Swag is a general term covering any physical promotional items you use at conventions, in mailings, and casual contact with potential readers or people in your network. It can be something as simple as a business card or as complex as gift bags presented as a raffle prize. Swag is a distributable, sharable representation of you and your work.
Above all else, swag must be branded to do its job. That doesn’t necessarily mean emblazoned with a logo, but every time someone sees it, your swag must evoke you and your work in a positive way.
All swag is not created equal. When ordering swag, consider the types and volumes you’ll need.
- Author swag promotes your pen name and your work as a whole. We’d suggest you have a business card and at least one other item that encapsulates your work. These can be ordered in larger quantities because it will serve you over a period of years. These items can also be more expensive or sturdy because you hope they’ll see a lot of continued use.
- Project swag is book- or series-specific. This swag will feature titles or cover art in a way that keeps your latest project in front of the eyes of your market. Order these items in smaller quantities because book swag has a narrow shelf life. Yes, your book will continue to be sold for a long time, but your on-the-ground promotion efforts will tail off over the life of the release.
The Case for Swag
Swag’s purpose is twofold: to provide a touchstone for existing readers and to provide a conversation point or reminder for those potentially interested.
That’s it. That’s all swag is supposed to do and all it ever can do. Swag is important and often immeasurably helpful in book promotion. A single bookmark or rack card in the right hands might become the connective tissue allowing you to level up in your publishing game or introduce you to a whole new tribe of readers. A clever tote on the arm of your biggest fan while she sits at a soccer game could be the way you’re virally spread into a new demographic. It could be the way an agent browsing the promo lane at a convention tips over from vague awareness of your backlist to actively seeking you out at the hotel bar.
Swag can never, however, guarantee these things. Swag provides a set of tiny lightning rods you learn how to place in certain situations. Swag represents a gift to the readers you have already, a little something to remember you by. But it can’t be anything more. Swag is possibility and resonance. It is not and should never be the main course of your marketing efforts. It can open the door, but it will rarely close the deal.
Before you plunk money down, know the purpose of the swag and what your readers expect from it. Yes, even swag needs a measure of success. How else will you know if it’s doing its job?
The way readers handle your swag depends a great deal on the kind of fans you have. Some fans have no interest in collecting souvenirs. Some fans catalog it and mount it in elaborate displays. This varies wildly and widely from writer to writer, so do the homework before ordering a thousand of anything. Learn your market and how fans interact with giveaways.
The Perils of Swag
The greatest problem with author swag is that very little of it naturally connects to our books, and almost none of it translates into sales. The few bits of swag which do correlate—cover flats, bookmarks, rack cards—are easily thrown away and not particularly fascinating to strangers. The swag that is interesting brings us to the second problem with swag: quality is expensive, and it’s rarely feasible to produce the kind of return worth the investment.
Unfortunately, no swag will ever come close to recouping so much as half your investment through sales. Possibly somewhere an author can countermand this with a tale of how her personalized sewing kit landed her a contract deal for seven figures. If it gives you a thrill to play with those impossible odds, and if you have the disposable income to facilitate that kind of wild maybe, by all means, indulge at will.
For the vast majority of us, allowing swag to become anything other than modest potential is a trap that will end in disappointment and squandered savings.
The reality is every time you put in a promotional order, you must expect waste. Don’t be fooled by how many people clear out your swag area at a convention. People are magpies, and when they’re trolling a promotional area or stopping by your table, they’ll pick things up on random whims or because something about your smile makes them feel compelled. They may never look at these items again. They may live at the bottom of a suitcase for a year. They may be left in a heap for housekeeping.
Worse, a lot of the popular swag options—lip balm, pens in particular—won’t be noticed, even if kept. Heidi picked up a tube of lip balm at a convention years ago, but never looked at the name on it. Years later she found it in a drawer, and this time she paused because in the time since she had developed a professional relationship with the author. But not because of the lip balm. A blogger’s review put the books on her radar, and the lip balm didn’t even play a subliminal role.
But wait, you say. All the big companies, including my publisher, brands with pens and lip balms and cozies and mugs and everything! Yes, they do. Because they have a bigger budget than you, and they’re working on brand recognition on a much wider playing field. Your budget is much smaller, and your audience is more defined. By all means, get pens and lip balms and anything else you covet, but know they will never sell your books, and the profile they will give to your brand is minimal.
Presents as Presence
For some careers, author swag is critical. These little giveaway items can anchor an author’s platform because of the way they stoke fan expectations and enthusiasm. Different kinds of fans react to swag along a spectrum of responses. You will need to determine how your audience experiences swag in the wild. Damon’s fans want collectible keepsakes, so his swag serves a different function than it might for other authors. Heidi’s are more content with bookmarks and team buttons for favorite characters, maybe a few cover flats and a conversation over her signing table.
Consider your public archetype and the expectations it creates. Know your readers, and give them what they want to the degree it fits in your budget. However your fans react to swag, use it to extend your storytelling, making it a part of the larger series and the narrative of your career.
The Swag Checklist
Swag should be memorable, attractive, and useful.
Memorable swag is not about expense or utility, but about punch. Use your branding to zero in on unforgettable options: color, shape, flavor, style, vibe. The swag should look and feel like you, maintaining your presence even when you’re absent. Personal and distinctive always win.
Again, identify your measure of success for these items. Design and produce every item with care. Swag that looks shoddy makes you look shoddy. If you are not a graphic designer, hire someone to create the necessary files so that your swag budget isn’t wasted on gimcrack crap. Better to have no swag than ugly, clumsy, or amateurish swag.
Avoid low-hanging fruit. Anything that is cheap, easily found, and purchased in bulk is off-limits because every author on Earth has already grabbed hold of it by the bushel. Exceptions prove the rule, but in general bulk pens, cozies, pads, foam stress relievers, and anything else you can find on the first page after Googling the words “customized swag” isn’t worth considering. By definition, interchangeable promo items will never make an impression. If anyone can have it, everyone will.
Swag should be easy to pack.
Most of the places you’ll be handing out swag are at conventions or events, except for swag you mail as part of a prize package. In all of these instances, you’ll be transporting this item, and/or the recipient will. Weight, shape, and fragility are all factors you should carefully consider when choosing swag. This doesn’t mean you can’t hand out mugs, but it does mean you can’t hand out many mugs, and you should only give them to readers you know will find them precious. The last thing you want is your expensive, bulky swag abandoned in the hotel room because it was the thing your convention-goer felt they could ditch when they packed.
Swag must fit your budget.
Because swag is connective, it must expand and contract to properly adjoin the author presence you have and the next step to realizing the presence you most desire. It is not a ladder or a magic carpet. Above all, it is not the place to put your money. If you’re blessed to have a large promotional budget, you’d be better off with a large advertising scheme than a swanky swag investment.
The only time to spend liberally on swag is on targeted swag to particular readers at a moment that is all about celebrating their love of your work. That moment, too, isn’t about trying to make a sale. That’s about your shared joy.
Swag must be planned.
As the rule goes, you can have anything good, fast, and cheap, but you only get to pick two of those. For swag, good and cheap are the goal. When producing any promotional items, remember they won’t appear on your doorstep the next day. Allow the maximum possible window before you need an item on hand. Price the unit cost including production and delivery. Keep things within your promo budget. No matter how cool an item is, if the bang for buck makes no sense, then don’t use it.
Swag should serve a purpose.
Whenever you feel overwhelmed by your swag options, remind yourself of what you want the swag to do, and challenge yourself to show how it can do that and what your odds of success are. Your purpose is always to promote your work. Be realistic but also creative in how you serve those ends.
Spending money on high-quality, wearable, toteable swag for you is sometimes worthwhile. A smart messenger bag with your logo is a walking ad. Clothing items and phone cases are great options so long as they’re done well, fit your brand, and are within your budget.
Sometimes the biggest purpose for swag is to serve as a tchotchke, a keepsake or totem representing the author who impressed or moved a reader, and some authors inspire more passionate readers than others. Don’t use swag to court that kind of attention—that’s the work of your stories. Should you find yourself in a place where your readers crave those kinds of takeaways, give them something that doubles as promotional work for you and doesn’t break the bank to produce.
Swag should never, ever be pushed on someone.
At best, if the situation is appropriate, ask if someone would like your swag, but this is tricky. Some people will refuse a push or an offer, but many will want to be nice and will accept—then toss it the second you’re out of sight. Never put someone in the position of wishing they could have said no to you. That hinky feeling will linger far longer than any plastic Frisbee. Talk about push marketing—at its worst.
Remember the act of choice is your most powerful marketing tool. There is huge significance in someone choosing to pick up your swag, possibly something as simple as a bookmark. It makes them an agent in the exchange and sets off all kinds of complicated, subliminal impulses. This means if you’re sitting at a table behind your swag, your goal to getting it picked up is not handing it out but charming them into feeling they can’t leave your presence without a reminder of how good you made them feel.
Swag must stand out.
Even the best swag will get lost if all the swag around it is the same. When you’re the only author putting a certain kind of image on your promotion, your work will pop. When it’s the new byword in marketing, it’s dead. Keep your swag garbage-can resistant.
Don’t panic! You don’t need a marketing degree to find the swag that will speak for you. You only need a solid sense of your brand and a tool kit full of technology and experts to help you produce it.
© 2016 Damon Suede & Heidi Cullinan, All Rights Reserved