Event Kits, Swag, and Bulldogs

Cynthia Compton -- February 5th, 2020

Our dear publisher partners are filling our stockroom with lots of shiny padded envelopes, artistically printed boxes, and expensive specialized mailers this month, all in hopes of getting our attention about new book releases this spring. My postal delivery person is cranky, because most of those items don’t fit in the mailbox, and so she has to pull around to the front of the store, leave her vehicle, and carry them inside the store. I was sitting at my desk today with a bulldog at my feet, sorting the mail that accumulated while I was at a trade show last week (see Toy Trends from Spielwarenmesse), and the number of packages (and their varying usefulness) is just remarkable.

It’s time, I think, for some nose-to-nose conversation about these very expensive campaigns, and so, my friends in publisher marketing, could you sit down a minute in this comfy chair? Here’s a blanket and a bulldog for your lap, and a cookie – oops, yes, the bulldog will take the cookie right out of your hands if you’re not quick – have another cookie, and we’ll put the dog on the floor. Let’s talk about swag, shall we? (Yes, that’s how English Bulldogs snore. It’s okay, I’ll just talk louder.)

Gordon the bulldog, in his listening pose

To start with, let me just say that we’re very pleased with any attention, and just like bulldogs, we tend to lean against you a lot, looking for more. Unlike bulldogs, perhaps, we do realize that all these campaigns are expensive, both in time and materials and postage, and that you are constantly trying to push ahead of the rest of the pack for our love and affection. Some of this effort, however, is a little like barking at your own reflection in the mirror: it’s cute in the first social media post, but then it’s just a lot of noise that gets ignored, and that’s just a shame. So let’s work together, shall we, and develop some promotional material for new book releases that gets everyone excited.

Knox wearing his “excited” face

While you’re packing those boxes, tubes, and shiny envelopes, though, perhaps we could remember the following:

Edible treats get our attention, but they will look like the dog’s dinner if you’re not very, very careful. In warmer months, chocolate often melts inside the packages, and then when it’s delivered, it looks like bulldog…. well, probably not how you intended. Baked treats get stale very quickly, and those tightly shrink-wrapped decorated cookies are harder than Milk Bones after a week in the mail and a few days in the stock room. Gummies can end up looking like pre-chewed kibble, and no one really ever needs another candy cane. Let’s skip the food that doesn’t travel well.

Roscoe: Did someone say “treats”?

Paper shred, no matter how beautifully dyed, is just a mess when a package is opened. Sometimes we can reuse it when shipping returns, but usually it ends up all over the floor and then goes to the dumpster. If a half dozen small items are buried in the paper shred, then we have to weigh the time it will take for clean up against the value of the buttons, tattoos, or stickers that are embedded in the paper prison of shredded packing material.

Authorless event kits need to be very carefully considered for the age group of the intended audience. Most picture books, for example, are sold to parents and grandparents of the 3 to 6 year old crowd. I will stubbornly argue all day long (just like a bulldog) that picture books are relevant for all ages, but the sales numbers in my store are just what they are: and most picture books are purchased for kids in first grade or younger. Consequently, word searches, crossword puzzles and acrostics, and jumble puzzles are not all that helpful. These kids just don’t have those language and literacy skills. Instead, we would like coloring pages, simple craft templates (not the actual craft, just the template) and STICKERS.

Stickers??? They sent STICKERS? *

Craft ideas for authorless events are always welcome, but craft supplies rarely survive the journey to our stores. We have crayons, or we can get them inexpensively. Ditto for those little-bitty colored pencil packs that are all cellophane-wrapped and impossible to open. Those tiny bottles of glue are a waste of time and money, and I have yet to meet an off-brand glue stick that is worth the price of its postage. It’s OK. We can get that stuff. Send us templates to copy, easy instructions, and we’ll find the construction paper and toilet paper tubes. Even better, give us an Instagram contest to post our customers’ creations, or a quick video from the author to show to the kids while they are coloring or glueing. Send us publisher glitter – we’ll supply the paste.

Posters are awesome, and we distribute them to teachers and librarians in classroom packs and goodie bags for educator events. Send us more posters and teacher guides – or links to download them, and fewer keychains, lanyards and single-item tchotchkes. Buttons are the subject of much bookseller debate. For us, they are not that valuable, as our youngest customers and their parents prefer freebies without pokey parts. Our booksellers might wear them for a day, but even our elementary school and middle school fans prefer backpack hangers to buttons which poke holes in our clothes and our fingers.

Traumatized by boxes full of pokey buttons

Often, the most valuable parts of a “swag box” are the least glittery items. Signed bookplates are gold, and bookmarks that can be distributed after an event are very good marketing pieces. A letter from the author (perhaps 10-15 copies on special paper?) would be so great to give to the first kids who pre-order a book, and any type of writing or illustrating contest that creates contact between our customers and the author or publisher is a terrific promotion. Again, these are items that we cannot create here in the store – we’re great at glitter and glue, but only the publisher can provide outreach items that connect the reader with the author. This is the most valuable treat of all, and for that, we’ll sit and stay all day long.

I will wait in line for autographed swag – Knox the Deaf Bulldog

*this is Ollie, a foster with Indiana Bulldog Rescue (https://indianabulldogrescue.com/), who is currently seeking his forever home. The other bulldogs pictured live with me, and will happily accept care packages from publishers or readers without any editorial comment.

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About Cynthia Compton

Cynthia is the mom of 4 kids, a rescuer of English Bulldogs, and the owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Indiana. The 2600 sq. ft. childrens store was founded in 2003, and hosts daily story times and events, birthday parties, book clubs and a large summer reading program. She just completed her term on the board of the American Specialty Toy Retailers Assn, is a past president of the Great Lakes Bookseller Association, and her store was honored with the Pannell Award in 2013.

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