That Swag: Book Promotion Ideas

SWAG or SCHWAG?

Before we dive into this topic, let me first qualify the usage of the word swag. A few years ago, I posted a photo of my "swag bag" on Twitter and a publisher told me the correct word is schwag. I'm not suggesting the publisher is wrong but: I did some research and fell down a rabbit hole of reddit threads and urban dictionary entries involving Yiddish translations and slang for shitty, dime bag weed. So I'm sticking with the word swag and pronouncing it the same as the word swagger, and for this article it means promotional material included with a new book. Also, not to be confused with a press kit, or media kit. 

MEDIA KITS

Many publishers big and small create promotional materials to accompany advanced reading copies sent to early reviewers, readers, and social media influencers. Sometimes a social media campaign is huge, with fancy gift boxes sent out to be unboxed online. I refer to these as media kits. I once got a brand new thriller from Penguin that came with branded sunglasses, a hotel room keychain, and a beach tote. The box had a hardcover book and a tri-fold, glossy, full color brochure with information about the book, author, and expectations from the publisher on how I should hashtag my photos on social media. It was a lot, especially since I didn't know I was getting the media kit and the book was not something I would actually read or promote on my feed. Here's an example of that type of promotion:

Photo credit: katie_b_is_reading

In my opinion, a promotional book box with substantial, complimentary gifts comes with the assumed obligation or expectation for the recipient to share the gifts on their social media platform. Many people are dazzled and excited by free gifts, so they eagerly show off their treasures, and it's a win/win for everybody. Personally, I like to be in control of my feed, and want to make those choices for myself, so my recommendation is if substantial money is spent on the media kit and it includes sizable gifts and goodies, the recipients *should* be asked before it's sent. Mostly, requesting an advanced reading copy is considered permission to receive a media kit and I agree, but to be on a mailing list for just any book promo is something else entirely, so reader/reviewers, be careful with your address and set early expectations of what you will or will not share on your social media platforms.

SWAG BAGS

Let's talk about swag bags. Everyone loves a swag bag. Book swag is fun and affordable and everyone from small publishers to big publishers and anyone in between can and should take advantage of this promotional tool. Typically included in a swag bag: 

  • Bookmarks
  • Stickers
  • Buttons
  • Pins
  • Pens
  • Small tie-in gifts like candy, patches, toys, etc.

Here is an example of a recent new book and the swag sent by the publisher:

Photo Cred: Raw Dog Screaming Press

DIY SWAG BAGS

You don't need a publisher in order to send swag bags to readers. You can make your own. I got the idea to write this article when I got a book from K.M. Alexander. 

The book came with bookmarks, stickers, and other small goodies. I was so impressed with the design, I asked the author a few questions and learned that he created tie-in swag for each one of his books in the series.

As the co-owner of a monthly horror subscription service, I know the appeal of quality swag and goodies. K.M. Alexander's promotional materials are very cool. I'm sure when his readers get his books in the mail and open the packages to reveal all the coordinating stickers, bookmarks, and extras they immediately want to show others. This generates FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). Other readers will want to order Michael's books based solely on the fact they want a book present in the mail too. I promise this is true. 

Mini Interview with K.M. Alexander

Can I ask you a few questions about where you do your printing?

It depends on what I am looking to do. Different printers add new features and benefits all the time, so I print all over the place. These days I employ overnightprints.com for bookmarks because I like their spot gloss offerings. I use Moo.com for my simple round stickers. StickerApp is where I go for my die-cut stickers these days. I use Busy Beaver Button Company for buttons. Most of the time, I start with a concept and then figure out who can help me achieve my goals.

Do you have any trade secrets in terms of saving money on swag?

Printing most of this stuff is inexpensive—especially if you’re a designer and can do it yourself. If that’s not possible, I’d recommend figuring out what you want to do then acquiring some art that you can use (and reuse) to make whatever you want to make. There are tons of great resources online for royalty-free art that is inexpensive and can be used in many ways. Once you have your ideas or designers, my next recommendation would be to determine your target distribution and print for that. It's better to run out than overbuy.

Do you design everything yourself?

I do! I've worked as a designer for over twenty years, and most of the design is done by me. That said, I had help from friends in some areas. Like writing, each designer or artist has a style or voice they bring to the work. The added variance is nice. Jon Contino does the fabulous hand-lettering on my covers. Sean Cumiskey and Ray Frenden have helped with some of the logos as well.

Do you think the juice is worth the squeeze? Like, if an author spends money on swag as an investment, do you think the benefits outweigh the cost?

Investment is a heavy word here, and it will mean different things to different people. I give away the bookmarks, round stickers, and buttons when people buy signed editions directly from me and whenever I run a table or panel at conventions. In that way, I think of all of it as a form of passive advertising. I also don't want it to feel like what we think of as an advertisement. So many bookmarks or stickers you get for free look like ad banners you'd see on the web, and I steer clear of that. I know a few of my readers have worked to collect everything I make, and I put in the effort to make this stuff worthy of collecting. I want my swag to enhance the world of my books; they're an avenue to extend the world of Lovat and the Territories beyond the page. It's also why I do my weird/creepy videos, make and share maps, and so on. For me, this is a form of brainstorming as much as any writing exercise, and for that reason alone, the benefit outweighs any cost. It’s fun to make cool stuff for people to enjoy.


Michael makes an interesting point. He states, "I put in the effort to make this stuff worthy of collecting." That's a great rule of thumb. Book swag should not come across to the reader as something hastily or cheaply thrown together in an effort to trick people into schlocky advertisement. Here's another great example:

Photo credit: reading.vicariously

Author Cat Scully put together swag bags for the whole Night Worms review team back when Night Worms was hosting reviews on our website. All 20 of us received a paperback copy of Jennifer Strange, custom paperdoll bookmarks, tarot cards, an enamel pin, fingernail polish and other fun goodies. We all unboxed our book mail in photos and videos on Instagram and the response from our friends & followers was exactly what we expected: FOMO.

Everyone wanted what we had, including the book. I think if you were to ask Cat, she would have a lot to say about all of that. In my opinion, book swag goes a long way with readers using social media to share their love of books. If they get something fun from a publisher or author, the natural response is to show it off and then other people want it too. 

Lastly, I can't talk about this subject without mentioning the first author who really made an impressive first impression by giving great book swag, Michael Clark.

Michael's Patience of a Dead Man Series came with little, plastic flies, branded bookmarks and other promotional material, as well as a custom coffee mug. I'm pretty sure when Night Worms posted everything on social media, it kicked off more requests to review his books (a nice problem to have since getting readers for your books is the goal) and generated awareness + sales. Michael actually wrote about it for Night Worms, HERE: Michael Clark on Promoting Your Book.


The bottom line here is that people will promote your book for you. Your publisher. Your publicist. Your agent. Your readers. Your mom. But nobody will care about your book as much as you do. You will end up doing the lion's share of promoting your book. It doesn't mean you have to, but if you don't, who will? The people I already listed? Sure. As much as you want or need them to? Nope. Creating swag bags is just one tool in an author's tool box that can be used to promote your book and generate interest, which will ultimately lead to readers which will produce word of mouth reviews that assist in more sales. And sales mean a happy writer who writes more. My favorite!

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