A Field Guide to Author Swag

Swag (or tchotchkies if you’re a traditionalist) describes free items companies give away to help spread the word about their brand. That fridge magnet you get every year from your insurance agent is swag. So are all those pens with a business name on them that keep accumulating in your junk drawer. 

Swag can get strong a response from potential readers, and can make the day of people who are already your fans; plus it’s fun! There are few stronger ways (other than writing great books) to start forging stronger connections between yourself and the audience you want to write for. 

But you have to choose the right swag and deliver it to the right people, in the right way, for the right reasons. So that is what we will talk about today.

What Can Author Swag Do For You

The downside of author swag is that it costs money.

What can you expect from that investment?

It won’t be easy to calculate direct Return on Investment, but applied well swag can bring some solid benefits:

  • Sets you apart from your competition at fairs, meetups, and other events
  • Puts the idea of your book in places where you can’t just leave books, like cafes, restaurants, and libraries
  • Creates a way for fans to accidentally (or intentionally) advertise you and your work while they wear or use the swag you gave them
  • Generate social media posts as people talk about their swag
  • Encourage conversation — online and in person — surrounding you and your work

I’m not saying author swag is necessary for a successful book launch or author career — but I am saying it can be a powerful tool in the box for both. 

20 Kinds of Author Swag

The default piece of physical author swag is the branded bookmark. It’s topical, has lots of surface for graphics and text, and is inexpensive to both make and ship. But that’s just the tip of the author swag iceberg.

Consider these other options to help you stand out from the crowd:

  1. Coasters
  2. T-shirts
  3. Flashlights
  4. Notebooks
  5. Flash drives
  6. Mugs
  7. Tote bags
  8. Stickers
  9. Chapstick
  10. Candy (with branded wrapper)
  11. Water bottles
  12. Hats or caps
  13. Pen knives
  14. Small stuffed animals
  15. Key rings
  16. Stress squeezer balls
  17. Self-care kits
  18. Custom socks
  19. Workspace organizers
  20. Phone and tablet stand

All of these put your book at the center of the proud owner’s attention at least once a day, and most of them are things they’ll flash in front of others through natural use. The trick is to choose which ones match your fandom the best. A sci-fi fan might prefer the flash drive, while readers of cozies might opt for a nice mug or warm socks. 

You know your fans best. Just be aware that, with current printing technology, you can make almost anything branded for your book, your series, or yourself. 

Some people also suggest using non-physical swag like banners, art, or exclusive content. Although these can be useful, I don’t recommend using them instead of physical swag. There’s something about stuff you can hold in your hand that’s just better. If you go this route, go all in. 

Managing Budget and Quality

I said it earlier, but I’ll acknowledge it again: swag costs money. Premium swag (like a high-end self-care kit) can cost a lot of money. That can create some tension between what you want and what you can afford. 

As a general rule, aim for quality. Part of the purpose of swag is to develop a relationship between people and your work by giving them a reminder they interact with every day. If that reminder is shoddy, or breaks, then that relationship you’ve established creates a bad feeling. 

When in doubt, buy small swag of high quality over bigger swag of questionable quality. You can work your way up to the big stuff once the little swag starts doing its job. 

12 Places to Give Swag Away

Once you have your swag, it’s time to figure out where to send it. Here’s a list of a dozen ideas you can use as-is, take some of while ignoring the rest, or simply as inspiration for your own unique list for distribution:

  1. Create a gift bag of your swag for attendees at book launch parties, readings, and similar events.
  2. Use them as prizes for pre-orders of your next book to encourage early engagement.
  3. Send them to some new and existing subscribers to your newsletter. (You can use a raffle-style system so you’re not giving one to every single person on your list.)
  4. Partner with small businesses — like cafes and indie bookstores — to keep a few on hand and give to likely customers, or to give away free with a purchase of your book.
  5. Send to reviewers, book bloggers, and other influencers to get your work on the top of their pile. 
  6. Find locations near you that are similar to locations in your book, and work with management there to carry your swag (and maybe even your book!)
  7. Partner with other authors to create swag batches, with one item from each of you, and have all of you work to distribute them far and wide.
  8. Have a contest among your online fans as to who can get the most likes, shares, or similar impressions on their social media about your work.
  9. If you have a regular job, talk about how you could give something away there. Don’t settle for a little spot in the break room though — figure out how to make it an event that gets real notice. 
  10. Find events related to your subject matter — a fencing competition for a pirate novel, for example — and “sponsor” the event with swag for participants. 
  11. Connect with a friend who sells things on eBay or Etsy and include your swag with relevant items they ship for a limited time.
  12. Send really good swag to a popular author in your genre as an opening salvo for mentorship, reviews, or even blurbs. 

Final Thought: Bootstrapping

One way to manage the cost associated with printing and distributing swag is to bootstrap it the same way you might a marketing budget.

Start with a small batch of swag, applied tactically in the best possible place to the best possible potential readers. Keep track of how much money that brings in. Earmark some of that money for a larger move with better (or more) swag. Keep track of how much more money that brings in.

Rinse and repeat until your swag is of the size, quality, and distribution your work deserves.