Before I make any sweeping pronouncements about loot, giveaways, promo items and tchotchkes, let me say your mileage may vary. But before you invest in a bobble-head of your protagonist or kitchen towels embroidered with your book title, just think about this.

How often have you purchased a book because an author gave you an item?

I understand, I do, that there are times—say, always—that we all feel like running out into the middle of the street yelling please please buy my book. I’m with you.

But here’s the key. A difficult truth. You cannot bribe a person into buying your book.

And it’s pretty funny to say it that way, right? Because it makes a lot of sense.

Have you been to a convention, like Malice or Bouchercon or Thrillerfest or Pennwriters or RWA or you fill in the blank. (You have, right? Because you are a career author and you know that networking at places like that like that is a key to your success.) But.

Take thirty seconds from your meet-and-greet to look at the loot tables.

The table is strewn, littered, covered with bookmarks, cards, pens, candy, keyrings and things with feathers on them. The tables become more and more crowded as the event goes on. Each bit of stuff is an indication that someone who wants to be a career author has decided to invest part of their future in stuff.

If it worked, I’d be all for it. There would be articles about how many notepads or ball-point pens it takes to get on the New York Times list.

But one more time: You cannot bribe a reader into buying a book.

Full disclosure: I have made lip balms with my book covers on them. The lip balms were perfection. The labeling was perfection. Everyone loved them. I loved them! And seriously? Now, nine years later, I am still hearing about those lip balms. I got fan letters: Love your books. But can you send more lip balm?

So do I regret spending—wait for it—85 cents per tube? Yes, 85 cents! Answer: no, I do not. They gave me a chance to chat and connect and laugh and make friends. All good, and I still have some, and I might get more.

BUT. Did they get me on the Times list back then? NO. Might there have been a better use of that money? Well…probably.

I’ve seen authors spend their hard-earned advances—or even pre-paid in advance of a hoped-for advance. They haven’t earned a penny yet. And they are already in the red. Look at it with an accountant’s eyes: is spending money on giveaway loot a financially sound decision?

(If you make about 65 cents in royalties on a mass market paperback, and about $2.00 on a hardcover, and you have to earn out your advance…hmmm.)

Think of this. People buy candy. Then they get a place to create candy wrappers with the image of their books on them. SO cool. And then they hand out the candy, very nice, and the first thing people do is…? Right. Rip off the covers the authors spent so much money for, toss them into the wastebasket, and eat the candy. Promo item: gone. And can you imagine someone buying a book because they got a piece of candy?

We’ve talked here on Career Authors about advertising dollars. And that’s important to read.

But how about handouts, loot, swag and pieces of glossy cardboard? Like I said, your mileage may vary. But here are the promo items a Career Author needs.

Business cards

You need these. They’re small, they’re inexpensive, they’re savable. You can make them personal and focused, and they will shepherd readers to your website.

They should have your name. Your book cover. A way to contact you. Your Facebook, Twitter, and Insta names. Your website.

(What if you don’t have a book yet? We’ll talk about that another time.)

They should have a tagline or compelling brand.

CJ Lyons has a great brand: Thrillers with heart. Alafair Burke’s for The Wife might say: His Scandal. Her Secret.

You hand them out like mad. Everyone gets one. People save them. You take other people’s. Keep them. Make sure you have them. Writing is a business. Cards are necessary.

Bookmarks

Yes, indeed. You need these. No matter how many you see languishing on those giveaway tables. They’re your key selling tool. They’re flat, they’re inexpensive, they are keepable, shareable, savable, and wonderful traveling billboards for your books. You can put them IN the book!

(If you have a paperback, size the bookmark so it fits in without sticking out—that way you can make a carton of books with the bookmarks already inserted.)

Here’s what your bookmark needs:

  • The book cover.
  • A tiny synopsis. (Because after you hand them out, someone reads the copy. They think: Oh! That sounds good.)
  • Some brief but compelling blurbs, praise, awards, review snips or good news. (To reassure them they are right about the “sounding good” part.)
  • Your website. (So they can find you.)
  • Something about you. A photo if you want. (To reassure them you’re a real, approachable person.)

Other than that? Well, a gift WITH purchase might work.

I remember Karin Slaughter had a very cool water bottle that she gave away as a premium for readers who bought books. And Alafair Burke had a hotel-looking keychain for The Ex. I had luggage tags for Air Time. Yes. All good! But that’s a definite and direct return on investment. And that works. (We’re being honest here, right?) (And don’t forget you have to pay to mail the stuff.)

And full disclosure, I still have GM Malliet’s chip clip that says “Case Closed.” That’s funny! And meta. And useful. And free. Was it free to the author? Um, no. And I’d buy her books even without the chip clip.

But please. The thing that sells your books is that you have a great book, a terrific book. And a publisher that’s behind you. And readers who are buzzing.

If you can afford to buy stuff to give away with no hope of increasing sales, great. Gimme one. But how much money will you make from the sale of one paperback? How much of that are you using to try to sell it? Does that make any sense?

If you must make author promotional items, and I know you are tempted—three little words.
Do The Math.

What do you think? What have you purchased as loot? Did it work? Did it matter? Are you pleased you did it? Let’s talk about promotional materials on our Facebook page. And now—get writing.