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 benjeapes.com 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: http://spammers-R-us.com

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

So out of interest I visited spammers-R-us.com (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 spammers-R-us.com. I’m a contact form, that’s all. That is how well spammers-R-us.com 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 spammers-R-us.com, spammers-R-us.com 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.

What I learned from Geoff Love

Geoff Love's Star WarsA recent Facebook discussion made me all nostalgic for a classic of my childhood, Geoff Love’s Star Wars and Other Space Themes. I wondered if it was available on Amazon and, blow me down …

It’s probably rare for a cheesy easy listening covers album to hold a special place in one’s heart, but it does for me, and I can think of at least two friends in the sf community who have admitted similar feelings. Why? Well, because I learned a lot from this album.

No prizes for guessing that my sole reason for buying it, at the age of 13, in 1978, was to get hold of the Star Wars theme. As far as I was concerned this LP was a single with an A side and a lot of B sides. I had seen the movie once by this stage, and remembered the music as being quite good. For some reason I had it in my head that it was a bit like the theme to Born Free. (At least, it goes up and down in an approximately similar way.)

And I learned …

I began to learn new things just from the cover, which featured a montage of people and ships that were obviously based on the shows depicted on the album … but weren’t. That wasn’t Luke and Leia. (‘Luke’ is more like a bizarre Luke/Han hybrid.) That ship might be based on a Federation design but it’s not the Enterprise. There’s a space station which may or may not be the one from 2001, except that it seems to have part of a third ring which somehow gets lost.

And there was a fairly straightforward rendition of Jane Fonda as Barbarella, which no 13 year old boy was ever going to complain about.

So, I learned that artists can have fun riffing off other artist’s work. I’m sure all the rights were paid – no one was getting ripped off – but why confirm mindlessly to what is when you have your own idea of what could be?

I also learned a few things from the track list, like the very existence of Things to Come, the aforesaid Barbarella, and Quatermass. I decided I would seek these things out and find out more, and am glad I did.

And then there was the music, which brings me back to the first point – artists having fun by being inspired. The title track is a straight orchestral rendition of the Star Wars theme, and as that was what I bought it for, I can’t really complain. Other straight orchestral pieces are Holst’s “Mars, the Bringer of War”, a thankfully abridged version of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and the theme to Things to Come. But the rest … Different versions of Star Trek and Thunderbirds and U.F.O. and Space: 1999 and … and … With everything from orchestra to sax to 1970s wacka-wacka electric guitar, sometimes in the same track (and something else I didn’t know and could not have appreciated at the time: the legendary Herbie Flowers on bass. I didn’t know that bass existed, though could probably have worked out that something must be making those deep notes).

And, what the hell was Princess Leia’s theme, I wondered? I only knew the title music: I didn’t recognise any others. But the next time I watched Star Wars, now that I knew of its existence, I was able to pick it out of the background music. Since then I’ve learned to listen to what is going on as well as watch it, and that has helped me enjoy movies on a different level to simple childlike reception.

And an extremely boppy version of Doctor Who, which at first irritated the hell out of me because I accepted no substitutes. But, you know, it grew on me … And I had no idea there would come a time when I would look back on it and wish we could have that one instead of the Bontempi drek that assaulted us during the 80s. Again, artists having fun, coming up with new ideas, fresh expressions, and why not?

Don’t take my word for it.

Soon after this Geoff Love bandwagoned his way onto the other big craze of the late 70s, with Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Other Disco Galactic Themes. This has been tacked onto the end of the first album in the Amazon download, so if you buy the first one you get this free. This one is … differently good.

Geoff Love's Close EncountersNo longer Geoff Love and his orchestra, note: we’re onto Geoff Love and His Big Disco Sound. Disco-tastic versions of the CE3K theme (which I will grudgingly admit actually improved on the original tune by having one) and other sf classics such as, um, Logan’s Run, The Omega Man and Flight Fantastic, whatever the hell that was last one is. Apart from the title track, the only one worth the admission price is the discoed version of Blake’s 7, which at least justifies the inclusion of a four-armed Liberator-alike on the cover. But you do rather get the idea they were running out of ideas.

And so my last lesson, which I really wish Geoff had learned too, was: quit while you’re ahead.

Because I can, I will leave you with the Geoff Love rendition of Blake’s 7.