Using Products to Help Sell Self-Published Books: What You Need to Know

Updated on October 6, 2017
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Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing expert, nonfiction book editor, author of 21+ books and eBooks, and a former trade newspaper editor.


Ever see 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 risk 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!

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 over invest in these adventures, creating even more cost (or even loss).

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.

Disclaimer: Both the publisher and author have used their best efforts in preparation of this information. No representations or warranties for its contents, either expressed or implied, are offered or allowed and both parties disclaim any implied warranties of merchantability or fitness for your particular purpose. The advice and strategies presented herein may not be suitable for you, your situation or business. Consult with a professional advisor where and when appropriate. Neither the publisher nor author shall be liable for any loss of profit or any other damages, including but not limited to special, incidental, consequential or punitive, arising from or relating to your reliance on this information.

© 2017 Heidi Thorne


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  • heidithorne profile image

    Heidi Thorne 5 months ago from Chicago Area

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

  • AliciaC profile image

    Linda Crampton 5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

  • heidithorne profile image

    Heidi Thorne 5 months ago from Chicago Area

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

  • Larry Rankin profile image

    Larry Rankin 5 months ago from Oklahoma

    I always appreciate your tips:-)

  • heidithorne profile image

    Heidi Thorne 5 months ago from Chicago Area

    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 profile image

    Venkatachari M 5 months ago from Hyderabad, India

    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.

  • heidithorne profile image

    Heidi Thorne 5 months ago from Chicago Area

    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!

  • heidithorne profile image

    Heidi Thorne 5 months ago from Chicago Area

    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 profile image

    FlourishAnyway 5 months ago from USA

    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.

  • billybuc profile image

    Bill Holland 5 months ago from Olympia, WA

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