“I’ve been ripped off by Benjamin Franklin!” – plus marketing etiquette question

by John Holbo on July 4, 2009

Happy 4th of July! Since I’ve been pondering creative rights and copyright extension, I’ll take this patriotic occasion to remind you of that famous scene in Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles in which Cap travels back in time only to have the design for his uniform become the original inspiration for the US flag. Cap is upset. Why should Betsy Ross get credit, after all? A creative continuum conundrum. (via Bully.)





A different ethics/etiquette question. My Plato book will be out in paper form in a month or so. When I made the deal with my publisher to let the e-stuff go free (which might reasonably be deemed a serious drag on the paper market) I promised to take it upon myself to work the e-angle fairly aggressively, marketing-wise. And now I ask myself: where do I draw the line between marketing and spamming? Normally I wouldn’t even consider sending an email to 200+ people I don’t know. That’s spam. But sending a bunch of philosophers I don’t know a short email telling them, simply, that there’s an Intro Plato text available free – just click – isn’t so obnoxious. Is it? Spamming means: not giving a damn that you are putting a huge number of people to the mild inconvenience of deleting something they don’t want. Maybe we need a theory of ‘just marketing’, on the lines of ‘just war’: it’s ok to send a mass email so long as you have taken reasonable precautions to exclude those with non-consumer status from the target zone. But that’s a bit vague. Suppose you were in my position. I’ve committed to being an aggressive e-marketer, which of course is in my own self-interest as well: how can I wage an aggressive but just e-marketing campaign?



Drew Robertson 07.04.09 at 12:45 pm

Don’t overthink it. After all it’s just marketing.


Stu 07.04.09 at 1:01 pm

To wage an “aggressive but just e-marketing campaign” you’ll need more than just e-mail. You’ll need blogs (like this one), Facebook, web sites, links, Digg, Delicious, YouTube, and the like. You can create a buzz all by yourself with those tools and others. With help from those already established you can create a perfect firestorm of marketing and you’ll be able to sleep at night.


The Raven 07.04.09 at 2:29 pm

When I get one of those at my academic account (and I’ve gotten several) I don’t think well of them. I think you’d better find another way. (You might also have into trouble with academic authorities.) …perhaps you could advertise here?


anxiousmodernman 07.04.09 at 2:30 pm

An email like that is not even close to being spam. Spam is perpetrated by robots who email repeatedly, spam usually involves deceit, and spam often has some sort of computer virus attached.

That said, take Stu’s advice and use other tools as well. Good luck, and thanks for a free electronic version.


akatsuki 07.04.09 at 3:18 pm

Sorry, but unsolicited email = spam. And I am sure each other spammer can say, well, they will only have to delete it and it is just one click.

Post it to forums, post it to sites you publish on, or on twitter or facebook – where people perform the affirmative act of going to find it. Buy a couple of (not massively intrusive) ads. But if I saw an email from someone I didn’t know trying to sell me something – I’d just hit the report spam button and mentally put that person in the “spammer” category.


John Holbo 07.04.09 at 3:51 pm

“Sorry, but unsolicited email = spam.”

Well, this is sort of my instinct as well. Except it isn’t quite true. I’ve often sent colleagues I don’t know (or not very well) unsolicited email, asking them about their work or (more to the point) telling them about mine. It’s just that I haven’t been trying to market the work, on top of passing it on freely, while I do it. It’s a delicate line, no doubt. But I feel that my publisher has been rather generous about letting me try the e-thing, so I’m concerned to make it work out, commercially, if that’s possible. Partly it’s a problem with me agreeing to personally wear the marketing hat, which is traditionally worn by the publisher. That’s due to me wanting to change the way it’s all done (not just make more money personally.) Also, it seems to me that there’s a difference between sending unsolicited email that only tries to sell things and unsolicited email that tells people who are professionally interested in something about something that is freely available in that area.

My whimsical point about ‘just war’ theory was actually serious to this extent: it’s obviously not the case that spammers can say that you only have to delete it. Those clicks add up, so that excuse doesn’t fly. But if you have a reasonable expectation that enough people might be interested that you aren’t just causing more bother than you are providing useful stuff …

I personally wouldn’t mind receiving an email telling me about some free resource that I might, plausibly, be interested in. I got an obviously mass email from Jonathan Bennett several months ago, advertising his ‘early modern philosophy’ stuff:


I already knew about it, so the email was sort of wasted on me. But it didn’t occur to me to regard it as spam, since it was actually reasonable to suppose I would be interested. But maybe other people found that sort of promotion intrusive, because it’s so similar to all the fake cialis stuff. (Did anyone else get that email from Bennett? How did you feel about it – or how would you feel about it?)


foolishmortal 07.04.09 at 4:43 pm

But if you have a reasonable expectation that enough people might be interested that you aren’t just causing more bother than you are providing useful stuff

Yes, this. The worst case scenario involves 200 delete clicks. How many uses of intro to plato text justify this? One, I’d think (that’s a section’s worth of textbooks there.) Can you expect at least this number? Have you taken reasonable measures to pare down your email list?


hoverbikes 07.04.09 at 5:33 pm

I’d send an email to Cory Doctorow, for whom this is something of a pet issue. Tell him your situation, pitch him your book, and I bet you get a boingboing.net post (and therefore thousands of downloads) out of it. Not sure many of those would lead to paper sales, but it would definitely spread the word.


Henry 07.04.09 at 5:34 pm

Create a Facebook group, and invite your friends to join – this is imo reasonably unobtrusive and allows people not to sign up, while also perhaps creating a minor snowball effect …



Henry 07.04.09 at 5:58 pm

And, as a public service announcement, given the email-storm that Cory has to deal with on a daily basis, I would _not_ recommend emailing him this way as a general practice (he begs and pleads with even his friends that they submit BoinGBoing stuff through the official channels).


Matt Brown 07.04.09 at 6:15 pm

You could send your messages to lists like PHILOS-L and Philosophy Updates instead. Members of said lists have already signed up for such posts.


e julius drivingstorm 07.04.09 at 6:40 pm

You could offer a free Squid & Owl coffee table book valued at, say $39.95, with purchase of one Plato book at maybe $14.95 in paper back, and send it to everybody. With a nominal surcharge for shipping, handling, and attorneys’ fees.


Ken Houghton 07.04.09 at 9:48 pm

Send the e-mails.


Doctor Slack 07.05.09 at 2:28 am

“Oddsblood!” I love comic-book swearwords. That’s almost as classic as Banshee’s “Faith and Begorrah!”


John Holbo 07.05.09 at 2:40 am

Hmmmm, this is interesting. I hope people keep providing their reactions, but even this level of negative response has pretty much convinced me not to do it because – even if I think I’ve been diligent about restricting the mailing to folks who might be interested – I’ll still look like an indiscriminate spammer to at least a few people and that’s not an acceptable result.

I have a funny perspective on this because I’m also the library rep for my department which means I periodically plow through stacks of promo book stuff from publishers, and I get more book adverts in my snail mail than the average academic, I’ll wager. And I find the wastage of all that glossy paper senseless and a bit nauseating. It’s ironic that if I funded, say, the mailing of 1000 little flyers I would just a be a marketer. But if I sent an email to a couple hundred people, I’d look like a spammer. Even though the former is actually more obnoxious and wasteful. Obviously the difference is that mailings are self-limiting in that no one sends a flyer to someone who they have no reason to suppose is interested. So if you receive such a thing in error you assume it is, to some degree, an honest error. In my case I actually would be performing that due diligence, but there would be nothing in the product that certified that this was the case, so I would be a suspect. (I am doing ‘just marketing’ philosophy as we speak, you see.)

Anyway, in a world in which no one ever spammed anyone, so that email marketing did not have the odious reputation it (deservedly) does, it would be fine for an academic to promote a free book with an email campaign. But in our fallen world of email criminality, it’s probably not worth it for me to go that way. I’m certainly not going to try to solve the problem by including a little note in the email, arguing that it isn’t really spam. (Although that would be kinda funny.)

Maybe I should pose as a Nigerian widow of a recently deceased politician who wants to transfer a free Plato textbook into people’s bank account.


John Holbo 07.05.09 at 2:43 am

“Faith and Begorrah!”

I’d forgotten about that one!


Stuart 07.05.09 at 3:16 am

What I always like is that supposedly god gets really annoyed about blasphemy, but is apparently completely fooled by a really obvious euphemism in which virtually every syllable is the same as the original swear word.


Anders Widebrant 07.05.09 at 9:30 am

If we use spam as the unjust extreme in e-marketing, we put it there for at least three good reasons:

1. Targeting, as you mentioned, a large audience with no regard for their potential interest in the product

2. Being sent out very frequently — a single mail about penis enlargement technology a month is an annoyance, ten a day is spam. (This is a complex point, I guess, since it forces the individual e-marketer to consider the combined impact of his own messages and those of his competition)

3. Tone: spam has evolved to be routinely deceptive, trying to draw views by disguising itself as personal replies, mail system errors and so on and so forth

Taking the opposite of these, I’d say that a just e-marketing campaign should be 1) well-targeted, 2) very low-frequency and 3) honest and personal in tone.


Henri Vieuxtemps 07.05.09 at 10:48 am

Send the emails, but spoof the sender’s address as if it comes from your publisher. Then, in a few days, send another wave of spam from your own address with apologies for the previous spam.


Eszter Hargittai 07.05.09 at 1:13 pm

“Sorry, but unsolicited email = spam.”

That is way over-inclusive. There is a ton of email we send in daily life that is unsolicited, but would not be regarded spam (after all, every correspondence has to start with someone sending a message and how often has the recipient actually asked for that message?).

I think the key here is how careful you’ve been with the list. If it’s a list that contains names of people who are in the area then I don’t see why this would be a problem. Like you, many other people probably like to hear about projects related to their work and interests.

If possible, I’d do the following. I realize it’s a lot of time, but probably not more time than you may continue to spend wondering about this matter.:) I’d try to personalize the messages as much as possible. First, I’d include the name of the person (programs can help you automate this bit). Second, I’d include a bit of intro that is as personalized as possible regarding why the recipient might care. Example: Dear Jessie, we met at the Philosophers’ Division of the Cartoons-R-Us conference last year and based on our conversation, I thought you might be interested in the following. or Dear Jamie, I’ve seen your contributions on the Plato in Graphics mailing list and based on your interests, I thought you might enjoy knowing about the following.

Of course, this presupposes that you remember this level of detail about people. If not then you could still say something like Dear Jordan, we met at a conference a few years ago and based on our mutual interests, I thought you might enjoy knowing about the following.”

At the end of the email, you can apologize if this is unwanted email and assure people that this is not a list and they will not be hearing from you about this matter again. To make sure they are fully convinced, you can note explicitly that they should feel free to email you at this address with any questions or concerns.

With this level of targeting and context, I doubt that many people would be upset. I hate spam, but this isn’t it. (Re your note about hard-copy marketing materials, indeed, I do think of them as spam and get annoyed at receiving them, because not only have those wasted my time, but they have also wasted paper and other resources that go into postal mailings.)


Billiken 07.05.09 at 3:37 pm

How about a degrees of connection email campaign? Send email to people you know who might be interested, and at the end of the email ask the recipient to forward it to people they know who might be interested. Even people who did not buy the book might forward the email as a favor to people they know. You could also ask people to respond to you if they want future notices.

Humans evolved in small groups, and strangers were suspect. The internet allows spammers to broadcast marketing and malware to multitudes. It also allows you to build your own marketing network. :)


bianca steele 07.05.09 at 3:56 pm

I don’t disagree with the preceding comments, but I wonder whether it is worth raising the possibility of a quibble on the definition of “aggressive.” It might mean only “extending the range of your comfort zone.” More usually, it might mean “exploring all options, and even being creative in finding options” and possibly even “going beyond what’s ordinarily done in similar cases.” None of these definitions implies “behaving aggressively towards people” and none of them involves similar emotional or moralizing reactions to what people feel when others are unduly aggressive. It should be obvious from the context which is expected from your publisher.


John Holbo 07.05.09 at 4:11 pm

As to ‘aggressive’: I’m not sure that I promised that adjective to my publisher. Certainly they didn’t request it from me in those precise terms. I think in this post I was sort of milking the ‘just war’ joke for more than it’s worth. You are right that ‘aggressive’ is inherently negative and I don’t WANT to be doing something bad. It is, as you see, a case of me wanting to think of everything that I can do – which other authors can’t, because they aren’t doing the free thing. ‘Exploring all options’ covers it.


Matthew Kuzma 07.05.09 at 8:16 pm

As long as you have a valid reply-to address and you abide by requests to be removed from future mailings, you’re not spamming.


novakant 07.05.09 at 8:49 pm

One thing to consider is that more and more people check emails on their phone. I personally use it parallel to and just like texting, so when that little red light blinks, I am always a bit annoyed when it turns out to be something other than business or friends, because I tend to check each and every message, as it might be something urgent and/or important. That said, should you send out emails, contrary to Eszter’s advice I would keep them very brief and to the point, as that makes it easier to discard them quickly, should people not be interested,


Timothy Scriven 07.06.09 at 2:22 am

I can’t speak to the wisdom of sending out such messages, nor can I speak to how the average philosopher on the street would react, but I can say that I would appreciate such a message. It’s like getting a free book in the mail! ( and not one of the weird religious kind.)


Dr Zen 07.06.09 at 11:42 pm

I get lots of well-targeted spam. It’s still spam, even if I did buy [word omitted to pass filter] sometimes.


max 07.07.09 at 12:05 am

“Sorry, but unsolicited email = spam.”
Well, this is sort of my instinct as well. Except it isn’t quite true. I’ve often sent colleagues I don’t know (or not very well) unsolicited email, asking them about their work or (more to the point) telling them about mine.

akatsuki left out a word. It should have been ‘unsolicited mass email = spam’. Sending an individual email to someone you don’t know is basically OK. That’s what teh tubes are for. If you sign up for a commercial service (these days) they usually ask if they can send you an email – if you say yes, it’s ‘solicited’. Sending a mass email (within limits) to a bunch of your friends is another thing (which may still piss them off if it was unsolicited – and you’ve got no right to kick if they ask you not to do that again, but presumably your friends will count as solicited by being your friend). Mass email to a bunch of people you don’t know is the no-no. The ‘mass’ may number 200 or it may number 10,000,000 but the same principle is at work.

That’s been the de facto rule for a long time (20-odd years, more or less), but people don’t see it articulated much, so they know it when they see it… but then the day comes when temptation kicks in due to needing to market something and suddenly, gee, the ‘know it when you see it’ rule seems… restrictive. You’re not a spammer, it’s those Russian dudes… with the ball caps and the 5000 stolen credit cards.

Trouble usually begins right after this point in the saga.

Anyways, sending an email to an appropriate email list that accepts that kind of traffic (commercial! check with the mod!) is A-OK. Posting to forums that accept commercial messages is OK. Twitter, Myspace, etc. are all OK. Purchased advertising (including a free blog in support of the book release!) is OK.

No spam.

If it helps, think of the difference between push (advertising) and pull. Anytime you’re pushing the thing out there onto people who may not want it and cannot avoid it, you’re in Giant Corporate Conglomerate Spam Land, even if you’re essentially a small business(wo)man.

You can get around the rule by individually talking to people, but that’s still door-to-door salesmanship, and many people have invisible ‘No Soliciting’ signs up.

[‘No one yet has invented the marketing scheme whereby all possible recipients of the information are unoffended by that information, much less pleased to recieve it and happy to purchase.’]


akatsuki 07.07.09 at 1:42 am

It is really about a social contract. For what purpose do you have my email address? The commercial motive of the type of contact really is what I would find offensive – you have my email address for whatever reason, but it probably isn’t too make money or fame for yourself. If I am interested in the field, presumably normal, non e-mail routes will be sufficient. Twitter is a great place for companies – instant feedback, very nice informal communication and the 140 char limit. Announcing on your site is fine too – it is like your own house and you can set the rules and determine what constitutes adequate decorum.

A commercial email that I didn’t ask for is just like the guy handing out flyers on the sidewalk, you might grab it on the way by because the guy invades your personal space that little bit (with that unspoken threat of him actually engaging in actual conversation about whatever it is) and hope that is sufficient to placate them until you find the trash bin.

I know it seems harsh, but it is hard enough to manage email as is.


Josh 07.07.09 at 7:36 am

Regarding your point about the per-unit cost -> assume it’s an honest mistake quality of paper marketing materials, a possibly useful service: What if, as a method of getting past people’s spam filters, you could use an intermediary email distributor that would charge you a per-message fee and then deliver (some largish portion of) that fee to a charity of the recipient’s choice? That would both create a positive effect for the recipient and require due dilligence on your part to avoid wasting money with an overbroad list.


dr 07.07.09 at 1:44 pm

I send unsolicited email, even unsolicited mass email, all the time. People rarely get upset, and when they do the problem is that I’ve misjudged whether they are interested in the thing I’m emailing about. It’s about assessment.

Now, the thing is, I don’t call what I do marketing. I call it organizing. In other contexts, in conscious echo of the power of buzzwords past, I would call it networking.
Using the network frame suggests some additional ways to think about who would want to hear about the book and why. In particular, it encourages us to remember that it can also be a bad thing to be excluded. For example, when I ask myself, who would benefit most from a free online Plato text, the answer that suggests itself includes a lot of contingent faculty, but it seems unlikely that many adjuncts made a list that has been carefully pared back to two hundred. Others have suggested using facebook, blogs, and other social media, and those go a long way toward addressing the sort of concern I’d raise about the exclusion of adjuncts. I’m just saying that if inclusion is a benefit, then an invitation can be a courtesy.


Henri Vieuxtemps 07.07.09 at 2:00 pm

I get unsolicited individual emails sometimes, like this: ‘we found your website, we have this great company here in Bangalore, we can help you improve it.’ There is no doubt that it’s sent to me individually, and yet it’s still spam as far as I’m concerned. So, it’s not true that only mass-mailing can be spam.


Laura Wimberley 07.08.09 at 2:09 am

What about creating a very brief (2-3 line) signature file promoting the book to go automatically at the end of all of your emails? Put in links to the free e-book, WorldCat, and Amazon.com. That way you’ll let all of your usual email correspondents know how to get the book, without creating any additional spam.


John Sundman 07.08.09 at 12:12 pm

My first book came out in 1999. I put the first 13 chapters up on my website for free download. It’s a thriller about nanomachines. So, I combed the web for people who were interested in nanomachines, and sent out a bunch of personalized, individual emails to them.

Several people responded with a “thank you” and a book order. Some just said thanks. Most people just ignored the message.

But a few people reported me to “abuse@$myISP” and I was warned to stop it or lose my email privileges.

I long ago stopped sending unsolicited emails announcing my books, even though they’re available for free download from my site. I do send out notes to people who write book reviews asking them if they would like free (paper) review copies. (Some people even regard *that* as spam, but I think that’s just an overboard response.)

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