I swear to you, I do not understand children’s book collectors. Here we have a market driven entirely by an archaic understanding of what constitutes value. For example, let’s say I have an Advanced Reader’s Copy of Meg Medina’s Merci Suárez Changes Gears in one hand and a first edition of the same book (first run, pre-Newbery announcement) in the other. Which of the two would you assume would be worth more money to a collector? I would think the galley would be the clear cut item of worth. Galleys, after all, cannot be bought and sold (in theory). Their print run is limited, sometimes ridiculously so. More to the point, most librarians just give them to kids or teachers and that’s the end of them. First edition books are far more common, particularly when they’ve garnered stellar reviews like Ms. Medina’s did. But if you were to sit down and ask a professional collector of children’s literature which of the two books had more value, they would select the first edition every time. Madness. Just flies right in the face of capitalism.
But there is something out there that, to my mind, should be considered even more valuable than galleys and ARCs. It’s not new, but no one keeps track of it and it could be considered wildly more ephemeral than a review copy of a book. I am referring, of course, to swag. Those pre-publicity items sent to reviewers, librarians, bloggers, teachers, etc. to promote an already popular series or a title in which the publisher holds great faith.
In an alternate universe there is a Betsy that is a hard-hitting blog reporter. She would interview numerous heads of publicity to get the low-down and dirty on how exactly one company or another decides (A) which titles deserve swag and (B) what swag to provide. Because, you see, not all swag is created equal. I’ve been in this game for years, and I’ve seen it all. From spy cell phones that turn into make-up compacts (for some spy cheerleader YA series) to wooden spoons (for Toni Morrison’s Peeny Butter Fudge and I STILL own that spoon to this day). Some swag, like the one for Morrison’s book, is so effective that years later I can conjure up the name of that otherwise relatively forgotten picture book every time I use the spoon. Other swag . . . well, let me give you some examples.
Today we’re going to rate the swag of 2019. From the best of the best to an idea so terrible that I am actually going to keep the name of the book out of this post. Not for the sake of the mad scientist publicists that came up with that horror show, but because authors and illustrators really have zero say in how a company promotes their books. It’s not their fault when something goes THAT wrong.
But first, the best I’ve seen so far. And we start with . . .
The fact of the matter is that the best swag is the most ephemeral of all. Munchies. I’ve seen all manner of edibles over the years. The most infamous (and memorable) was for Dan Krall’s The Lollipop Caper where they sent out actual honest-to-goodness caper-flavored lollipops. It’s been six years and that taste is still in my mouth. In contrast, when Holly McGhee’s Dessert First was being promoted, they actually went so far as to send little cakes in the mail. Cake! Last year a promotion for The Outsiders included a small but completely authentic bottle of Coke.
So let’s examine Angry Cookie by Laura Dockrill and Maria Karipidou here. On the one hand, the cookie in the book is clearly chocolate chip and this cookie is not. Yet I live in the Chicago area where the mail is rarely, if ever, treated gently. The cookie included here arrived intact because it was one of those weirdly immortal kinds that are hard as rocks, can be ignored for decades, and yet are still edible at the end of it all. This cookie will outlive our children’s children. It’s also rather tasty. So while it doesn’t get full points (I’m sure modern technology could have allowed them to solve the crumbly chocolate chip cookie conundrum) it included food and I was very hungry that afternoon that it arrived. Well played, Candlewick publicity team.
What else works?
‘You cannot help but admire a pretty good joke. Macmillan did not have to put this level of thought and care into their promotion of this book. Tonally it’s so close to How to Walk an Ant by Cindy Derby that I half suspect Derby herself had a hand in its creation. The upside is that it increases your interest in the book tenfold. The downside is that once the joke is over the box gets tossed and forgotten entirely. Do you see why I feel like swag like this is going to someday be worth a fortune? No one pays any attention to it after it’s done its duty.
Tote Bags a.k.a. Librarian Currency
When (you’ll notice I didn’t say “if”) the librarians secede from the rest of the nation to live in a happy halcyon land of MARC records and strict categorization (I imagine you could choose to live in LC or DDS, depending on your preferences) the national banks of Librarylandia will not operate off of the gold standard. Instead, the entire economy will run on one thing and one thing alone: tote bags. Don’t deny it. If you’re a librarian then you may, like me, have a little stash of them tucked away in a desk drawer. Trouble is, you can’t help using them, particularly when they’re this attractive. Another by Christian Robinson has been getting a HUGE publicity push this year from Simon & Schuster and the proof is in the pretty pudding. A tote bag this pleasant to the eye hasn’t been around since that Ruth Bader Ginsberg one I still lug around every single day. That one was for I Dissent by Debbie Levy, published by . . . by . . . Simon & Schuster. Oh shoot. They cornered the market on pretty tote bags and I didn’t even notice.
This seems like as good a time as any to point out that swag is expensive. Your small, independent publishers are not going to be able to afford to make any for their books, no matter how cool they are. As such, the big guys reap the rewards and churn out the oddities. Oddities like . . .
Earplugs n’ Such
Okay. So this is a pretty good example of what a company does when it’s really really really trying to get you to read its newest middle grade novel. Why the push? Because as it turns out (and I had to have a co-worker explain this to me) author Thomas Lennon (who wrote this debut novel Ronan Boyle and the Bridge of Riddles) is a minor celebrity, starring on such shows as Reno 911. But Abrams couldn’t rely on the fact that the average librarian and bookseller would be an avid watcher of that show, so they put together this package. It’s a little elaborate, but not overly so. You have your certificate on the left, a little button thing, and, the most interesting part of it all, noseplugs. I approve of noseplugs as swag. They’re small and cheap and a person might conceivably use them in their day-to-day lives. All told, a smart way to go about spiffing up a package like this one.
Watercolors Are Good Too
In general, any art supplies you’re able to include with a book is going to make the crafty librarians amongst us squeal. Hervé Tullet’s latest book I Have an Idea may need a little push like this. True, he is the most successful picture book import to hold on to a New York Times bestseller slot for months on end thanks to Press Here, but it didn’t make him a household name. So the watercolors come out, and it’s a nice mix of practical (something I can use) with the relatively cheap (in terms of getting enough for swag purposes).
The most elaborate costume I ever received as part of a swag promotion was for What This Story Needs Is a Pig in a Wig by Emma J. Virjan. In the mail I received a large, bright red, bouffant wig the likes of which I’d never seen. It was the most glorious thing. Like a little beehive, so bright it could have attracted a charging bull from 30 yards away. This little horn is no bouffant, but it does its job well. It’s promoting Adam Wallace and Andy Elkerton’s How to Catch a Unicorn, the latest in a series from Sourcebooks. Now I have to apologize to another book out there, because I’m 67% certain that this is not the only unicorn horn I received this year. Normally I keep a strict accounting of swag, but I could have sworn I saw a rainbow horn come by my desk. If anyone remembers what that book was, I’d be grateful if you could job my memory. Alas, the gold thread that wraps around this horn already got loose. Still, it’s a nice horn, if just a little less golden.
More Food (But Did You Have to Use the Word Poop?)
While this is food, it loses a couple points for the poop joke. That said, it’s still edible and that book is a pure delight, so I’m giving it some extra credit.
Abundant Decorating Supplies
Don’t know if you can make it out from this picture but Kate Read’s One Fox came with a flurry of feathers. At first glance that kind of swag may not strike you as useful, but you would be surprised. Once I got a box with faux autumnal leaves and by gum I still use them in my Fall displays every year without fail. These leaves will find a happy home with other crafting supplies, I have no doubt. Besides, feathers are fine. The one thing you absolutely, 100%, should never never never put in a box of swag is . . .
Horrible, Horrible, Most Horrible Glitter
This. This is the madness I hope you were spared. Because I blog but also review, I sometimes get more than one package of the same thing. This is how I can attest that whatever Henry Holt & Co. / Macmillan thought they were doing here, they thought wrong. This is an image (plucked from my Instagram account) of a floor full of glitter. Upon closer inspection I could see that the glitter (which was of a larger, more circular variety than I’d seen before) was supposed to be contained in some kind of rattle . . . thing. I got two packages. Two chances to spill glitter. And in both cases the rattle thing had burst open inside the package, covering everything with this stuff. Do you remember that episode of Arrested Development where Tobias includes glitter with all of his acting resumes, thereby effectively preventing himself from ever getting a job? Yeah. This was like that. Swag fail.
What’s some swag that you remember over the years? It could be something you saw at a conference or heard about from someone else. I’m fascinated by it, clearly. Does it work to make books more memorable? Impossible to say, but I’m talking about them now. That’s not nothing.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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