Tina Engler couldn't get off, but her libido wasn't to blame. It was the paperback in her hands -- the hundredth or so Harlequin novel to leave her sprawled on the couch, feeling unsatisfied.
Engler was an avid romance fan; she dedicated many a night to barrel-chested cowboys unbuttoning calico dresses and horny knights caressing quivering virgins in mossy grottoes. These were the worlds the 25-year-old Cuyahoga Falls woman escaped to when overwhelmed by her life as a single mother on welfare.
"There's just something about [romance novels] that's inherently uplifting," she says. "They take you away from all the daily crapola."
But after years of cheesy euphemisms and lukewarm action, Engler was beginning to find the romance genre as tedious as a sexless marriage. "I would get to the sex scenes, and it was always such a letdown," she says. "Up until that point, the closest thing to sex in romance was doing it missionary-style three times."
If she wanted her favorite fantasies fleshed out in print, she decided, she'd have to write the books herself.
So after tucking her two daughters into bed, she'd retreat to her computer late into the night. From cunnilingus-lovin' vampires to postapocalyptic studs, Engler's prose left little to the imagination. "I wanted to open the bedroom door," she says. "I wanted to write the way real people talk. They aren't 'sheaths' and 'honeypots' -- they're cocks and pussies."
Engler finally completed The Empress' New Clothes -- a 221-page tale about a seven-foot-tall warrior, feared in more than 600 galaxies, who kidnaps a woman from Earth. He sweeps her away to planet Trek Mi Q'an, where she willingly becomes his sex slave.
It was like nothing else on the market, writhing somewhere between the fantasy world of romance and the dirty talk of erotic fiction. Engler calls it "romantica." Though the plot in Empress' was otherworldly, the sex was vivid and real. Muscle-bound men didn't "harvest" their women in fields of wheat -- they slid into "inviting cunts" and "tweaked plump nipples" before climactically "spurting their life force."
Engler shipped her newly finished book to all the major romance publishers. She was rejected at every turn and told that there was no market for "romantica." Women didn't want to read romance novels bursting with graphic sex -- or so the logic went.
Engler knew better. Working under the pen name Jaid Black, she launched a website called Ellora's Cave and released Empress' as an e-book in 2000. She promoted the title by bombarding sites like Amazon with glowing plugs. In her first year, she sold about 10,000 copies and raked in $45,000, then waved goodbye to welfare.
As it turned out, readers couldn't get enough of Engler's salacious, over-the-top style. Her books were met with rave reviews; her heroines were described by bloggers as "Bridget Jones with genitals." "Her love scenes are hot and not for the fainthearted," says Karolyne Hamilton, a 42-year-old fan from London. "Although some of the [characters] are very outlandish, they are also believable. I can picture myself in the places she writes about, and I almost lose myself in her books."
Engler quickly expanded the business into Jasmine Jade Enterprises, named after her two daughters. She hired other writers to meet the increasing demand and started releasing books in print. She also explored other subgenres, from bondage and werewolves to group sex and lesbian fiction. In 2003, the company grossed $1.2 million.
On a recent afternoon, Jasmine Jade's warehouse, in an old glove factory in a crumbling part of Akron, echoes with the sound of men dutifully lugging piles of books bound with illustrations of bare-chested warriors. One of the workers carries his newborn baby into the corporate offices, where a gaggle of middle-aged women gather to "oooo" and "ahhh."
Among them is Patty Marks, Engler's tattooed mother and finance chief, whose hair is painted four different shades of Manic Panic red. Marks says she doesn't buy romance novels and hasn't read a single Ellora's Cave title. "Tina asked me a long time ago not to read her books," says Marks. "So if I'm not going to read hers, I won't read anyone else's either."
What Marks does know is that her daughter's work sells really well. Last year, the company netted $6 million. It currently boasts a roster of some 400 authors. Ellora's releases 125 print titles a month, plus six e-books a week. "None of us knew the industry when we first got into this," says Marks. "And that wasn't a bad thing. We've been doing things outside the box, which seems to work for us."
Even the publishing houses that rejected Empress' are catching on. Harlequin now offers a steamier line called Spice, as do Avon and Simon & Schuster. "[Ellora's Cave] was the front-runner in the erotic-romance novels," says Nicole Kennedy of the Romance Writers of America association. "Up until that point, there was either erotica or romance, which is a big difference. And then based on their popularity, all the major publishing houses have formed hotter romance lines, too."
It's a fact that fills Marks with a sort of told-you-so glee. "It's just fun," she says. "More than just being financially rewarding, it's fun to make your own decisions and have it work out."
Jasmine Jade continues to use its why-not? business model to tap other neglected markets. It recently launched a new line, The Lotus Circle, dedicated to metaphysical nonfiction and psychic fiction. "We wanted to do something totally different," says Lotus' managing consultant Marilyn Campbell. "The paranormal field is no longer something that just crazy people care about."
But the main focus for Jasmine Jade is still sex. Now 35 and happily married, Engler spends her days pushing "Got Sex?" T-shirts at romance conventions and jetting to male strip clubs in search of the perfect Ellora cover model.
And while Engler knows she has filled a niche for sexually imaginative women, there are countless fantasies awaiting exploration. "I'm not gonna write for every woman," she says. "All women have their own fantasies. But it is nice when you get that e-mail that says, 'I'm glad I'm not the only person who fantasizes about that.' It's not about feeling bad -- it's about feeling naughty, which is a good thing."