The Business Side of Writing: Marketing Swag

If you’ve ever been to a convention or signing, you’ve likely seen swag. It can take the form of bookmarks, pens, magnets, pins, postcards, trading cards, posters, coffee mugs, chocolate bar wrappers, keychains – the list goes on. In romance especially, swag is a regular part of the business. Most high profile authors give it out, and so it’s very easy to think that swag is part of their success. I’m a bit more critical of the practice, but let’s look at it from all angles. First off, I’ll detail what I think is bad about swag, but then I’ll take a look at the good as well. And then you can of course comment and call me out and offer your point of view. First off:


1) Swag is expensive. Even if you’re just ordering bookmarks, these things cost real money to print and ship. I design swag and thus place a lot of print orders, and while some of my clients clearly earn enough to pay for this without a second thought, I do wonder whenever I see a lesser known author passing out a lot of swag. Always treat your writing like a business and budget accordingly. Some swag items, like keychains and mini books can be several dollars per item. That’s a lot of money to just hand out, especially if you sell your ebooks at $.99-$2.99. You are handing away royalties for half a dozen or more booksales each time.

2) Swag is rarely memorable. Trust me, I’ve received a lot of swag and barely any of it has made an impression on me. Everyone does bookmarks and postcards and pins and such. Walk around a convention and you’ll get several armloads of these. People who try to be creative often end up, again, being more expensive, so that one piece of swag has to somehow sell multiple books. It just isn’t likely to happen.

3) Most swag gets thrown away. Let’s be honest, who keeps any swag we receive from a signing/convention? In rare instances if it’s a good friend and there’s something unique about the swag, then okay, but 99% of mine ends up in the garbage. I don’t have room for all the postcards, plastic bracelets, keychains, pinup-posters, etc. I even have a surplus of bookmarks (people, remember that most avid readers these days use ebooks). Whenever I have to dump an armload or two of swag, I think, “Wow, that’s a lot of money going to waste.”

4) Barely anyone buys a book after seeing the swag. I can’t think of a time I’ve ever done this, honestly. I’ve never seen a bookmark that reached out and grabbed me and made me think, “I have to buy that book right now!” The more expensive swag is actually a little off-putting to me. When it’s an author I don’t know, I wonder to myself how bad the book must be if the author has to go so overboard with marketing.

So, okay, that’s enough of my complaining, though feel free to add more in the comments. Let’s move on to:


1) Marketing requires multiple impressions on your buyer. I don’t know what the latest research says is the number of times people need to see a product before they buy it. 17 times? 20? It’s an annoyingly high number, so even if your swag is only seen fleetingly as it flies into the trash, that’s another impression on the reader. It’ll add on to the next time they see your book online, hear their friend mention the title, see you pop up on their Goodreads feed, and so on. However you can get those impressions, get them. They matter.

2) In the right hands, swag does sell books. Too many people give swag only to readers, and that’s not actually the best placement, if you ask me. If people are already in line at one of your signings, they don’t need swag. Give it to the bookstore clerks and managers at the store where you sign. *These* are people who can sell multiple copies of your books per swag item, and given this, give them some swag they can use. Pens are nice. I’ve heard some swear by magnets (apparently these get used in the stock room some places) Chocolate bars with your book cover on the label don’t hurt. A pencil cup for beside the cash register is pretty great ad placement, and a tasteful poster may just get hung on the wall. Other people who provide a good return on swag investment? Librarians. Teachers, if that’s your target market. And counterintuitive as it may sound, your avid readers.

Your avid readers aren’t any more likely to buy your book because of swag, but here swag serves a different purpose. It’s another point of connection, a feeling that their favorite author is aware of them and grateful for their readership. Your avid readers will pin your pin on their backpack and carry it around, or put your poster up on their wall, or drink out of your coffee cup. How do you get swag to your biggest fans? Sift them out somehow. Set up a mailing list and do a giveaway only to people on it. Give a reward to the first ten people to retweet one of your tweets, etc.

3) Creative swag will make an impression. Swag fads go fast, so you always have to innovate. Postcards signed by the cover models were very popular for a while. Trading cards of romance characters spread like wildfire through part of the teen population. High dollar items, if they’re unique enough, will attract people to your signing table. You just have to decide whether you can afford to give away little dancing figurines or bottles of perfume with special labels, or whatever else you can come up with. At the right place at the right time, it could turn you into a weekend celebrity and spread word of your book through an entire convention.

I used to do signed bookplates (and will again when I dig them out of storage.) They are a swag item, but at the same time they give anyone who doesn’t have my book with them a signed book. I write my autograph and note to them on a bookplate and then the person can take it home and stick it in the inside of the cover of the book. They’re also nice and cheap.

4) Swag can make you look more successful. I’m not in favor of copying bestselling authors just because they’re bestselling authors, but there are worse strategies. I do, for example suggest making your author name big on your cover. Why? Because big publishers do that for authors whose names sell books. How often do you see a traditionally published author with a big name on a book you’ve never heard of before? Happens to me all the time and I read a lot. I still assume they must be someone to have their name that big, when in truth they may just be best friends with their cover designer. So having the look of someone who makes good money at writing does tend to make people think you make good money at writing, and a certain percentage of those people will say, “Okay, she must be pretty good at it,” and buy your book. However some people will think what I said in Item 4, above.

Okay, so now to the comments. Share away. What’s the best swag you’ve ever gotten? Given? Wished for? Got any success or failure stories to share? Opinions? I’m all ears (or eyes as the case may be, given this is a written medium here…)

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3 Responses to The Business Side of Writing: Marketing Swag

  1. Wm says:

    I think that swag is best used to reward someone who is already a fan.

    • Emily Tippetts says:

      I’m guessing you’re thinking of a different type of swag – not stuff with your book links and such on it, but rather a kind of keepsake tied into your books.

      • Wm says:

        Yes. Although links are still good — your fans may not have signed up for your email list or bought your backlist.

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