Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for August: (8/3) Dianne Freeman (8/10) Daryl Wood Gerber (8/17) E. B. Davis's Review of Granite Oath, James M. Jackson's new novel (8/24) Rose Kerr (8/31) V. M. Burns.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Email Spam Laws and Author Newsletters

Many authors send out newsletters and other email communications to their fans. I have an author newsletter as well, and you can sign up at if you are interested. Unlike Facebook, where an algorithm decides which of the people who have “liked” your author page or “friended” your personal page actually get to see a post, an author’s newsletter can go directly to interested parties without algorithm interference. The only outside hurdles to overcome are spam filters and legal requirements.

The best you can do with spam filters is choose a subject line that does not look like spam and ask readers to put the email address you use on their safe list.

With the legal matters, you should at least know what the requirements for a newsletter are. As one who breaks the occasional traffic law, I am not going to go all holier-than-thou about adherence to the law. But I’m willing to pay the fine if I am caught going through an orange traffic light. (Orange traffic lights are those you thought you’d get through on yellow, but turned red before you actually got through.)

Now before I give you my interpretation of the rules in the United States, here are some caveats so I do not appear to be practicing law without a license: I am not an attorney; this blog is not legal advice; you should check with personal counsel before making any decisions. If you send email to Canada or elsewhere, they will have their own rules.

The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003

Its official name is the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003. It applies to any email whose primary purpose is commercial advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service. While this blog addresses newsletters, it is clear from the broad scope that any sales communication from an author to her fans by email falls into the purview of the Act. That quick announcement that your latest book just released with a link to Amazon or list of bookstores with signed copies—COVERED. An email announcing that Amazon just put one of your books on sale—COVERED. An email to announce an earlier book of yours is free for the next three days—COVERED.

Penalties for noncompliance?

The Federal Trade Commission[1] indicates the penalties can be as high as $16,000 per email! If you have 100 people on your email list, that could be $1,600,000. That’s a lot more than a traffic ticket. Do I think it likely that an individual with an email list of a few thousand (or hundred in my case) will fall under FTC scrutiny? No, but why take the chance when it is easy to comply with the law?

We can break compliance down into three areas: Unsubscribing, Acquisition of email address, Content.

Rules to Allow Recipients to Unsubscribe:

1. The FTC says, “Your message must include a clear and conspicuous explanation of how the recipient can opt out of getting email from you in the future. Craft the notice in a way that’s easy for an ordinary person to recognize, read, and understand. Creative use of type size, color, and location can improve clarity. Give a return email address or another easy Internet-based way to allow people to communicate their choice to you. You may create a menu to allow a recipient to opt out of certain types of messages, but you must include the option to stop all commercial messages from you. Make sure your spam filter doesn’t block these opt-out requests.”

2. You have ten business days to comply with a request not to receive further communications. And you can’t make the person who wants to be removed do anything more than provide you the email address they want removed and go to at most one webpage.

Acquiring Email Addresses

1. You may use email address of anyone who has given you permission to send them the newsletter. This is the method authors use when you provide them your email address and you click a link to submit it. It’s also why authors use sign-up sheets at their events.

2. You may use email addresses of customers, even if they have not specifically given you permission. For example, if someone buys a book from you, you may put them on your newsletter list.

3. You may not harvest email addresses (buying lists, trading lists, etc.)

Email Content

1. The email header information (From, To, Reply To, as well as the routing information that’s included in the background) must be accurate and “identify the name of the person or business who initiated the message.” I often seen authors who do not use email services for their newsletters fail at one part of this requirement because they send out the email and put each individual’s address in the Bcc and nowhere in the email does the actual receiver’s email address appear.

2.The Subject Line must accurately reflect the content of the message.

3. You must identify the message as an ad. There is a lot of flexibility here and the FTC didn’t exactly bend over backwards to provide examples of what they meant.

4. You must provide a “valid physical postal address” for the sender. Post Office boxes or commercial boxes used for mail are acceptable, but they must be registered in the sender’s name. If I did not already have a PO Box because it is the only way I can get mail at my northern home, I’d choose to acquire a PO Box to meet this requirement rather than provide my exact mailing address.

5. Additional rules apply if you include sexually explicit content. Check them out if you need to.

Advantage of Using Newsletter Providers

Author newsletters can be simple affairs or quite complex. Many authors choose to send emails directly. I use a free version of TinyLetter, which is a fairly simple solution for newsletters. It’s now owned by MailChimp, which provides a more sophisticated approach and as of this writing is also free for up to 2,000 subscribers (and 12,000 emails a month). There are lots of other providers out there, I am sure.

Using an outside provider doesn’t relieve you of responsibility for following CAN-SAPM, but a good provider has you covered. They make sure your unsubscribe system is in place, that you have the physical mail address, etc.

Also, since the emails come from them, you do not run the risk of Google, Yahoo, or whomever deciding your email address is sending out spam and blocking delivery. This has happened to folks I know.

I know when I receive unsolicited author newsletters or promotions, my interest in the author drops a lot. I won’t go so far as to say I’d never buy their book, but it becomes much less likely. Is that just the curmudgeon in me, or do you feel the same way?

~ Jim

[1] Much of the material for this blog is taken from an FTC publication for businesses you can find at


E. B. Davis said...

Yes I do, Jim. Unsolicited newsletters go into the same category as "how to enhance my male member" or "Dearest Friend" spam distributions--of course there is no way to get off those lists. It's an invasion of privacy and rude!

There are some newsletters I look forward to getting by authors I read. Someday I might create my own newsletter. Thanks for the legal requirements. I'll put this blog on my TBReviewed pile before I distribute.

Jim Jackson said...

Thanks for validating my sensibilities about unsolicited newsletters, and you are welcome for the requirements should you ever put together a newsletter or any other email solicitation.

~ Jim

Gloria Alden said...

Jim, I mostly delete newsletters without reading them. I have no intention of starting a newsletter because writing a weekly blog in addition to writing and all the other things I'm involved in is quite enough for me. I have trouble even keeping up with the Guppy digests.

Kait said...

Great post and tips. Thanks for this timely post as everyone seems to be gearing up for holiday sales! As far as unsolicited newsletters, I consider them the same as any unsolicited sales pitch. If there is an unsubscribe, I will use it. If not, I will delete the e-mail and create a rule to put any further e-mails from that sender in spam. Harsh, maybe, but I consider it an abuse.

Jim Jackson said...

One thing I should mention is that if you receive an email that looks as though it might be a scam and it has an unsubscribe link -- don't click the link. Just delete the email and as Kait does, send all future emails from that address to spam. The link could be attached to some malware.

~ Jim

Grace Topping said...

This is one post that I'm definitely going to bookmark for future reference. Thanks, Jim, for making this information available to us.

Becky Michael said...

Thanks for compiling this important information!