Monday, April 13, 2015

Swag to Hook a Reader (Beyond the Paper) 2: Electric Swagaloo

Booty. Loot. Goodies. FREE STUFF!  We all love it. I think it goes back to those childhood dental visits where you could pick a prize out of the treasure chest if you made it through the cleaning without biting anyone. We can't help ourselves. As soon as we hear where the goodie room is at a conference, we get all twitchy until our grabby little hands can start trick-or-treating. (On a side note, right now the Beastie Boys' Professor Booty is on a loop in my head).  I started this post last week on my personal blog, soliciting comments from authors far smarter than me on the subject. I have revised the post to include their advice.

But swag isn't cheap. As an author, you need to make sure that if you are putting money into promo, you are getting a return on your investment. A lot of the swag I've picked up at conferences and signings has been really cool, but finds its way into File 30 (what my office calls the trash can) pretty quickly. That means someone is literally throwing away the money you spent. That was likely not what you intended. If you wanted to throw away your money with little to no hope of return on your investment, you should buy lottery tickets or invest in Taco Corp or Forever Stamps (fans of The League get what I am saying).

If you are reading this, I am assuming you know the basics like have a professional looking business card, postcard, bookmark, etc.  This post is going beyond the paper (which, as an aside, I think works better when you meet a reader one on one so that he/she remember you and your book, but as far as goodie room and goodie bag fodder, I haven't bought a book based on a bookmark or postcard I've picked up/found).

So, here are my thoughts on swag from a reader's perspective:

It needs to be something the reader will keep in her hands.  Name recognition is everything. The more someone sees your name, the more likely they are to buy your book. Why do you think politicians repeat their names over and over in ads and plaster their signs everywhere? For that reason, make sure your swag is something people will keep in their hands: lip balm, pens, chip clips, sticky-note pads, etc. I always use the sticky-note pads I pick up at conferences in my law office.  I had several Peggy Webb Southern Cousin Mystery (Elvis) sticky pads that I used to leave notes on documents for my assistant.  When we ran out, she started asking where the Elvis notes had gone and when Peggy's next book was coming out. All of that was from seeing Peggy's sticky notes every day.

The fabulous Suzanne Johnson noted, "I used to pick up bookmarks and postcards and alwasy ended up throwing them away, so I no longer even pick them up.  I always keep pens, but honesty, don't look at who they're from after the initial pickup. Other keepers: lip balm and flash drives."  If you are going to invest the cheese in swag, make sure it stays in the hands of your audience.  

It needs to be useful.  Swag needs to be utilitarian. The really cute wand you are giving out to promote your faerie book is truly magical, and I couldn't resist grabbing one in the goodie room, but unless it serves double duty as a pen, it probably won't last more than a week in my possession before it finds its way to File 30.  The things I keep are the things I can use: pens, a stylus, notebooks, etc. And then there is my favorite . . . tote bags. I love me some tote bags. The people at my gym are constantly asking about my tote bags (don't hate - my clothes get stinky and I don't want to drop a crap-ton of money on a gym bag that is going to smell like death in a week).  One of the smartest tote-bag marketing moves I have seen was the red bag by Lynn Raye Harris and Kimberly Lang. They had these huge, red tote bags that they gave out at conferences.  Lynn's info was on one side, and Kimberly's was on the other.  You could fit two traditional tote bags in these suckers. They were awesome. Lynn shared that it thrilled her one year at RT to see a sea of their red bags at the book signing and at the airport when everyone was flying home. Everyone that got one of those bags turned into walking billboards for these ladies. I still use my big red bag at Christmas to transport presents (Santa loves romance).  All of this being said, don't be so utilitarian that you violate rule one about keeping something in the reader's hand. Lots of times I've received a postcard with candy attached, a granola bar with a sticker for a book, etc.  Those items were consumed and the author information filed away in File 30. I appreciated the author providing me sustenance, but their promo didn't last long in my hungry little hands.

See the coasters? How cool!
Be tied to your brand.  You worked hard on branding yourself, so don't let it go to waste when it comes to swag. Two of the best examples I can recall come from Katherine Bone and Victoria Dahl. Katherine (who by the way is a swag/marketing genius - if you ever get a chance to go a readers' luncheon where she is hosting a table, you want to sit with her - the swag is AWESOME) has these fantastic stress balls in the shape of a bone. So adorable! I have two - one to use, and another to throw at people when they tick me off. (Don't worry Kathy, you won't get sued for my use of your promo as a weapon of mass distraction, and I keep waiting for someone to say "throw me a bone" b/c I am so prepared for that). When Victoria Dahl's Donovan Brothers Brewery series came out, she had several different brewery coasters made with her book information on it. I had several of these that I kept in my den. I can't tell you how many of my friends asked about them (then later thieved them so that they could remember to buy the book). They were a great way to start a conversation about the Donovan Brothers books. Meda White writes "sweet, sultry, Southern" books. Her most successful swag has been mason jar cups with straws. Every time takes a sip of their iced-tea, they crave another one of her stories.

It needs to sell your books.  That is why you are doing this, right? You don't really need all those little keychain flashlights (unless you are prepping for the zombie apocalypse, then if so, well done!).  That being said, don't always give away the swag for free, or when you do, be creative.  For higher ticket items (cups, t-shirts, shot glasses, etc.), use the swag as a reward for helping out your book sales. At a book signing, give the high ticket item to someone who buys 2 or more books. Use the swag as a contest reward (best selfie with an e-reader copy of my cover gets a t-shirt). People will do some crazy things for swag (see Mardi Gras if you don't believe me - what people will do for some beads and a Moon Pie, but I digress). You are limited only by your creativity, and you must be pretty darn creative or you wouldn't  have written that book.

Books, books, and more books. The best promo is your writing. Write a good book, and if you can afford it, send copies of that well written book out into the world to hook readers. I regularly attend both the Southern Magic Readers Luncheon and Heart of Dixie Readers Luncheon. The attendees love finding cool swag in their goodie bags, but you know what they love even more? Free books. Those do not find their way to File 30. They find their way onto the reader's bedside table and into her heart. I know this is counter-intuitive and conflicts a little with the advice not to give promo out for free, but if your goal is to hook readers and have them buy more and more of your books, nothing is going to sell your writing like the writing itself.  Lynn Raye Harris (remember her from above?), Kimberly Lang (her too), Kira Sinclair , and Andrea Laurence put together sampler books for promo purposes. So smart. This book hooks readers, cross-pollinates fans, and sells their other books. Suzanne Johnson noted that her most successful swag had been chapter books, "I had 20-page, four color 5x7 booklets printed (saddle-stitched binding/self cover, in printer parlance). Each spread featured a cover image, trivia, and excerpt from one of my books, along with purchase info . . . I give them out at conference events and at book signings, and they get snapped up."  Or if you want to give away your books, you can buy them at a discounted rate from Author, Author! (Disclaimer - I am good friends with the owner, Laura Hayden who is a super-amazing author). Author, Author! offers an Author Purchase Program where authors can buy their books at a discounted rate while still getting credit for those sales.

Use the swag you pick up to build goodwill. When I first posted this discussion, Carla Swafford scolded me for my liberal use of File 30. "Heather, please stop throwing away all of that swag you don't want. Be sure to think of your local (or not so local) libraries! They LOVE swag of all types equally. Book marks, booklets with excerpts, and anythign else you don't want to keep or have extras of. Once a year, I take a bag filled with swag to my hometown library. They are so excited to see the bag - I like to think me too - and treat it like Christmas and their birthday rolled into one." Great advice Carla! Christine Glover gave similar advice; she shares the swag she picks up with her street team as well as using it as prizes for blog/social media contests.  As Christine said, "promote yourself along with the other fabulous authors you love!"

As I noted above, Katherine Bone is a swag genius. Here is her parting advice on swag:

My last name is Bone and I write pirate romance so it was easy for me to figure out what promo would stick ~ my last name. I searched for promo that would give the most impact and when I found my stress bones, magic happened. Huzzah and Hoorah! I have people contacting me to ask for more. One author asked for two so she could make her grandchildren Pebbles and Bam Bam costumes for Halloween. Woot!

If you write cowboy books, think of things cowboys would use, tie twine at the end of your bookmarks, incorporate theme into your promo. Same can be said for every genre in romance. Find that one thing that resonates with you and readers will love it! Make it unique by adding that one spark that showcases individuality.

One thing I see that works really well is recipes. If you use postcards, put recipes on one side and your author/book info on the other. You ARR giving the reader something useful as well as getting your name and info out there.

I agree with Lynn Raye Harris. Promo isn't really to plug your books. It's a giftie/treasure for readers, a method of parlayin' with future fans or current fans. It's the gift that keeps on givin'. If you keep that in mind when determining which promo/swag best works for you, you won't go wrong. Hildie McQueen does great swag too. As does Debra Glass and Naima Simone. 

What jazzes you about swag/promo will probably jazz readers too. And be willing to experiment. I've done this. Try bookmarks, postcards, and so forth. See what works and what doesn't. Swag isn't a one size fits all for authors. What works for Author A may not work for Author B. The primary key is have fun, be willing to try new things, and know that the ultimate business motto, "it takes money to make money", holds true for anything we do as authors. My .02. (Pirate!)

What are your thoughts on swag? What has worked for you? What prompted you to buy a book? These ideas are just a jumping off point. Let the discussion begin while I listen to Professor Booty one more time.


Nancee Cain said...

I'm working on a budget and plan to give out some homemade swag so we can laugh together at my epic fail at crafts! Because, face it, we've all failed at one of those amazing craft ideas on pinterest!

Heather said...

Thanks Nancee. I bet you are craftier than you think :)

Talking about homemade swag, for Suzanne's first book she made these beautiful bracelets that tied into her heroine, DJ, who is a wizard who uses earth magic/rocks. They were definite keepers and made you want to read the book to find out the tie in.

Ali Hubbard said...

This is an awesome overview! I love that so many different authors gave their viewpoints. Swag falls firmly in the "visual" category for me, and I have zero abilities there (probably why I have about 4 shirts and 2 pair of shoes...that my sister helped me obtain. lol).

I'm a pen and lip balm girl myself.

One idea I had recently was...coloring books. I saw where there is a spike in demand for adult coloring books. I thought, if you could somehow take your branding and come up with a few lovely pages, it may be something different for readers. Give each reader a pen with a page...maybe one side of coloring and a recipe on back. They get a recipe and a bit of relaxation.

I wondered if that would work or just be too complex to make happen. hahaha. Of course, I have no idea how to actually make a page for coloring!

Some genres would lend themselves to this better than others. YA, paranormals and historicals would rock. Not sure how to properly do it for erotica or suspense....There would be some wiggle room with contemporary. And I guess you have to think about the crayons too, athough I find them EVERYWHERE IN UNLIMITED QUANTITIES in my house (seriously, like where do all these crayons come from? I NEVER buy them. Are my scissors turning into crayons, because I can never find those).

Or even make a Southern Magic coloring book with a page for every member who wants to contribute one, published or not. That way it could be a chapter thing.

As for the other swag, I admit that I prefer a Spartan feel to my house. So, if it doesn't have a use, I don't normally pick it up. I leave it for others. But I agree with Carla Swafford. I'll save it and give it to a library or writing club or put it in a goodie bag if I do get some.

By the way, I can't get Brass Monkey out of my head now. lololol

Heather said...

Ali, you are brilliant! I love the coloring book idea!

Dianna Love said...

This is such a good topic because so much time and money goes into swag. I decided a long time ago that the best swag in mass distribution was a sample of the book, because that was the one thing I got the most feedback on as gaining a new reader.

I started something called the Keeper Kase™ signed cover cards about 2 years ago and readers really like it. They can get a signed Keeper Kase™ (4x6 brag album) filled with signed cover cards (4x6 postcards with glossy cover on one side and a blurb, etc on the back where I leave a space to sign them). No one kept up with bookmarks, postcards, trading cards, etc in the past because there was no vehicle for turning them into a collection. I offer cards free if the reader sends a SASE and they love that. I've started it primarily so ebook readers would have something for their "keeper shelf," but I've heard from readers in remote areas who send for them because they will never get to a signing. Now I send sets of cards to my international readers who love it because so many read ebooks.

My really nice swag goes to the readers I have now, because I constantly give things away to them, but the best swag I've found for handing out randomly is the post it booklet that you can brand. I'm not sure which company printed my last ones, but I use this promo group and really like them -

This is not the one I have, but it is an example -

I like something they'll keep on hand to use all the time. I give away monogrammed backpacks full of books and swag at luncheons where I can meet the reader.

Don't know if that is of any help to anyone, but I just wanted to jump over and say hello!

Heather said...

Dianna - thank you so much for commenting. I love the Keeper Kases! I've already filled one up. I love getting the cards autographed. I was going to get a new one for RWA 2015.

Suzanne Johnson said...

I love Ali's coloring book too--I work in PhotoShop a lot, so I'm going to be experimenting in the art of coloring-book-making this weekend!

Heather said...

Suzanne - I want an Adventures of DJ and Jean Lafitte coloring book!

Aidee Ladnier said...

We totally need a Southern Magic coloring book. Think about all the tie-in potential! And I personally love to color. The intricate designs in my store-bought coloring books get lots of comments when I take them out to color whenever I'm out and about.

Heather said...

Aidee - I love the idea of a Southern Magic coloring book. Wouldn't that be a fun thing to have at the luncheon!

Katherine Bone said...

Great post, Lady Heather! Thank you so much for including me!!!

Another thing that's really hot with readers right now is the beaded bookmark. You can make these easily. I like to include them in my swag pack. I've even had book charms made to go at the end of them. Very cool!!! (Email me at: and I can 'splain how to make them and what you'll need.)

Heather said...

Lady Katherine, you are a marketing genius!

Morgan Malone said...

For a newbie author, these are all wonderful ideas for me as I approach my first season of book conferences with two books to promote. Thank you all for sharing!

Heather said...

Thanks Morgan. Promotion can be a costly, but necessary investment. It is important to make sure your money is spent in the right places to promote both you and your book.

Cari Hislop said...

I love Ali's colour book idea! One could not only give it away as swag, but one could sell it on Amazon as well! You could include favorite quotes from one's books.

Carrying on from the colour book idea, I've thought about doing a number of prints (small poster size) for each book. Do a set number and sign each one. One of these days I'd like to do some lino prints for each of my books, but one could probably find an artist on Fivver who'd do the work for quite cheap. Actually come to think of it, one might find an artist wiling to do a colour book as well. Very temping! :)

And I love that signed Keeper Kase card idea. I'll have to look that up.

Thanks for the fantastic inspiring post! :)

Heather said...

Cari - I love the idea of prints. So cool!