Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Countdown to Bouchercon: Swag Edition

by Holly West

Have you seen Robert Crais's green fuzzy balls?

Okay, so they're old news news, but Erin Mitchell's tribute to these furry wonders still applies. (h/t to Diane Vallere for sending me the link).

With Bouchercon coming up in just one short month, the subject of swag is on my mind. I usually wait until the absolute last minute to figure out if I'm going to bring anything and with so little time left to design and order something, I generally end up paying for rush services. If you're going to bring swag to conferences, don't be me. Apparently, I fall into the same swag category as S.W. Lauden, author of BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, who confesses, "It could be that branded swag takes a level of planning that I haven't achieved yet." He doesn't bring much more to conferences than business cards and a credit card to buy drinks with.

Ditto for Lisa Alber, author of the recently released WHISPERS IN THE MIST. "Given my disorganized tendencies, swag takes a backseat in my marketing efforts. I'd love to be one of those authors with cute and unique novelty swag items, but I'm not."

Then there's Shannon Baker, whose novel, STRIPPED BARE, is due out September 6. "I am really bad at swag. I am famous for forgetting business cards and if I do take them, I forget to use them."

I'm glad to see I'm not alone.

Team Kate earplugs.
All of this begs the question: Is swag really necessary? It kind of feels like it is. Tammy Kaehler, author of the Kate Reilly Racing Mysteries, says, "I feel like bookmarks are sort of like a website, you have to have them." In addition to bookmarks and business cards, Kaehler gives away custom earplugs, because they stand out. She admits they might not bring sales, but they do bring attention, which can lead to sales.

Macavity Award-winning novelist/screenwriter Craig Faustus Buck has a similar take. He gives out Band-Aid dispensers with the GO DOWN HARD book cover printed on them. "When you go down hard, you need a Band-Aid. I'm the only crime author I know whose swag can staunch blood."

Anthony Award-winning novelist Matt Coyle believes swag is important, but not most important. He brings books, bookmarks and postcards. If he hosts a table, he'll buy something that's related to the conference city and give it to his guests. Still, he claims free books work best for gaining new readers. As for other giveaways, he's still looking for the magic formula. "I wish I knew what worked," Coyle says. "The wall would have a lot less thrown at it."

And that's the thing. Nobody seems to know what (if anything) works. Okay, maybe bookmarks work, at least according to Chris Holm, author of THE KILLING KIND (nominated for an Anthony Award this year). "Everybody needs 'em. They're great for showing off covers and blurbs. They're not terribly expensive. And they can do everything a business card can do. I can tell you from experience I've looked up authors I've met using their bookmarks."

Bestselling author Diane Vallere agrees. "Bookmarks are a given." When she occasionally brings non-bookmark swag, "it falls under the category of 3-D novelty, as in, something series related that stands out when set on a table with a bunch of bookmarks/postcards/door hangers."

"Bookmarks are selling tools," claims Jeri Westerson, author of the Crispin Guest historical mystery
series. "They remind the reader about the series, it shows the covers of the other books in the series with the one I'm promoting much larger, there is a QR code to get you directly to my website if you're looking for an ebook and it has blurbs from authors on the other side. I didn't believe in those blurbs until once at a Bouchercon, someone came up to my signing table and said that if so-and-so author thought my book was good, he'd give it a try, too!"

Not everyone is on the bookmark bandwagon, however. Eric Beetner, author of WHEN THE DEVIL COMES TO CALL, says, "I've brought bookmarks but I don't see them as being particularly effective, especially at a con the size of Bouchercon or Left Coast. There are thousands of bookmarks around and it's impossible to stand out."
From my personal swag collection:
 Protection charm from Jess Lourey and Young
Americans button from Josh Stallings

I'm not a fan of bookmarks, either, though I do use them occasionally to promote my books. Since 99% of the books I read are ebooks, I really have no practical use for them and if I want to learn more about a particular author, I'd rather have a business card printed with their contact information and website URL. I can easily fit that into my wallet, which, for me, is the safest place for a promo item to go if an author wants to ensure the item doesn't get thrown away.

And not all authors think swag of any kind is necessary. Anthony Award-winning novelist Simon Wood has this to say: "IMHO, swag is a waste of time and money. It doesn't bump sales. Most of it ends up in the trash. Your personality is going to sell more books than novelties."

"I used to bring beaucoup swag," says Jess Lourey, author of SALEM'S CYPHER. "Nut Goodies taped to postcards of my book, color-changing pens with my website URL on them, mini flashlights with lock picking kits inside of them, bookmarks. Now I bring none. None Swag. I never saw a single sale from it and I think it gets lost in all the noise."

Based on my own experience, I have to agree. Despite spending a good amount on different kinds of promotional items, including USB drives printed with my book covers (my books are ebook only so it's the only way I can give out free books at conferences), I'm pretty certain every penny I've spent on promotion has been wasted, if I want to think of it in solely in terms of return on investment.

Giving away free ebooks on a USB drive

Swag might not be tied directly to sales, but it can help in other ways. "Several years ago," Vallere says, "Jeri Westerson handed out sword pens attached to a postcard that described her Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series. Because it was a unique item and perfectly represented the character, a disgraced knight, I remembered it. Whenever I talk about swag, I mention Jeri Westerson's Crispin Guest series, so, because of her pens, I now help build awareness of her series."

Vallere cites her own example, as well. "I filled prescription bottles with sweet tarts and made fake labels that hinted at one of my series. Several other writers saw them, thought they were funny, and posted pictures and tagged me, which boosted my own exposure."

And that's really what we're talking about, right? Boosting exposure.

Personally, I'm a big fan of buttons. Anthony Award-nominated author Josh Stallings had really eye-catching ones made to promote his most recent novel, YOUNG AMERICANS. "Josh's button worked because by wearing it, I got to be part of the 'Young Americans' club at the conference and it got me talking about his book with people," says S.W. Lauden.
Buttons, FTW!

Travis Richardson, the mulit-award-nominated author of numerous short stories and two novellas, has also used buttons as a promotional tool. "We made buttons that read "I Got Lost in Clover" for anybody who bought the book. We also made buttons for my Anthony-nominated short story, "Incident on the 405."

Guess whose getting buttons made to promote her Anthony-nominated story, "Don't Fear the Ripper?" at Bouchercon? This girl.

Laura Benedict, author of the forthcoming THE ABANDONED HEART: A BLISS HOUSE NOVEL, has found that conferences don't have great opportunities for handing out swag. "It just isn't done on panels, and so things get dumped on tables. I never know who's picking stuff up." That doesn't stop her from bringing a few special things to give out with her business cards, however. "In the past I've done packets of seeds and candy. I'm doing something different this fall, but I'm not telling!"

Ellen Byron, USA Today bestselling author of the Cajun Country mystery series, is a self-confessed swag nut. "I love coming up with fun new items branded in my signature Mardi Gras colors." Purple stylus pens and measuring spoons, recipe cards, a brochure called The Laissez Girl's Guide to Easy Cajun Entertaining and notebooks decorated with labels of her book covers are a sampling of things she's given away.

Swag is important to her overall marketing efforts. "It's a way of both reaching readers and thanking them for their interest in my work," Byron says. "My general goal with swag is to brand myself. That's why I try to create items that people might use over and over again, like the pens and spoons." She calls these giveaways "memory jogs" and hopes they bring her Cajun Country Mysteries to mind.

Susanna Calkins, Agatha and Mary Higgins Clark nominee and author of the Lucy Campion historical mysteries, keeps it simple. "I bring bookmarks and business cards, which I've learned to carry around with me in my lanyard. I also bring magnets which I put out for people to take."

Of course, the greatest ideas come with a cost. "I considered beer can cozies for LOST IN CLOVER that read 'Choose Your Trailer Park Wisely,'" says Travis Richardson. "I decided against it for cost and possibly offending people. I also looked into making Topps baseball cards for KEEPING THE RECORD." At a dollar per card, this particular promo idea didn't make the cut.

Wine swag. Not sure I'd do this again.
When MISTRESS OF FORTUNE came out I bought bottles of wine with custom labels printed with the book cover. They were a great giveaway (reserved for the most special of occasions, like thank yous, charity baskets and hosting tables) but they were spendy. And my husband and I drank one of the bottles when we ran out of wine once (okay, twice).

 Like I said, don't be me when it comes to swag.

"For my first two books, I had a T-shirt designed that linked to the stories," says Mary Higgins Clark and Anthony award-winner, Lori Rader-Day. "As giveaways, though, they were expensive and so were reserved for very supportive people during the publishing process like first readers, et cetera."

For the record, I'm still waiting for my T-shirt to be delivered.

Still, even if I've learned that swag really isn't the best use of my time or money, I like to have something to give out at conferences. I think we can all agree that much of the swag we collect ends up in the garbage. If that's the case, is there anything that really works?

The authors weigh in:

"I've come to think that the only truly effective swag at all are free books. If you want to give away something, it's got to be the book itself. The first in a series or a short novella tied to a series. Something to hook the reader in. It needs to be a loss leader in order to get a dedicated reader who will follow you into the next book you write." --Eric Beetner

"I was part of a collective giveaway, which I'd done a few times. This time I decided to include a coffee cake from a popular food website ($20). I more than doubled the number of people who entered--from approximately 100+ to 350+. It may not have increased sales, but it got my books in front of more people." --Terry Shames, author of the Samuel Craddock mystery series

"The only sales tricks that work is to make a connection with people and/or write an incredible book." --Jess Lourey

"The book itself is the best marketing tool. It's nice to have STUFF and it certainly helps when it looks nice and features all the right information. But at their best, these things should serve as a reminder to someone to buy your book. What's better than that? An actual copy of your book!" --Alex Segura, author of the acclaimed Pete Fernandez mystery series

"The most useful swag I've ever picked up was a bag clip with G.M. Malliet's name on it. I think it was in daily use in my kitchen for five years, and I will never forget her name or that she writes mysteries!"--Laura Benedict

"At conferences, what I've found most helpful to leave on the giveaway tables are free books. Someone gets a free book they are more likely to read it and look for others by that author. Swag is added value, but I don't think it sells books as much as we might like to think it does." --Jeri Westerson

And there you have it. Free books seem to be the best giveaway. But I don't think anyone would argue it isn't useful to at least have some business cards or bookmarks printed up. For those of us who forget we have them, take a lesson from Susanna Calkins and carry them in your badge lanyard.

I'll leave you with a couple of parting thoughts:

"For self-promo efforts, I don't think a big swag effort is a necessity, just like I don't think tweeting every day is a necessity. Ultimately, I think it's about doing what's fun for you--some authors really do have fun with swag--and fits your style." --Lisa Alber

"I think the challenge with conventions is finding the right balance between 'hustling' and 'fun.' Obviously, these trips aren't cheap and most authors are footing their own bill, so you want to leave the event feeling like you've earned out. Seize the opportunities to market yourself as they arise and allow yourself to relax and enjoy the moment. If you're constantly handing out postcards or demanding to be on as many panels or what-have-you, you're gonna rub people the wrong way and probably accomplish less than you would if you were judicious about when you go into self-promo mode." --Alex Segura

Now I'd like to open it up to others. As an author, what swag have you found to be most useful? And as a conference attendee, what swag do you most enjoy receiving?

Thank you to all of the authors who participated in this post. I'm looking forward to seeing many of you in New Orleans! 


Jess Lourey said...

Free books! That's a good one, especially if it's a book in a series. Thanks for a great blog post, Holly West!

Aimee Hix said...

If I wasn't already a Jess Lourey fan, I guarantee that "mini flashlights with lock picking kits inside of them" would have sealed the deal for me.

I mean, that's useful and it would absolutely have sold me a book or a dozen. That stands out.

I've had a few cozy authors whose series had something to do with sewing give me mini-sewing kits and those are all kinds of useful. I've kept them in my desk at my day job, I've taken them traveling, and I've given them out to people who I've seen in need and it definitely opened a conversation about the books.

Whether the ROI has been met is probably another story.

Lori Rader-Day said...

I am sorry/not sorry to report that I am out of the tshirt game. All out of the first two books' shirts and not doing a shirt for the third (thematically, it just doesn't work).

Giving away the book is fine if you're just hoping to get the book into some hands. But I find the people who show up at my table at these banquets often have already read the book---that's why they want to sit at my table!

Swag is like hiring a publicity team. You may never know if your return on investment is worth it. But people recognizing you and your work is the result of cumulative effort, in my opinion. Who knows what works?

Diane Vallere said...

Thanks for the hat tip! IMO, swag is the most fun of all of the marketing efforts connected book sales, and since marketing is so necessary, I don't think the fun angle should be downplayed.

Great recap. Looking forward to seeing you at Bouchercon!

Unknown said...

Great article, Holly! Could it be that I'm a little interested in bringing swag to Bouchercon now? :-)

Angie Young said...

I was a book blogger for about 3 years. In those three years, I found that giving away book swag from authors was one of the sure fire ways to get people to my blog. But I only got that traffic on contest day. There were few that would return again to read reviews. I was told by one reader of my blog that the free stuff was the only reason they followed at all. I asked them if they ever bought the books that went along with the swag. 8 out of 10 said no. They are just after what they can get for free.

So I suggest all authors think about this. Readers are after what they can get for free and may or may not ever return the favor by reading your book. I know of some authors who spent more money on swag and other such giveaways than they made in b book sales. That is just sad.

Jeri Westerson said...

Dammit, Diane Vallere, am I gonna have to bring those sword pens after all?

Tammy said...

Thanks for the mention, Holly! I agree with Diane, the element of fun can't be discounted. I always have a great moment with people who come by a table or see my earplugs. They ask what they are, and I explain. And they say, "Earplugs...I need those, too!"

Key points: they relate to my stories (vital at a racetrack), they're useful for almost everyone, and they're fun (for me, too).

Sure, my overall purpose is sales, but my immediate goal is attention and visibility.

Craig Faustus Buck said...

Great blog, Holly. A quick tip for those who are bring swag to Bouchercon or any other convention, if it's bulky, ship it to yourself at the hotel, unless you're on one of those few airlines that doesn't charge for an extra piece of luggage. And be sure to ship in advance to keep your shipping costs down.

Ellen Byron said...

Great post, Holly. I learned a lot myself! Going with bookmarks, postcards I want to burn through, and my brochure for B'con. I think that will be the winner.

Holly West said...

For me, the biggest takeaway on this subject is that one shouldn't feel obligated to provide swag and it's important to be realistic about how effective it is. Beyond that, I agree with Diane V.--marketing is often a slog and this is something we can have fun with, if we're so inclined.

Robyn K said...

I love magnets and pens from authors. :)