To Swag or not to Swag by Jean Rabe

To Swag or not to Swag

Bookmarks, coffee mugs, and key chains oh my!

I adore swag. I am drawn to swag tables at conventions and book events like a dog is pulled toward an unattended sandwich.


I’m not talking about attitude or style, or the folks who walk confidently with a swagger. And I’m not referencing pilfered goods—in the late 1800s swag meant things burglars absconded with, silverware being choice. If you look back to the 17th century, you find swag-shops in the thieves’ underworld.

I’m not talking about “stolen anything.” That definition is way out of date. I consider swag free book-related stuff. STUFF. LOTS OF STUFF.

The “freebie” definition of swag started to appear in the 1960s, and referenced promotional items…records sent to radio stations, dinosaur-shaped bars of soap Sinclair gas stations used to pass out, perfume samples offered by Avon representatives, and the like. At Oscar time you catch mention of the movie stars’ swag bags…those are some lavish and valuable freebies.

The swag I’ve seen at various book events includes:
·         Pens…lots and lots and lots of pens
·         Bookmarks…lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of bookmarks
·         Nice mechanical pencils
·         Bookplates
·         Stickers
·         Post-it notepads
·         Postcards…lots of postcards
·         Lip balm
·         Keychains
·         Coffee mugs
·         Tote bags
·         T-shirts
·         Small flashlights
·         Baseball caps
·         Chocolate bars
·         Temporary tattoos
·         Rubber bracelets
·         USB flash drives
·         Reusable water bottles
·         Business cards
·         Books
All of the above swag touts the authors’ latest books and lists their webpages. All of the goodies are intended as advertisements.

Here’s a link that shows more than a thousand pictures of author-related swag:

Generally, you have to visit a swag table early if you want the best stuff—tote bags, coffee mugs, USB flash drives, and books. Books often go first…except for stinky books. You can tell if the freebie books are stinkers ‘cause they come back to the table, pages ruffled, as someone gave them a try and cast them back.

I already have more tote bags than I can use and more coffee mugs than I need (I’m drinking tea right now out of my Serial Killer cup). So I grab pens and mechanical pencils. Different pens, one for each book or author advertised. I can always use pens and mechanical pencils. I never bother picking up pencils I have to manually sharpen (don’t know where my pencil sharpener is).

I also pick up business cards of authors and editors I’ve chatted with and who I might want to contact down that proverbial road.

I don’t touch bookmarks—I have a box from the last time I ordered them to promote some of my novels.

A Sad Truth About Swag

Authors who pay for all of this promotional material…some of it quite costly, are often wasting their money. They are spending more on their keychains and coffee mugs than they will make on sales because of those items.

In all the years I’ve been grabbing swag at book-related gatherings, I have never purchased a novel based on a promotional item. Ever. I’ve never even looked up the books advertised on the sides of pens and mechanical pencils. I pick up books based on reviews or advertisements on the Internet or because I listened to an author in a seminar and decided I ought to be reading that soul’s work. Word of mouth works, too. A friend tells me about a great author…I’ll buy into that.

I attended a seminar at Killer Nashville where the speakers said authors should take the money they would spend on swag and instead spend it on well-placed advertisements or web-services that offer book promotions. They said some authors believe that swag items give them a presence at conventions and helps create a brand. That’s true to an extent, the speakers said. But you’re not likely to earn back the amount you spent. Better to let your writing be your best advertisement.

Better to devote your energy to getting noticed via blogs and newsletters and good reviews.

During my own writing career I’ve purchased pens a couple of times and bookmarks often. I’ve always had bookmarks left over on the swag table at the end of a day, and fortunately I’ve usually scooped them up before the cleaning crew comes by and tosses the table contents into the garbage. That’s really a waste of swag money.

The Dead of Winter

My new mystery novel, The Dead of Winter, doesn’t have pens or mechanical pencils to advertise it. I’ll probably get some bookmarks—maybe—but if I do it will not be multiple boxes of them…just enough to pass out to folks at book signings. I won’t be spending a lot of money on them.

Instead, I am taking the advice of the panelists at Killer Nashville and writing blogs, creating a newsletter, and I am paying for a few of those web-promotion services.

We’ll see what happens.

Now, by no means am I suggesting that my fellow authors stop buying swag to promote their books. I love the pens and mechanical pencils. I can’t remember when I bought pens in a store because of the assortment I have from attending conventions. If you keep putting them out on the swag tables, I’ll keep scooping them up!

My latest novel, The Dead of Winter, is set for a November 1 release.

You can find my blog at:

My personal webpage is at

I have a newsletter filled with tidbits about my upcoming books, reviews of things I’m reading, and writing advice. You can subscribe here:

USA Today Bestselling author Jean Rabe has written 35 fantasy, urban fantasy, and science fiction novels. The Dead of Winter, her 36th, is her first mystery. She has roughly 100 short stories in print, has edited a couple dozen anthologies, and has edited more magazines than she cares to tally. When she isn’t writing or editing, she tosses tennis balls to her cadre of dogs, visits museums, and tries to find gamers who will play Axis & Allies with her.


I've limited my swag to business cards. A new one for each book--cover on the front, info about book and me on the back.

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