Colleen Houck On Creating Swag That Works

Most authors will agree that the creative part of the job is where we excel, the business and marketing side, slightly less. It’s lovely when the two can meet in the form of SWAG – Shit We All Generate. I’ve invited some published authors to share with us their secret to swag… little freebies that can sell a book longer after the author is no longer standing in front of a prospective reader. In order to create great swag, you have to be crafty – in more ways than one.


Today's guest for the SWAG is Colleen Houck, whose New York Times bestselling Tiger’s Curse series has received national praise. Colleen is a lifelong reader whose literary interests include action, adventure, science fiction, and romance. Formerly a student at the University of Arizona, she has worked as a nationally certified American Sign Language interpreter for seventeen years. Colleen lives in Salem, Oregon, with her husband and a huge assortment of plush tigers.

Finding something that represents your book and hasn’t been played out by a million authors before is difficult. What’s your swag?

It depends on the book. I have a standard swag bag that I give out at events and at school visits. These contain the following…

• A button or pin I have purchased on Etsy. Some are of my book covers, some are just fun things for readers. Kids LOVE these. This store makes custom buttons as well as groups for various categories.

• I add whatever bookmarks my publishing house gives me until I run out. I always ask them for the file so I can print more if I want to. If they don’t make bookmarks then I ask them if they will make them if I print them. Often the answer is yes. When the answer was no, I asked my agent and his team made them.

• I also put a piece of Ghirardelli chocolate inside and match the flavor/wrapper color with my book cover and then put a book sticker on top. An example of this is a Pumpkin Caramel Square  with a sticker of The Lantern’s Ember.

• There’s a reading sampler of one of my books. My publisher made a certain number and when I told them I was doing school visits, they produced more. After they were done, I asked for the file and printed more on my own.

• There are one or two free ebook download cards. These are of my self-published novellas. Publishers might not agree to this for as many as I use, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.

• Next, I add my personal business cards

• And a YA Scavenger Hunt card

• These items all fit perfectly into paper gift bags like these I bought a design that went well with my books.

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Right now, I’m working on a pre-launch party with VIP swag bags. They are getting a variety of nice things including a tiger bracelet, a cobra ring, a stuffed white tiger, a stuffed black tiger, animal crackers, a custom tote, a tiger striped scarf, a water bottle, Hoyle black tiger playing cards, and a rubber bracelet. Note: This is a paid event so I’m spending more than I normally would.


I love doing jewelry to match my books and if you shop on Etsy or Ebay you can find almost anything or someone willing to make it at a reasonable price.

I’ve done custom perfumes before, but they are expensive and messy and don’t travel well.

How much money per piece did your swag cost out of pocket?

It depends on the item. I have now become an expert on cheap. I shop at the dollar store and Oriental Trading. I check bargain bins. I find bulk items on the internet. If you’re looking for jewelry, there are lots of options on Ebay for $1.00 each or less. But be aware that most of these items ship from China and they take a month or longer to hit the states. For special swag bags I like to shop for playing cards that match my book theme. They run between $3.00-$5.00 per deck for the specialty types if you buy in bulk.

For my standard school visit swag bags, the cost for each runs about $1.25. Most of the cost is the reading sampler.

At events, I put together swag bag giveaways with a larger bag that matches the color of the book cover and then everything inside matches that color too. I can usually find a lipstick or an eyeshadow, then a nail polish, candy, lotion, popcorn, or a scarf. Usually each bag runs about $10.00 and I do a raffle. They sign up for my newsletter for a chance to win.

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Do you find that swag helps you stand out at an event? Does your swag draw people to your table at an event or conference?

I don’t know that anyone approaches because of swag but if they come up and talk to me or attend one of my panels, my standard swag bags have enough information for them to find me easily and get a taste of my writing. Having the chocolate in there is key. After I mention that, everyone wants a bag to take home. I’ve noticed that most authors just set out bookmarks on the panel table. Having a box of swag stuffed bags in the back for them to pick up as they leave works really well.

What do you think of big item swag pieces versus cheaper, yet more easily discarded swag like bookmarks?

I have bookmarks I picked up at a conference that I still use today, but at big book conferences there are way too many bookmarks to stand out and most of them end up being tossed. Any swag, big or small, will always make more of an impact if you are the only author in the room. Having said that, you should always have something to give an interested reader. I’d recommend a stylish business card featuring your books. Beth Revis has an awesome information card that folds like a book. It has pictures of her books, a nice blurb, and her contact info. I think readers are more likely to keep that than a bookmark. As far as big swag items, I save these for my loyal fans as a sort of a reward for supporting me or coming to my event. I don’t think you need to spend your dollars offering large incentives to new readers. 

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What’s the most clever / best swag by another author?

I think the best swag should tell you something about the book. I’ve seen an author who writes westerns give out little cowboy hats. Amy Plum had an Eiffel tower she gave that matched her book based in France. Once I spotted a vampire neckband to go with a vampire series. I’ve seen a mermaid book clip to match a mermaid book. Those types of swag aren’t cheap but they’re memorable and if mermaids are your thing, you’ll have a piece of swag you will keep as well as a potential new author to love. At big book conferences, these are the items that make you stand out.

And the biggest question – do you think swag helps sell books?

I absolutely believe in having some sort of basic swag. But don’t break the bank! Decide what your annual marketing budget is, set aside the funds, and then break it down into categories. Some money you might use for ads just to remind those who already like you to buy your next book, but other monies should be set aside to find new readers, and other money to attend conferences. It’s tempting to go beyond. I’ve done it and regretted it later. Always ask yourself, “What would I want or expect as a reader being introduced to an author?” Then let your expectations guide you.