Posted On January 8, 2014 by Print This Post

Let’s Talk About Marketing SWAG with Cynthia D’Alba

Cynthia D’Alba is the real deal. Funny, smart, kind and she writes awesome, sexy heroes. She is also savvy and practical, so she was a natural choice for me to ask to write a blog about SWAG.  It can be a black hole that sucks up lots of your money with no evident return on the investment but Cynthia has lots of good advice. Welcome!

Hi All! Cynthia D’Alba here. I love Romance University so I was thrilled when Robin asked me to blog today. As I used half D'Alba RT Booksigningof my brain to toss around topic ideas, the other half was scanning promotional websites for unique but inexpensive (i.e. cheap) promo items I could take to RT2014. Then the two halves collided and voila! A topic was born.

Swag. Freebie. Author giveaway. All the things stuffed into your bag at conference registration. All the items that authors hope you’ll take to remember their names and their books. But what works? And better, what flops?

Every author, new or established, struggles to find some promotional swag that will set them apart…something the reader will take home…something that will keep that author’s name (if not the book) in the reader’s mind. Just this morning, Tawny Webber (a NYT best selling author) posted in a private group we share that she’d love some new ideas. New authors face an uphill battle for name recognition in the vast sea of new and established authors. Remember, the purpose of swag is to get your name out there as much, if not more, than the title of your book. Books come and go. Your author name is what a reader needs to remember.

But buying, or even making your own swag to give away is expensive. It may be one of the major expenses that an author faces. In my experience, and from what I’ve observed, first time authors can spend quite a bit of money on ineffective marketing items or items that go directly into the trash.

It used to be that paper products ruled the swag world. Bookmarks. Trading cards. Postcards. Book excerpts. Door hangers. Business cards. Paper swag is a relatively cheap form of swag. I remember the first RWA writers’ conference I ever attended (Tulsa, 2005). My registration bag was crammed full of bookmarks. Did even one of those go home with me? Sadly, no. Trashed all of it. In fact, I usually sort through the registration bag at conference and the vast majority (if not all) of the paper goes into the trash. Horrible, as I know the authors paid for the promo and maybe even paid to have it in the registration bag.

However, apparently I wasn’t the only one filtering out the paper products. Many conferences are now banning paper promotional items due overflowing trash cans. Does that mean I don’t have any paper promo in my promotional arsenal? Of course I do. I mail it out to readers, book clubs, and collectors. I sent 5 postcards per book in the Texas Montgomery Mavericks to my street team with instructions to pass them out. On the back of one of them was the message…Email me at (email address) and ask for this book free. In the top right corner, each team member had a different code. I wanted to see how many requests I got. The answer? None! That’s right. I don’t know that my postcards ever left the street team’s hands and if they did, if the receiving party even looked at it.

So paper is cheap and “everybody” uses it but don’t put too much faith in its ability to transmit your message.

Staying with inexpensive items, pens and nail files are very popular with authors and readers alike. Why? They are useful. They have a purpose. Truthfully, I have pens from authors I’ve never heard of, never read, and certainly never bought. So do I have pens in my promo stash? Of course I do! Pens can range anywhere from about $0.15 to more than a dollar. Lots of places to get them online but shop around. The same pen may bring different prices.

When I set out to do promo originally with Texas Two Step, I knew my personal history (trash can, remember?) I wanted to find SOMETHING that readers would think was clever and useful. In fact, even now as I’m looking at items for RT2014, “Is this something someone can use? Is this something an attendee will carry home?” stays in my mind. Think about conference attendees flying to conference. Remember the additional charges the airline will hit someone with if their bag is overweight. So if your giveaway is a mason jar with a hot chocolate mix inside just waiting for the hot water, what are the odds it will make it home with a reader? A driving reader, probably. A flying reader? Doubtful.

So not only does your promo item need to be unique, inexpensive, non-paper, and useful, it needs to be lightweight for travel. Yikes. A tall order for sure. So how did I do that?

A boot-shaped jar opener, followed by a cowboy hat jar opener and finally a Texas-Shaped jar opener. Pretty much weightless. Unique. Cost about $.50 each. And who doesn’t need a jar opener?

Jar Openers

Another popular item is refrigerator magnets. Leia Shaw mentioned this morning that she gives out a magnet that is her business card. I gave out magnets with the Texas Two Step cover. But someone made the comment that my cover might be “too hot” to display on the home refrigerator or in someone’s office. Interesting comment that has kept from ordering more magnets.

How many of you collect pins? Not ink pens but button/badge pins? I’ve never done pins but they can be pretty inexpensive at $.15 each (and up) in price. I know Leah Braemal has a slew of pin with her characters’ names on them. I have a couple of big promo pins from authors. I’m posting a picture of Leah’s badge to show you not only her pins but look at the other promo pins there…

Leah's pins

I’ve received everything I’ve listed so far plus highlighters, rulers, notepads, bags, playing cards and calendars. I picked up plastic wine glasses, plastic hats, chip clips, and coasters. My favorite from RT2013 were the refrigerator magnet clips that a marketing company gave out. Loved them and even though I’ve not posted the name of the company here, I know exactly who they are!

Swag can’t make or break your career. Only your writing can do that. As you spend your hard-earned dollars on swag, keep in mind what you want it to do for you.

I’d love to hear about unique and different promotional items you’ve collected or given out.

I’ll pick one person from the comments to win a bag of swag I collected last year during my conference travels.


So – what ideas do you have for SWAG? What worked and didn’t work for you?

Kimberly Kincaid joins us to discuss using setting to make your books sing.



I was born in Hot Springs, Arkansas and lived there until I went off to college at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville (Go Razorbacks!). I’ve lived in Little Rock, Memphis, back to Little Rock, and finally back home to Hot Springs, where my husband and I live on a lake.

I spent seventeen years in the healthcare field. I worked as an RN, taught Obstetrics in an RN program, coordinated a prenatal screening program and then was Medical Services Director at the University of Tennessee, Memphis and ended my medical career as an Administrator for a private group medical practice. I missed academic and left medicine to return to the University of Memphis as Director of Graduate Programs at the Fogelman College of Business. I grabbed the opportunity to return to Arkansas by taking a position as Assistant Dean for Executive Programs in the College of Business at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. It was there that I finished my education by earning a doctorate in Higher Education Administration. In 2002, I retired and took up the pastime that had consumed all my spare time my entire life –reading, a new book every day. I’ve been a reader as far back as I can remember – including forging letters from my mother when I was in grade school so I could stay in from recess and read! I cut my teeth on Nancy Drew, Trixie Beldon, and The Hardy Boys.

When I decided to try my hand at writing, I did what any academic would do; I decided to get as much information about the craft as I could. I traveled a great deal in 2006, meeting people and learning about writing as an art.

Since my husband retired in 2003, we’ve split our time between home in Arkansas and home in our RV on the road somewhere. But we don’t travel alone. We have Maggie (Border Collie), Jill (Flat Coated Retriever) and Panama (Spoiled Parrot).

So, that’s my story. I travel. I read. I write. I erase what I wrote. And FINALLY…I can say…I SOLD!


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67 Responses to “Let’s Talk About Marketing SWAG with Cynthia D’Alba”

  1. I’ve seen/used candy wrappers (they just get tossed as the candy is eaten), tea bag covers (ditto), first chapter booklets/CDs (not much picked up on those), cup holders (expensive, but well received). A friend uses instant/temp tattoos in a pretty design that includes her name. Like you, I’ve got a ton of pens from people I’ve never read, notepads, nail files, etc. For me, actually, I like bookmarks. I use them constantly.

    Posted by Vicky Burkholder | January 8, 2014, 7:33 am
  2. Everything you mention, I’ve seen. When I spent my hard-earned money, I don’t want to see it thrown away. I have a friend who was doing promo for her new author-services website. She attached a small pack of candy to the business card with the info. (M&M’s I think.) Later I saw her picking up a slew of business cards without the candy attached. Yep. People ripped off the candy and left the card.

    When you say “Cup holders”, so you mean an koozies?

    Posted by Cynthia D'Alba | January 8, 2014, 7:45 am
  3. I’m a big collector, and also like bookmarks; I’m constantly losing them, so I have piles of them wherever I sit to read. My two favorite swag items are a keyboard calendar (I go looking for the new one each year at the library conference where I get them from a vendor) and the other is a screen cleaner – a little brush to dust off my screen. I’ve only ever seen one, but I love that thing and want more. I also have a sickness when it comes to pens – I pick up and keep everyone I see.

    Posted by Kathy Setter | January 8, 2014, 8:55 am
    • A screen cleaner! good idea!

      The “problem” I have with bookmarks (although I give them out…feel free to ask for one!) is that the majority of books I sell are in digital format. My print sales are negligible.

      I meet and may exceed your pen fetish!

      Posted by Cynthia D'Alba | January 8, 2014, 9:08 am
  4. Morning Cynthia!

    I’ve never bought swag, but I’ve received some wonderful things from friends. Magnets and pens are always at the top of my list. An insurance salesman friend of mine (do insurance salesmen have swag?) gave me a pen with his name on it, and it was the BEST pen ever! It wrote so smoothly…found out later it cost almost $2 for each pen. Ouch. But I’ve never let that pen go, and it’s been probably 3 years. =)

    At the restaurant we go through hundreds of pens a year…none as wonderful as the insurance salesman’s pen, but it’s the restaurant’s version of swag. =)

    Thanks for posting with us today!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | January 8, 2014, 9:11 am
  5. Hi Cynthia,

    Perfect timing! I have to put together a basket for a silent auction and have limited creavity. Thanks for the suggestions.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | January 8, 2014, 10:00 am
    • Glad to be of help! The nice thing about a basket at a silent auction is that you aren’t limited by mailing expense…another aspect an author needs to consider when talking swag. Does your swag product need to be wrapped in bubble wrap? A protective box? What does it weigh?

      With a basket, you can put in a bottle of wine, some glasses, some bubble bath, candles and a couple of sexy books and you’re done!

      Posted by Cynthia D'Alba | January 8, 2014, 10:38 am
      • Helpful post. Thanks for sharing. I like gift baskets too and have sales not from the winner of the basket but the announcement of who won. Who doesn’t like wine, chocolate and a good book. If doing a basket for an event where I’m selling the books, I always remember advice given me years ago about the cow and milk. Why would someone buy a book if they think they can get it for free.

        Magnets and bookmarks are still my mainstays.

        Posted by Helen Henderson | January 9, 2014, 5:56 pm
  6. What a helpful post, thanks Cynthia! Like the other folks commenting here, I too like bookmarks and pens and I’d love to find more refrigerator clips as you describe. I’ve also picked up and given away recipe cards that have a cover on one side.

    Posted by Amy Alessio | January 8, 2014, 10:04 am
    • Recipe cards…very unique!

      Those refrigerator clips are not cheap but like I said, I know EXACTLY who put those out! 🙂

      I picked up a plastic wine glass (cheap!) off the swag tables at RT last year and used it in my room for the wine we had in there. And I remember the book title on it! It was unique and stuck with me.

      That’s the name of the game. Unique

      Posted by Cynthia D'Alba | January 8, 2014, 10:40 am
  7. I had never considered using swag for promoting creative work. But in the end, writing is a business like anything else, so why not? Great article!

    Christine @ Better Novel Project

    Posted by Christine @ Better Novel Project | January 8, 2014, 10:05 am
  8. Thanks so much for this post, Cynthia.
    I just sold my debut book which releases in September, and I’ve been trying to figure out what swag might be worth my hard-earned money. I was thinking about pens, since I love getting free pens, and your post makes me feel a little more confident about that choice. We’ll see how it goes. 🙂

    Posted by Amy Woods | January 8, 2014, 10:35 am
    • It’s TOUGH for a debut author to get notice. Pens probably WON’T do that for you.

      My suggestion is to think about your book and your audience. Google promo items and the general idea of your book.

      For example, I googled “promo items cowboys” and found that boot-shaped jar opener. Not only was it unique and cheap, it fit the book’s concept.

      If your book’s about poker, custom playing cards. Cooking? Something that can be used in the kitchen. Dragons? You get the idea.

      Come back and tell us about your book. Maybe you can get some useful suggestions

      Posted by Cynthia D'Alba | January 8, 2014, 10:46 am
  9. Cynthia,
    Do you have any thoughts on the best times and places to use swag?
    The trend still seems to be swag rooms or bags at cons, but like you said, we, as readers, tend to toss a lot of it. How can we use our swag better?

    Posted by Amy Denim (@AmyDenim) | January 8, 2014, 11:07 am
    • One of the problems of conference swag is getting it home. Conference attendees have to weigh the value of the item with the weight it will add to the suitcase (if flying to and from the conference.)

      My fantasy is to be able to personally hand it to a reader. 🙂

      Where to use it? everywhere! I know people who hand it to waitresses at lunch, which I think is a bad idea. BUT I had surgery on Oct.31. I had bookmarks with me. I gave them out and what do you know! A couple of the nurses showed up at my booksigning 2 weeks later. 🙂

      But I think the key was they WANTED the items, versus me shoving the promo bookmarks into their hands.

      How to use it better? I don’t know. Targeted audiences. Unique items. Personal contact.

      Posted by Cynthia D'Alba | January 8, 2014, 11:21 am
  10. Cynthia,

    Last year we were in the middle of a two week stretch of snows. The last show lasted for 4 days, which is long by any measure.

    We brainstormed ideas, USB’s, pens, etc. but really wanted to give our customers something they could really appreciate. Then it hit us. Insoles. People were on their feet for eight hours a day for four days straight. They were an instant hit. Customers and vendors alike flocked to our booth to get their hands on 99¢ shoe insoles. It was great!

    Posted by Brian Leonard | January 8, 2014, 11:48 am
  11. What a FABULOUS idea! Unique. Inexpensive. Useful.

    You hit all the right buttons with that one.

    Posted by Cynthia D'Alba | January 8, 2014, 11:50 am
  12. This is an interesting post, Cynthia. I’m just now starting to think about promotional swag. I’ve made a note of several items and will try them in the near future.

    I’ve been a recipient of many a bookmark and I don’t use them at all. However, they are pretty. LOL.

    Posted by Tamara | January 8, 2014, 12:09 pm
  13. I like giving out magnets. 🙂

    Posted by Rebecca Fyfe (Becky) | January 8, 2014, 12:30 pm
  14. Hi Cynthia!

    Great to have you back at RU! Your post takes me back to my childhood when the Fuller Brush man used to hand out lotion packets, the Avon ladies would give us tiny lipstick samples, and with a fill-up at the gas station, you could get a set of steak knives or smoked-glass drinking glasses.

    What is it about human nature and wanting something for free? I have tons of bookmarks, and I do use them. As far as giveaways, I think a small bottle of lotion or hand sanitizer would be useful. Also, pens, a tiny LED flashlight or little tape measure would be something I’d use. These items probably cost more but are less likely to get tossed.

    Loved this post! Hope you’ll join us again soon!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | January 8, 2014, 2:57 pm
    • Hi Jennifer. Do you remember the days when you used to get a dishtowel in a box of soap? Laundry soap, maybe?

      I LOVED the Avon lady and her samples she could give me.

      hand lotion and hand sanitizer aren’t THAT expensive, but they also have a limited shelf life..meaning the bottle is thrown away when the contents are gone. However, these are both very useful swags and for me, if I can use it is important in my decision making about do I keep it or toss it.

      Thanks Jennifer

      Posted by Cynthia D'Alba | January 8, 2014, 5:54 pm
  15. I throw away pins. I hate them. But I always lose pens. So I keep them. I don’t keep notepads. I have too much paper at home. I do like bookmarks that intrigue me to read a book like a cover. I love covers!

    Posted by Anna Labno | January 8, 2014, 3:57 pm
    • AH! You are one of those wonderful readers who are swayed by covers. Lucky me. I have some yummy ones. 🙂

      I don’t really collect pins either but I know many readers do, especially if the pins are from a book series.

      I hear you on too much paper at home. I had considered small notepads and discarded the idea for that very reason.

      Thanks for commenting.

      Posted by Cynthia D'Alba | January 8, 2014, 5:57 pm
  16. I don’t read romance. So I’m not embarrassed by their covers. 🙂

    Posted by Anna Labno | January 8, 2014, 3:59 pm
  17. Hey, Cynthia. I love bookmarks, still read some print books, but mostly e-books. I love pens–really good ones. I just ordered a few from Vista Print. I’m so excited. It writes well and feels super! For a give-away for a blog tour when my first book came out last year, I struggled to come up with something connected to the book. Ultimately decided on lavender sachets because the heroine’s store smelled like that and a small crystal because her store sold crystal glasses. I was amazed how expensive it was to mail those. They were very light! Always something to consider. Thanks so much for this post.

    Posted by Marsha R. West | January 8, 2014, 4:32 pm
    • You are SO right about mailing costs! I gave away the cutest ornaments for my blog tour in November. Boots, hats, saddles. Soooo cute. but by the time I bought, packaged and mailed each one, I could have just given my winner $5 and been done with it.

      Pen from Vista Print are nice and OMG expensive! I have 3 or 4 from Vista Print but nobody gets them but me! 🙂

      Posted by Cynthia D'Alba | January 8, 2014, 5:59 pm
  18. Great article! I wonder about how the “value” of swag changes based on an author’s audience. For example, what swag would a New Adult reader find valuable versus… Sweet romance? Maybe one audience’s bookmark is another’s … QR code? (Never been able to get those to work, myself )

    Posted by Lindsay Emory | January 8, 2014, 7:51 pm
    • I can get QR codes to work and I have them on my postcards but who knows if anyone actually uses them!

      I think Swag can be targeted to a certain reading audience. The NA audience would be women in their 20’s. IMHO, that audience is more technical savvy. QR codes would probably work. Screen cleaners. Smartphone covers, etc.

      Sweet romance probably wouldn’t want a male cheesecake calendar!

      So I think as you plan your marketing items, you have to make sure that what you are spending your money on is something your target audience would want.

      Don’t know for sure? ASK someone in that age.

      Posted by Cynthia D'Alba | January 8, 2014, 8:33 pm
  19. As much as I’d like to think my swag stays around, I have my doubts. With that in mind, I tend to target the con badge.

    Why? Because give people a pin they’d like, or a sticker, or a promo badge/ribbon that stays on and shows off your name with something clever… They become your billboard. At least for the con.

    Though most people hang onto their badges, so they do have some staying power.

    I’m thinking of badge flags/ribbons for RT. With some fun pirate saying on it, then my name… I also have pens, little flashlights, might do pins…

    I write romantic pirate adventure, so I’m always looking for something nice and swashbuckly…

    Posted by Maureen O. Betita | January 8, 2014, 7:59 pm
  20. What a brilliant blog topic! So many of my friends – multi-publishes AND debut authors – are confused by swag. It would be all to easy to blow most or all of an author’s earnings on swag.

    Thanks for this VERY useful post!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | January 8, 2014, 11:18 pm
  21. One of my favorite swag items came from Hank Phillippi Ryan – she had chapstick printed with her book info. Not only was it raally nice chapstick, but I thought of Hank and her books whenever I used it!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | January 8, 2014, 11:19 pm
    • I picked up a chapstick product once. The author had printed her own labels and wrapped around the tube. I pulled the label off (it was rolled up with use) and now…no name.

      So lesson…order chapsticks with professional labels attached to the tube!

      Posted by Cynthia D'Alba | January 9, 2014, 9:36 am
  22. Great post, Cynthia. I struggle with where to spend what little promo money I have. I have done bookmarks and pads of paper (small memo size). The paper seems to be a hit and I love having the sticky paper pads from other authors. They are on my desk and therefore I see their name daily.

    Posted by Emma Leigh Reed | January 9, 2014, 6:28 am
  23. I’ve volunteered for two years as promo chair for our writers’ conference (GRW’s Moonlight & Magnolias in October). I’ve seen LOTS of different swag items. You’re spot on about much of the paper items going in the trash, but the year we tried to restrict paper items the push back was painful; I had to give in on bookmarks.
    I loved Lisa Jackson’s blank notebooks with her book cover on them; various chapsticks/lipbalms (I use ’em up); small compacts; jar openers. Pens fly out the room.
    My favorite swag is a loaded flashdrive, like Smashwords supplied to RWA Nationals and to us. But they are pricey and dicey – I’d suggest going in with likeminded fellow authors with an anthology or samples to load on one and have them printed with your names.
    And another item loved by all is bags – any type of printed tote bag that can carry overflow, travel to the store or gym, etc.
    Last idea and I’ll quit: a decal that was printed with a monthly calendar to apply to your laptop. And of course, the business’ names and contact info.
    Thanks for an enlightening post!

    Posted by Pamela Mason | January 9, 2014, 11:36 am
    • WOW! fabulous suggestions and comments, Pamela. Thank you!

      I worried about tote bags because I have them coming out my ears!!!

      I have a mirror from the Fog City Divas, which is a blog that went out of business. Love it. Carry it all the time.

      Posted by Cynthia D'Alba | January 9, 2014, 11:43 am
  24. Oh! I experimented with autograph booklets one year. I still think they are a great idea. Since ebooks leave readers with nothing for authors to sign, I made up small autograph booklets for RT.

    I found images from the city, did a nice cover, making them very official looking. The back had my name, my bookcovers. Inside was about a dozen blank sheets.

    Seemed to me they would be a good promo item and readers, once they used them at the Bookfaire for autographs, would want to keep them.

    Was it a good idea? I don’t know. Opinions?

    Posted by Maureen O. Betita | January 9, 2014, 12:53 pm
  25. I gave all the pre-con beginner writers one in their swag bags, and left a dozen or so at my spot in promo alley.

    I had two authors tell me they loved the idea. Including the swag queen, Jade Lee.

    If I did them now, I’d use a QR code to track if they actually worked. Though I know better than to count on one source for feedback.

    Posted by Maureen O. Betita | January 9, 2014, 1:01 pm
  26. I went to RWA last year for the first time. As far as SWAG goes, I picked up more than my fair share. The things that are still used around my house are the tablespoon/teaspoon measuring device (my daughter loves it), the squeezy heart and cowboy square (my twins love them), all the pens and the measuring tapes. I’m trying to arrange to go this year, but I will have to be much pickier, but I would still bring home anything different, useful or able to go on carry-on.

    Posted by Tanya | January 9, 2014, 8:40 pm
  27. Given the proliferation of iphones, ipads, etc., I’ve been looking into custom styluses (actually, the least expensive seems to be a pen/stylus combo).

    Posted by Kat Sheridan | January 9, 2014, 9:35 pm
  28. Thank you Cynthia, this post has been very informative.

    I have my first book signing conference in March and I am trying to work out what swags might work for me and also keep the cost down.

    Thank you to everyone that has commented, I now have some great ideas to try.

    Posted by Liam M Taylor | January 14, 2014, 12:22 am
  29. Let’s not be so quick to dismiss bookmarks. I use them in lieu of business cards and even if they are thrown away, the user has seen your book cover and, maybe, read the blurb. So that’s an “impression” and every one helps.

    Posted by Blythe Gifford | January 14, 2014, 9:58 am
  30. Our first novel comes out the same month as our next conference. The heroine is an empathic healer and a paramedic. My idea for swag is travel size printed boxes with band-aids in them. Anyone care to venture an opinion? Would that be good swag?

    Posted by Sarah Brady | June 3, 2014, 1:35 pm
  31. I came across this post while looking for ideas for promo items for RT 2015.
    Such great ideas. Thank you! I have picked up many promo items from the RT conferences but try to stay with items I’m really going to use. I have looked up authors and found amazing books from these items. I love the mirrors, bookmarks, and pens. Last year I saw the screen wipes and flashlights. Nice. I’m hoping to find some great items at inexpensive prices. =)

    Posted by Madison Thorne Grey | February 11, 2015, 3:25 pm
  32. Great Article. I just published my first book. Unfortunately, it was a Christmas book that came out only one week before Christmas. The book name is Holly and Snowflake Christmas. I would like to do something with snowflakes but I’m not sure where to order stuff. Does anyone have a list of places they’d like to share?

    Posted by Evelyn Timidaiski | February 24, 2015, 9:56 pm
    • There are lots and lots of sites to order promo materials. In fact, spend some time doing online searches. The same item can cost different prices at different sites.

      Also, be sure to check shipping charges! Those can kill you!

      Posted by Cynthia D'Alba | February 25, 2015, 5:26 am


  1. […] away with all of her important contacts. That’s harder to do with a tote bag or a magnet. Magnets A writer at Romance University reports in her experience, there’s too much “paper” swag like bookmarks and business cards at […]

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