Books make an amazing source of passive income—once you’ve written and launched your book, you should always keep up on its marketing, but you don’t have to work eight hours a day at an office to make money from it!
But what about other ways to take advantage of all that buzz you’ve built?
Think about expanding your product offerings through tie-in products, often known as swag or merch (short for merchandise). Comic book authors learned this secret years ago, and authors who run successful crowdfunding campaigns have also discovered the long-term promotional benefits of tie-in products.
Whether you’re giving items away or selling them via an online store, merch can be a great way to get your readers to promote your book for you while also having some fun!
In general, your tie-in should feature your book cover (which already includes your title and byline, conveniently enough!), as well as a contact method, like your author website. A call to action (Buy on Amazon!) or your tagline or even a brief description could also be appropriate, depending on the type of item and what you’re looking to accomplish with the promo.
Let’s look at a few common types of merch and how to get started with tie-ins.
Bookmarks are one of the most popular types of merch, and for good reason! They’re inexpensive to make and incredibly handy—what reader doesn’t always need another bookmark? They’re cheap to ship and you can hand them out at signings, conventions, and events almost like you would a business card.
In fact, people often happily take a batch of bookmarks to give to their friends (promoting your book!), while it can be a struggle to get someone to take and look at just one business card!
The least expensive bookmarks to have made are 2×6 inch versions with one color side and one black and white side. Either design the bookmark yourself using a service like Canva or other graphic design software, or hire someone (maybe your cover designer) to do it as part of your marketing package.
On the color side, focus on creating a great visual representation of your book in the limited space available—maybe use a portion of the cover art or sample the background of the cover, then overlay a catchy tagline. On the b&w back, put a small image of the cover, then include your title and byline, a brief description of the book (taken from the jacket text), and sales and contact information like your website. Always include a call to action, like “Buy now on Amazon!”
If you can swing the extra expense, going full-color on the back of the bookmark lets you show off the full color cover—never a bad thing!
You can get 1,000 bookmarks (enough to last you through quite a few events and giveaways, and to include them with every paperback giveaway or Kickstarter reward you fulfill) for as little as $40, including shipping. The price goes up if you choose upgraded paper options, full-color back, and so on—but even basic bookmarks are pretty attractive these days!
If you have a good color printer at home, you can make your own small stickers to give away with copies of your book or at events. Just pick up some sticker paper, which comes in glossy and matte, and design a sticker featuring your book cover. Oftentimes, you won’t need to add extra text—your title and byline are clearly visible on the cover—but you might choose to design a bigger, bolder sticker with a clear call to action or with your tagline.
Scale the image so that you can fit several copies on one page, with room in between to cut out the stickers. Create a letter-sized version with a grid of images on it, then print! Now all you have to do is cut out the stickers and you’re ready for your giveaways. (It helps to enlist a herd of kids to do this, and you can usually pay in snacks!)
For an upscale version, you can order weather-resistant vinyl decals from a professional. For bumper stickers or car decals, these are fantastic. They’ll be larger than the few inches of a DIY sticker and can encourage your readers to proudly display your book cover or tagline wherever they go.
Another inexpensive promo item that’s very popular at events and also cheap to ship with Kickstarters or giveaway books is buttons. Pinback buttons are super-popular as swag among bands, and they’re catching on with graphic novel producers, game production companies, and some sf/f writers.
It can be hard to scale a book’s cover down to stand out on a 1-inch button, so you might want to consider designing your button to use just the title, in the font used on the cover, with a bold background. Other options include using the book’s tagline, if you can scale it to be readable at just an inch diameter, or using part of the cover image to create drama.
Some indie button makers will split orders, producing multiple designs in one batch of buttons. This is a great option for authors, as it lets you create sets of buttons—maybe one with your tagline, one with your full cover, and one with a dramatic crop of your cover. The possibilities are endless!
Ordering 500 1-inch buttons costs as little as $70 plus shipping, even when splitting the order with multiple designs. One good source is CheapestButtons.net, though you can often find great custom button-makers by searching on Etsy.
Still need more low-cost swag to give away as promotions? No problem! Magnets are a great option, as most people stick them on the fridge and will therefore look at them a couple times a day, being reminded of your book.
You can DIY magnets with your book cover on them much like you’d DIY a sticker—using printable magnet sheets that go through your home inkjet. You can also often buy business card-sized adhesive magnets that just stick to your business card, doubling your impact (you just have to print up one tie-in, your business card, and you can have two types of giveaways from it).
Most business card printers also have the ability to make custom magnets, either in a business card format or in a more creative size or shape. You can even order a magnet to go on your car door to promote your book! Prices vary, so check around with your favorite printing service, such as Staples, VistaPrint, or NextDayFlyers for options and prices.
Notebooks and Pens
Many avid readers are also writers themselves. Think about handing out small memo pads emblazoned with your book cover, or pens printed with your title and author website. You can pick up colorful, attractive note pads cheap at your local dollar store, or upgrade to a branded version offered by many vendors online.
Pens come in a huge range of styles and prices; choose the option that fits your budget and aesthetic the best. Be sure to find out whether the vendor you’re thinking of working with has a minimum order quantity and whether they charge a setup fee—there may be hidden costs that make those super-cheap pens not as affordable!
An option with more impact than a small freebie item is a poster of your book cover. This is a great reward as part of a crowdfunding campaign, and also makes good merchandise to offer on your website or at an event booth. After all, you have a spectacular book cover, so you should show it off!
Keep in mind that if you had your cover created by a professional artist, you’ll want to be sure that your contract allows this use—many contracts will note that the cover art can only be used for the book, not resold. However, most artists will be happy to allow you to use the cover (including the text…so not just the art itself) in promotional materials like posters and tee shirts. A little planning ahead goes a long way here, so be sure to ask the artist when you’re interviewing before the cover design gets started. Explain exactly what you’re looking to do with the design, including selling posters or tee shirts tied to your book, and make sure to get written permission.
You can have really nice posters printed by services like NextDayFlyers and GotPrint, in sizes ranging from 11×17 all the way to 40×60 or even larger. But if you’re looking to give away posters or just fulfill a crowdfunding reward, think about getting them made at your local Staples. The paper isn’t as thick or nice, but it definitely does the trick for only a few dollars per poster.
Go to the Staples Copy and Print website, then start a Self-Service Printing project. You’ll want to select the 11×17 size and use “glossy cover stock” as your paper. Then upload your artwork (try scaling your book cover to work well on that 11×17 size—most 6×9 book art scales nicely for this) and place your order. You can have it shipped to your door or pick it up at your local Staples. Easy!
As more people switch from plastic shopping bags to reusable ones, tote bags have become a great way to promote your book through tie-in merch! Once again, it’s as easy as uploading your book cover to a print vendor and placing an order.
Of course, you can get more creative, using a quote from your book, a tagline, a custom illustration of a character, or more—but the simple way is just to focus on your book cover. That’s got all the branding you need already and with a dynamic image catching their eye, people be intrigued and maybe go look up your title on Amazon!
That’s the real power of merch—you’re selling it as part of a crowdfunding campaign or on your website, appealing to current fans who love what you do, but you’re also able to catch the eye of someone who’s never heard of you when they pass that fan and notice their tote or tee.
You can DIY a branded tote bag by buying blank canvas bags and iron-on transfers, but the results are rarely as good as getting bags professionally made. And since pro bags are relatively inexpensive, it makes sense to save your time for writing and just order the bags you need.
Good sources that have a variety of options to choose from include Discount Mugs, Inkhead, 4Imprint, CustomInk, and Totally Promotional. Options range from inexpensive “nonwoven material” bags up to thick canvas, insulated coolers, and even stylish messenger bags. Pick what makes sense for you and your budget!
A key characteristic of good merch is something that people use all the time and often carry with them. Drinking glasses certainly fit the bill! From travel coffee mugs to pint glasses or custom shot glasses, you have a range of options and prices to choose from.
Keep in mind that shipping on these will be more expensive, as they’re bulky and often breakable. However, the impact of emblazoning a coffee mug or shot glass with your book cover will be strong!
Prices vary depending on your supplier and the type of drinking gear you choose. Plastic travel mugs will be cheaper than stainless steel ones, laser-printed shot glasses will be less expensive than etched glass, and so on.
Always check the minimum order and whether there’s a setup fee with the vendor you’re thinking about using. Setup fees can be worth it if you think you’ll be placing more orders in the future and the per-item cost ends up being lower than with other vendors. Make sure to check your budget and project your future merch needs first!
Good sources include Discount Mugs and Totally Promotional. You can often get very simple designs, like the text of your title and your byline, from artisans on Etsy with no minimum order. Some of the best glassware with the quickest turnaround comes from Glass with a Twist.
In the age of ebooks, not many people want to go through transferring a file to an e-reader or phone to get to read your book. But that doesn’t mean that USB sticks aren’t a good promo for your novel or nonfiction book! In fact, they’re pretty great, because they fit that earlier criterion we set out: people need them, use them, and carry them around.
A good option is to have the USB drive printed with your title and byline, as well as a small icon that ties in to your book somehow (you usually won’t be able to fit the whole cover). When you get the sticks, load them with the digital copies of your book—you can now sell a special edition of your ebook!
This is also a great place to add tie-in writing. If you’re a nonfiction author, consider adding bonus worksheets or printables that relate to the topic of your books. If you’re a novelist, add exclusive short stories to the drive alongside your main work.
Note that some vendors will actually pre-load the provided files for you! Sometimes this is included in the cost of the drives, sometimes it’s extra—be sure to check.
Being able to sell your work in multiple ways at multiple price points is never a bad thing, and adding new ways for your readers to interact with what you’ve done and get excited is even better!
USB drive pricing will vary depending on the style of drive you choose, as well as the memory capacity. Most people won’t be likely to regularly use a drive smaller than 4Gb, so that’s really the minimum to make this useful.
Larger credit-card-size drives can use your full book cover as an image, while smaller, more stylish drives will be restricted to just your title and maybe a small icon. The choice is yours!
Again, always check to see what the minimum order is and whether you’ll need to pay a setup fee.
Of course, when we think about tie-in merch, the first thing that pops into many of our heads is tee shirts! But this is actually one of the most difficult tie-ins to create and produce—and one of the most expensive.
That’s because people come in different shapes and sizes, so offering a good range of tees to fit everyone in your audience can get expensive quickly.
Using tees as part of a crowdfunding campaign isn’t so bad—you’ll just ask for style and size preference in your backer survey at the end of the campaign, then order exactly what you need from your vendor.
Keeping tees in stock on your website or for cons and events is a little harder. You’ll want to offer both men’s and women’s cuts, as well as several sizes. The most popular is usually the Large, in both styles, but you’ll want a few of each size on hand just in case.
Remember, if you’re out of a particular size at an in-person event, you can always direct the person to your website and get that shirt custom-made for them.
Shirt prices range depending on the options you choose, from simple unisex blocky tees in basic colors to hoodies, tanks, and more in a range of colors. Some vendors also charge more for designs with more colors in them—so if you’re just going to put your book cover on the tee (a solid option perfect for promotional purposes!), it could get expensive from all the colors used. As always, choose what’s best for your marketing plan and your budget!
And again, always find out if there’s a minimum order or setup fee with your vendor.
It’s best not to try to DIY this with iron-on transfers; while you might save some money, the final product won’t look as good as a professional shirt and you’ll still have to find all the basic garments in all the sizes you’ll need.
These are only a few of the most popular tie-in products for authors. Merch can be exactly as creative as you want it to be! I’ve seen branded gum, mints, chocolates, and more given out at author booths or book signings. Play-Doh with a catchy tagline related to an art book was a big hit! Small puzzles and games can work well. Other apparel beyond tee shirts can work—how about hats? Heck, one author who wrote a conspiracy novel sent out dark sunglasses and tinfoil hats with his Kickstarter rewards!
Ambitious authors might partner with a creator on Etsy to come up with a line of products. What about custom plush toys for a children’s book (or even a horror novel—it’s been done!) or 3d-printed jewelry or toys that relate to a theme in the book? These options are obviously going to be much more expensive to produce, but if you can have just a few made at at time, then sell them at a reasonable markup, they can be a good opportunity!
Think about whether there are any products, toys, or other items mentioned clearly in your book and brainstorm how to tie those in. Check out Oriental Trading for inexpensive, fun ideas. For some reason, themed rubber ducks are always incredibly popular.
Play around with a few freebie giveaways or promos, then see what your readers have to say while scaling up to merch you can sell on your website alongside your book. The sky’s the limit!
Have you created merch to go with your book offerings? What’s worked for you?
For more on crowdfunding, check out our getting-started series:
- Crowdfunding for Authors, Part 1: What, Why, and Where
- Crowdfunding for Authors, Part 2: Creating a Profitable Campaign
- Crowdfunding for Authors, Part 3: Building on Momentum
Kate Sullivan is an editor with experience in every aspect of the publishing industry, from editorial to marketing to cover and interior design.
In her career, Kate has edited millions of words and helped dozens of bestselling, award-winning authors grow their careers and do what they love!