April 29th, 2015

Author swag and how to swing it

Sierra Godfrey

Recently, I saw a question raised about promotional items for authors: “How on earth do I go about getting them done?”

The question was raised over on the highly popular new Facebook group for the Womens’ Fiction Writers Association (WFWA), and there were a lot of great answers. Now, full disclosure: I am a graphic designer as well as purveyor of words, and I create promotional material for authors like bookmarks and postcards as well as websites. But I also have a prior life as a marketing and tradeshow manager, and promotional items was one of my responsibilities. So I’m here to share some knowledge.

First, there are two ways I would recommend you approach promotional materials:

  1. Everything you do says something about you. Be it your website URL (www.yournamelolololololz.com does not exactly impart a sense of professionalism) or how and what you present at book signings and book fairs, everything has meaning. Your readers will glean that meaning, so do it with intention and do it professionally.
  2. The best way to approach promotional materials is to think about how they’ll be used. This rule of thumb pretty much goes for anything in industry, and yet is often ignored. Sure, high glossy posters of your book cover look great, but what will your readers do with them?

Now let’s discuss a few of the biggie promotional items.

Print swag

Print swag is typically bookmarks, book plates, stickers, and postcards. Another really fun item I’ve been doing for a lot of my YA and MG author clients is trading cards, which lend themselves well to series.

So how do you get these things? Likely, you’re going to have to hire a designer (like me!). But you’re not going to pay big agency fees (and if anyone quotes you thousands, run!). You’ll get a reasonable package, and in turn you’ll get a design that typically will encompass your book’s font, images, and high-res icons, and it will be done properly in Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop. (And if they aren’t, question that!)

Any designer you work with should have a good understanding of both what readers want and an author’s promotional needs—as well as brand and usability. For example, what kind of finish will support ball point pens or sharpies for book signings? Does the designer understand what brand is and what that means to an author, and can the designer suggest ways in which to promote and emphasize your brand? Does your designer want you to step outside your comfort box or does the designer respect your book and its cover as they relate to you as a long-term author? These are all important questions.


In most cases, getting your items designed and printed are two separate endeavors, so you’ll need to know about printers. Vista Print is an all-time favorite for being inexpensive, but they don’t print bookmarks or stickers. However, there are two excellent online alternatives: Gotprint.net and Printrunner. Both are reasonably priced and my clients have been very happy with the quality from both. Got Print offers templates for designers for each one of their products, however, and that is key (Print Runner requires an account for templates). With templates, you can be assured that your designer will be able to design exactly to print specifications.

Promotional items for book fairs and signings

In my days as a tradeshow manager in a technical industry, there were four things that stood out in a sea of booths from companies all trying to do the same thing—apart from having a good product:

  • something moving
  • candy in a bowl
  • flowers or plants
  • a really good giveaway item

Chances are, something moving, such as a machine or a TV, isn’t going to be possible for you, so let’s ditch that.

Get candy in a bowl; people will flock. And listen. Get chocolate. CHOCOLATE. Not cheap, hard candies. Remember what I said about everything having meaning? Cheap hard candy says you’re cheap. And with flowers, they’re also easy and frequently overlooked. Flowers say you care about looking nice, it says you’ve taken the time to get what is essentially a frivolous item and put it out there for people to enjoy. Don’t get a potted plant or even a pretty bouquet. They block your head in your booth. Orchids. Orchids, people. They are pretty, and you can see around them.

Now for the fun one: giveaway items. Good giveaway items are something cute that tie in with the book. The stuff that gets lost or tossed? Pens, pencils, clips, and any kind of paper item. That’s right—bookmarks and postcards aren’t going to be as useful for book fairs.

Your goals with a promotional item are to:

  • Make sure the reader will take it home
  • Make sure your name and your website is on it

Those two goals are paramount because you will struggle to make sure your name is noticed in a sea of authors. Notice I didn’t say your book’s title should be on there—nope. Your name. People will remember you—you might write a bunch of books.

You might be thinking, dude, I don’t have the money for printed promotional items! I’m a poor author!

firstfrostDon’t worry. You can get away with pre-printed tags on a cute item, but it requires a bit of creativity. Pinterest is a mine of such things. Try searching for “author swag” or even “Teacher Appreciation Gifts” – there are a TON of ideas for teacher appreciation gifts that have cute tie-ins and will get your creative wheels turning.

Focus on anything that relates to your book or book cover. For example, Sarah Addison Allen’s First Frost. Check out that frosted apple on the cover. You could buy a fake apple at Michael’s and glue a few beads on it, or spray a blast of frost paint over the top and tie a ribbon with a tag that has your book’s name. Now, that’s not THAT useful, but you could also give real apples with a tag. Wouldn’t that be totally stinkin’ cute?

Cover - The Sweet Spot SMALLFor another example, I chose one of WITS’ own, Laura Drake. For her book The Sweet Spot, there are lots of possibilities here. A small square of flannel folded over a little bag of candy—to hit your sweet spot?

You get the picture. There are lots of things you can do.

If you’re not crafty, consider something inexpensive like a carabiner with your website printed on it, or a magnet.

In my tradeshow days, often companies would have a really good promotional gift—something expensive—on hand for the extra-special customers. You could do that, too—a book light, perhaps? Only have one or two; reserve them for a drawing prize or have people play a game to win it.

Just make sure your name and website are on it!

How about you? Have you done any different promotional items? Do you have any lessons from the trenches on this?

About Sierra

Sierra-Godfrey-180x180Sierra Godfrey writes fiction with international settings and always a mention of football (soccer) or two. She is a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and a quarterly contributor to the Writers in the Storm. Her non-fiction essays have been featured on Maria Shriver’s Shriver Report and Architects of Change website, and in the anthology, Nothing But The Truth So Help Me God: 73 Women on Life’s Transitions (Nothing But the Truth Press, 2014). She writes weekly for Football.com and other blogs, and is also a freelance graphic designer. She lives in the foggy wastelands of the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.

Come visit her at www.sierragodfrey.com or talk with her on Twitter @sierragodfrey.

25 comments to Author swag and how to swing it

  • sbbelford

    I love you! I’m just getting started with this whole author “swag” thing and already made dumb mistakes; slick stickers that smear, water bottles with labels that don’t stick. So thank you for these great ideas. What do you think? Would it be impractical to dress up like a large soda can for my MG novel Canned and Crushed? Maybe I could just hide inside it and stop worrying about all this book promoting!

    • Hey, dressing up as a soda can has its attention-getting merits! I would say that quality of items is a fine balance. You don’t have a big corporate budget to spend money on high end, glossy things, but at the same time, your stickers for water bottles didn’t stick :/ But I love that you’re being creative about it. For a title like Canned and Crushed, consider doing a paper wrapper around a soda can. Or a small mason jar (like the ounce size) filled with M&Ms (stickers stick to glass well!)– or jam, even, going with the word “canned.” Definitely take a look on Pinterest – there are great ideas here.

  • Aw, thanks for using my books, Sierra! I made fridge magnets for that series (wish I could post it here) in red and white, with a guy on a bucking bull, with ‘I’m Sweet on a Cowboy’ above it (the series was Sweet on a Cowboy) and my website below.

    I figured that anyone who liked westerns and cowboys would like it, and hopefully put it on their fridge for all to see.

    Thanks for the words of wisdom, Sierra! What do you think about bookmarks? Are they dead? I’ve heard conflicting opinions….

    • What a great question, Laura, about whether print is dead. I don’t think it is, but I think it very much depends on the use. If you’re a YA or MG author, sending postcards and bookmarks to libraries and schools is great and kids love them. However, if your audience primarily reads WF on a digital device, and you know this, then bookmarks may not be perfect for you.

      I don’t think it ever hurts to have anything on hand with your name and book cover and website!

      One thing I didn’t mention in the post is business cards. For non fiction authors, they are a MUST with you book cover on them.

  • I love this post. Thanks for the information. I’ve often wonder why authors bother with paper products. I always toss them, even if I pick them up to be polite. My two favorite author swags that I’ve picked-up and used are a phone holder given by author Jade Lee and a drink coaster that looks like an ink splat given out by author Christyne Butler. I love the chocolate, but I never remember the name of the author who gave them out.

  • Great post, thanks! I’ve recently experimented with a different kind of giveaway at our annual Scottish writing conference and other places and it went down well. My new book (The Highland Lass) is set in Scotland and I had the cover printed on one side of small business size cards with my website on the other. These went into a little clear bag with a single stem of artificial thistle (to echo the cover) wrapped in a tiny tartan bow and I also included a chocolate heart. I’ll be using them at a large UK conference in summer!

  • bettybolte

    Great post and good timing since I’m on the search for my next swag purchase. I’ve actually handed out all that I had! Bookmarks are NOT dead. Readers love them, though I’ve found they’re most useful when I meet someone and talk about my books. Then I hand over a bookmark with my name on it so the person I’m talking to will remember me. Other swag I’ve had good success with are red white and blue stress balls (I write American historicals) with my name and website on them. Also mini flying discs with my logo, name, and website. My premium swag are votive candle holders with my logo and website etched on them. I’m currently debating on what to buy next. I don’t want to repeat my swag items so that there’s always a new giveaway temptation.

    • I love this actual use feedback Betty! Thanks!

      • Andrea R Huelsenbeck

        I just want to go on record saying that as a reader, I’ve never met a bookmark that I didn’t like. I have bookmarks going back decades. I keep them in various places around the house because I always have multiple books in progress in every room.

  • Orly Konig-Lopez

    This post brought back fun memories of my days in the corporate world “shopping” for tchatchkies for trade shows and events. Great post, Sierra! Thanks. 🙂

  • I love this post. This site always has good info but this is particularly specific and useful. Thank you so much.

  • ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist)

    Awesome ideas, tips, and resources. Thank you!

  • It never occurred to me to search ‘author swag’ on Pinterest. What an awesome resource. Thanks for the great advice!

  • I’m also trying to decide on what to do, but have been focused on the one book I have published. While reading the post and comments, it hit me square in the face – I can play on the series title, and the perfect idea came to me. So thank you!!!!

  • I did do bookmarks….but I added a bead loop to the top to make it harder to throw away. Each bookmark had a different color bead loop on top so not everyone got the exact same thing. I did have those as a giveaway for Facebook parties. So far they’ve been met with excitement (but who knows, they could have been tossed immediately). But I thought that was a good way to encourage people keeping the bookmark.

  • […] I blogged about author swag and promotional items. Go check it out! […]

  • I love this! I’ve got a nun nurse who has to work in a porn clinic, and obviously I can’t distribute naughty tapes. She bakes and knits too. Any ideas? I think sparkly undies at a signing would give people the wrong idea… 🙂

    She has a terrible time with “flagpoles” in the book. (Code for something else.) Perhaps I can do fun little flags? That seems pricy.

  • Such great ideas. Wonderful post. Thank you!

  • I like bookmarks. They’re easy to hand out in person, they fit in my purse, and some people still read paperbacks. I had mine done at a local printer and I’ll do more. Sometimes I think when people try to get too clever, it actually draws attention away from the books. Just my opinion.

  • Thank you, this is useful information. I do find it overwhelming at times with all the promotion things that should be done. I agree with Kritina, keep it simple.

  • As a variant on bookmarks, to promote The Gilded Scarab, I bought scarab beetles beads from a company in Egypt, a host of rainbow beads from eBay suppliers, and with strong linen thread from a beading shop I made book thongs. The book’s set in a steampunk coffeehouse, so the swag bags for a conference later this year will include Douwe Egbert’s coffee sachets. I have printed images of scarab watches on plain fabric – cut out and glued to brooch findings, they make inexpensive, but *different* bits of swag. The big prize giveaway will be the choice of a coffee travel mug or an iPad cover, both printed (each costing less than £20) with the book cover.

    For another, more mainstream sci fi book, I also made loads of retro rocket ship brooches by buying a length of kids’ curtain fabric, sandwiching it onto vilene with bondaweb, cutting out each rocket and glueing a brooch finding on the back. And as you can see from my icon, a retro rocket is part of my brand!

    Scour eBay and buy those acrylic fridge magnets and keychains that will take an inserted photo. You can get them in bulk (50 or more) and they won’t break the bank. All you need then is a colour printer, an image of your book cover and a few sheets of photo printing paper, and you’re all set.

    No real crafting skill was needed for any of these things, but doing them myself saved me a mint of money.

    Last, don’t forget pens printed with your name, your tagline (I write sci fi, so mine is ‘for love that’s out of this world’) and your website address. Everyone uses pens and the unit cost is reasonably low.

  • […] Author Swag and How To Swing It – Sierra Godfrey at Writers In The Storm. An interesting piece on what sort of swag works. Most interesting thing to me – search Pinterest for “author swag” and see the good ideas. […]