Abuse is a harsh word. It speaks of deliberate cruelty: child abuse, animal abuse, emotional abuse. Awful, unforgivable acts. If trust is abused, it’s very hard to earn it back.
I’ve been guilty of some rather disreputable behaviour in my life, from dropping the F-bomb at the Vine and Craven Pony Club Camp aged eight (in my defence, I had no idea what it meant) to tweeting aged forty-eight that I wish Shula from The Archers would spontaneously combust on Brian’s chemical waste dump. But being termed abusive this week came as a deep shock. I couldn’t be more contrite. In fact, I’d love to take the last few days back and do it all again differently, but it’s too late now and I’m no longer allowed to personally contact those involved to make amends.
I’m going to explain what happened both as a cautionary tale, and by way of an apology.
I’d better start by pointing out that halfway through writing a novel is always a very dangerous time for me to attempt anything more technical on a computer than splitting an infinitive. Even my spellchecker blue screens me. With my head in an imaginary world, I’m incapable of navigating my way around Tesco.com, let alone GDPR, which I’d have probably suggested was a Warmblood studbook if you’d asked me a few weeks ago.
GDPR is, in fact, the shiny new data protection rules that come into force next month, and it’s important to get them right, especially if you’re a writer in sudden possession of a website subscription list containing several thousand precious names and email addresses. These addresses belong to lovely visitors to fionawalker.com like you, who once filled in a secure form like the one linked from this page to receive newsletters boasting sneak previews, exclusive offers and a tip-off when a new book is coming out. Until last week, the list was entirely managed by my previous publisher who ran my website for several years and looked after newsletters as part of their marketing wizardry. As someone who still sends hand-written notes whenever possible, I’ve always seen this newsletter list like a Christmas card one: a community of far-flung allies receiving a regular Round Robin.
When I redesigned fionawalker.com, I asked if the list could be transferred to me to carry on the newsletters. The contractual to-ing-and-froing that followed has amazed me; I’d understand it if I worked for Zuckerberg, but I hadn’t even got to the Mail Subscribers page in WordPress for Dummies. Of course, the law is there to protect all of us so I stuck with my quest in the belief that anybody who has taken the time to sign up to hear my news shouldn’t be abandoned. And loyal readers deserve all the love in the world.
Many months of legalese later, the list was finally released last week, securely data transferred via all sorts of secure online geekery that severely tested both the rural broadband and my rural brain. Looking at all the names, I was as excited as I would be seeing Harry and Meghan’s guest list.
It came with the strict caveat that I must contact every name on it straight away to make sure subscribers want to stay opted in before the new data protection laws start in May. In a flap, I sped-read WordPress for Dummies. It’s a very long list of emails, and I’m right in the middle of writing a very long novel; my Tesco.com grocery success rate is at an all-time low. But I really, really didn’t want to get this wrong, especially as I’m notorious for accidentally pressing Reply All with a sarcastic aside intended for just one, or for sharing random photographs of the inside of my handbag with WhatsApp groups.
I worked incredibly hard to meet all the data protection requirements. I set about mastering MailChimp, a mass email platform. I mugged up on GDPR compliance. I wrote and rewrote my first email to subscribers inviting them to stay opted in. I spent more hours on it than a key chapter in the book, and when I was satisfied that it was bright and cheery and self-effacingly eager to offer everyone the chance to unsubscribe at the touch of a button, I sent it off. You may well have received one (check your spam folder if not, because I think 99% of them landed there). I knew I’d lose a lot of people – it’s been over a year since the old website was regularly administered, and I had no way of finding out when the last newsletter was sent – but I was confident I’d still have a thousand or more by the end.
Within hours, the word ‘abuse’ appeared in the subject line of an email from MailChimp. My account had been restricted as a result of a ‘high abuse complaint rate’, they explained. I was mortified. Was I being accused of sending abusive emails? I’ve never in my life written a poison pen letter or left anything less than a four-star TripAdvisor or Amazon review. I checked the message I’d sent again in case I’d mistyped the ‘d’ as an ‘f’ in ’mild’ or missed the ‘o’ out of ‘countryside’, but I could see nothing. In a panic, I read all the MailChimp links explaining how this might have happened. Although less than 0.7% of the mail-out had been reported as unwanted, that is well above the industry standard, which was why I’d been immediately blacklisted. This, they said, is usually an issue with the list rather than the message. Every name on it would be automatically unsubscribed with immediate effect, although I could send one final pre-designed ‘sorry to see you go!’ message to all. Head hanging, this is what I did. Now the list is no more.
Not long afterwards, I received a direct email from one previous subscriber, a regular reader of my books, saying that she had signed up for newsletters years ago but had never received a single one. Another subscriber emailed soon afterwards saying the same thing. Then a third, quite angry this time. It seemed readers who had subscribed in good faith expecting newsletters from me had heard nothing in years until I send this cheery, cocky request to stay subscribed. I’m still not sure how it qualifies as abuse – except of trust on more than one level – but I can absolutely understand why recipients might be pretty miffed and not want to hear from me again. It doesn’t matter that I first set eyes the list just a few days ago. This website has my name on it, and it is my responsibility to make sure that if something is offered, it’s followed through.
There’s a new link to a subscriber form on the sidebar below this blog, and anybody brave enough to fill it in will definitely receive newsletters from me. They will be written by me, sent by me and badly spell-checked by me. I will never disclose or sell your data to a third party, and every email I send will have an ‘unsubscribe’ link. There’ll only be two or three a year at most, and I’ll go quiet when I’m busy writing then get very excited when a new book comes out. According to MailChimp, now that I’ve been blackballed, I have to earn back my clean record, which means ‘re-establishing a good sending and engagement history’. I’m very grateful to all you who are willing to help me do this by subscribing, and I will do my damndest to make you feel just as loved as everyone on my Christmas card list. If you were on the old list and want to come back, I’ll welcome you with open arms (and I’m v grateful to those of you who already have). As for the one or two that reported me for abuse, I think it safe to assume that you were at the 1978 Vine and Craven Pony Club Camp.
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