In Which We Talk Swag

Panorama pic of Left Coast Crime 2019 Swag Table

In recent years, the bags of free goodies celebrities receive for going to awards shows or film festivals has become the stuff of–well, if not of legend, then over-hyped fodder for gossip sites and their related television shows. These “swag bags” often contain things like  vacations, certificates for plastic surgery (booty lift, anyone?), jewelry, designer duds, catering, gaming systems, computers, booze, beauty products, therapy consultation, car leasing, protein bars, and much, much more.

If you’ve been to a book festival or conference, you know that attendees sadly must settle for less.

Back in the 00’s, a fan might pick up the occasional button, keychain, or bookmark. (Much to author Bill Cameron’s puzzlement, I still have a button with his LOST DOG (2008?) cover, and put it on my Christmas tree every year.) Now, it seems that the majority of authors attending conferences are giving at least a little something away with their name, website, and book cover to potential fans. When the number of authors at a conference can run well into the hundreds, you’re talking about a lot of stuff.

Over the years I’ve given away bookmarks, laminated magnets, flower seed packets, plain magnets, chip clips, lots of candy (not branded), postcards, and did I mention bookmarks? Those were all paid for directly out of my pocket. For THE STRANGER INSIDE, Mulholland Books created some kick ass keychains to give away at a Little Brown event at Bouchercon in St. Petersburg. I snapped up the five or six left on abandoned tables after the event. (Never leave your swag behind!) I never could’ve afforded to sponsor such a high-value bit of swag myself, so I was very, very grateful.

As I’ve just returned from Left Coast Crime 2019, Whale of a Crime, in Vancouver, BC, I thought I’d share my thoughts on the immense amount of swag I saw there. No, I didn’t ask any of these authors if I could post photos, as the items are–I assume–meant to advertise their books. But I did take the photos, and they itched to be shared. If you’re promoting your own work already, or someday will be, I hope they’ll be useful to you. Pics are in no particular order.

KEYCHAIN: This was one of my favorite bits of swag. Janice Peacock/To Bead or Not to Bead. The cover is charming and colorful, and a keychain is one of those items that’s going to hang around a long time. Unfortunately, no website address.  $$$

CARD LIST: I wasn’t sure what to call this, so “card list” it is. I had to read the list and the headline a couple of times before I understood that it was just for fun. Used online, this would make a cute Facebook or Pinterest image. As clever as it is, I would’ve liked to have seen at least one of the book covers as well. I went to Becky Clark’s “Books” page to see that Mystery Writer’s Mysteries is a collection of books featuring mystery authors. When I first saw the card I thought it was maybe a group of authors who wrote them. Bonus points for eye-catching colors, website addy, and stand-out size. $

RECIPE CARD: How lovely is this?! Coincidentally I have been wanting to make scones. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have any identifying information–as though it’s at the wrong conference. I assume there’s book and author information, and perhaps a book cover on the reverse side. As you can see in the photo, the stack is similarly placed. NOTE: The swag table is a crowded place–you can’t expect a browser to turn every thing over to see what’s on the back. Be sure you have book and author information on BOTH SIDES.

Four-color printed, large card: $$


WINE STOPPER: Unique at the conference. Good author name presence, especially with the added bookmark. Alec Peche/Damian Green Series. Visited her website to see if the books were wine related. They don’t appear to be, but lots of people drink wine like they use keychains, bookmarks, etc. $$$

DRINKS COASTER: On theme, useful, and good information. Could use a website address. These went quickly. Leslie Karst/Sally Solari Mysteries $$$

SURGICAL MASK: Another unique item–meaning no one else brought them. I found this both charming and a little alarming. At first I thought maybe the books were Michael Crichton-type horror books, but they’re hospital mysteries. I breathed a sigh of relief! Card attached to the mask with good information. Again, these went fast. (There was no shortage of folks wearing surgical masks on the streets of Vancouver!) Very on-theme. Liz Osborne/Robyn Kelly Mysteries $$$

PRINTED SHORT STORY: Content! Smart offering. Eye-catching and large. (Large might be a drawback, as attendees take home many books and might not have much room for more.) Good to mention it’s a story in a series universe. No website address? D.R. Ransdell/MARIACHI MEDDLER $$

PAPERBACK BOOK: Not sure if this paperback was meant to be a giveaway, or if it’s related to the black pens in front of it. I didn’t see any other copies. Very cool cover. Henebury/SLEEP $$$$

Publishers often give away paperback ARCs (Advance Reader Copies) at conferences. It’s a pricey option, but there’s nothing better than getting an actual book, IMO.

PEN/CARDS: I liked this combo a lot. The pens were adorable, and had the book series name and website (as I recall). The cards offered every other bit of info you could want. Plus an author pic. If there hadn’t been colorful pens, I think I’d have wanted to see a book cover. Also, a rabbi writing about a rabbi is a fascinating combo. Rabbi Ilene Schneider/RABBI AVIVA COHEN Mysteries $$$$

When you have multiple items, there’s a chance they’ll get separated. (Note Alec Peche’s useful box above) And you’ll notice that the pens went way faster than the cards. So the pens need maximum info.


CONFERENCE CARD (large): It’s not just authors who promote. There were quite a few offerings from workshops and retreats. IDK if there’s info on the back, but there’s no website on the front. Again…Everything should be obvious and immediate. Colorful and eye-catching. $$

STICKY NOTES: Colorful, useful, informative. These sticky notes are a great giveaway. The author’s name and website is right there, along with the name of the series. Sticky notes can hang around a desk a long time. Pricey. $$$$

STANDING POSTER: See what I mean about things getting covered up? I had to rearrange things to get the full poster shot. It’s smart that she made it so large that it could tower over the stuff people put in front of it. Real estate is precious. I don’t know if there were copies of a short story to go along with the poster, but wouldn’t you think so? The cat kills me! Bonus points for excellent design. Website addy? Denise Dietz/Annie and The Grateful Dead.  $$ for just the poster, $$$ if story copies were included.

TWOFER, though it doesn’t look like it

MAGNETS: Magnets used to be super expensive. They involved sealing an image and putting a magnetic back on it. Now they can print on long strips of magnet.

This is my moment of shame: Great cover for THE STRANGER INSIDE, yes? Magnets hang around a long time on refrigerators or on metal filing cabinets, etc. Note the bits of white on the edges of my magnet. When the magnets were cut from sheets, they didn’t cut cleanly, and some of the black edge was exposed as white. Ugh. Also, this last magnet shows fingerprints. No website addy. $$

Note: You can’t tell the difference between the magnet and the four-color cards surrounding it. That’s a problem. Unless someone picks it up, they’ll never know what it is. Magnets are great to hand out directly, say at book festivals and signings. But they’re useless flat on a table. I did do bookmarks as well, though. They have all the info.

CARDS: The number of beautifully produced cards was astonishing. Michael W. Sherer’s were particularly high quality and had great variety. Useful if information is on the back. Book covers are striking. If they’re striking enough, people may be moved to pick them up to investigate. They also have a collectible quality about them, and make good bookmarks.

BOOK COVERS: Colorful, all the information about the author, and the book. Author Libby Klein had several versions of these. They seem to be bigger than postcard size. Maybe they are actual book covers? Interesting souvenir. $$$

FREE PROMO CARD: Deborah Coonts/AFTER ME. Striking size and design. Lots of good information, including cover, synopsis, blurb, and download code. No website addy? (I didn’t look at the back).  $$ or maybe $$$ including the download.

I did a free download of a short story on a bookmark for my sixth book. I didn’t have all that many downloads, but it is a clever gimmick and a great freebie. The idea that you have to type in the address and can’t just click on the picture is still funny to me.


BOOKMARKS: Bookmarks are the go-to swag for the thrifty author. They’re useful, colorful, have the book’s cover, and room front and back for lots of critical information. I also include blurbs, the pitch line, and website address. $

MATCHES: This was a first for me. I believe they are simply the cover, and matches. Talk about on-theme! Very cool. $$$

BUMPER STICKER: I didn’t know SNOPES was at the conference…Interesting concept, though I’ve never seen a book bumper sticker. Ever. Not even on that weird car that’s so covered with bumper stickers that you can’t see the color of the car anymore. $$$

PENS: Pens are stupidly expensive. I love them, but am very wary of poor quality. They also have limited room for your info. Book or series title and website seem to be the most common/useful. $$$$

I’m sure I’ve forgotten something. Authors are very creative when it comes to promo.

Final thoughts. Look at that table! IMO the conference could have used a second swag table. This one was like a tiny, violent sea, with flotsam and jetsam constantly bobbing and bumping on its surface. It became a kind of game to see how my own magnets would appear and disappear, or pop up in different places when I dropped by. I was stunned when the big box of matches appeared, sitting on a dozen other offerings.

Keep in mind:

Swag costs money. Spend wisely.

Your stuff is going to get covered up by other stuff. Keep an eye on it.

Don’t be a jerk and cover up other writers’ stuff.

Don’t put out magnets unless you don’t mind spending the money to have people not pick them up because they don’t know what they are.

Don’t be hurt if you have swag left over. Take it home for the next event or to your library.


Include your website.

Buy the highest quality swag you can afford. But don’t go into debt for it. Who knows what the return is?

If you stick a couple dozen in your badge pocket, you can give your bookmark/magnet/card to everyone you meet.

Have fun with it!

Okay, TKZers. Have at it. What’s your swag experience? Are you fer it, or agin it? What’s your favorite swag? Has swag ever led you to buy a book?

This entry was posted in Writing and tagged , by Laura Benedict. Bookmark the permalink.

About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at

30 thoughts on “In Which We Talk Swag

  1. Great post, Laura.

    I’m of mixed minds when it comes to swag, especially as a handout at conferences. As your pictures demonstrate, by the time the swag table is fully populated, it’s all just visual noise. And the items are rarely treated with respect. People do cover other authors’ swag with their own, and I’ve seen attendees grab up a fistful of pens that they liked, with no regard for the money the author invested to get those pens in as many hands as possible.

    The problem with swag in general is that it is free. We, as the creators of it, establish for the record that it has no value. All I will put on a swag table are covers that I receive from my publisher.

    I believe that swag is best used as a gift, handed from me to someone else, with words exchanged. Here’s how I use it:

    Business cards: Name, email, website, YouTube channel, Facebook & Twitter handles all on the front, most recent titles on the back. I use these just as anyone would use a business card.

    Bookmarks: When I do a store signing, I don’t just sit at the table and wait. I mingle with the folks in the store, give them a bookmark and tell them that I’m the guy sitting behind all those books at the table. The bookmarks have information about my series, along with all of the links above. I’ve never had anyone refuse a bookmark so delivered, and every person I give one to Googles me when I walk away. When the event is over, I leave a dozen or so bookmarks with the folks at the front desk.

    Challenge coins. It’s a long-standing tradition among military, police, firefighters and other close-knit groups to design a commemorative coin. The coins are distributed as a way of saying thanks, or of showing respect. I designed one for Jonathan Grave’s company, Security Solutions. These have to be earned. I use them as thank-you gifts for professionals and subject matter experts who help me out.

    Polar fleece outerwear: Okay, these are stupid-expensive, but used properly, I think they pay off. I have vests and jackets that feature the Security Solutions logo (it’s a pretty cool design, if I do say so myself), and they are my casual outerwear in cold weather. You’d be surprised how many people ask me about the embroidered patch, and that conversation always leads to me handing out a business card. I give them to special fans and people on my publishing team–publicist, editor, agent, etc.

    • Great swag, John! Getting a challenge coin or a fleece would be special, indeed.

      “Visual noise” is an apt description. Looking at that table is almost painful.

      • John,
        Couldn’t agree more with your comment about cards in bookstores. Just sitting behind a card table with a tower of your books in front of you makes you look pitiful. I stand up and try to invite folks over just to talk. I don’t force the book into their hand but I do ask them to take a 4×6 card with all the vital info on it and tell them to just take a look as they browse the store. They often come back.

  2. Neat, Laura. Wish I could have attended.

    Just a question about matches as advertising swag. Used to be “everyone” carried matches–even people who didn’t smoke. (Hey, buddy, got a match?) Now would they just go into a drawer?

    Of course, how long do info cards and the like stay in view?

    Another question for Laura and others: is swag more valuable at reader-oriented conferences than at conferences attended only by writers?

    Thanks for all the hands-on research, Laura. Hope you were able to get it all onto the plane.

    • Eric, I agree that the matches are not necessarily practical. I keep a long safety lighter for things like burning up ticks. People used to collect matchbooks, when the were more common.

      As you can see, info cards and the like get quickly buried and become part of the chaos. Most remain on the table until the last day.

      I would only take business cards or perhaps small, personal handouts when meeting with other professionals. It’s a time for bonding rather than selling.

  3. I’ve stopped doing bookmarks, as they get lost. I still have a small supply, so I use them as business cards, handed out personally.
    My most popular swag item is lip balm. It disappears quickly. If I meet “new to me” people at conferences, they’ll usually make some reference to how much they liked it (and can they have more, or if it’s another conference, did I bring it?). Post-it notes also go over well.
    I’ve also done free giveaway codes, and even a small number of my Silver Falchion award-winning short story collection books. They’re small, only 3 stories, and don’t cost me a LOT (not as much as a fleece jacket by far!) These, I’m more likely to have on my table at a signing, but I’ve left them on the freebie table as well.
    On the plus side, although my swag might take up half a suitcase, I don’t usually have any leftovers to take home. Room for books. 🙂

  4. As a newbie to this game, anyone care to chime in with best resources you’ve found for authors to purchase swag? Are their companies who specialize in offerings for writers?

    • I used to use Vista Print, but I’ve gotten better service at 48 Hour I’m not thrilled with the magnets, obviously, so I don’t know that I’ll do them again.

      Quality Logo is another good one. I used them for chip clips. Quite inexpensive and good quality.

    • For printed goods, I’ve found the customer service and quality at Printing for Less is exceptional. (And I can give you a referral code).
      I get my lip balm from Totally Promotional.
      I got pens from Pen Factory.
      I was pleased with all of them.

  5. Super helpful, Laura. Thanks!

    Especially interesting is what pops visually amid the clutter of flotsam and jetsam. Items with light, bright colors and “FREE” in a giant font stood out from the crowd.

  6. I am an IT Guy. IT swag gets crazy in a hurry. And, since some people want me to buy $15,000 software packages and $60,000 servers, bookmarks are not on the list.

    Logoed socks are big. Today I am wearing Cybereason. Blue and yellow with their fox logo. Stress balls are big too. A devil from Professionally evil and the super heroes from STL Communications are on my desk.

    There is a company that gives out kitchen tools. Really. I have tongs and a silicone spatula at home from them. Their software is above $10,000 a copy.

    A computer recycler gives away a toy truck with a clear back. In the cargo area is shredded hard drive.

    Always have business cards. They need your name, website and contact info. Full color book covers on one side, info on the other can be done for less than $20 per 1,000. Have some prime items. Keep them under the table. You want the book store owners/managers to be your buddy.

    Oh, remember that people fly to conferences. I ended up with a several credit card multi tools. No one wanted a chunk of metal in their wallet at the airport.

    • Wow–a whole new world of swag! I’m surprised I haven’t seen cooking mystery folks give away kitchen tools. Though writers’ budgets are less generous than software companies’ lol.

      Love the idea of keeping prime items under the table. Great for book festivals. Thanks for the good info!

  7. Laura,
    Thanks for the feedback. I have the wine corks because my protagonist is a forensic pathologist and a vintner. Since those dual occupations are not clear from my swag and website, I’ll go back and fix that issue. I appreciate your evaluation.

  8. I agree with Brother Gilstrap about handing out swag personally. The ROI on that has got to be much greater than tossing a bunch of bookmarks on a crowded table.

    A couple of times I’ve made a T-shirt with my cover on the front and on the back. So I’m like that “Eat at Joe’s” guy, only with my book. Of course, it’s easier to wear that in L.A. than in Buffalo, but there you are.

    • The personal touch is so much better, indeed.

      Can’t believe I forgot to put t-shirts on the list. I also have done some in limited quantity. They were fun, but now I think I’d spend more on the design. Never thought of putting the back cover on the back!

  9. One of the best swag items I’ve ever encountered–an eyeglass cleaning cloth from Leigh Perry for her Family Skeleton Mystery series. Useful, informative, and utterly adorable. I went home and bought the book (though meeting Leigh in person and hearing about her series made me want to buy, regardless of the swag). I haven’t done swag myself, and rarely look at the swag table, but if someone hands me a bookmark or mints or something when I meet them, I’m happy to take it and will likely look up their book later.

    • I love her FAMILY SKELETON series. Leigh used to write as Toni Kelner and had a Southern mystery series set in fictional Byerly, North Carolina. I saw the announcement for the first in a Sisters in Crime newsletter, sent her a congrats, and asked her to be kind to the Byerly name. (Byerly is my family name, and I am from NC.) We became friends, and we figured out she hadn’t made up the name as she thought but had seen a sign for Byerly Antiques (no relation) on I-40 in Greensboro. Weird but true.

  10. Best swag we ever had were umbrellas for our book The Killing Rain. Our publisher Kensington did them as gifts for bookstore owners on our one national tour. I know at least one owner still has hers!

    But that was a lifetime ago….the swag world has moved on.

  11. Regarding authors’ business cards: I met three or four people at Killer Nashville and got their cards. Then when I got home I discovered the cards did not have an email or a snail-mail address. So I couldn’t follow up. Seemed very strange to me.

    I know people worry about SPAM, but it seems to me that a business card that doesn’t provide a means to contact you in connection with your business is somehow self-defeating.

    • Excellent point, Eric. It’s hard to imagine a business card without contact info, lol. Maybe they anticipated that people would go to their website and contact them that way. Silly, since one should have as few barriers between author and reader as possible.

  12. I dealt with and watched over the swag tables at a science fiction conference aimed at readers for many years. A lot is left behind. I still have a big pile of really nice bookmarks from the very first WHEEL OF TIME novel. Must be a collectors item, now.

    Some of the things I learned is that those expensive items should be promoting you and your series, not a speciifc book, unless it’s your first book, so you won’t be wasting money with leftovers. Flat paper of any type, book covers, etc., is never touched unless someone already has an interest in your product. Bring those promo items and business cards to whatever event you speak at and offer them when you are introduced. Have a business card with your book and author info, and also have a business card with your private contact info when you are networking. If you have an expensive promo item, don’t put them all out at once. Stop by once or twice a day early in the conference, restock, and straighten up your goodie pile. If you want to offer a free short story or book sample, put a qr code on your book mark or whatever. A qr is one of those squares full of colored dots that a smartphone can scan for info. Some sites online can generate a code for you. I printed a qr code to my website on my author name sign for when I do joint signings.

    As a reader, these days, I’m more likely to be interested in an author from a free book or short story from a site like Bookbub or one of the author collectives than a bookmark so I’m not that enthusiastic about freebie tables. Your taste may vary.

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