Thursday, December 06, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- The Empty Canoe: Another Scam Gets Its Due

Once upon a time, there was a Washington state-based ghostwriting studio/publishing house "hybrid" (read vanity publisher) called The Empty Canoe, LLC (a bizarrely appropriate name, as it turned out). Here's how the company was decribed by founders Mike and Kristina Canu (a.k.a. Kristina Valocchi) in a 2004 press release:

The Empty Canoe's growth has been attributed to the fact that primarily, it is a publishing house. By offering the service of ghostwriting, the company is able to get a quality of both idea and client which otherwise would be missed. For centuries the art of ghostwriting, writing eloquently on another's behalf, has been used. Until recently though, only the rich or famous have been able to afford such a service. The Empty Canoe has implemented a business plan that enables a lower initial ghostwriting fee in exchange for the right to publish. The studio gets into the proverbial storm of publishing with its clients.

There was a storm, all right, though possibly not the one the Canus intended. The company first came to my attention in September of last year, when I began receiving complaints from The Empty Canoe authors. They told me about unpaid royalties, books contracted and never published, fees paid for "ghostwriting" that was never done (authors paid between $5,000 and $10,000), misrepresentations of the company's ability and/or willingness to market and promote its books, and ghostwriters and editors whom the company never compensated for their work. This rash of complaints was precipitated by the fact that in August 2006, probably as a result of increasing pressure from angry clients, the Canus did a bunk. They suspended their email accounts, shut off their phones, and put their house up for lease. They also allowed their corporate standing to expire.

Fortunately, defrauded authors were pro-active. They organized a network so they could stay in touch with one another, and filed complaints with local law enforcement and with the Washington State Attorney General's Office. And their efforts were effective. On November 19, the Attorney General announced a settlement with the company.

As is often the case in these situations, the defendants have no assets, so they are unable to pay substantial fines or provide restitution to their victims. The total judgment is $10,000 (which represents the legal and other costs of prosecuting the case), with $94,000 in civil penalties suspended on condition that the Canus comply with the injunctive provisions of the settlement, by which they are "permanently enjoined and restrained" from the following acts in the State of Washington or directed at Washington residents:

- Making misrepresentations in the sale or marketing of any product or service
- Operating, owning, or otherwise participating in a publishing, ghostwriting, or book marketing business without first providing restitution to the 21 victims identified in the settlement and establishing a reserve account of no less than $50,000
- Failing to perform promised services
- Representing that they can perform services they can't actually deliver
- Representing that they can complete work in less time than the work will actually take
- Representing that they'll promote books in ways they don't actually intend to promote them
- Falsely representing that they've received offers from third-party companies
- Violating any provisions of the Unfair Business Practices-Consumer Protection Act.

The Canus are also required to waive their right to assert a statute of limitations defense in answer to any restitution claim brought against them by any consumer (which means that they can be sued by victims at any time). If they violate any of the settlement provisions, the suspended civil penalty will be enforced, and they will be liable for the costs associated with enforcement.

Sadly, the many boxes of material the Canus left behind when they absconded were destroyed by a cleaning company, so authors won't get their materials back.

In one sense, the judgment against The Empty Canoe is only a limited victory for writers, since it won't result in restitution, and doesn't prevent the Canus from starting up a similar scam in a state other than Washington. It's a huge victory, however, in that the Washington State Attorney General found this case worth pursuing. As I've noted before, it's tough to get law enforcement to pay attention to literary fraud. Hopefully, the judgment against the Canus will be another step on the long road to change.

There are two other lessons here. First, while a single complaint filed with the police or the Attorney General probably won't have much impact, a volume of them may--and the volume may be smaller than you think. In this case, just 21 complaints were enough to cause the Attorney General to take action. Second, where action occurs, it's often the result of scam victims working together. The network established by The Empty Canoe victims, who encouraged each other to gather together their documentation, file complaints, and not give up, was crucial to the Canus being brought to justice. Similar victim networks brought down Commonwealth Publications and the Deering Literary Agency. This should give hope to the authors who are currently uniting against Airleaf.

Believe it or not, The Empty Canoe's website is still online.

18 comments:

bluejayln said...

Thank you Victoria, for publicizing this. Though it is a seemingly empty victory (loss of our money and materials), there is great satisfaction that they didn't get away with it. I hope everyone will be vigilant and report it if they try to set up shop somewhere else!

Roni McFadden

Mary said...

On the boxes of material:

Remember to backup your stuff!

And keep a copy!

disestablishingpuritanism said...

I'm an aspiring novelist seeking suggestions from others who have successfully published their works. Basically, I've hit a creative lull the past few years on a story I began one summer. My life is now consumed helping my girlfriend study for her BAR Exam and preparing to move to Massachusetts after she successfully passes it.

One great story I recently read has inspired me to dive into my creative soul once again. Paulo Coehlo's "The Alchemist" really tapped into my vagabond spirit -- one that is constantly searching to hopefully find my God-given gifts.

I know I need to obtain a copyright once this story is completed. From there, I'm clueless. I don't know if I need an agent, where a novice writer like myself needs to turn to, etc. Please respond with how you established yourself in this field and what steps you suggest I take. Thank you.

freddie said...

disestablishingpuranitism, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to research, research, research. Blogs such as this one exist to help you do that. The opening page to this site provides a ton of links not only to other watchdog groups (such as Editors & Preditors), but agents' blogs. You should, even though she's no longer blogging, check out Miss Snark's site. But check them all out. All.

There's info on copyrights, too. Use the search function.

Victoria Strauss said...

disestablishingpuritanism, this isn't really the proper forum for your question, but I'll give you a few pointers anyway.

First, you have copyright as soon as the words leave your brain and land on the page or computer screen. Registering copyright is another step you can take, but it's not necessary for unpublished works. See the Copyright page of Writer Beware (there's a link to Writer Beware on the opening page of this blog) for more info.

Second, complete your story and polish it before you start worrying about how or where to get it published. For new writers, one of the major challenges is just to finish.

Third, once your story is complete and polished, educate yourself about publishing before you start submitting. Not only will this help you to submit more effectively, it'll keep you out of the hands of scammers like Mike and Kristina Canu. My blog post on "Learning the Ropes" provides some techniques and resources for doing that.

Good luck.

Deb said...

One only wonders which publishers right now are doing things that will make authors lament they didn't network sooner. One particular publisher, who has bought several books by cyber-buddies of mine, comes to mind (name of pub on request, via e-mail). Some of the writers, when they get their final print copies, spot numerous editing glitches, bad copy, mistakes, wrong version of file sent to printer--this pub tells the writer that THE DISTRIBUTOR is to blame. Don't know what they're about, but if it smells like dead fish...

pastorbunny said...

I too was a victim of the Empty Canoe. I refer to it as "The Sunken Canoe". I was hired by these people through a very good and legitimate business called guru.com. The EC folks published a job offer there and I bid on it and was accepted. I fell for these folks line line, hook and sinker. I ended up working on three books at a time for them, bouncing from one to another. Suddenly they stopped contacting me and didn't answer my emails or my calls. I stopped writing. I have made contact with two folks whom I was assisting on books and would like to locate the third, perhaps we could manage to work together to salvage something out of this. What happened was a terrible thing.
I can be contacted at gmcleod@nec.edu and I am also on yahoo IM as pastorbunny. I would love to hear from other victims. Perhaps we can work together to salvage something and to prevent this from happening to others.
Bunny

Anonymous said...

Hooray for the good guys. I love seeing scum gettint their just desserts!

padre said...

I realize I am a Johnny-come-lately in my posting to this blog, but I, too, was on the Empty Canoe when it sunk, taking with it my $5,000.00, and all of my materials, thanks to the cleaning company. I am Roman Catholic priest who stepped out in faith, believing Mike Canu could be trusted. Sadly, I was wrong.

Anonymous said...

Padre,
Be sure and contact Pastorbunny. She and I have formed a great relationship and she has been most helpful.
Bluejaylnmcmama1250

bluejayln said...

didn't mean to be anonymous on last comment.

sarah said...

I would like to express my appreciation for your writing about this case. I'm currently working for a publishing/ghostwriting hybrid that sounds just this company. They are called GhostWriters press and for weeks I have been troubled with implications of shady practices and misrepresentation going on in the work place. My fears have been reinforced by a no-questions asked policy.

I searched online for any indication that what was going on here is normal. I wanted to see if there are other ghost writing agencies out there that operate like this.

Anonymous said...

I am a former employee who moved from Indiana to Washington State to work for Mike Canu and his "publishing company"(which was just 3 computers in a basement with a dry-erase board) and I am sad for all the victims, including myself. To those who remember Sean Powell, the Marketing Manager, I wish you all the appologies in the world! I did NOT know the Canu's were running a scam, though I could tell it wasnt a very well ran company.

I knew mike for 5 yrs, all from an online game he ran in 1999-2000 called "Xtreme Kombat"(text based game which was a rip off of WWE)before I moved with my longtime GF and soulmate to Washington State in 2005. I think, looking back, that I was able to be fooled by Mike's charm and charisma by the Natural beauty of Washington State, which kept me always amazed(I could see the Ocean and Mountains through the sliding glass door in the basement every day...and being from the corn fields of Indiana, Mountains and Oceans were my fondest memories of working with the Canu's) and his snake like tongue! Those who know him will tell you what a smug fuck he is!

I will end this by saying once I brought up all the "projects" we had working at once and none near end(and the fact that Mike and the other employee would play an online gamed ironicly called "City of Hero's") while I worked with NO budget to market the companies few finished books(literally NO $$$ went into Marketing) within 2 days I was told that the company wasnt making any money, blamed for the companies shortcoming b/c no books sold, and was told I was being let go. I moved back to Indiana after that and have not been in contact with the Canu's since.

Again I am sincerly sorry to have my name attached to "The Empty Canoe Publishing Company"

I am posting this anonymous, but if anyone wants to contact me email me at dweeder@hotmail.com and I will appologize again to you personally(either via email or phone call if you wish)

Sorry
Sean L Powell


I would like to add, as hard as it might be for people to take in, but in all honesty I don't think the Canu's started this with the intentions of it being a scam. I think (or maybe just hope since I am connected I really do not know) that business became to big for the small company and once Mike figured out he could scam...he did, which is sad.

Victoria Strauss said...

Sean, thanks for the info. It took some guts to put your name out there like this.

passtorbunny said...

There are two ladies who hired The Empty Canoe to create a book for them. Their names are Lisa and Sherry I believe. I have your book. Possibly we can work something out.\
Please contact me. My email is gmcleod@nec.edu and I am on yahoo IM as pastorbunny.
Thanks,
Bunny

Travis Belk said...

I can assure you that Mike and Kristina did not set out to scam anyone. I was friends with them when they first started this venture in Colorado. They had a passion for it and were trying to get the business to blossom. I even gave them a writing sample at one time to be one of their ghost writers. They are nice people, with a beautiful little girl, who I am assuming got in over their heads.

I say assuming as I've lost touch with them over the past few years. Pretty much ever since they moved to Washington. Reading this blog, I can see why I wasn't hearing from them. It's an unfortunate situation.

I decided to comment when I saw them referred to as scum. I know and understand it is hard to feel anything but anger when you lose money. I know I get ticked off when I do. But where some reading this see scum in their minds, there are actual people there in reality. People I can attest started the business with good intentions.

I can't speak on where things went wrong in their endeavor. And I understand it is hard not to vilify them. And I certainly don't justify any wrong-doing that may have taken place. All I can say is the portrait of them that is painted in this blog is not indicative of the people I knew a few years ago.

Anonymous said...

Mike Canu gave me my first job when I moved to CO from PA. It was when I was young, broke, and had less then 300 bucks to my name. Mike and his wife were always very kind and generous to me the whole time I knew them. Mike had just published his own first novel, and was very interested in helping others get published, due in part to how difficult he found the traditional publishing process to be. I havent spoke with mike since 2000, because I moved, so I dont really know what happened in this situation, but the canu's are not scum. Mike was always a creative dreamer who if I had to guess, just simply became overwhelmed with the responsibility of the business and didnt know what to do. Mike was a good dude when I knew him, I found this post while randomly looking up old friends on google. I never, ever thought this would be what I would find. I dont believe mike is a con man, I just think he couldnt handle the job.
Jim M

Anonymous said...

Well, the Canu's may not be scum, but the fact remains they destroyed the trust of at least 21 poeple and probably more. They took all of MY money. I'll never get it back. If they were such good people, they wouldn't have treated us the way they did. They knew for months what they were doing.
Roni