Book Subscription Boxes: A Big Case for A Small Niche

Perhaps you have bought one for a friend or relative, are familiar with the concept as it is popularly employed with food and drink, or even own one yourself – throughout the US and UK, book subscription boxes proliferate. Yet, for as many options as there appear to be – The Standard published a listicle titled “16 Best Book Subscription Boxes in the UK” in January of this year – none seem to have found a substantial foothold in the market. Certainly, none have been able to replicate the sizable niche carved out by culinary equivalents such as HelloFresh or Abel and Cole. This, to the casual bystander, may appear aberrational; the unfortunate dud of William Golding’s infamous “Every time out it’s a guess” proclamation. But a closer look reveals potentially serious missteps by the current market offerings, and may inadvertently provide the key to unlocking what might prove a proverbial treasure trove.

For those otherwise unfamiliar with the concept, it’s remarkably simple: each month or year you pay a fee, for which you receive a book, usually packaged alongside a miscellany of sweets and self-care products, in return. While book offerings vary from provider to provider, these boxes tend to be marketed towards the casual reader – one is unlikely to receive the cultic, critically acclaimed works of authors such as Karl Ove Knausgaard or Rebecca Solnit to pair with a pack of Maltesers and some Oolong tea next month. Particularly apt examples here are Reading in Heels (recently rebranded Reposed) and The Willoughby Book Club, both of which seem to actively target the “average” consumer. For boxes that are more intellectually inclined, the classics appear to be a safe bet, perhaps only because many are out of copyright – in my research, multiple boxes have included the likes of Dickens and the Bronte Sisters, featuring the occasional Grapes of Wrath. In short, the market is perhaps best defined by its adherence to the previously tried and true – newer titles tend to be bestsellers, while the older selection is largely comprised of the modern western canon.

It is here, when presented with the concept in its most simplified form, that the platform’s failure seems most bizarre: who in their right mind could possibly turn down the prospect of a bestseller routinely delivered to their door, for less than average retail price, packaged with a heap of goodies? The answer I propose, ironically, is that they couldn’t – if that was in fact what people were led to believe they were getting. Hence, I think that it is not the concept, but instead the execution, that has so hindered this otherwise lucrative market.

Let’s first consider the demographic that many of these companies are openly targeting. While “Reading in Heels” is rather obvious, the vast majority of the market skews towards female readership; prime examples of clear branding in this regard can be found in the likes of Books That Matter or WILDWOMAN. Even those that are not so openly gendered lean heavily into the semiotics of femininity; deserved or otherwise, the products that come with the boxes are often associated with “women’s leisure.” There, I’m sure, is credence to this – market research must suggest that the predominant purchaser of these subscriptions are women, or even that the majority of casual readers are female, neither of which would surprise me. Yet, while I have little research to support this, I would think that the adverse effects of such marketing are two-fold: beyond alienating much of the male market, one genders a pleasure that is otherwise gender-less, inviting distinction between general (read: non-gendered) reading and whatever the subscription might offer. Hence, the entire cohort of women who think of themselves primarily as readers, as opposed to “women who read” may otherwise be less than inclined to buy the product.

The second major issue I notice is the current offering’s aversion to curation. While many of the subscription services available offer to tailor their products to the reader’s personal preferences, there seems to be little effort to create thematic or authorial consonance from box to box. That is to say, despite having given their preferences to the supplier, a subscriber might receive a crime novel one month and a Victorian family drama the next. What’s more, there are virtually no allusions in the relevant marketing materials to expertise; for all intents and purposes, it might as well be the staff intern picking a book at (near) random. In my mind, these two elements are distinguishing factors that have helped propel this model in other industries. When I receive a food box in the autumn, I can expect to receive seasonal produce that is picked by someone with the knowledge of what has recently ripened. While this might be an example in which this kind of curation is necessitated (otherwise food is neither local nor fresh), the same holds true in the cases of wine or beer subscriptions. One will hardly receive a heavy red wine for drinking during the summer months, or a summer ale for the depths of winter, all coming with the expectation that these selections are made by someone more in the know than the subscription purchaser. With this in mind, it is not hard to understand why a potential buyer might be turned off; why pay good money if I can neither trust in the expertise of the person choosing, or even in the sequentiality (or relationality) between each book?

This is hardly a scientific analysis, but I do believe this particular niche is ripe for examination, if not profit. Indeed, a number of bookstores, including London’s own Libreria, have ventured into this market, seemingly capitalizing on their reputation, and thus, presumably, expertise. But the door to the field stands to be blown open, and individual stores can only hope to open it a crack – is there a potential business in the making, or has this analysis only served as a siren to lure publishers to their own demise?

Jacob Barnes