Publishing Trendsetter is a production of Market Partners International and Publishing Trends.

The Beginner’s Guide to Subscription Boxes

If you’ve checked the mail lately, you know that subscription boxes are a booming business. Industries from clothing to cosmetics to home cooking have been experimenting with the format since the 2010 launch of Birchbox. This isn’t new territory for publishing, which got into the subscription game in 1926 with the Book of the Month Club (still alive and thriving), but the present surge in popularity has inspired scores of booksellers, book lovers, and book publishers to flex their entrepreneurial muscles in new ways.

A typical book box is released on a regular schedule, usually monthly or quarterly, and includes both curated books and some kind of perk. That perk might take the form of hand-wrapping or personalized recommendations, or it might look like themed accessories and insider access. There are about as many ways to pack a box as there are people to open it up. These boxes, like the books they contain, market themselves to specific readers. Broadly speaking, some boxes aim towards one of many age groups, some toward a particular interest, and others to demographics hungry for representation.

Who’s Reading?

Age-specific boxes are especially handy for children and the people who read to them. Bookroo and Lillypost offer up monthly parcels of board and picture books, each title hand-wrapped, with variants for both the young (3+) and the very young (0-2). For the more independent child, there are services like LitJoy, which caters to readers of all ages, though with an eye toward the junior set. Lovers of middle grade, for example, can sign up for boxes that include two new books each month, accompanied with three to five bookish items. And, as sales in recent years have shown, young adult does well with pretty much everyone. (Per LitJoy’s own FAQ: “Most customers who purchase our Young Adult Crate are between 20 and 30.” YA fandom also drives boxes like OwlCrate, which tailors each of its monthly installments around a theme: past examples include “Make It Out Alive,” “Fast Times at YA High,” and “Leading Ladies.” Typically, these boxes include a carefully-chosen book or two and some additional goodies, like apparel and accessories. 

No matter what grade level they’re geared to, some boxes like these are envisioned as social spaces. “LitJoy is a community,” says co-founder Alix Adams. “We interact with subscribers and they interact with each other. There isn’t really an agenda beyond creating a space where readers can unbox the joy of reading every month, then come onto social platforms and talk about it.” (And readers, whether they use subscription boxes or not, come onto social platforms in droves, from Twitter and Facebook to #bookstagram and BookTube.) Today’s kids – and their parents – can look forward to reading books they might never have encountered otherwise, knowing that plenty of other people are reading with them.

Navigating the Stacks

For adult readers, book boxes can be a way to celebrate an interest, hobby, or lifestyle, whether literary or not. That’s certainly true of Cozy Reader Club, which delivers a little bit of luxury each month: a typical installment delivers coffee, tea, or hot chocolate alongside handmade goods and a new hardcover.  “We do see ourselves as a guide to good books, but also as a timesaver for our subscribers,” says owner Heather Viner. “They may not have time to research upcoming novels that they would like or have time to go to the bookstore and pick out a book.” Typical subscribers, says Viner, “enjoy locally sourced and handmade products and are looking for a temporary escape from the stresses in everyday life.” And some vendors offer boxes that are just the extra stuff. The Bookish Box, geared towards teens and adults alike, is designed for “stylish bookworms” and includes a specialty t-shirt plus home and beauty wares.

Box creators also have a unique opportunity to provide their customers with a special connection to a given title or subject. Book Riot’s Quarterly Literary Box provides its subscribers with hand-written notes and special annotations from the featured book’s author, plus a few complementary reads. Genre boxes like My Thrill Club specialize in guiding both new and longtime enthusiasts to gems they may have missed. 

To distinguish themselves from competitors, any book box will emphasize its ability to create a unique experience. At Read Dog, there’s no more unique experience than one that’s totally personalized: each customer receives different, individually-chosen books based on their interests. “We view ourselves as a brand that aligns books with community,” says cofounder Michael Wray. And who makes up that community? The typical subscriber is “older and female,” he says, and points with pride to the Facebook group Read Dog Readers, which has nearly 500 members at the time of this piece.

Boosting Diverse Writers

Besides bringing readers together by age or interest, book boxes have one more very real power: they can act as megaphones for underrepresented voices, getting books into the hands of readers who may not see themselves in the bestseller charts. That’s the thinking behind projects like Call Number and the Just Like Me! Box, which offer quality Black literature for adults and children.

Jamillah Gabriel, the academic librarian who founded Call Number, has a very clear mission. “I would say that one of my purposes in working in the industry is to act as a gateway to great African Diasporic literature,” she says. She wants “to promote authors. To expose readers to the literature, those who might not seek it out on their own, or who might not know where to look to find it. And also to bring awareness to libraries and their importance to society.”

Gabriel chooses the books herself, “based on a few factors: what my tastes are, what I think will have wide appeal, or what I feel should have more exposure, especially if it’s an author with a unique style that’s not necessarily mainstream.” This approach – focused on a particular kind of voice with wide leeway for form and content – certainly seems to appeal to subscribers. In fact, Gabriel says, “I’m not sure I have a typical subscriber, as they seem to cover different races, ethnicities, and genders. But I think my box holds the most appeal for African-American women, and any readers who just enjoy diversifying their reading experiences.”

A diversified reading experience is especially important for kids. While the publishing industry as a whole is notoriously white, children’s books in particular have been struggling to branch out. Founder Tamara McNeil sees Just Like Me! Box as one way to push for change. “I’m hoping that as our company grows, publishers will take notice and begin to publish and promote more diverse children’s literature,” she says. “Our subscriber base proves there’s a need and desire for more African-American children’s literature.”

Like many of its neighbors in the children’s market, Just Like Me! Box offers several options for different reading levels: subscribers can choose boxes for kids aged 0-3, 4-8, or 9-12. Gifts and educational tools are also included. “We choose African-American themed books based on educational value, merit and awards. We’ve compiled a master list of books we found on our own and those sent from publishers and independent authors,” says McNeil.

What’s Next?

It’s hard to say exactly what the future holds for the book box boom. There are already concerns that the overall market is reaching a saturation point, though how that might play out for publishing – as opposed to cosmetics or mattresses – remains to be seen.

What’s clear is that these services have changed the way readers, authors, and publishers think of what access to a title should look like. In particular, independent authors can benefit from seeing their work included in boxes like these, especially if they’re working with smaller print runs or limited distribution. And for the big houses, involvement with a book box means a new avenue of engagement with dedicated readers.

“With our current subscription box we are focusing on creating an online community that couldn’t exist before,” says Read Dog’s Michael Wray. “However, our long-term vision is to create subscription boxes for bookstores around the nation so that they are able to generate recurring revenue, increase attendance at community events, and market via subscription boxes.” Whether the reader goes to the bookstore or the bookstore comes to the reader, subscription services can offer new ways of thinking about engagement and nontraditional commerce. And whoever that reader is, there’s almost certainly a subscription out there tailored to their interests. Time to get unwrapping.

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