Saturday, February 20, 2016

Ask the Moon: How to get off the newsletter mailing list

Richard, the friend who originated the idea of the Ask the Moon column, sends this question:

An online journal that published a poem of mine a couple years ago has since then sent me junk e-mail—not issues of the journal, but just various announcements related to the journal— about every two months. The e-mail sender is the journal editor's work address, There is no unsubscribe link or instruction. Do I e-mail the editor and ask to be taken off their mailing list? Wouldn't that be burning a bridge? Hurting someone who has helped me? I suppose I could block the sender, but I don't really want to cut off all communication. Help!

First, kudos to Richard for perfectly emulating the desperation of an actual advice column. “Help!” was a good touch. It’s much easier to channel my inner Abby when we all approach this thing in the right mindset.

But the question is real enough, funny verisimilitude aside. I think all of us who submit to journals find ourselves on lists like these, and that can mean daily notifications from a bunch of journals we submitted to, perhaps months or years ago.

In the period before most journals were accepting online submissions, I was actually one of the pioneers of the e-mail newsletter when I was editor-in-chief of Mid-American Review. In the 2000s, when postal submissions came, the cover letters almost always included an e-mail address for ease of collaboration with writers whose work we accepted. These addresses seemed like a useful marketing tool, and I started keeping them. In those days we would have interns type e-mail addresses, which they did with all of the enthusiasm and cheer of Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

I used my personal e-mail address, and when I sent out my very first edition of the e-mail newsletter, I made a rookie error by putting all of the addresses in the “To” window. I think my computer got hung up with a rainbow wheel for a few hours, although I don’t remember the particulars. Many of the newsletters went through,  and a ton were blocked, insultingly enough, by spam filters.

I received a lot of e-mails from kind-hearted writers who suggested that I use the “BCC” line instead of the “To” or “CC” line, thus making the recipient list private. I also received a lot of angry e-mails from people who called me everything but what Mom named me. It became apparent that people did not necessarily want a newsletter, even from a magazine they apparently supported, at least to the extent that they would send me work to consider.

From the start, I had two ideas in mind with a newsletter. First, I needed to send it infrequently, so I opted for a long e-mail separated into parts, and I tried to cover anything and everything I thought writers would want to know. Following up with a correction or additional information was not an option under this rule I set for myself, so I had to write it carefully and get it right the first time.

More importantly, I needed to make sure that I had a positive purpose in mind. Honest to God, I saw my newsletter as an attempt to build community with writers. I wanted to extend a friendly hand and let them know that I was responsive and accountable to them. I wanted to answer their questions and to be accessible. My newsletters always led off with a call for submissions and an explanation of our current needs.

Make no mistake: my e-mail newsletter also had the goals of building our subscriber base and of bringing in more revenue from contest submissions. There is this perception that university-based journals are fully supported by their institutions, but our annual allocation from the university was under $3,000 most of the years I was at that journal. We had to pay our own way, to the extent that I once sponsored the printing of an issue out of my own pocket. We paid our own way to conferences and bookfairs, and we often sponsored visits by writers. Raising money is important when you’re the one going to Office Depot and springing for the colored paper that you cut by hand into rejection slips.

The e-mail newsletter was a labor of love for me. I spent hours composing it in just the right way, and I spent more hours sending it off by myself in groups of fifty addresses, pasted one after the other into a new e-mail's BCC area, and responding to writers who had questions or queries about submissions or complaints or friendly hellos, even as I was still in the middle of distributing the thing.

That’s a lot of context, I know, to answer Richard’s question about what he should do to avoid the annoyance of an unwanted e-mail every two months, but it does allow us to consider the question: Why is the journal sending the e-mails? There may be many motives, but as my experience shows (I hope), most of these are admirable ones.

A dirty little (open) secret of literary publishing is that everyone submits but only handfuls subscribe. Fewer than 1 percent of submitters to the journal I edited were also subscribers, in fact, before I began the newsletter, and that percentage actually decreased as the newsletter brought in more submissions with the handful of subscriptions it would yield. Journals use newsletters to sustain themselves in various ways, and often the purpose is to try to turn submitters into readers. We want people to see the work that we publish; it’s why we do what we do.

A practical answer: Richard has a few options. He can commit these directly to the junk folder without reading them. That’s a bit dangerous; after all, the editor might be sending them from her own address, which means that an acceptance can be trashed right along with the e-mail.

He can automatically delete without reading, as he undoubtedly does with a whole category of e-mails every time he opens his in-box. I do.

He can write to the editor and ask to unsubscribe. There’s really no problem with this, although I would urge him to do so politely. No explanation is necessary, and the note asking to unsubscribe won’t be memorable to the editor; dozens of these always come in after a newsletter is released.

Ultimately, my suggestion is that he open the newsletter and read what it has to say, or at least skim it. He suggested that he cared about the journal when he sent work its way. Should he break into the journal, I know he’d want to be assured that the editor is doing everything in his power to build a readership for his work. And communication is always a gesture toward community.

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