My Love/Hate Relationship with Book Boxes

(Last Updated On: April 26, 2021)

Book boxes have exploded in the bookish world, creating a vibrant market for special editions of books and merchandise for your favorite fandoms. From OwlCrate to Fairyloot and everything in-between, the market is saturated with options for every type of bibliophile. But what if I told you that despite buying the occasional book box, I kind of hate them?

This month’s Bookish Banter discussion is all about my love and hate relationship with book boxes, and dives into why I’m inevitably always disappointed yet continue to buy them on occasion. (I contain multitudes.)

Hope springs eternal, but book boxes (almost) always disappoint

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a minimalist will always be disappointed when opening a book box. So Kal, I hear you asking, why do you keep buying them if you are a minimalist and don’t like trinkets? One word: FOMO. Okay, that’s really an acronym for four words – fear of missing out – but you catch my drift.

My rule of thumb these days is to only order boxes when I know the book included and want to read it. Of course it is still a gamble for me whether or not I will like what they do with the cover, and I still prefer to preorder the books to help support the author’s first week sales, so sometimes I have to decide which book to order because generally don’t like collecting multiple editions of books (unless they are a top-tier fave). I treat the bookish items as bonuses because I almost always will save them for a giveaway instead of using them myself.

Owlcrate items & book for September 2020

An Exception to the Rule

Out of the handful of book boxes I’ve purchased over the years, there’s been exactly one that I loved basically everything inside of it: October 2020.

I knew as soon as I saw the reveal for “A Glorious Haunting” that it was basically a box curated for me. I broke my rule of only ordering boxes when they feature a book I’m excited to read and got this one anyways… and am forever thankful I did.

Check out the unboxing

There’s a certain kind of excitement that comes along with what amounts to a mystery box. Every time a new monthly theme is announced, I get swept up in the possibilities. What if this edition of the book is STUNNING and I love it more than the normal edition? What if there’s an item I NEED to have and I miss out?


The Same Fandoms for Merch

I am so incredibly sick of merch for popular books with established fandoms and tons of merchandise available. Illuminae, SJM books, V.E. Schwab books, Harry Potter... Even if we are fans of these books, chances are we already have more than enough items representing them on our shelves!

I want items from new fandoms, heck, I’d love the items to be themed to the book that’s being included beyond just the monthly enamel pin! And while yes, I’ve noticed that Owlcrate at least has stopped include HP merch and branching out on fandoms, but let me tell you: the cool items in the box? The ones they put their money towards? It’s the one or two established fandoms. I’m still bitter that The Bone Houses merch were skull spoons found on AlliExpress and in no way branded to the book other than being skull-shaped. Yes, I liked the item but come on. And stop including chap stick in the box as a merch item!

I have additional thoughts on this with the April 2021 Owlcrate specifically, but I’ll save that discussion for my April book haul post so I don’t spoil subscribers who haven’t received their boxes yet.


Pairing BIPOC Books with Non-BIPOC Merch

Honestly this bothers me a lot: it’s as if the book subscriptions are worried that a box themed after a BIPOC won’t sell well if they don’t include merch for books with bigger fandoms… but it is as if they fail to recognize there are tons of books by BIPOC authors with huge followings that are eager for merch. I want to see not only a diversity in the fandoms represented in book boxes, but in the items as well. Where are the banners and bento boxes and trinket dishes and tapestries and kitchen tools and candles for those?

It’s a problem that books like Warcross will get a sticker or An Ember in the Ashes will get a puzzle or The Year of the Witching gets rollerball perfume (which come on… not everyone uses perfume).


Accessibility

We need to talk about the immense privilege it is to not only have the funds to buy a one-off box or subscribe on a regular basis, but also how shipping costs can be prohibitive. Most of the book boxes are based in the US or UK, so any bookish lover outside of these countries have to pay shipping fees as expensive as the box itself sometimes! At least when publishers print their own special editions you can try to buy them on Book Depository (that’s how I nabbed my hidden cover variant for Legendary!). Heck, I have Illumicrate FOMO every single month but can’t afford the shipping costs to the US.

Don’t even get me started on when multiple boxes choose the same book. I think this may be one of my villain origin stories because then you have 1-4 cover variants entering the world and competing with one another. I think a lot of people may be enticed to subscribe because of the special covers — which is a gamble in itself when sometimes all they do is throw a color filter over the original artwork and call it a day. (Looking at you, Crier’s War. Owlcrate did you dirty.)

Ultimately I think book boxes encourage collecting and highlight how materialistic our capitalist society is. While collecting has always been a thing, multiple special editions for books with top marketing budgets from their publisher really exacerbates other issues of unequal promotion of titles. I’m sure that inclusion in any one of the big book boxes is a huge boost to the visibility of the book in the community, but is it necessary to be the book choice for 2 or 3 of them?

Basically every time I open a book box, I have regret. I mentioned earlier in this post that I am a minimalist, and that’s incredibly true. I don’t like clutter and everything I own tends to have a use or spark tons of joy. My bookshelves are full of books and little else: I’m not the kind of reader who displays mugs and other items. So I’ve come to the realization that I’d much rather curate merch from shops directly instead of hoping that a book box will get it right again.

Book Box Alternatives

Instead of just complaining about mainstream book subscription boxes, I want to also take the time to uplift alternative book subscriptions curated by BIPOC and some BIPOC and LGBT+ merch shops beyond what you may already know about.


New Suns Book Box Subscription

New Suns Website

Choose from a selection of 1-5 books from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), LGBTQ+, and international writers each month (changing to quarterly in June 2021). Every box also comes with 2-3 creations by creators of color and queer creators. New Suns partners with independent creators and help uplift underrepresented voices.

Each box costs $35, plus $5 shipping (US), and the money directly supports BIPOC and queer creators.

April 2021 Book Selection

Decentered Lit Book Box Subscription

Decentered Lit website

Decentered Lit is a quarterly book subscription box based in the Caribbean (ships outside of the Caribbean, click here) focused on amplifying marginalized voices. Books they’ve featured include Black Suns by Rebecca Roanhorse and When No One Was Watching by Alyssa Cole.

Subscribers can choose between a Young Adult or Adult subscription, and each has the option of being book-only or full of goodies. Quarterly subscriptions range from $28 – $40, not including shipping.

June 2021 Adult Theme June 2021 Young Adult Theme

Reading in Color Book Box Subscription

Reading in Color website

Each monthly box includes 1 middle grade & 1 young adult title written by an author of color, as well as bookish goodies like bath bombs, bookmarks, candles etc.

Each box costs $37.99 and features a different theme and perspective each month.

Subscribe to the Monthly Box

Bookish Merch Shops

If you’re like me and want to purchase your own bookish merch, here’s a list of BIPOC and queer creator shops to check out. Many thanks to Cynic Prime on Twitter for sharing so many bookish shops with me (but rip to my wallet)!

Let’s Chat!

Thank you so much for reading this post, friends! I love chatting and ranting about topics in the bookish community that I have Opinions on, and let me tell you… I didn’t realize mine were so complex on book boxes!

๐Ÿ’ฌ What are your thoughts on book boxes? Do you subscribe to any?

๐Ÿ’ฌ If you could start a book box company, what would you include?

๐Ÿ’ฌ What diverse book boxes do you recommend?


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13 Comments

  1. Yesha Soni

    April 29, 2021 at 12:24 AM

    I never subscribe to book boxes as I can’t afford them. $40 mean โ‚น 2963. If suppose 1 book is around โ‚น400 on Amazon (usually I buy them in discounted price, mostly below โ‚น400), I get around 6-7 books. Even if I buy merch separately and less books, I can afford to buy on Amazon than getting book box subscription. And I’m not even considering money conversion charges.

  2. Sally

    April 29, 2021 at 5:01 AM

    I completely agree with this. As an environmentalist and aspiring minimalist (slowly getting there) I really donโ€™t like book boxes and geeky loot crates etc. Why canโ€™t they just be a box with a couple of books and nothing else?

  3. Jackie

    April 29, 2021 at 5:56 AM

    Hard nope on book boxes. Donโ€™t get me wrong, when I see people unbox them, I get stars in my eyes for a moment, but I canโ€™t justify the cost, nor can I justify collecting all of the fandom merch that goes along with it. (And itโ€™s weird that the merch isnโ€™t associated with the book most of the time). Honestly, I canโ€™t even justify the physical book either. Iโ€™m an e-reader/library book kinda gal.

  4. imyril

    April 29, 2021 at 7:08 AM

    Minimalists represent! I love a sexy bespoke cover, but the boxes usually feel like a Lot of cash (and I’m really not interested in merch – guess I got old and grumpy). Add shipping and I don’t buy anything from the US these days – it seems way more expensive to ship US->Europe than Europe->US? (sob, however tempting Subterranean Press can be) Those prices keep me very honest when I think about what other books I could get instead ๐Ÿ˜€ The one subscription I’ve got – zero regret here – is the Goldsboro SFF Fellowship, which is book only for a recent release in special edition hardback. Still feels a leetle expensive, but the curation has been brilliant and I love that they’re cool about me opting out if I don’t want the book.

  5. Shruvi Karande

    April 29, 2021 at 7:36 AM

    I almost never order a book box. Mostly I recieve them as gifts. As much as I love the bookish goodies, spending that money on new books always wins over book boxes.

  6. Nicole @ Sorry I'm Booked

    April 29, 2021 at 8:48 AM

    I learned the hard way a few years ago that I didn’t love all the merch that came in book boxes. I got a few books that I was excited for, but I realized that I had no idea what to do with all the stuff! I do agree with your points about accessibility and needing better fandom representation as well as BIPOC and LGBT representation.
    Great post!

  7. Nicci

    April 29, 2021 at 11:10 AM

    I’m finally chiming in after lurking on your blog for months. Great Blog. I love this information posted here. I think it’s been mostly your blog postings that have influenced me to read more scifi and YA fantasy books. Book box seems interesting but like others I would rather use the money to buy books.

  8. Fadwa

    April 29, 2021 at 1:04 PM

    Out of all the “big” subscription boxes, the only one that hasn’t been disappointing to me is Illumicrate. I love that they include high quality items from lesser known books as well as books written by BIPOC authors, because i’m way more likely to find an item i enjoy with them than with boxes than do big fandoms since i tend to not be into those. That’s also the main reason that kept me far and away from book boxes.

  9. Allison Thwaites

    April 30, 2021 at 5:40 PM

    I…I came here because I Stan Decentred Lit and then I saw you mentioned me, Bibliofancy Bookish ! I’m going to find some chill somewhere… Love the post!

  10. Louise @ Monstrumology

    April 30, 2021 at 6:49 PM

    I’ve never bought a book box because most of the time they feature books that I’m not really interested in and I don’t really want to pay a lot of money for a box that has a book I’m not interested in and then some junk that I’m probably not going to use. And the merch part bugs me too, especially since from my experience I’ve seen more SJM merch than merch for any other author or series and I just don’t have any interest in those books. I feel like a big problem with subscription boxes in general is that I would be paying a lot of money every month to get a box full of stuff that are themed to things I’m not interested in. I have seen one or two boxes that I’m interested in but I just don’t have the money to spare on any of them :/

  11. Caro @ bookcheshirecat

    May 1, 2021 at 3:29 AM

    Oh, this is such a great, well-written post, Kal! ๐Ÿฅฐ As book boxes are quite expensive, I never really bought one, except for when I won a box (it was however for one specific fandom, so I pretty much loved all the items inside)! I like the idea of book boxes but I think I wouldn’t know what to do with certain merch that doesn’t appeal to me, be it because of the fandom or because I don’t like the type of item ๐Ÿ™

  12. Clo @ Cuppa Clo

    May 1, 2021 at 1:44 PM

    I love the concept of book boxes, always have I just think…there’s a lot of room for improvement. Like you though I don’t particularly like them personally, I always hated that Harry Potter items would be included simply because I am not a HP fan nor do I have any interest in the books. The SJM items whilst I like some of them, again…they are everywhere and I really do not need a ton of candles or pins inspired by SJM books. Although I am really picky since I prefer to buy things that spark joy so not knowing what would be in the boxes was also a factor into me never buying any. The prices…even though I live in the UK the prices for UK book boxes are still high if I have no idea what’s in the box and if I’ll like it.

    Also I don’t particularly like hardback books and like majority of book boxes have hardback editions with the dust jackets so it’s just a flat out no on that. If I were to start my own book box company hmmm, I think I’d probably organise it in such a way that the consumer is able to pick and choose 3 items to go into their box along with a book. Items would vary from candles, pins, tea (like specific mixes of tea that are inspired by the book), coffee I guess for the coffee lovers out there, mugs but I’d want to source the mugs from maybe a specific pottery person. Basically I’d want it to be somewhat customisable for the consumers to have some control over the extras they’re getting so they can be somewhat useful. I would also do small batches like really small but have high quality products. You know in theory of course, since I would rather support other small businesses or/and creators and have higher quality items. Over…trying to cram as many things into a box and the quality not totally being there if that makes sense.

    Anyhoo I adored this post Kalkal, will likely waddle on back at some point to check out the bookish merch shops hehe.

  13. Julianna @ Paper Blots

    May 2, 2021 at 4:58 PM

    wait kal… i remember seeing the flapping pages 230948230498 years ago when i started book blogging but i never realized that YOU were the one who organized that!! ahhh that’s so cool!! also, completely agree with so many of the things you’ve said it’s just NOT WORTH IT to see all of the most popular book boxes supporting exactly the same book like okay. this book is probably popular enough already from all the publisher support that it clearly has AAHH. and the fact that it’s always the same books is SOOO ANNOYING :/
    i used to really adore the idea of book boxes and want to buy them but now i’m just like. it’s not worth it LOL

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