The Flight of the Sorceress

The Flight of the Sorceress
Front and Back Covers

Saturday, February 12, 2011

MY LIFE AS A SPAMMER: What’s an author to do when accused of spamming?

 A while back, after my historical novel The Flight of the Sorceress was released, I commenced my amateurish attempts at marketing books. I didn’t think it would make good sense to spend large sums of money for public relations on my book, sums I was unlikely to recoup. But I suck at being shameless self-promoter. I think among my author colleagues this condition is not unique. But in the big leagues, or even the higher minor leagues, you’ve got to be able to both field and hit, not to mention run. I soon discovered that good writing is only one of many skills an author needs to get anywhere in the horrific world of book sales.

So what to do? I looked around. Found out what other authors were doing — and not doing. Began dipping my timid toes in icy water. Lo and behold! There are thousands of good, if not great, published authors out there all cast into the roiling seas of book promotion by their under-funded publishers and they are flailing about, fending off the circling sharks of costly promoters, gasping for breath while drowning in emails about “services”— promising 15 minutes of TV fame, magic mailing lists, snake-oily gimmicks. Shout all you like, your screams won’t be heard over the general din of the drowning masses. Yet shout you must. Shameless you must be, in the faint hope that your voice will be heard and deemed worthy of salvation.

And so I set out, trudging along the well-worn paths of those who had gone before, pretending to be heedless of the corpses that littered the wayside. I joined numerous Yahoo lists. I created a blog. I upgraded my website. I began social networking. I have gotten universally good reviews, which I touted. I’ve given away books. All in blind trust that there really is a “tipping point” out there, and that someday I will reach it…. And then I got accused of spamming!

SPAMMING! Jesus Christ! I don’t know where you come from but in my house, spam is a bad word. It’s worse than bad. It’s like calling someone a capitalist pig (or if you’re on the other side of the spectrum, a communist.) Goddamn it! Me, a spammer? No F*CKING WAY.

It got me to thinking. Is trying to create art or literature worth the trouble if, in the end, all you get is accused of being a spammer or a shameless self-promoter? Now, let’s be clear. I’m not in this writing thing for the money. I’ve been a lawyer for forty years. I’ve made more money in a billable hour than I can from a quarterly royalty check, or even a semi-annual one.  I know damn well who makes the money in the entertainment industry, including the book business, and it isn’t the artist or writer (unless the writer is writing contracts or legal papers — but that’s another story.) True financial success stories among authors, artists, performers, athletes are about as rare as there are habitable planets in the universe compared to the rest of the cosmos. So it’s not that. And the arts are not fields where one doesn’t need a thick skin, always confronting a shitload of criticism and/or rejection. That goes with the turf, believe me, I know. But to be accused of being an, ugh, spammer. That’s going too f*cking far.

What happened was that I sent a blurb of Flight of the Sorceress to five separate Amazon discussion groups. (Amazon has over 600 discussion groups.) Several groups specifically asked for authors to tell the group something about their works. Two did not, but both of these asked questions that seemed relevant to the topics in my book — heroines in historical fiction and Hypatia. Now these discussion groups had a few hundred participants in total over a period running back to 2009. But I recall that at least two had fewer than fifty and some posts were fairly old. Does this sound like some clever spamming tactic I had come up with? One day, five groups, one single book announcement going to five selected groups interested in ancient history, could this be spam? Not in my book. Ha ha. A few days later, I got a notice from Amazon. If I didn’t cease and desist, I was going to get thrown out of these discussion groups. I’d never again get to abuse this innocent bunch of readers by mentioning my book even though it might be of specific interest to them.

Then a blogger/reviewer posted on her blog that Amazon had found me guilty of spamming. As it turned out, she had a rather large following.  (When I found out, I wrote her, explained the circumstances and she graciously removed the accusation.)

Just what is spam, technically?

It boils down to this: spam is the use of electronic messaging systems to send unsolicited bulk messages indiscriminately. There are circumstances where spamming is illegal under federal law. There are private rights of action available against spammers. That is, people have rights to sue spammers.

Amazon’s guidelines for discussion groups describe spam as “Any form of ‘spam,’ including advertisements, contests, or other solicitations for other websites or companies; or any URL link that includes a "referrer" tag or affiliate code.” But there are other kinds of posts that are considered against Amazon’s guidelines than spam. The mere removal of an author’s post from an Amazon group discussion does not mean that Amazon, the arbiter of all things right and good in the book biz, has proclaimed it “spam.” Bloggers who consider a post’s removal from an Amazon discussion group to be proof of spamming are misleading their following. And they know it hurts the author’s reputation.

Other groups define spam differently. But spam has a technical, legal definition.  While a discussion group can call whatever they want “spam.” That doesn’t make it so. For example they could call sending any unsolicited email to their group “terrorism” if they wanted to, regardless of content. Amazon’s lawyers are obviously aware of the risks they run by accusing an author of being a spammer, and they know it could have serious legal consequences to their deep pockets. So they didn't say that to me. Amazon appears to be well-aware that we authors are at risk of having our reputations tarnished as spammers as we stumble and bumble through the brambles of self-promotion hell. But many bloggers and webmasters are not so savvy (and not so fearful of being sued because their pockets are no deeper than most authors.)

 “What can authors do to protect themselves from such an accusation in their promotional activities?” 

Send your posts to places where you reasonable can think the site has solicited information about your writing or the subject matter you are writing about. Different discussion groups may include different members. Send them on different days. Sending posts to more than one discussion group does not make the post indiscriminate or in bulk, particularly when it was solicited or the custom and practice of the group appears to welcome such information.

Are you sending out your promo indiscriminately? Well, not if you are selecting groups with a specific stated interest in your subject matter. If you sent a promo of your XXX, m/m/f hot kinky romance-of-the-zombie witches book to a site that caters to Christian gardening clubs, I think there’d be an argument that it met the “indiscriminate” test, but then it all depends of the kind of Christians inhabiting those clubs.

And if, for example, a writer posts to five groups, and his/her posts are found relevant in three of them, but not in two others that contain a total of fewer than say, 20 members, do the two posts, one to each group qualify as “bulk?” I doubt it. You may be breaking some group rules but that doesn’t make you a spammer.

What happens when a blogger assumes that the removal of an author’s post from a discussion group means the author has been spamming, and then the blogger publishes as fact that the author is a spammer?

No question such a publication is defamatory, if untrue. It connotes civil misconduct and/or possibly criminal behavior by the author. Such a blog, designed to reach a specific group of the author’s potential customers smears the author’s reputation. The blogger is implying that the author and/or his or her work should be discredited. The accusation is intended to injure an author in his or her occupation.

Now, a blogger certainly has a right to review a writer’s work and to say what he/she believes are its merits or demerits. That is clearly a matter of opinion and opinions are protected speech. No problem there. But it is not protected speech to accuse a person of committing an act that may be a crime or a civil violation and most certainly is defamatory. It is one thing for a discussion group member to register a complaint against a potential offender of guidelines, but it is quite another thing to separately publish in a blog or website as a fact that the author is a spammer. The blogger knows full well it can damage the reputation of the author.

So what is an author to do?

First, take a deep breath and ponder P.T. Barnum’s admonition that “there is no such thing as bad publicity.” Don’t freak out and write a nasty-gram. It’s always better to smooth feathers than to ruffle them. Second, write a friendly personal note to the blogger explaining what you were trying to do. Apologize for any unintended offense. Explain that you are the author and are proud of you work. Perhaps even offer the blogger a free copy. Explain that you made a good faith attempt to abide by the group’s rules and say that you thought that you did. But also explain that what you did was not spam under the law, or as it is commonly understood by the author’s and blogger’s potential readers. Explain that it is damaging to your reputation and that any reasonable person would view the accusation of spamming as derogatory. And then request that the blogger remove the statement from his/her blog or website because it is defamatory. Give them an opportunity to retract and keep a written record of the correspondence. Then, if they don’t remove the accusation and you feel your reputation is important to you and/or you feel you have been damaged as an author, you can consider taking more forceful action.

Fortunately for me, my letter worked.


  1. Barry,
    Thanks for sharing your story. Great and very helpful post.
    I am glad you’ve got your name clean :)

  2. Wow! This is something that doesn't happen every day, but when it does...

    Thanks for the tips on what you can do should it happen to you. I'll be sure to direct others to read this post.

    PS - your book sounds awesome :)

  3. Barry,

    This is just the sort of information a debut novelist needs. I'm terrified of being told I'm spamming when I Tweet, FB "me, me, look at my reviews..." I'm a writer, not a promoter and this is coming so hard. Thanks for the tips - I'll sweat it out.