Sunday, May 11, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- A Victory for Airleaf Authors

Last November, I made a blog entry about the victims of vanity publisher and author "marketing" service Airleaf (formerly known as Bookman Marketing), who decided to go public with their problems, which included long publication delays, non-payment of royalites, non-provision of services, and substandard quality for those services that were provided.

Under pressure from angry authors, and apparently in financial trouble, Airleaf closed its doors in December. Since then, the Airleaf victims' network, under the leadership of the indomitable Bonnie Kaye, has been fighting to bring Airleaf and its owner, Carl Lau, to justice.

This past week, they succeeded.

On Thursday, May 8, in Morgan County court, Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter filed suit against Airleaf, LLC for taking money without providing services in return. 120 authors (identified as "customers") are named in the suit. Carl Lau is accused of violating Indiana's Deceptive Consumer Sales Act, of using company assets to cover expenses not related to the business, and of continuing to solicit authors, promise services, and accept payment for months after Airleaf became insolvent. The suit seeks restitution for Airleaf authors, civil penalties of up to $5,500 per violation, and reimbursement for the cost of the investigation.

(Though 120 names are mentioned in the suit, the actual current Airleaf victim count, according to Bonnie Kaye, is 434. Why the discrepancy? Apparently the Indiana AG's office has a two-year window for filing suit, which means it doesn't have statutory authority to include any victims prior to May 2006. That doesn't bar individuals from hiring attorneys and filing suit on their own behalf--but given Airleaf/Lau's likely financial situation, it probably wouldn't be worth their time or money.)

There are many things to be thrilled about here. Vindication for Airleaf's victims, obviously (though it's very slim odds that Lau, who has threatened to declare bankruptcy and claimed to be too poor even to afford to give victims their materials back, has any assets to pay restitution, even if it's ordered). Punishment for their victimizer (along with fines and restitution, Lau will hopefully be enjoined from operating or owning another publishing business). And another precedent for official action against a scam aimed at writers (it's still difficult to get law enforcement officials interested in this issue, so every case is a major step forward).

I'm also very pleased that PW picked up the story. There's certainly much more awareness of literary scams now than there was when Writer Beware got started, but the publishing industry remains largely blind and/or indifferent to this issue, and it's encouraging that Airleaf registered high enough on PW's attention meter to rate a mention.

While kudos are certainly due to the Attorney General's office, especially Deputy AG Tom Irons, the real credit goes to the Airleaf victims, who joined together to put the scam on public view, and to lobby the authorities to take action. Their victory is yet another example of what can be accomplished when defrauded writers organize. Victim networks brought down Commonwealth Publications, the Woodside Literary Agency, the Deering Literary Agency/Sovereign Publishing, and The Empty Canoe.

But the hero of the hour, in my opinion, is Bonnie Kaye, who organized the victims' group and served as a resource for its members, facilitated the filing of reports and complaints, campaigned tirelessly to obtain official and media attention for the case, and refused to give up, no matter how many stone walls or dead ends she ran up against. Ann and I have been in close contact with her throughout the battle, and we've both been incredibly impressed with her energy and drive. Bonnie has given me permission to print the following statement:

"This victory is strictly through the efforts of the victimized authors who joined together and refused to allow Airleaf Publishing to continue defrauding innocent people out of their dreams, hopes, and money. We would like to give special thanks to Tom Irons from the Attorney General's office who took our cries for justice seriously when other government officials in Indiana refused to help us. This is just the beginning of the battle because we are determined to see criminal charges pressed against Carl Lau through the federal government. When people commit criminal acts against innocent people, they need to be punished accordingly. Even if we don't get back our money, we are determined to gain back our pride and dignity. Let this be a lesson for all predatory publishers in the future. If you can't be honest and deliver what you promise, you will be forced out of business and face the same punishments as Airleaf."

A final note: mycelium-style, Airleaf has spawned several publishing enterprises run by ex-staff--including Fideli Publishing, a fee-based publisher whose marketing packages bear an eerie similarity to Airleaf's, and Brien Jones's Jones Harvest Publishing, which also charges fees for publishing and offers many Airleaf-style services (Writer Beware has gotten some advisories about Jones Harvest's email solicitations, and Mr. Jones has recently chosen to reimburse several Jones Harvest authors who alleged performance problems). If you trace the family tree backward instead of forward, you arrive at the Big Daddy of POD vanity publishing, AuthorHouse, where Brien Jones was employed before he co-founded Airleaf's predecessor, Bookman Marketing. It's a tangled web indeed--which, sadly, is not unusual in the murky world of vanity POD.

5 comments:

scorpiodragon said...

It's always a good day when a scammer sees the light of the courtroom.

Jill Elaine Hughes said...

Hurrah! May this be the first of many state AG actions against the Evil Scammers. And hopefully there will be more federal cases as well. The more of these are prosecuted, the harder it will become for publishing scammers to survive.

(Nice dig at AuthorHouse, by the way.)

Kristi Holl said...

It must feel great to be able to post "justice served" information after all the scams and dishonest folk you have to write about--and the people they've hurt. Hope to see even more news like this in the future!

Nancy Beck said...

This is such good news. I hope the owner is eventually sent to jail, and I hope the victims receive some sort of restitution.

Good on Bonnie for being so persistent!

Now if only a bunch of people could get together and take down the "publisher" in Maryland...

Victoria Strauss said...

The lawsuit is now online at the Indiana Attorney General's website. It makes for interesting reading--laying out the scam in great detail, accusing Carol Lau and Airleaf of running a Ponzi scheme (using current payments to defray past debts and obligations), and detailing the specific complaints of each of the 120 victims. There's also much documentation, including samples of Airleaf's spam solicitations.