Baubles and Swag

By: Mike July 13, 2012
Content Warning
This post may contain references to crass commercialism and the business of writing. It should not be read by those with romantic notions of authors scrivening with a quill pen in quaint, drafty garrets who don't wish to be disillusioned. This will be the first in a short series of posts aimed primarily at helping other authors. We'll return to your regularly-scheduled programming in a month or so.

P.S. Patty is still out in her drafty garret, er, office trailer, typing away!

Anyone with a heartbeat knows that publishing world is in a state of upheaval. Whole new galaxies of self-published and small press authors are entering the market. It's wonderfully exciting, but it raises a few problems; foremost among them "With the tens of thousands of voices crying for attention, how does an author stand out?" C'mon class, let's all says it together — "Promotion".

[EDIT: Actually we're not convinced that promotion is really the answer. If we were, we'd be doing a lot more blogging and tweeting and we'd probably have a Facebook account. However, based on our convention experience over the past couple of years, claiming that promotion is not the wonder-cure for obscurity is now heretical. So, back to the swag.]

Authors are desperately trying to promote their books, their talent, and themselves. At some point in the promotion mayhem, many authors consider swag. If you go to a big convention like Comic Con, you'll see vendors, film companies and even authors selling or giving away promotional items. At the basic level it's flyers, handbills and bookmarks, but at the high end there's mugs, t-shirts, and some pretty nice goodies. I often wear a T-shirt that says "Harry Dresden is my Co-Pilot". I love Jim Butcher's books, and the shirt makes me smile. Well played, Mr. Butcher!

Even a few years ago, making anything more advanced than a few home-printed bookmarks was something most authors left to their publishers. Now many more authors are taking the plunge, and doing something on their own. Let's face it: a full-color custom-printed T-shirt beats a limp bookmark! So what challenges does an author face in setting up a shop and selling cool stuff?

Is Your Brain Plugged In?

Making real-world items is a little more involved than posting the occasional tweet or uploading your cover art as a desktop background. Before you even look at costs and methods, you need to figure out what you're hoping for. Do you want promotion, validation, a second income stream? Are you hoping to beat piracy by giving the books away, and cashing in on T-shirts and mugs? You can spend a lot of money on swag, and mistakes can be costly. Having well-defined goals will help you make wise decisions.

Every store is different. Our goal was to get the readers to help fund the sort of advertising that we simply can't afford on our own. We try to make high-quality swag that our readers will actually use, and sell it very close to our costs. Our store manages to consistently lose a little money, but every time we go to a convention or a signing and see one of our T-shirts being worn, we call it a victory. It's a terrible business, but cheap advertising! Naturally, your business model, and hence your goals, may be entirely different. The important part is that you need to have a plan before committing time and money.

Swag on a Budget

Many years ago, when we first starting hearing the "self promotion" mantra, we were appalled at what some authors were willing to spend for advertising. We simply didn't have the resources to follow the advice that was being given. In the end, I think we saved ourselves a lot of money and embarrassment. Which brings me to two points: 1) Don't spend money you don't have on swag. 2) You don't need to spend a lot of money to get some cool stuff out there.

Running a store involves basically three steps. Making an inventory (procurement), selling the inventory, and shipping the inventory (fulfillment). Here's the important bit: each step can be elaborate and time-consuming, small and simple, or even outsourced. This, like publishing, in an area without "one true path".

At the simple and affordable end, consider opening a store with CafePress, Zazzle, or a similar turn-key solution provider. They make it very easy to add a logo or text to a wide variety of items, and sell those items to your customers. They handle all of the details of production, selling, payment and fulfillment. Last year we had to shut down the Hurog store, and one of our forum moderators helped us open a Mercy's Garage Store on Zazzle. In a couple of days she designed a store front, populated it with nice stuff, and was actually earning a bit of money from sales. It's low stress, low maintenance, and offers a wider variety of goods that most authors would ever dream of making on their own.

However, all-in-one services aren't perfect. The quality of the merchandise is good, but not always stellar. While they offer many styles of merchandise, if they don't have what you want you're out of luck. Finally, the prices tend to be high. This makes a certain amount of sense, since most of the items are produced one at a time as they're ordered. Convenience, as they say, comes with a price.

DIY Mayhem

So let's pretend you have a totally awesome idea for something that would perfectly promote your books. Maybe you wrote a Buck Rogers inspired space adventure, and want a custom-imprinted nerf gun for your readers. Or you want a really high-quality shirt with full-color graphics, or glitter ink, or custom-cast jewelry or . . . well, the list goes on forever. The problem is the all-in-one services won't always offer exactly what you want, or in the quality you'd like for your fans. You'll need to make it yourself.

Actually, at this point you'll want to sit back, sip some lemonade, and think this over carefully. We jumped into this arena blindly, making some shirts on a whim. It hasn't been terrible, and the rules are surprisingly sane, but it is a big step, and requires some additional time and effort. If we had known what we were getting into, we'd have thought about it more carefully.

As a DIY store, you'll need to get the swag built, find a place to store your inventory, set up a shopping cart to handle sales, and arrange for fulfillment. If you're going to maintain and sell an inventory, you're probably going to be considered a business for tax purposes. You'll probably need to collect sales tax and pay taxes, possibly quarterly.

This seems daunting, but it's not bad as long as you go into it with your eyes open. I'm planning several more posts to help point out the pit-falls and land mines in your path. Trust me, we've made all the mistakes so you don't have to!

Part Two: Making Swag or The Surprising Complexity of the T-Shirt!