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Using Products to Help Sell Self-Published Books

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.

Is it a good idea to sell products along with your self-published book? Find out why it may be more trouble than it's worth.

Is it a good idea to sell products along with your self-published book? Find out why it may be more trouble than it's worth.

Have you ever seen the modern painting by Edvard Munch, The Scream? Well, that's the face I make when I hear self-published authors say they want to sell a product based on a book OR sell a product with a book.

In theory, it's a cool idea to extend the brand of the book. However, such linkage also extends the author's liabilities and costs, even to the point of making it not just unprofitable, but downright risky.

The Handmade Horror of Custom Products

Although I encounter all types of self-published authors who want to create and manufacture products relating to their books, where I see this situation occurring most often is with authors who write children's books. It's challenging enough to write a children's book. But where these authors dramatically ramp up their risk is when they want to sell a custom, usually handmade, stuffed animal or other toy that's based on the story or characters in the book.

From my many years of experience in the promotional products industry, I can tell you that custom and/or handmade products are a nightmare on several levels. Most of the risks and challenges with these products have to do with regulations relating to products and the use of them. It's naive to think that consumer protection laws don't apply to you because you're a small business or self-published author!

The Government Agencies That Oversee Product Regulations

In the United States, the primary government "acronym" agencies that oversee these issues are the FTC and CPSC, although other agencies (such as the FDA) could also be involved, depending on the particular product. (If you're not in the U.S., check with your local government to see what agencies would oversee these issues.)

  • FTC (Federal Trade Commission): This agency oversees such issues as product and content labeling (which would especially be required for stuffed toys or fabric items) and advertising (i.e., misrepresentation, issues with advertising to children, etc.).
  • CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission): This agency oversees product safety issues such as choking hazards, lead content, hazardous situations caused by products, potentially harmful or toxic materials used in manufacturing, etc.

Researching regulations and determining the best course of action requires consulting an attorney familiar with product liability, as well as a commercial liability insurance agent to talk about product liability insurance that would be needed. Investing in both the legal advice and insurance coverage—not to mention the cost of creating, manufacturing, storing, shipping, marketing, and collecting sales taxes for the product!—could easily outweigh any sales and revenues that could be realized, even to the point of a major loss.

Though it wouldn't likely show up on a financial analysis, the one cost that these enterprising authors often forget to consider is the time and energy they personally put into these products. They're passionate about their work and can easily overinvest in these adventures, creating even more cost (or even loss).

Custom toys are troublesome to make and sell while following regulations.

Custom toys are troublesome to make and sell while following regulations.

Selling Retail Products With Books

Another strategy that I have heard of is selling a standard retail product along with a book. Example: For a cookbook, the author would sell featured kitchen utensils (made by someone else) and the cookbook as a package. It's not essentially the same as creating and manufacturing a product, as just discussed. But that doesn't mean it's devoid of risk.

First, you need to do some significant supply chain research to make sure you're providing a product that aligns with your commitment to quality and safety. Plus, you may have to buy in a pretty high volume to get the per-piece price down. Then what if you can't sell enough of the product and book package? You'll be stuck with the inventory... and a loss.

And, as discussed with handmade products earlier, the costs of shipping, warehousing, marketing, insuring, collecting sales taxes, etc. will also apply.

But here's the bigger issue with the product-plus-book strategy: You could be seen as the retailer for both the book and the product. Should there ever be a product recall or an injury caused by the product—even though it's not YOUR product—you could become a party in those claims. Yikes!

Will the Product Actually Help Book Sales?

Reality check: If you're considering creating or offering a product in conjunction with your self-published book, how do you know it will increase your sales?

I would venture to say that most self-published authors don't go through extensive market research to figure out if adding a product offering to their books would help sales. That's a tough question for even big manufacturers and publishers who have marketing pros at their side! Rather, these authors become so enamored with their product idea that they will often overlook how large an undertaking this really is and charge forward anyway.

Don't delude yourself into thinking that the addition of a product will magically encourage someone to buy your book. On the flip side, don't buy into the notion that because someone loved your book, they'll want to buy any product you sell.

Always, ALWAYS, do a profit and loss analysis, and consult legal, commercial insurance, and accounting professionals, BEFORE ever venturing into making and/or selling physical products in conjunction with your publishing efforts.

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.

© 2017 Heidi Thorne


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on October 13, 2017:

Hi Linda! Thanks for the kind words and your support, as always. Have a great weekend!

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on October 12, 2017:

You've shared some excellent advice, Heidi. I appreciate your knowledge of both business and legal issues.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on October 09, 2017:

Thanks, Larry, for stopping by! Glad you enjoyed the post. Have a great week!

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on October 09, 2017:

I always appreciate your tips:-)

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on October 06, 2017:

Hi Venkatachari! It selling products and books can be successful if done right. But I agree that finding a suitable product match could be very difficult. Thanks for adding your thoughts to the conversation! Have a great weekend!

Venkatachari M from Hyderabad, India on October 06, 2017:

It seems a good advice to use products in order to sell your self-published books. But it may be difficult to find a suitable product that can match your subject.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on October 05, 2017:

Flourish, of course, it just applies to everyone else. Not! ;) But I do hope that someone will take it seriously and look before they leap. Thanks for chiming in, as always!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on October 05, 2017:

Bill, haven't we all? :) Just hope I can help save someone from going down the same path. Thanks so much for chiming in and have a great day!

FlourishAnyway from USA on October 05, 2017:

Wow, this is a terrific warning, but something tells me there will be people who need to hear the message who think it applies to everyone else.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 05, 2017:

Been there, done that, failed miserably. LOL Enough said about that.