Wednesday, November 30, 2011

all your e-mail are belong to us: in which independent bookstores get digital rabies

The other day, INTERN found a trampled but still legible coupon on the sidewalk for 15% off any book at a charming local bookstore on the little island she is temporarily calling home.

"Huzzah!" exclaimed INTERN. "What a find!"

She stuck it in her purse along with various other sidewalk finds (feathers, pennies, someone's bifocals) and went along her merry way.

Today, INTERN went to the bookstore and picked out a book to give to her big sister for Christmas (The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes, in case you're curious—INTERN's big sister is a crafty lady). When INTERN took her purchase to the counter, she presented the friendly clerk with her coupon.

That's when things got peculiar.

"Write down your e-mail here so we can keep you updated on our events," said the (really very friendly) clerk.

"Oh, no thanks," said INTERN cheerfully. "I'm just visiting."

"You'll still want to know about our events," said the clerk.

"Oh, but—I mean, I'm not going to BE here. I'm moving to California," explained INTERN.

"Yeah," said the clerk, "but you'll want to stay updated on our events."

This was turning into some kind of bizarre stand-off. INTERN began to flail a little.

"But—I'll be living in my van. In California. This is literally the only time I'm ever going to be near this store."

"Doesn't matter."

She tapped the sign-up sheet for the e-mail list.

At this point, INTERN decided there must be something sinister going on. Perhaps the store had some kind of policy whereby employees would be fed to the hogs for letting customers escape with their contact information unharvested. If so, INTERN certainly didn't wish to responsible for this nice woman's demise. She scribbled down her e-mail address (yes, her real one—INTERN will never learn...) and hurried out of the store before the clerk could shake her down for a Facebook like as well.


This was a fairly benign experience as such experiences go, but it speaks to a larger phenomenon of people, businesses, and institutions jumping on the e-newsletter and/or social media bandwagon in an ineffective and slightly ridiculous manner.

The e-mail harvesting craze reminds INTERN of the time last winter she decided to make acorn meal. Like a greedy squirrel, INTERN gathered all the acorns she could find, conveniently overlooking the fact that some of them had black spots, some of them had been sitting on the ground for months, and some of them weren't the edible kind at all. At the end of the day, she had an impressive pile of acorns, of which only a tiny handful were actually suitable for human consumption. They ended up rotting in a bowl until Techie Boyfriend threw them outside.

You can have ten thousand newsletter subscribers and not reach a single person. What matters more than numbers is connecting with people who actually care. And for that you need to be a discerning squirrel, not a greedy one. Certainly not a rabid one!

INTERN is all for bookstores (and writers, and publishers) doing everything they can to connect with readers. But unless we're smart about it, all we're going to end up with is a pile of rotten acorns—or a bunch of newsletters for events happening 800 miles away.


Are you weirded out by having your e-mail address wheedled, bullied, or bribed out of you? Does anyone actually READ e-newsletters? Where do you draw the line between reaching your target audience and reaching some poor sap who doesn't know you from a spammer? INTERN wants to know!


  1. That is rather peculiar =/ We have store clerks here who ask us for email/phone #s, but if I tell them I don't want to give them the info, they relent pretty easily.

  2. I'm worse than weirded out, I'm offended by such a demand.

    If they insist on an email, I'll often give a fake one. If it's a computer making the demand, I'll use something like - can't use that with most live people. ;-)

  3. According to a book I edited about making money online, email subscribers are 100 times more likely to buy a product from you than non email subscribers.

    It seemed crazy to me as I figured that 90% of mailing lists must be made up from the sort of sinister exchange you describe.

    curioser and curioser!

  4. I do find it creepy. My local indie bookstore gets my high-use address. Those who twist my arm get my free email address. I made it hard to spell, so anybody copying it will have to be dedicated. If they managed that, I might actually see said newsletter when I scan every few weeks.

  5. I have a real, but sorta pointless email I hand out to counter staff who are forced by management to nag for my email. It is sort of like having a post office box for all your junk mail, I suppose. About once a month or so I'll log into it, peruse it to see if somehow someone got hold of it and send me REAL email, and do a massive purging of all the e-News.

    Now, that said, a few select stores I shop at ALL THE TIME and I WANT their coupons and stuff - they get my every day, goes to all my gadgets, really and truly email.

    The funny thing? My junk email address looks more legit than my real email address, as my junk email address employs chunks of my actual name. :)

  6. I’ve clicked on Unsubscribe so many times, I’m thinking of making up some new addresses, just so I can honestly give them these:

    If they’re friendly:

    If they don’t think that’s funny:

    And if they still insist:

  7. Funny post! I hate getting signed up for newsletters I didn't sign up for...once someone read a tweet of mine and must have looked up my email, assuming I'd be interested because of a hashtag. And once, someone sent me a question on LinkedIn and because I responded politely (yes, I too will never learn) they added me to their newsletter list. Geesh! Feel your pain.

    Good luck with your move to CA.

  8. Lori: right? people usually relent after the first or second decline. it's the first time INTERN has been pushed to the point of awkwardness.

  9. literary kitty: that sounds like a highly suspicious figure to INTERN, although it probably explains why everyone's getting newsletter fever.

    INTERN supposes even if subscribers don't actually READ the newsletters, seeing them pop up in their inbox might be enough to "flag" the product/service/author in their mind, therefore increasing their likelihood to buy...

  10. Another vote for creepy. I'm usually pretty nice but I get ornery when they pester me for info I do not wish to share. Twice I have actually been pushed far enough to say, "Are you telling me that you refuse to sell me this item if I don't give you my email/phone number?"

    And the crazy thing was, one clerk answered, "Yes."

  11. I am pushed to awkwardness all the time...luckily I have an old email address I still check, where the potential for interesting book news+poetry readings in far away lands+ demands for alumnus contributions can happily cheep away together in a nest of spam.

  12. No one's ever been that forceful about acquiring my email before. Now I feel unloved. :(

    Laurel, that it just... WOW. *shakes crazies out of head*

    INTERN, did she hold the book over your head until you joined the email list? If not, I would have snatched the book, left a 20 on the counter and ran like the wind!!

  13. That experience sounds creepy.

    I have a backup email address that I use for newsletters and other potential spammy crap I will not read. I do check it occasionally to see if said store or website is having a sale or has any coupons when I am ready to shop there, but I don't read those newsletters at all otherwise.

    The newsletters I do want to read (as I do subscribe to some authors' and bloggers' websites) I sign up for under a different account that I check daily.


  14. I haven't visited in forever ~ but you are still funny as all outdoors, Intern!!

    1. One must create a junk email account for instances such as this ~ one you never go to, but is still legit.

    2. Moving to California? Feel free to look me up if you need advise on how to get around, etc. I've lived here all my life.

    Cheers to you, Intern ~ safe journeys!

  15. Speaking of such, I just stood in a long line at a big box store where the cashier asked every customer, "Your phone number please?" And every person gave it. My jaw was brushing my shoelaces.

  16. I used to work at a bookstore, and we had to ask people for their e-mail addresses; our managers would actually remind us on a regular basis to do it. Sometimes they'd watch us ringing up customers' purchases, and if we forgot to ask for the addresses they'd be quick to remind us all over again.
    I guess it's all about promotion. It's a way for them to try and keep up with the online sellers that could otherwise drive them out of business.

  17. I hate being asked to sign up for stuff by email mostly because my email address never fits on that stupid little line. And no, I never read the emails, if I want to know something about a store, I'll go to their website.

  18. I definitely go with "Oh, I don't use e-mail" and just stare vacantly until my own creepy motivates them to hurry me on my way.

  19. I feel like the voice of the dark side here since my day job is actually to create and send out e-newsletters (not for a book store, but for a company in a different realm entirely). Thankfully, I have a fairly nice list of subscribers and most of them seem to want our messages, but I do feel skeezy whenever we send an email to people who "opted in" simply by making a purchase.

    Also, I feel very differently about the unwanted e-newsletters that I get. I still delete them, but I do often look at them for a moment appreciating that another human being spent a few hours getting it to look *just right*...

  20. I've got a standard fake email and fake phone number that I use. I change the last digit of the phone number and the last character of the email. That way, if I ever want them to have the real thing, I can help them correct their error.

    And if I'm in a store that wants a zip code, I always go with 90210. It's the only one I know and I don't care if anyone catches on.

  21. Whenever I read one of these data collection anecdotes, I harken back to the time when I managed the direct marketing databases and campaigns for several companies whose NYSE symbols were three or fewer letters.

    It would shock you beyond shocking to know what may be conjectured about customers with just a couple bits of begrudgingly wrangled data.

    And that was back when "Permission Marketing" and "1-to-1 Marketing" were all the rage... long before Facebook convinced a billion people to give up every intimate detail of their lives for free.

  22. Maybe try, "Fine. I'll give you my email address if you give me yours, so I can email you MY newsletter." Then insist on the clerk's personal email. When he/she refuses, say, "But you'll want to stay updated on my favorite cat videos. And my recipes for acorn meal."