If your only encounter with romance novels was 15 years ago and involved someone's "throbbing member," you likely wouldn't recognize the genre today. And that's thanks in no small part to erotic romance publisher Ellora's Cave (pun intended, I'm pretty sure). But now the company has leapt into an embarrassing legal brawl with a blogger who suggests they're floundering.

Ellora's Cave was one of the first major digital publishing success stories, predating the Amazon Kindle. They're splashy—at DragonCon twelve years ago, when they were first getting started, their enormous booth included a totally ripped "Ellora's Cavemen" prowling around. But don't let the goofiness fool you—there's probably nobody so responsible for raunching up romance in the last decade. It's thanks in no small part to EC that romance readers are hardly ever subjected to stupid dick euphemisms anymore. Years before Fifty Shades of Grey, they proved that explicit could be profitable.

Of course, they also unleashed a flood of shoddily written wank-fic and it's much harder for vanilla fans of contemporary romances to find anything worth reading anymore but, you know, every rose has its thorns.

But it's also clear that EC isn't the powerhouse it once was. We'll get to their alleged business woes in a moment, but they're plain and simply not the only game in town anymore. There are lots of other small digital publishers to compete with, authors can publish on Amazon directly, and mainstream publishers have long since recognized the opportunities in both erotic romance and digital publishing. The great digital publishing tidal wave just seemed to leave them behind. Until somebody recently recommended Joey W. Hill, I hadn't read anything they published in years. (And I am a vocal devotee of the explicit.)

Dear Author is a blog run by Jane Litte, with a reputation for a frank, take-no-prisoners approach to romance reviews and industry news. As both a romance reader and a sometimes sharp-elbowed blogger myself, I love their bluntness, but it hasn't always been appreciated by authors. Keep in mind that romance being a maligned genre generally makes the dynamics around criticism pretty damn fraught.

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Which brings us to the battle royale. Earlier this month, Litte published a massive piece on the company, tracing its rise and impact on the genre—as well as delving into slumping sales and other recent troubles, highlighting tax liens against EC and founder Tina Engler (who publishes under the name Jaid Black):

In March of 2014, Engler was hit with another tax bill, this time from the City of Akron in the amount $29,679.52. Court documents reveal she is paying $2,473.70 per month. In the meantime, Engler boasts of her Rodeo Drive shopping trips and her new property purchase in West Hollywood on her Facebook page.

Then there are the allegations of some authors not getting paid on time, which has been reported in Publisher's Weekly, as well, with Ellora's Cave blaming new accounting software. But Litte says she keeps getting reports from sources who plead to be kept anonymous:

Many authors and other workers associated with the production of EC books are afraid to speak out. They email me and DM me from made up accounts and beg for secrecy. They speak of a vindictive company who will be unafraid to retaliate and many of them who are owed several thousands of dollars fear that the money may never be paid to them should any outward showing of non allegiance be discovered.

It all adds up to a picture of a publisher in trouble. And the comments are chock full of amens, as well.

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Now, some companies might respond with a straightforward denial, perhaps including some boilerplate about challenging business conditions. (This is the primary responsibility of most publicists at tech startups, as far as I can tell.) Instead, Ellora's Cave slapped Litte herself with a lawsuit, alleging defamation and suggesting the post gives a false picture of a business on the verge of financial ruin, which of course makes it rather hard to sign up new authors. Not to mention the existing authors asking for reversion of their rights. They want the offending post disappeared and damages in excess of $25,000.

According to Litte, they also want the identity of commenters, which is especially eyebrow-lifting. If you're an Orlando-dwelling PTA member who works at a local accounting practice but spends her night crafting loving depictions of double penetration and/or bondage, it's probably hard not to read that demand as a movie villain hollering "I'LL BLOW THIS WHOLE PLACE" while waving a torch in front of a barrel of gasoline.

From this angle, the whole lawsuit looks like a big stunt designed explicitly to produce a chilling effect, as one Dear Author blogger Sunita writes here. Lawsuits probably aren't her idea of a good time, but Litte is an attorney and the post is tightly reported. Hell, many of the details are a matter of public record. So she's in a good position to defend herself. But a struggling writer who just wants her damn royalty check might not feel so comfortable speaking up, especially if it could mean a public battle with a company that knows her legal name.

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But if Ellora's Cave just wants to shut everybody up, this lawsuit was probably the worst possible move. For one thing, Smart Bitches Trashy Books' Sarah Wendell points out that this is CLASSIC Streisand Effect stuff. For another, they've got to prove Litte's accusations are bullshit—which means opening their books. If they're gonna pursue this, we'll have all the details soon enough! Meanwhile Litte is asking for volunteers who say they've been burned by the company and are willing to make a sworn statement. Lots of authors are piping up on their own sites; this post does a great job of rounding up the outspoken ones.

And that's your latest update from the bare-knuckle world of the romance novels.