More than Writers

More than Writers is the blog of the Association of Christian Writers, with daily posts on any aspect or aspects of writing and faith, in any degree of combination. I have the pleasantly mind stretching task of thinking of something for the tenth of each month, and so far have produced:

I’m form blasting, daddy

image from www.hormelfoods.comI’ve learned a new word. Rather, words. Form blasting. The deliberate mass spamming of contact forms on websites.

For a while I’ve been vaguely puzzled by the amount of messages caught in my spam filter that have been sent via my own website’s contact form.

“My name is Dennis and I was very intrigued by Great content! I can tell that you are a major leader in your field or will become it soon :)”

And other such inspiring messages clearly written by someone who has spent hours poring over my humble offering. Tweak my SEO, buy social media hits, redesign the site … those are the main ones. It’s not a great headache as Gmail’s spam filter really is pretty good. It baffles me more than anything else. One reason I have a contact form on my website is so that I don’t have to publish my email address, and hence (in theory) I get to reduce spam, as people who want to talk to me will have to take the time to enter a message in the form manually. But apparently that happens anyway.

And then the other day I read this one (which was also caught in the filter).

Why are you reading this message? Are you wondering what I want? I just wanted to show you that we have just succeeded in the first rule of advertising.. Getting people to READ our ad. Now let’s make the next 500,000 of these messages YOURS! Form blasting is the most effective direct marketing tool online today. Find out more here:

And there it is. Form blasting. There really are people paid to do this kind of thing.

So out of interest I visited (note: not their real name; they’re not getting even that minuscule amount of publicity). The page extols the virtues of form blasting as a communication method.

What are “contact us” pages? Virtually any website has them, it’s the method any website will use to allow you to contact them. It’s usually a simple form that asks for your name, email address and message and once submitted will result in the person or business receiving your message instantly! Unlike bulk emailing, there are no laws against automated form submission and your message will never get stuck in spam filters. We can’t think of a better way to quickly reach a large volume of people and at such a low cost!

So, just in case there are people out there who are considering falling for this kind of thing – maybe researching form blasting, weighing up the pros and cons, wondering if these people are bona fide or not – here’s why it might not be a good idea.

Because it’s spam. Pure and simple.

Ah, but it’s not spam, is it? At least, not according to their FAQ.

Q: Is form blasting spam?
A: No, in fact there are no clear laws against automated form submissions. After all, the only reason why a business would have a contact form on their website is to get in touch with customers and other businesses. Also, with form blasting the impact of spam filters is minimal and you will get your message out successfully to more people than you would with a mass email blast.

Let us unpack this.

there are no clear laws against automated form submissions

True. So form blasting is technically legal. Do you really want to engage future customers, build a relationship of trust, starting from the point that what you’re doing is technically legal? Does that really sell your company as one that is worth doing business with?

After all, the only reason why a business would have a contact form on their website is to get in touch with customers and other businesses.

And the only reason I have a letter box in my front door is so that people can post things to me. The concept of unsolicited mail still applies. I expect to receive letters, bills, contracts, cheques, bank statements … the usual treeware-based paraphernalia of life in the early 21st century. Unsolicited mail still goes straight into recycling, unopened.

And consider that, like mine, the point of having the form may be to avoid receiving spam in the first place.

Look also at that curious use of the word “business”. I’m not a business. I’m a writer with a full-time day job. I like people to buy my books, yes, and I engage in a certain amount of self-publicity. The website is one example. Through this I earn a little money and declare a little tax. But I’m not a business.

Doesn’t matter to I’m a contact form, that’s all. That is how well choose their targets, boys and girls.

Also, with form blasting the impact of spam filters is minimal and you will get your message out successfully to more people than you would with a mass email blast.

spam filter

Ooh, look! It’s my spam menu! And that’s your message in the background! Can you guess what I’m doing to it? Can you?

So despite this categorically not being spam, they are aware that spam filters present a problem. How strange. Even stranger is that most of these that I get end up in my spam filter anyway. Funny that. So, potential customers of, is lying to you. Almost (almost) every message I have seen like this has been caught by Gmail’s spam filter. Those that aren’t, I mark as spam for Gmail’s benefit. And bear in mind that one of the keys to Google’s success is that its products learn.

And even if I do see it, am I going to use your services?

Or let’s put it another way. If you actually do offer a service that I am likely to want – stranger things have happened – and you don’t spam me, then one day, who knows, I might (might) do a Google search, and find you, and take what you have to offer. A mutually beneficial relationship – your services for my money – might ensue. Might.

But if you form blast me, even if you are offering something I want, then by the Nine Gods, by  Grabthar’s Hammer and by the surly beard of Mrifk himself I swear I will never, ever use your services. If you’re offering something I want, so are others.

So: you don’t form blast, you might get my money. You form blast, you absolutely won’t. Your choice.

Don’t form blast. You’re better than that.

Terry Pratchett

Let me add my tuppence worth – and it really is tuppence, old pence at that – to the Pratchettiana doing the rounds. Because I can.

My first short story sale was to the collection Digital Dreams, edited by David V. Barrett. My story ‘Digital cats come out tonight’ appeared alongside work by authors who included Neil Gaiman, Garry Kilworth, Storm Constantine, Diana Wynne Jones … and Terry Pratchett. This was only 1990, but even so, I knew I trod on hallowed ground.

As did the publishers, who – with Terry’s permission – added a panel to the front cover announcing ‘original stories from Terry Pratchett and the best of British science fiction’. I still have an advance publicity copy of that cover, sent out by the publishers, so can attest that all the words appeared in the same font and same size, and it was down one side of the cover, while Dave’s name as editor received far more prominence.

Cover of Digital Dreams, edited by David V. BarrettThe version that appeared in print, without any consultation with either Dave or Terry, was subtly different. Can you spot it?

I only caught the edges of the storm, but it wasn’t pretty: accusations flew over bigging up Terry’s name at the expense of everyone else to boost the sales (which, let’s be honest, it probably did). It was just some bright unsupervised spark in NEL’s publicity department, but it left a bad taste.

(A review in the British Science Fiction Association’s critical magazine Vector by A Well Known Author & Journalist panned it, devoting all but a few lines to the issue of the cover and finishing with a demand that Dave be expelled from the BSFA, and if no mechanism existed for doing so then one should be created. Of the stories themselves, surely the most salient part of any anthology, he said very little, which was irritating to all of us but not least to those of us hoping to break into the wonderful world of writing by this opportunity. Years later, the WKA&J approached me via a mutual friend to ask for advice on getting his son’s own novel for young people published, clearly with no recollection at all that I had any reason to recoil at his name. I pointed him at my publisher David Fickling without comment and wished the young man well. I can heap burning coals with the best of them.)

Ten years later, when I was accidentally a publisher myself, my launch title was a reprint of David Langford’s The Leaky Establishment, a wonderful send-up of his time working in the nuclear industry. (Curiously, all my big breaks in publishing have come from people called David: chronologically, Barrett, Pringle, Fickling, Langford.) When I asked this Dave if I could publish it, he dropped a mention that a big fan of the book and fellow veteran of the nuclear industry, one Terry Pratchett, had kindly offered to write an introduction if it would help get the book back in print. Was I interested?

Well, what do you think?

It’s no coincidence that Leaky was my best-selling title. And because I’m not stupid, I too wanted Terry’s name on the front cover – but I took care to ask his permission first, and to stress that I wouldn’t mistreat it as NEL had done with Digital Dreams. He replied: “Thanks. That hurt.”

Thereafter we were in the same room a few times but the only time I can say I properly met him was when I moderated a panel in Glasgow, 2005, on young adult fantasy – what is suitable to go in, what isn’t, etc. The precise title of the panel was “It’s OK, it’s Lurve: Sex in Children’s and YA Books”, which is the only explanation I can think of for how talk somehow turned to the then-current urban myth of rainbow parties. Artist Oisín McGann, also on the panel, protested that the concept was fundamentally flawed because any artist will tell you that if you just mix colours willy nilly – so to speak – you just get a bland sort of ochre.

“Well obviously,” said Mr P, “you use masking tape.”

And thus end my recollections of Terry Pratchett.