Why Spam Filters are bad for Writers

Imagine if your postman very kindly went through your mail each morning, fished out all the junk and shredded it, and only delivered the good stuff. He thinks he’s doing you a big favour, and you’re very happy.

But what if he accidentally shredded a few catalogues you’d sent off for? And your favourite magazine that you subscribed to? A couple of birthday cards? A letter from someone you met on a writing course? A special offer that would have saved you half the cost of your holiday? An important letter that you hadn’t been expecting and had no idea had been sent to you? Still happy?

In fact that same postman, or at least his virtual brother, is very likely in charge of your email inbox right now, and doing exactly the same job. You might have no idea that he’s there … or what he’s shredding before you ever get to see it. If you’re watching your inbox waiting for an offer from a publisher, an editor, or a movie producer, you’d better read on…

Have you subscribed to our newsletter? Do you receive it every month? Some of you do, some of you don’t. We have no way of knowing. Every month we get complaints from people who haven’t received theirs, even though we did send it. Every month we notice several people subscribing again even though they’re already on our mailing list – presumably because they didn’t receive their newsletter.

All we can do is to send it out to the email address you gave and cross our fingers for luck. We have no idea or control over what happens next. Hopefully it will reach your inbox. You might even decide it’s worth reading and not delete it immediately. But it might just as easily end up in your spam or junk folder, even if you’ve followed all your internet service provider’s instructions on how to prevent that from happening.

How often do you check your spam folder, just in case something slipped through by mistake?

Even if you looked in your spam folder, spotted the newsletter, retrieved it, marked it “this is not spam”, and added our email address (mail@ideas4writers.co.uk) to your address book as an approved sender, the next newsletter might still go straight into your spam folder. Why? Don’t ask me. Ask AOL, Yahoo! and Hotmail. (Seriously – ask them!)

Even worse, our newsletters (and other messages) might never reach you at all. Many mail services routinely block messages that are sent to you – without either you or the sender being any the wiser.

OK, so you might not be too worried if you miss one or two of our newsletters. But think about the bigger picture. Other people send you messages too. And some of them could be very important indeed. The editor who wants to publish your story or article. The publisher who wants to publish your book but needs to get hold of you quickly. The journalist who wants to interview you at 3pm tomorrow and needs your immediate reply. Or the producer from the movie company that has just discovered your book and wants to turn it into a blockbuster. Yes, they might phone if you don’t reply. But they might not. They might just send another email marked “urgent”. And you might not get that one either.

So what’s going wrong?

Spam filters are the main problem. Many people install them thinking they’ll get rid of all those blasted messages advertising cheap/fake drugs, watches and body enhancements. And they do the job admirably. But spam filters aren’t very clever, and they’re often badly configured. You might have one and not even realise it if it came as part of an internet security package. Who knows what else it might be blocking?

Maybe you didn’t install a spam filter at all. Maybe your email service or internet service provider installed one at their end. You might vaguely remember them telling you about it once, or perhaps it was mentioned in the small print, but it seemed like a good idea so you ignored it. But you have no idea how it’s configured (or how badly) or what it’s blocking. You’re happy because all those unwanted drugs/watches/body enhancement messages have stopped coming. But so too have all those messages from the nice people at ideas4writers. And editors, publishers and movie producers. And now that you think of it, you haven’t heard from your children, grandchildren, or several of your friends for rather a long time…

Another way that things like our newsletter can get blocked is if people can’t be bothered to unsubscribe when they no longer want to receive it. Or they’ve forgotten that they subscribed. So they use their email program’s “this is spam” option rather than clicking the unsubscribe link we provide in the newsletter. And joy of joys the newsletters magically stop coming.

If enough people do this then it can trigger an email service to mark all our newsletters as spam, even though we only ever send newsletters to those who have subscribed to it.

It’s true, there are plenty of warnings circulating about how you should never click on unsubscribe links at the end of messages. That’s because it proves to the sender of the message that your email account is active – so now they can send you even more spam. Unfortunately many people believe this applies to every message with an unsubscribe link. It doesn’t, of course. It only applies to messages you weren’t expecting and haven’t subscribed to. But if you’ve forgotten that you subscribed, you might think it’s spam anyway. So we can’t win.

Some spam filters block messages based on particular words or phrases. For example, if a message contains the f-word it might get blocked. No, not that f-word, the other one that rhymes with tree and means getting something for nothing. I can’t use that word here or you might never get to read this. Crazy isn’t it.

Would you like f-word delivery on your next order? Are you f-word on Friday for a meeting with the executive producer? There are plenty of legitimate reasons why that word might be used. But some badly configured spam filters block those messages anyway. And it’s not just the f-word but many other words and phrases that are in common usage. If a well-meaning sender puts just one of those words or phrases into their message, you might never receive it. Are you getting worried yet? You should be.

Another issue we have is that our email service runs on a computer that also provides email services to other companies. This is called a shared hosting system, and is very common. The other option is to have a dedicated system – a computer with only your email account on it and no one else’s – but that costs a lot of money and is more than we can afford. The shared system works perfectly well most of the time, and is much more affordable. But there is a serious downside: we have no idea who the other users of that computer are or what messages they’re sending out. If one of them is sending out spam, that entire computer gets flagged up as a source of spam.

For the technically minded, the host computer’s IP address gets blacklisted rather than the individual email addresses hosted on it.

That affects us and all the other legitimate users of that mail service. And unfortunately it does appear that one of the other users sends out spam on a regular basis. So once again our newsletters get blocked, this time because an email service recognises the computer we use as a source of spam, rather than the email address that actually sent it.

Fortunately when this happens we usually get to hear about it – the newsletter bounces back with a note telling us why it was blocked. We then have to report it to the company that hosts our email service and wait a day or two while they get the block lifted. But several of our subscribers won’t have received their newsletters that month.

This happened to Verizon subscribers this month. Sorry about that folks. You’ll just have to read the online edition – the link to the current issue can be found just under the newsletter subscription box on our homepage. Fortunately the block has now been lifted so you should receive your newsletters again next month. We’ll just have to hope that it doesn’t get blocked again before then.

Anyway, the simple conclusion as far as I’m concerned is that spam filters are not just a nuisance, but a massive liability and far too dangerous to be trusted with my email. I want to see everything that’s sent to me, and I will decide for myself whether it’s good or bad, not leave it to some badly configured piece of software that could end up costing me a fortune if it accidentally shreds the wrong thing.

Hopefully spam filters will one day evolve into something that can actually do the job reliably 100% of the time. Or even better, some way will be found to prevent people from sending spam in the first place. But until that happens, and while there’s the slightest chance that a vital message won’t reach me, I refuse to have anything to do with them.

My email service offers an anti-spam filter on my account. I have chosen not to activate it. I have not installed any anti-spam software on my computer. I’ll willingly spend a few extra seconds or minutes each day deleting the junk myself – 100% confident that if a publisher or movie producer ever decides to make me an offer, I’m not going to miss it.

How about you?

About the author:
Dave Haslett is the founder of ideas4writers, the ideas and inspiration website, and i4w2, the ethical publishing service. If you’d like to write 10 full-length books per year and change your life forever, check out Dave’s book “The Fastest Way to Write Your Book”. Lifetime ideas4writers membership with every copy!

You are permitted to reproduce and circulate this article free of charge in any form, including photocopies, websites, newsletters, books, magazines and audio. The only conditions are: (a) the entire article must be used, including the “About the author” section, (b) you must not charge people an additional fee to read it, (c) the author retains full copyright.

Dave Haslett, ideas4writers, www.ideas4writers.co.uk


2 thoughts on “Why Spam Filters are bad for Writers

  1. A very interesting article. I use a filter called ‘spamjab.com’ and have found it works well. It holds any suspicious emails – 207 today! Don’t they know I haven’t a penis, by now? – and lists them with the subject matter. You scroll down to see if any look genuine, and those you can tick in the ‘good’ column. They will then upload to your Inbox. If you aren’t sure, you can unblock and read them without adding them to your Inbox. Then you just delete the rest en masse. After 7 days, Spamjab clears your box, if you have not done so. I have found this system really reliable and hope it would work for others.

    Thanks for your writing news. Great stuff!

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