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Book Promotions Using Swag: What You Need to Know

Heidi Thorne is the author of "SWAG: How to Choose and Use Promotional Products for Marketing Your Business."


A Cost-Effective Strategy?

Every once in a while, I’ll run across a blog that suggests authors use promotional products (often referred to as swag) to promote their books. In theory, and as a former promotional products distributor, I say that’s a great idea.

However, it is also a costly idea, especially for self-published authors. You can easily blow your entire book budget and revenues with just one order!

Here's what you need to know.

Swag is used to market and advertise businesses or causes.

Swag is used to market and advertise businesses or causes.

What are Promotional Products, or Swag?

Promotional products and giveaways, or swag, are physical merchandise such as pens, T-shirts, mugs, etc. that have a logo or marketing message imprinted on them. They are used to market and advertise businesses or causes.

They can be very effective marketing tools due to their staying power. Recipients might keep the imprinted item for years!

How Might Swag be Used for Books?

In many of the blogs or articles I’ve seen, there are lots of creative ways to use swag to promote a book. Custom bookmarks are common for promoting print books. Imprinting the book cover or book title on a T-shirt or mug, adhesive notes, toys . . . you name it.

An imprinted product could also be an incentive or package deal for a book. For example, a book could be sold with the T-shirt as a package.

Some authors may also want to use a special imprinted promotion when sending a print book to potential book reviewers to gain even more attention.

You can easily burn through your entire book budget and revenues with just one order of swag!

You can easily burn through your entire book budget and revenues with just one order of swag!

The Drawback to Using Swag to Promote Books


The biggest drawback to using promotional products for books is cost. The items usually need to be purchased in bulk, often with high minimums in the hundreds. This doesn’t even take into consideration the cost to ship the items to you, setup, and artwork charges. A single promotional product order can cost several hundred dollars.

Luckily, with many online printing companies (such as Vistaprint), low minimums for imprinted items are available, even the option of buying only one item. But the cost per item could be several times what it would be if purchased in bulk. Even then, it’s better to purchase a small quantity of a higher-priced item than to get stuck with hundreds of dollars of merchandise that you’ll have to store.

It’s Physical

How will potential readers get the book’s swag? This is one of the biggest problems. If I remember right, I saw an author who considered mailing swag to his potential readers. That, on top of the high cost of the items, will drain money faster than you can imagine, not to mention the time, effort, and postage required to package and ship.

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True, items such as flat paper bookmarks might be easy to mail in regular envelopes. But you still have the cost of the item, the envelope, the addressing, and the postage. That could still run into the hundreds of dollars.

It’s Promoting a Small Sale with Small Profit

Here’s the biggest reason not to consider promotional products for a book. The per book revenue or royalty you’ll make might be less than the total cost of the promotional item. You might end up making very little, nothing at all, or, at worst, you might sustain a loss.

Promotional products are better suited for promotions aimed at buyers who are frequent repeat customers, or who are making a large purchase (like a car). These items keep the brand name in front of the customer whose lifetime sales value could be several hundred to several thousand dollars.

It May Not Lead to a Sale

A downside of promotional products is that there are lots of people who like getting the item, but aren’t really interested in what or who it promotes. This is a problem, especially at events and trade shows.

People Don’t Share Swag

If potential readers think the book’s swag is cool, they’re going to keep it. That’s great, but that means that the marketing and sale stop there. They’re not going to pass that cool item along to a friend who could become a buyer. Getting a post or share about your book on Facebook from a reader or reviewer—for free!—could have more impact than that super cool item.

Check Your Ego and Your Budget Before You Check Out

Sure, seeing the title or artwork of your book on an item is an ego booster! But check your budget and your ego before you click the Buy button. Why do you want to use swag to promote your book? What do you hope to gain in total sales and royalties from this promotion? Don’t know? Don’t buy.

Consider other low-cost advertising alternatives before swag.

One of my author friends announced that she was running a campaign for sales of a custom mug that she had used to help promote her latest book. It was a super cute item. What concerned me was that the campaign was being run as a test before investing in manufacturing and website development for selling the item on a larger scale.

Never, ever invest in product development, manufacturing, or inventory if you don’t have to! This will eat up any profits you make from sales of your book or from your branded swag. In fact, from my many years of experience in both the swag and publishing industries, I can tell you that you would likely incur a loss or even go into debt by doing it yourself.

But there is an alternative. As a self-published author, you’re already familiar with how print-on-demand (POD) works if you use Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). Well, the same opportunity exists for branded “merch” (merchandise), too.

There are companies that will imprint and handle all logistics for branded items such as T-shirts, mugs, art prints, bags, phone cases, and a whole lot more for as small an order as one piece. These are often referred to as fulfillment companies.

Here’s how this model works. The fulfillment company offers you a choice of items you can feature in an online store that they will often host for you for free or for a small fee. You upload your logo or artwork (make sure it's YOUR own artwork, or you have license and permission to use it) to the fulfillment company site. You send your fans to your online store where they can order the item they want.

The fulfillment company then imprints or manufactures the item ordered, handles the transaction, and ships the item to your fan. Sales taxes are usually collected and handled by the fulfillment company, too, which is a big deal considering all the complicated and varied sales tax laws. Make sure you understand how the company will handle the important sales tax issue so you don’t get a nasty surprise tax bill or penalties. The cost of the item, imprinting or manufacturing, shipping costs, and transaction fees are deducted from the total sale, and you get the remaining profit in your bank account. Totally hands-off for you, plus you carry zero inventory. You incur costs only when an order is received and processed.

Some popular fulfillment companies include Red Bubble, Printful, Printify, and Print Aura. Do a sample purchase from any fulfillment company you’re considering to see if the imprint and product quality are acceptable. As always, review the terms of service and fees carefully before deciding on one.

Another reason to go with a POD model for swag and branded merch to promote your book is because I think you’ll find that very, very few readers are actually interested in purchasing these items. This really only works for rabid fan bases, like Harry Potter fans. Never overestimate how willing your fans are to buy something that isn't your book.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2019 Heidi Thorne


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on January 16, 2019:

Hi Flourish! Indeed, in this situation, swag is more of an ego play than any real marketing benefit. I hope some authors listen and don't waste their truly hard earned book income on it.

Thanks for chiming in and have a beautiful day!

FlourishAnyway from USA on January 15, 2019:

I can't imagine that swag would be useful other than to give to family and friends. It's the ultimate in vanity publishing, as you mention. You provide excellent advice for all authors smart enough to listen!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on January 14, 2019:

Thanks, Pamela, for stopping by and adding your kind comments. Have a beautiful week!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on January 14, 2019:

Hi Donna! So true that people don't realize how expensive it is until they get started buying it. The per piece pricing looks so attractive... until you have to deal with the minimums and setup fees.

Thanks so much for adding your experience with buying swag. Have a wonderful week!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on January 14, 2019:

Liz, indeed, some books have been the spark for merchandising mega brands. And you make an excellent point that non-celebrity authors have to give it away, whereas the celebs can sell it.

Thanks for adding that important perspective to the discussion! Have a great week!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on January 14, 2019:

Bill, as a former promo person, I used swag, too, for my first book. Even though I was able to get some favorable pricing due to my relationships with suppliers, it still was expensive and I haven't done it since.

Thanks for stopping by and have a great week, too!

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on January 13, 2019:

This is a very informative artcle for authors. It is interesting and it give some great advice about "swag".

Donna Herron from USA on January 13, 2019:

Hi Heidi - This is a great article about buying promotional materials in general. Although I've never considered buying swag to promote a book, I have been in many meetings about buying promotional items for gift bags, giveaways, and other special events. These items are always far more expensive than you initially assume, and often the cost far exceeds the benefits. Thanks for another well written article!

Liz Westwood from UK on January 13, 2019:

You give a very balanced discussion of the pros and cons of swag. The irony is that the real big selling books like for example the Harry Potter series have spawned a whole merchandising industry of their own. Successful authors such as JK Rowling make a lot from merchandise associated with the original book. It's the authors at the far end of the scale that have to give away the merchandise to raise interest in their books.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on January 13, 2019:

I tried it once, with my first novel. It's an expensive game to play, one I'm not willing to play going forward...great information, as always.

Have a brilliant week, Heidi...stay safe and warm...spring is on the way, or so I'm told.

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