Monday, December 3, 2007

Spam--is it or isn't it?

I've seen heated arguments erupt on lists and in other places lately over the topic of spam. Not about whether anyone actually likes spam--the few people out there who actually enjoy getting emails about penny stocks and mail-order Viagra tend to keep their strange taste to themselves. No, the debate is about whether or not certain author emails actually are spam.

The scenario: Eager Author has a new book coming out. He or she--let's say he, just to keep things simple--belongs to a number of lists and organizations. Say he's a SinC member, and belongs to the SinC list and DorothyL, reads this blog regularly, and has a recent SinC membership directory. He industriously harvests emails from the SinC list, DorothyL, and the SinC blog comments; he types in every single email address he finds in the directory; and then he sends out a press release about his new book to the resulting emailing list.

And to his surprise and dismay, some of these people cry foul and accuse him of spamming them. He counters that no, it's not spam, it's self-promotion. Who's right?

Those on one side of the argument argue that any unsolicited commercial email is spam. Unsolicited--they didn't ask him to send them email. Commercial--he's trying to sell his book. Unsolicited+commercial+email=spam.

Those on the other side argue variously that it's not spam if an INDIVIDUAL sends it rather than a faceless organization; or that only BULK unsolicited commercial email qualifies as spam--not the modest quantity of emails a single author might send; or that their mutual membership in a list or organization creates enough of a relationship to take the email out of the unsolicited category. In short, that Eager Author has every right to send his promotional email.

I'm probably not making the "it's not spam!" case as well as I should, probably because--full disclosure here--I fall in the "it's spam!" camp. And even if Eager Author does have the right to send his email, having the right doesn't necessarily make something a smart thing to do.
Because in the end, it doesn't matter whether or not Eager Author's email is legally or technically spam. We're not in a court of law here. We're in the court of public opinion. And even if Eager Author sincerely believes he is technically correct and legally blameless, he has just seriously ticked off a bunch of people he was hoping to sell his book to. Is that something an author really wants to do?

So let's imagine I could use my handy dandy No Regrets Time Travel Machine ( patent pending) to go back to the moment in time when Eager Author was getting ready to launch his email campaign. And let's imagine I try to convince him that maybe this won't be the most effective way to promote.

"But how am I supposed to market my book?" he asks in dismay. "How can I build my mailing list if I can't add the people I meet?"

Don't just add people. Try inviting them.

If you have a collection of email addresses that belong to people you think might be interested in receiving your promotional emails--but you haven't explicitly asked their permission--("Hey, would you like to be on my mailing list? Great, just give me your email and I'll add you.")--you can always ask their permission. Very few people would object to a short, straightforward email informing them that you have a mailing list and would be happy to add them to it if they like--as long as you also promise not to bother them again if they aren't interested. Please note that this is for people you're already in contact with in some way: readers who have written or emailed you. People with whom you've exchanged emails about subjects of mutual interest. Even friends should be ASKED if they want to be on your mailing list. And make it an individual email, not an impersonal blast to twenty or thirty people at once. (Yes, it's more work. You're asking them to buy and read your book--you can’t take a minute or two to invite them politely?)
Even once people have agreed to be on your list, it's always a good policy to make sure anything you send them includes an opt-out provision and a blanket apology in case they don't want it once they get it. The Femmes Fatales use the following wording on our email newsletter:
If we've made a mistake and you did not want to be added to our mailing list, or if you'd prefer not to receive future issues, please reply to this message with "Unsubscribe" in the subject line or simply click on the following link.

Because even if you only add people who request your newsletter, sometimes they forget they requested it . . . or sometimes people suddenly realize that they're getting way more email than they can deal with and go on a downsizing program. Don't take it personally. If they don't have time to read your email, are they really going to make time to read your book? Unsubscribe them and hope they come back eventually.

And if people are on a list with you, why add to their email load with a personal email? You've already got a means to reach them--plus any other new members who join the list in future--without all the work of harvesting emails. As long as you follow the list rules, of course. Figure out what kind of BSP the rules allow and follow them, to the letter. In fact, even if the list allows unlimited BSP, you'll fare better if you keep it not only infrequent but short and snappy. "FDR's pet Scotty, Fala, is the canine sleuth in my new historical mystery, DEADLY PAWS. To read reviews and the first chapter and to see when my forty-city tour will bring me to a bookstore near you, see" Anyone who's interested will click through, and anyone who's not will give you credit for respecting their time.

Brevity also works well with signature lines. Some authors, realizing that a list does not allow BSP, try to cram every bit of promotion they'd like to do on the list into their sig line. If your sig line contains the titles, ISBN numbers, and release dates of all four of your books; quotes from five different reviewers; your website URL; your Myspace address; your blog URL; and your favorite quote for the day--odds are you are ticking off more people than you are charming. Cut it down to three lines, max.

If a list allows, you could post an invitation to people who might be interested in joining your mailing list. And it's considered fair game to bribe people with content and contests. "In addition to news about the Fala series, I'll be sharing dog care tips with subscribers to my monthly newsletter." Or "I'll be giving away a dozen ARCs of DEADLY PAWS in January to readers selected at random from my mailing list--sign up now to make sure your name's in the drawing."

In other words, it's great to recruit people for your mailing list, but unilaterally adding people without permission is more like the draft. Make sure your mailing list contains only eager volunteers. Because every time someone gets your newsletter or press release and says, "Who the hell is Eager Author, and where does he get off sending me this?"--you've not only failed to make a sale this time, you may have sabotaged any hope of future sales.

In short--these are the people you're trying to sell to. Don't piss them off.

Posted by Donna Andrews


Pageturners said...

Very sound thinking. Well blogged.

Joyce said...

Excellent advice, Donna!

Donna said...

Thanks! Ironically, while I was writing this for the SinC blog, Kris Neri was writing a blog on the same topic for the Femmes Fatales.

Kris sees the issue from both sides--as an author, she understands the need for promotion, and as a bookseller, she can tell her fellow authors exactly why some of their cherished promotion tactics fall flat or even backfire.


Kris said...

I didn't realize Donna had written on the same subject at the same time, but I regard that as telling. Some issues seem to cry out for for additional exposure. While as an author I do see the need for promotion, I also believe that perhaps it's time some of the more outrageous among us tone it down, especially since some tactics don't work.

Another tip for the over-the-top promoters: if you spam the immediate world with news of your new publication and instruct your mailing list to buy the book on Amazon, as is common -- you probably don't want to include on your distribution list the indie stores that you hope will schedule you for signings. Increasingly, the booksellers that find that practice offense are suggesting the authors who do it get their signings on Amazon.

Kristina said...

Makes sense. I hadn't thought about it all that much because stuff like that just doesn't bother me as much as those unsolicited e-mails offering viagra, etc. that range from mildly offensive to very offensive, for instance where some spammer sends an e-mail that uses dirty words in the title and offers services that I don't want and certainly never asked for.

I do like the ability to unsubscribe to what I call "normal junk e-mail", like newsletters from my alma mater, health updates from someplace or other. I never read most of that stuff, but at least it's innocuous.