong person, and @Trista_Michaels said that inquiries about payment errors were met with silence. Screenshots of these tweets are included below. These authors’ testimonials confirmed many of the accusations made in the Dear Author blog. The lucrative fundraiser also implies the truth in Litte’s post.
The End of Ellora’s Cave
Ellora’s Cave’s website officially shut down on December 31, 2016 (Winter 2016). In the end, Amazon was likely more to blame for its end than the scandal. Amazon started prioritizing digital books for Kindle on its site, rather than books published by Ellora’s Cave (Reilly 2015). EC books often didn’t show up on Amazon searches, even when an author or title was searched for specifically. This led to a drastic drop in sales. Ellora’s Cave simply couldn’t stay afloat without the Amazon the income they’d lost (Reilly 2015).
Still, the scandal remains at the heart of this story. Tina Engler willfully diverted funds away from authors and shareholders in order to supplement her own personal income. Many authors found their voice for the first time using the platform given to them by Ellora’s Cave. Yet, in an ironic twist, Ellora’s Cave attempted silenced those very same authors.
Bristol, Sydney (@SidneyBristol). 2015. “I’ve been told someone else has received my statement, so technically I guess I’ve been paid? So weird. #notchilled,” Nov. 15, 2015. https://twitter.com/SidneyBristol/status/665955219671375872
“Christine Brashear Files Civil Suit Against Ellora’s Cave, Tina Engler, Et Al.” Smart Bitches Trashy Books, April 8, 2008. https://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/2008/04/christine_brashear_files_civil_suit_against_elloras_cave_tina_engler_et_al/.
Christina M. Brashear vs. Ellora’s Cave Publishing Inc., Apr. 2008 Court of Common Pleas, Summit County Ohio, LEXIS 125.
Frantz, Sarah S. G., and Eric Murphy Selinger. New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2012.
Kellogg, Carolyn. “Erotica Publisher Ellora’s Cave Sues Dear Author Book Blog.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, September 29, 2014. https://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-et-jc-erotica-publisher-elloras-cave-sues-dear-author-book-blog-20140929-story.html.
Litte, Jane. “Tuesday Midday Links: Ellora’s Cave Gets the Smackdown from Judge.” Dear Author, November 23, 2010. https://dearauthor.com/features/industry-news/tuesday-midday-links-elloras-cave-gets-the-smackdown-from-judge/.
Litte, Jane. “The Curious Case of Ellora’s Cave.” Dear Author, September 14, 2014. https://dearauthor.com/ebooks/the-curious-case-of-elloras-cave/.
Lopez, Lolita. “Ellora’s Cave. The Grabbed Series. #Notchilled.” Lolita Lopez, 3 Oct. 2014, www.lolitalopezbooks.com/news/elloras-cave-the-grabbed-series-notchilled
Michaels, Trista (@trista_michaels). 2015. “responses for mistakes r the same as response for nonpayment. Silence #notchilled,” Nov. 17, 2015. https://twitter.com/trista_michaels/status/666614519158939648
Reilly, Phoebe. “Did Amazon Sink the Queen of Online Erotica?” Vulture. Vulture, February 24, 2015. https://www.vulture.com/2015/02/amazon-tina-engler-erotica.html.
Scott, Karen. “More of Ellora’s Cave Authors Speak Up.” Karen Knows Best (And Her Friends Do Too), 7 Oct. 2014. http://karenknowsbest.com/2014/10/07/more-of-elloras-cave-authors-speak-up/#more-11708
Sparrow, Angelia. “Public Notice to Ellora’s Cave.” Public Notice to Ellora’s Cave, 2 Oct. 2014, http://angelsparrow.blogspot.com/2014/10/public-notice-to-elloras-cave.html.
Winter, Mary. “Some Final Thoughts on Ellora’s Cave.” Mary Winter ~ Adera Orfanelli ~ W.M. Kirkland, 31 Dec. 2016, http://marywinter.com/final-thoughts-elloras-cave/.