Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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May 29, 2020

SWAG: What To Bring to Your Author Events

by Sherry Ficklin

SWAG is one of those places where authors can go very right, or completely wrong and so, while I've talked about this before, it is worth repeating. As the industry evolves, so does the art of book SWAG. Plus, it's the first question I get from new authors about to dive into publishing.

What is SWAG, and why do you need it?

SWAG is the general term we use for promotional materials. There are two kinds I see at events: free swag and sale swag. Both have merits, but some work better at certain types of events than others.

The goal of SWAG is simple, you want to build brand awareness and recognition. While it is often collected by fans and readers, it's also vital to have at your event so that even if people do not purchase a book right then, they will remember you and your novel at a later date.

Paper SWAG

Paper swag comes in many forms:

  • Business cards
  • Book marks
  • Postcards
  • Flyers (if you have a large catalog of work)

It can also include more out-of-the-box things like door hangers, stickers, character trading cards, posters, and tattoos.

Paper SWAG is usually fairly inexpensive to produce and easy to brand with your vital information. Every piece of paper SWAG should have your name and website address but can also include your book cover(s), a brief blurb, a short review snippet, or the image of a character/scene from your story.

The reason this is the most necessary SWAG to have at every single event is: it's easy to hand out and doesn't cost you a fortune. Plus, it gives you the best kind of brand recognition, image recognition.

They say consumers have to see a product 3-5 times before they will decide whether or not to purchase it. So this kind of SWAG, combined with online images, bulk up those sightings.

Pro Tip: For an even better paper SWAG experience, consider placing a QR code or link on your promotional items that take the receiver to a free sample of your work. This can be a chapter or an entire free book. I have a 6 book series where I keep the first book free, so I use it as a loss leader to draw people into buying the other 5 novels. It not only adds value to the SWAG, but draws them into your sales funnel.

Every person who sees you at an event should leave your table with something.

As much as it pains some people, publishing has become a digitally driven industry. More and more, e-book sales are king, which means people often use store events as a sort of showroom where they check out new titles but then go home and order online.

If a browser leaves and five minutes later forgets the title or your name, you have just lost a sale.

Plus, while it may sound odd to us, people can be really intimidated by authors. It may be hard for some people to approach you cold, as they are either too nervous to talk or are afraid of being hit by what I call the 'tough sell' that some authors put out.

When you can smile and offer them a bookmark or other freebie, it is a great tension breaker and they will be more likely to approach and connect with you.

Non-Paper SWAG

There are as many kinds of SWAG as there are authors, and everyone has their favorite kinds. My only word of caution going in is this; be really aware of what you are spending and what kind of brand recognition you're hoping to see in return.

If you have a book that is digital only, bookmarks may not be the way to go, but large print cover postcards might be a great option. If you have a children's book, stickers might get you more attention than tattoos or door hangers.

Here are a few common types of non-paper SWAG:

  • Buttons*
  • Magnets*
  • Chapstick
  • Rubber Bracelets
  • Charm Cord Bookmarks
  • Matchbooks
  • Can Coozies
  • Keychains
  • Lotion/Sanitizer
  • Pens
  • Notepads
  • Tote Bags*
  • Condoms (yes, I've seen these at romance author events)
  • Mouse Pads

Any and all of these are moderately priced items and make for great SWAG, but be careful that you don't break the budget.

I highly suggest starting with one paper SWAG item and one more expensive item to give as a gift with purchase.

You may have noticed an * beside a few of those items. This is because not only are they very popular with readers, they tend to offer what I like to call passive visibility. This means, many other people besides the initial receiver see them so they offer much broader visibility. A tote bag used for several months during library trips, for example, may catch the attention of other readers who weren’t even at your event.

There are also much more expensive to produce items like:

  • T-shirts
  • Mugs
  • Hats
  • Flasks
  • Glasses

These items are excellent if you are doing a vendor fair type of event and you want to sell items in conjunction with your book, or if you want to use them as special promotional giveaways. However, if you give everyone who buys a book a free t-shirt, you're actively losing money. The items above get you some brand visibility (as they are worn and used), but often not enough to recoup costs.

It's also important to note that most bookstore events don't want you selling anything besides books, so you should definitely check with them first to get clarification. Also, for newer, lesser known authors without a long series, these items lose value. They are best employed for long series, or once you have a thriving base of readers.

Other Thoughts on SWAG

As with so many things in this industry, SWAG can help you or hurt you.

Low quality items can make you look unprofessional, but too many expensive items can turn people off as well (not to mention breaking the piggy bank). Your best bet is always to consider your brand, your audience, and your budget. Then decide what SWAG you want.

Example: If you’re handing out water bottles with your business card taped to the front, this devalues you as an author and people who receive it aren’t likely to trust that your books are high quality.

If you want to have SWAG, you should invest in it. The perception of quality is key to building trust with new readers.

I'd like to take a quick moment to talk about another important kind of SWAG that I've not mentioned before

Digital SWAG

I'm seeing more and more digital SWAG offerings and it's great for people who can't get to an event in real life. Digital SWAG is great for authors.

Authors are offering free downloadable SWAG via their websites. Everything from desktop and smartphone backgrounds, to Spotify playlists, to printable goodies like wall art and calendars. These are great offerings for online fans and great for drawing traffic to your website.

Pro Tip: As with any SWAG, be sure you have the rights to everything you use.)

For my recent release, The Canary Club (a prohibition era gangster romance), I used traditional paper SWAG with door hangers and mini posters. For my special events, I had matchbooks and drink coasters made with my website and tag line. They are easy to travel to events with, functional, unique, and perfectly on brand for this series. BUT in addition to that, I created a special area of my website that acted as a virtual speakeasy, which included period cocktail recipes, historical information, and other free downloadables.

The best part? To get the password, people had to pre-order the book.

Final Word

Don't be afraid to think outside the box of the items I've listed above, but remember, any SWAG you use should have at least one piece of your branding on it. For example, foam fingers are great for your sports romance, but if they don't also serve as a promotional billboard for your book or website, it's not doing you, or your brand, any good.

What sort of SWAG do you love getting from authors? Do you need good SWAG resources? Let me know in the comments below!

* * * * * *

About Sherry

Sherry is a full-time writer from Colorado and the author of over a dozen novels for teens and young adults including the best-selling Stolen Empire series. She can often be found browsing her local bookstore with a large white hot chocolate in one hand and a towering stack of books in the other. That is, unless she’s on deadline at which time she, like the Loch Ness monster, is only seen in blurry photographs.

Sherry also appears as a guest speaker at several conventions annually. You can find her at her official website, www.sherryficklin.com, or stalk her on her Facebook page www.facebook.com/sherry.ficklin.

16 comments on “SWAG: What To Bring to Your Author Events”

  1. I think a lot depends on the event. Is it going into a 'goodie room' or on a 'goodie table' or are you at an event where you're sitting at a table and can talk on-on-one with attendees? If the latter, you want something to get them to your table. A bowl of candy often starts things off.

    I've had people remember me for my lip balm. I do have business cards with QR codes to my website and FB author page, but I've given up on most other forms of paper. It becomes overload and all too frequently ends up in the trash. Some conferences have stopped allowing it on giveaway tables. I have post-it notes, which are popular, as are small notepads. I've done post cards with a link to a free download. Very poor results from those.

    What do I bring home? Lip balm, emery boards, pens, post-its (if the author hasn't filled the space with promo and there's actually room to write on them), magnets. Also, anything unusual and useful, like screen cleaners, doorknob hangers, although those are out of my price range as giveaways.

  2. I've used business cards as well as bookmarks for SWAG. The bookmarks go over very well. I hadn't considered magnets. Those are practical and have high visibility.

    Thanks for all the great suggestions!

  3. Pens and post-its are nice because I actually use them.

    I'm picky about lip balm and lotion. If it's not made in the USA or a known safe country, I won't use it. In some countries, its production isn't regulated, and I can't afford to use products which cause allergies, contain lead, or other non-safe ingredients. Made in USA products cost more, but are worth it.


  4. Great, Sherri! You've started me thinking. Here's my swag story.

    Once upon a time my publisher called and said, "James, do you want to do gum?" I said, "Huh?"
    He'd found a vendor who would produce flat, playing-card size packs of gum with my book cover and ordering information on them. They have become by far my most popular giveaway.

    However -- three points.

    One, in the design you must leave room for ingredients. (BTW, I do sugar-free only.)

    Two, there is lead time, so plan ahead.

    Three, remember it is chewing gum. I always, always ask before I give it out at signing. So far, no one has said no, not even libraries.

    It's not cheap but it makes an impression.

    Thanks again!

    1. I've never heard of gum! But what a fantastic idea. People like me who MUST be gluten free really appreciate the ingredients list. If I can't read it, I don't eat it. Period.

  5. I was invited to a book fair but only for one of my books, plus our spaces were tiny. I wanted to share my other two books with visitors and wanted something a little more fun than postcards or bookmarks (since there would be 70 other authors there).

    I found someone on Etsy who made custom mini-chocolate bar wrappers. A mini hershey bar is the perfect dimensions for a book cover, so I had her make covers (which self stuck and wrapped beautifully around the tiny chocolate bars) that had my book cover on one side and my contact info on the other. They were tiny so there wasn't much room, but if I had it to do again I might try to squeeze some clever 'ingredients' list under my website.

    I handed them all out that day, telling everyone, 'Here are chocolate versions of my other books.' It was a pretty reasonable expense for some memorable swag.

    1. That is incredibly memorable swag, Cara. I'd have taken your chocolate and given it to my kid (the GF thing keeps a ton of yummy things away from me), and kept the book covers. 🙂

  6. Over the last few years I've noticed event attendees of all kinds pick up less and less swag - especially paper products. What's going to happen when large group events start up again is anyone's guess.

    At one point I was handing out little packages of dog treats. The next year visitors wanted to know ingredients.

    Have other writers noticed swag trends at big author events?

    1. I do several large events every year including NY Comic Con and I have always had people asking for paper swag. Author events can sometimes turn into swag competitions, and readers there are sometimes much pickier about what they take, which is why I suggest adding value to paper swag by adding codes for free books/samples. But paper swag is light, easy to carry, and people really do like it.

  7. Thanks for this post, Sherry! And yes, we need all the SWAG resources you're willing to share. What are your favorite places to get bookmarks, door hangers, nail files?

    1. I love vistaprint and UPrinting as well as places like Pure Buttons and Oriental Trading. Hope this helps!

  8. Thank for you these creative ideas! Question - would especially creative and relevant ideas be part of a book proposal? I'm a memoirist, if that makes a difference.

    1. Sherry is traveling so she messaged me your answer, Karen. (How sweet is that??)

      A book proposal usually has more to do with your platform as an author and the work itself. Publishers, especially large ones, normally want to, to some degree, control the swag and marketing materials they put out.

      If you have fun ideas, you can always discuss with them later. I don’t know that I’d clutter a proposal with swag ideas UNLESS they will help your book reach it’s target audience. For example, if your book is about a famous barrel rider, and your swag idea is custom horse brushes. Does that make sense?

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