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9 Things Self-Published Authors Need to Know About Branded Merch

Does selling branded merchandise ("merch") work for self publishing?

Does selling branded merchandise ("merch") work for self publishing?

My Experience in the Industry

I’ve encountered self published authors who are interested in doing branded merchandise (or “branded merch”) for their books. While there are very economical and efficient ways to do that with print on demand these days, it still may not be worth the effort.

I was a promotional products (or “swag”) distributor for 17 years, and I'm the author of SWAG: How to Choose and Use Promotional Products for Marketing Your Business. So I’ll share some of my thoughts on branded merch based on my experience in the imprinted products industry.

1. What’s the Difference Between Branded Merch and Swag?

Branded merchandise is sold to your most ardent fans who want to be associated with you, be like you, or have some emotional connection to you or your work. Promotional giveaways, or swag, are given away for free in the hopes that they will encourage people to buy products and services offered by a business.

Even if the same types of merchandise are used, how they are used determines whether they are branded merch or swag.

2. Branded Merch vs. Your Brand

Don’t confuse merchandise with your logo on it with your brand! They are completely different things. Branded merch doesn’t create a brand. Your brand is who you are and what you stand for. Branded merch is merely an extension and physical interpretation of your brand and brand promise.

Also, don’t confuse branded merch with brand name products and services, e.g., a Maytag brand washer. Your author name, book series title, or imprint name functions as your brand name. It’s just a name that identifies your work from that of others.

Branded merch doesn’t create a brand. Your brand is who you are and what you stand for.

— Heidi Thorne

3. Does It Make Sense to Offer Branded Merch as a Self-Published Author?

Branded merch programs make sense for books and authors who have very large and loyal fan bases. For example, the Harry Potter, Dr. Seuss, and Hunger Games franchises have had many branded merch and licensing deals because they have a critical mass of rabid fans who want to be connected with them beyond the books. Since books, even if a series, are finite, branded merch gives fans more ways to continue consuming the brand.

But would a self-published author be at a point where there would be that level of demand for branded merch? Quite frankly, most self-published authors will never attain a critical mass of fans where this product development, licensing, and distribution investments make sense. Authors have enough issues just trying to sell their books. I’ve estimated that only about one percent of an author’s fans and followers may actually buy the book. And not all of those book buyers may be interested in branded merch offers. Therefore, the potential sales volume for branded merch for self-publishing could be low.

Additionally, you’ll have to promote your merch on social media and elsewhere online to generate sales. That could be additional cost in money, time, and effort. If the cost is too high, it will go from being a profit center to a drag on your total net profit.

Realize, too, that some genres, topics, and audiences aren’t a good fit for branded merch. It must provide value that logically aligns with your book’s story, message, and reader profile.

4. Print-On-Demand Branded Merch

If you’re determined to offer branded merch for your self-published books in spite of the foregoing discussion, I recommend going with a print-on-demand (POD) option that works similarly to print-on-demand for your books. Companies such as Red Bubble, Printify, and Printful offer print-on-demand imprinted products that are only created when an order from one of your customers is received. That means zero inventory cost for you.

These POD imprinting companies also help you create an online store where you can showcase your branded merch offerings and accept orders. Then the company imprints the items as orders are received and ships them directly to your buyers . . . all without you having to do anything.

When considering a POD fulfillment program, always look at any fees and commissions you’ll be charged so that you can cover them by rolling them into your retail price per item. These costs may be flat fees or percentages of sales.

It is better to offer branded merch that people actually use, like mugs, T-shirts, and tote bags.

It is better to offer branded merch that people actually use, like mugs, T-shirts, and tote bags.

5. What Types of Items Should You Offer?

Being creative people, authors often envision custom promotional products that are way out of their budget range. Even my creative business clients would inquire about some wildly original ideas that would have cost them a fortune.

If you are going to use print on demand, the types of items that are available for imprinting may seem quite ordinary to you: T-shirts, tote bags, hats, mugs, etc. There’s a reason for that. It’s because those are items people actually use and buy. Pick a few common items to start with, maybe a T-shirt, mug, and tote bag.

6. What Should You Put on Your Branded Merch?

While you might naturally think that putting your book cover on your branded items would be logical, there are better choices.

But before I discuss other options, let’s talk about why your book cover art isn’t an ideal imprint from a printing standpoint. Book covers often contain complex and detailed graphics, which may not always translate well onto T-shirts, mugs, etc. The details might be lost because printing on a product surface is not like printing on paper.

Here are some alternate branded merch imprint ideas to jumpstart your thinking:

  • A key quote from your book that is memorable and readers would easily relate to.
  • Something that would express their kinship or likeness to a character or theme of the book, e.g., "Hogwarts Alumni" from Harry Potter.
  • Clever sayings relating to the book or its story, such as “I’d rather be in [name of a fictional place in your book].”
  • Simple line art illustration of an object or character from your book. A vector art file, such as .eps or .ai created in Adobe Illustrator, is required for imprinting.

7. Caution: Your Branded Merch Could Violate Copyrights

If you have a designer create your cover art or logo, you may be violating your designer’s copyrights if the two of you haven’t agreed to terms on the use of designs outside the book. When requesting graphic design proposals, tell designers about how you plan to use the artwork aside from the book cover. If you’re using book cover creation sites instead of individual designers, carefully review the terms of service for use of your cover art outside of the book.

But it’s not just the designer’s work you should be concerned about. If the designer uses stock photography or illustrations as part of your design, that, too, may only be licensed for use in the book. Other non-book use may be prohibited. Ask for copy or link for the stock art licensing agreement. If they can’t or won’t provide it, move on to another designer. It’s not worth risking a copyright infringement claim.

And if you’ve used Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) or other self-publishing platform's cover creation tools to develop your cover art, that art is licensed to you for use with your book or eBook only. So you’ll be prohibited from putting that art on a mug or T-shirt.

When you hire a designer, discuss the possibility of creating some related branded merch imprints so that your book and your merchandise all have a coordinated look. Discuss what types of surfaces these related imprints might be used on so that your designer can create something that will imprint properly.

Don’t use stock artwork sites to find graphics for your branded merch, especially free stock artwork sites! Reputable stock artwork providers often prohibit the use of their illustrations and photos for imprinted items such as calendars, T-shirts, mugs, etc., unless you get approval and pay additional licensing fees. The free stock artwork sites often don’t have these restrictions, but the provenance of their artwork is suspect. Anyone could upload artwork that infringes on the original creator’s copyright, and you could end up on the wrong side of a lawsuit.

8. No "Arts and Crafts" Branded Merch!

I encountered an author through networking who wanted to offer handmade stuffed toys of characters from her children’s books. All I can say is, “Yikes!”

Making any sort of branded product by hand does not scale. What if you get a lot of orders? You’ll go from being a writer to a manufacturer, which is expensive, wastes your writing time, and increases your financial risk and product liability. You won't save money by going the DIY (do it yourself) route. Going with print-on-demand means less hassle, risk, and cost.

9. The Bottom Line on Branded Merch: Make a Profit

The print-on-demand merchandise sites are usually very clear about your costs so that you can come up with a profitable price to charge. You need to make a profit! You are selling a unique value-added product, and you need to cover the overhead costs of running your author business. So don’t charge cheap prices! You’re not competing with Wal-Mart.

Remember, too, that when you sell products directly to customers, even if it's through a print-on-demand site, you may be responsible for collecting and reporting sales taxes. Review your print-on-demand provider's sales tax policies carefully, and consult your CPA on how to handle sales tax issues.

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.

© 2020 Heidi Thorne


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on January 08, 2021:

You're welcome, Mary! Happy New Year to you, too!

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on January 01, 2021:

Heidi, you contribute so much knowledge to the community and I appreciate that a lot. I know not where to thread. Happy New Year.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on December 31, 2020:

Hi Mary! Branded merch is an extremely competitive space for sure. I do not understand why authors are so eager to dive in. I think they're kind of jealous of the big celebrity authors.

Thank you for your support during this past year! Means a lot. Have a Happy and Healthy New Year!

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on December 31, 2020:

Heide, another beneficial hub. While it is easy to market now, the competitive field is difficult to reign in. Thanks for your tips.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on December 21, 2020:

Bill, I did it, too, for my first book. But I learned quickly, too, that this isn't the best use of time, energy, and money.

Thanks for your support over the past year! Means a lot. Merry Christmas!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on December 20, 2020:

Been there, done that, on my first novel. It was a dismal failure, lesson learned, which is all a long-winded way of saying I completely agree with you.

As always, wisdom flows from your veins.

Merry Christmas, in advance, my friend, and Happy Sunday!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on December 19, 2020:

Peggy, I think it's just a waste for any author without a massive following like the examples.

BTW, thank you for sharing your delicious looking recipes. By the time I get to read them, the commenting isn't available. But in a recent weekly update, HP says they'll be working on restoring some commenting in the future. Yay!

As always, thank you so much for your kind support throughout the year! Means a lot to me. Have a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on December 19, 2020:

Hi Pamela! Thanks for reading. I really appreciate you taking the time to stop by. You have a lovely holiday, too!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on December 19, 2020:

I agree with your premise that only well-known authors can generally make a profit by selling branded merchandise.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on December 19, 2020:

This is such an interesting article, and you have provided a wealth of information for self published authors. For instance, I didn't know the difference between swag and branded merchandise.

Happy Holidays, Heidi.