Are you sending spam?

Spam, we all hate it. Or at least we say we do. Unless we don’t, and we do it ourselves. Oops.

We like to talk about whether something is spam or not in very black-and-white terms. But in reality it is a much more grey area than that. If you shop at a particular store, and they have your email address because the transaction took place online, do they have the right to send you emails? Are those emails spam?

Some people might think they are, because they did not ask for those emails to be sent. Some people would be happy to be reminded of special deals. In an ideal world, there would be a checkbox at the checkout process to let the recipient choose whether to put their name on an email list or to opt out. However, many companies don’t do that and start sending email regardless. In general, it is considered to be fair use of an email address to send someone who buys something from you a couple of emails after their purchase.

But what about those people who have nothing to sell, and want to promote a new business or a new service?

This is what the Australian anti-spam act has to say about unsolicited email. Or read about the CAN-SPAM act in the US.

Both (and the laws of other countries) specify the following I would like to highlight:

  • Each email you send must have an unsubscribe link. If you use an email service (Mailchimp or the like), they will do this for you. But if you send regular email to a list, it is the law that you offer people a way off the list.
  • You must also identify yourself with a physical address.
  • The biggie: you may not harvest email addresses from forums, participant lists, customer lists of other but related businesses or activities.

I will not sugarcoat it: many small presses and writer organisations are terrible about the latter.

This is the sort of stuff I’m talking about:

  • You go to a writer con, and because you register online, the organisers have your email address.
    They didn’t expressly ask people if they wanted to be emailed, but I don’t think anyone will have an issue if the organisers email you again when the con is on the next year. This is fair use. So far, so good.
  • But one of the con organisers has a small press. They use the con attendee email list to advertise their books. This is NOT COOL.
  • Someone who works as volunteer for the con takes the list and starts emailing, a few years later, about a second, rival con. This is NOT COOL.
  • Someone from this con regularly visits a forum and adds in people who frequent the forum and starts emailing about their editing business. This is NOT COOL.

Those last three items are illegal.

Yet it is exceedingly common for this to happen in the world of small press and volunteer organisations. Every month I have to unsubscribe myself from several lists collated by overly eager small press people who clearly have no idea what they are allowed to do. I don’t think any of these individuals mean ill, but certainly the cumulated effect on my inbox is infuriating. And despite plenty of publicity about spam as well as warnings by the email companies that they signed up with, these people do not seem to get it.

We—the recipients of the emails—are asked to grin and bear it “to support the community”. Well, I’m through with it. I’m reporting them all for spam. I have to comply with the laws, and so can they. They’ve had over a decade to learn.

Please stop sending people email that they have not asked for. You are giving small presses and volunteer writing organisations a bad name.

If you want people on your list, do this in the same way everyone else does it: by adding a signup box to your website, by adding a link to forum posts, by putting it as pinned post to your Facebook and Twitter profiles, by putting it on all publicity you send out, by using paid ads to increase your audience.

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