By Nate Hoffelder
It is our pleasure to welcome back guest author Nate Hoffelder. You can find Nate’s last post, Authors: Take these Five Basic Steps to Secure Your WordPress Website Today! here and be sure to leave any questions in the comments.
When it comes to marketing material, many authors get flyers printed, a lot also get bookmarks, but few authors will invest in swag to give away or sell to fans at book fairs and conferences.
And that is a shame, because authors are leaving money on the table. When done right, swag can give your readers a strong connection to your work – one that fans will pay for.
Yes, they will pay. An author’s most avid readers are fans, and if there’s one thing I know from SF fandom it is that fans love buying merchandise related to their favorite show, book, movie, etc. If you can identify the swag that your fans will covet you can sell it on your site or at book fairs.
In the past 8 years authors have gone from the disreputable fringes to competing with the big boys. Best-selling authors have learned all the tricks of the major publishers; they now hire pro assistance, including cover designers, editors, and marketers, and a lot of best-selling authors are even buying adverts.
Investing in swag to sell to fans is the next big step. Yes, some already are, but this is still a new concept to a lot of authors.
1. Cheap is bad
When you go to order swag you will usually find a vast number different options in just about any category. You’ll find as many as a hundred different pen options, dozens of folders and notepads, and more water bottles than you can shake a stick at (just to name a few).
Whatever you do, don’t choose the cheapest option. This might be obvious to some, but I had to learn the hard way that choosing the cheapest option on the page was a waste of my money. I threw my money away on merchandise that no one was going to use for more than a hot minute, and that completely defeated the purpose of the exercise.
My very first piece of swag was pens. I ordered five hundred pens with my tagline and brand name, but when they arrived I realized I had made a terrible mistake. The pens were so flimsy that they lasted maybe two days in your pocket before breaking, and they looked so cheap that you would think a used car salesman was giving them away.
2. Know your goals
When I started writing this post, I approached it from the mindset of a tech who wants to sell website services, and so I wrote the first draft under the assumption that one orders swag to give to potential customers. That is a perfectly valid position, but authors might have a different goal in mind.
Authors might want to use swag not to attract readers but to reward existing fans. They also might want to order swag to sell at conferences and book fairs. It is important that authors understand their goals because this will drive their decisions on how much they will invest on swag and what they order.
3. Know your audience
Before you buy swag, take a few days or weeks and figure out what your potential audience would like as a gift. The best type of swag are items that your potential audience will use again and again. You want them to see your name over and over so that they will one day search for your name and visit your site.
While you are at it, be sure to choose swag that ties in with your books. When it comes to the more common types of swag, pens are always good, and so are notepads and t-shirts.
But if you wanted to get inventive, a fantasy author might give away sword-shaped letter openers while an SF author might give away custom spaceship figurines modeled after ships in the author’s books. Or, you could choose swag that ties in with your main character; if your main character has a temper, perhaps you could give away branded stress balls.
Warner Brothers, for example, is selling this Hobbit-inspired sword:
I didn’t put that much thought into my second piece of swag, which was an order of lanyards. Yes, I got branded lanyards for a local conference before I realized that almost no one keeps lanyards around, and most of the people who do keep all their lanyards are hoarders of one kind or another.
Like sunscreen in Seattle or a scarf in Arizona, lanyards are one of those things your audience will only see once before tossing it aside. If you are lucky they might stick it in a drawer, only to find it years later, but there is a good chance they will toss your swag in the trash as they are cleaning up their hotel room before they check out.
By the way, if you do have one of my lanyards, I’ll give you a discount on your website.
4. Samples are good
Merchandise retailers want you to know what you are buying before the credit card charge goes through. Their websites included high-resolution photos and detailed specs which will give you a good idea what you are buying, but there’s still something to be said for holding a product in your hand before making a decision.
That is why many companies that sell the usual selection of branded swag will ship you sample products. Some will charge for shipping, but others will send the samples for free. While it won’t have your logo on it, the free samples will still give you a chance to hold the items and make a decision.
The rule about free samples mostly applies to companies that supply the more standard types of swag. If you want something custom-made, or if you are working with a niche supplier, you will probably have to pay for that sample.
And that can be worth the cost; if you order multiple samples, you can show them to friends and colleagues and find out which one is the most popular.
My third piece of swag is a post-it note folder with my logo on it. It looks great, but before I placed the order I ordered samples of 3 different folders (but only two were shipped). They each had a different selection of sticky notes and a different case, and for about a week and a half I carried them around and asked everyone what they thought.
Almost everyone liked the one folder. It didn’t have the best case (I liked the folder with the hardback case and a clasp) but the popular folder did have 3 sizes of post-its, including little arrows that you could use to call attention to specific points on a document.
5. Shop around online to find a cheaper price
If there is one company that will put your logo or artwork on a product then trust me when I say you can find a dozen more online. All of these online retailers place their orders with the same Chinese suppliers, and some are willing to shave their margins to undercut the competition.
If you shop around you will find suppliers who will charge less, and you might also find more product options. For example, I am getting pens that I found on the third site I visited which weren’t sold on the first two.
So yes, shop around, but you should also know that one way they can cut their costs is by skimping on their art department. The discount retailer where I got my post-it note folder did not have an art department, which is why I had to make sure that the logo design worked before I gave it to them. (Their print team was good enough that they could tell me my font size was too small to be legible, though.)
Also, this advice doesn’t necessarily apply to the more unique types of swag you can buy through Etsy and other marketplaces.
6. Artwork & design is important
If someone can’t make out your logo/brand then they won’t think of you every time they see it. And if they see some off-color, amateurish, pixelated mess then they won’t want to look at it, but when they do they will not be moved to find out more about you.
Artwork and text are printed onto merchandise at 300 ppi – just like most inkjet printers. That is pretty sharp compared to the typical computer monitor, and you might think that you can use incredibly detailed artwork just so long as the image has enough pixels. You could do that, but before you try it you should know that packing a highly detailed image into a small space is a great way to end up with a fizzy blob.
When I had the artwork designed for the post-it note folder, I asked the artist to remove most of the smaller accent details and make the new design simpler and monochrome. While I could have used the high-detailed logo as it was, I was pretty sure it would not print well when shrunk down to two inches tall.
And I was right.
While it is easy to predict how text will look when printed at various font sizes, it’s hard to tell how artwork will look when it is only two inches tall on the side of a water bottle. The printer might not be able to correctly match the colors, and the artwork might prove to be incompatible with the printing tech used to apply the artwork to the merchandise.
That is why unless you are an expert on printing or happen to know someone who is, chances are you will want to revise the artwork after the first order. (Or even better, order a small number of samples so you can check the art work. This will cost a lot but it’s worth it.)
I am sitting here with one of those post-it folders I mentioned above. It looks just fine, but I can also see how the artwork could be improved. There are three or four places where the ink bled together. I am going to have the artwork tweaked so that the artwork on my next swag doesn’t have the same problem.
Where to Find Author Swag
At this point I’m sure you are all fired up and ready to order swag. Here are a few places you can order it.
Etsy – This marketplace is a good place to find creators who can make unique swag for you to give away or sell. They won’t be cheap compared to the mass-produced swag, but the designs will be special. Southwest Sky Jewelry can also create custom designs for you.
Vistaprint is one of the more popular suppliers of business cards and office material. They can print bookmarks and flyers for you, and they can also make t-shirts as well as other promotional products.
Stickers and More can make anything from wrist bands to magnets to smartphone accessories. They have dozens of competitors, but I like this supplier because their website is clean and easy to navigate.
CafePress is a well-known supplier of custom t-shirts and other promotional material. They are expensive compared to the companies that sell volume orders.
Any Promo is the company I most recently ordered from. They were cheap and their support was pretty good, but I ended up having to supply all my own artwork (their designers weren’t up to the task).
Adco Marketing comes highly recommended by Joel Friedlander, who has done a lot of business with them.