When Did Books Get Merch? A Discussion About the Commercialization of Reading

Once upon a more simpler time, books all but sold themselves with their beautiful (or hideous!) cover art and maybe a PR campaign that included a magazine write up and some posters. I’m sure a lot more thought and effort went into it than that, but it definitely didn’t feel as flashy when I was growing up in the early 2000s. Instead, I got all my book recommendations from the teen librarian, which was a new position at the library by the time I was in middle school. Now, books and catered recommendations have a far larger reach due mostly in part to social media.

Social Media’s Influence

At the height of Youtube, a small community of readers set out to create reviews, tags and other book related content on the internet. This was 2010, and the community was pretty small. Over the corresponding years, it grew exponentially, so much so that book content creators were seeing subscription numbers that cleared 100k. At this point, even “smaller” channels could see some opportunities to collaborate with publishers on content. Publishers would send out ARCs or advanced reader copies, of new and upcoming books so that creators can talk about them on their channel, reaching 100s of thousands of targeted buyers. 

Now, multiple social media platforms, including those with heavy visual emphasis, house pieces of that same book community combined with new (and maybe more hip) viewers. This emphasis on visuals is what pushes content creators to be more creative with their advertising. On Booktube (the book community on Youtube), the same types of videos get made. That’s not to say that creators don’t try to come up with new ideas! But in an article about the beginning and future of Booktube, written in 2019, creators worry that they will run out of ideas, and often find the creativity of making content to be stunted a little. 

On Instagram (or for our sake, Bookstagram), the entire point of the platform is to take and publish photos. This move from videos to still images helped flex the creativity of creators, by taking the focus off of what they say, and relying heavily on the book’s outer beauty. At some point though, it became less about the book itself, and more about the aesthetic, or the look of the image. What kinds of items can be used to make a more interesting and beautiful picture? There is a real artistry to Bookstagram, one I personally don’t have at all, but it allows for more advertising opportunities for publishers.

Image courtesy of Julie Anna’s Books blog post “Bookstagram Props to Use in the Winter,” 2019

The Stuff of It

Who doesn’t like STUFF? We as a society are actually very materialistic so it isn’t much of a surprise that publishers saw an opportunity to entice amatuer advertisers (social media influencers) and consumers into buying their book by creating “merch” to go with that particular book or series. This is especially apparent with the rise of subscription box services.

I can guarantee that if you don’t receive at least one yourself, you have certainly heard of (or even watched an unboxing of) a book subscription box. In reality though, the book community isn’t the only one in on this trend, though it may have been the first ones to do it. You can get a subscription box for just about anything at this point in time: makeup, vitamins, food/groceries, dog treats/toys and more! Though it has only seemed to have taken up in the last decade or so, the subscription box business model has been around for much much longer than that (Robins, 2019). Believe it or not, Book of the Month (yes, THAT little blue box virtually all Booktube creators feature once a month) was developed as a service, and started sending books to their subscribers in 1926! “Instead of depending on customers to open up a catalog under their own volition and order a new item regularly, [you] could just charge them a monthly fee, send them some random book they might not even want, and depend on them to forget to cancel their subscription or put it off for an extra month because maybe the next delivery wouldn’t suck as much” (Robins, 2019). This was the main idea behind Book of the Month back in 1926, and is the foundation for the big business we see today. Although BOTM has changed many of their services/policies since their start, it was still a revolutionary and unique service at the time.

Image courtesy of Hello Subscription

I don’t know about any of you, but I certainly remember getting Avion, LL Bean and other catalog based companies sending their product catalog each season but the difference with that, is that you would have to place an order yourself, picking out specific items, to receive any products.  This model (BOTM) charged you monthly and they got to send you whatever they wanted. Sound familiar? A lot of subscription boxes nowadays find that allowing their subscribers the ability to select their own products benefits their overall selling point. They may cater the choices, and only allow for a specific number (five pre-selected books or meals or whatever) to choose from, but it gives you the illusion of having a choice in the selection where you might not have had in the past or with other boxes. 

Speaking of other boxes, let’s get back to book boxes specifically. We have already mentioned Book of the Month which really kicked off the subscription box business model. But they changed their original model to allow subscribers to select (from a choice of five pre-selected books) their own book for the month. Since the rise of the subscription box though, MANY other book related boxes have been developed and some remain in the industry as brands that people recognize. Boxes like Owl Crate and Fairy Loot are among the favorites and most recognizable, both of which had booths at Book Expo in NYC all three years that I attended. Their model however shifts from BOTM in that they select the book that everyone subscribed receives (though it is often an exclusive edition with new cover art and/or an author signature). This represents the original BOTM model in 1926. Along with their monthly pick though, boxes like Fairy Loot and Owl Crate also include a plethora of “stuff” related to various fandoms in the book universe, and now, just specific books in general. This inclusion has encouraged the development of hundreds of thousands of little specialty shops to collaborate with the boxes on exclusive and specific products. “Stuff” ranging from soaps, candles, notepads, tumblers, mugs, tarot cards and pillow cases, plus really anything else you can think of. These items, though fairly typical, feature fan art, quotes or themed decorations that match the theme of the box, often depicting a popular book or book series. Do you get to select which fandoms you would like to represent? Nope. You are just sent a bunch of stuff in the hopes that you like at least one of the books depicted on the merch. Maybe you pass the rest of it on, or in more realistic circumstances, you use those items to create a really cool Instagram post surrounding a book you may not have even read yet!

Image courtesy of Fairy Loot

I understand the draw for items like soap, candles and similar types of things because as long as you like the scent, it is still usable without having to be a fan of the book it is “made” for. But having an entire cabinet filled with mugs that feature art for books you have no interest in or haven’t read seems to be a bit excessive, at least for me, which is why I never subscribed to boxes like this. It’s hard to draw a line though. Personally, I am always really impressed with the unique items but for the most part, those types of boxes send the same kind of materials that companies order in bulk with the purpose of handing out to anyone just to get their name in someone’s pocket. Don’t get me wrong! I respect the hustle, and honestly these creators are ridiculously talented with the art they create for these fandoms, but because books themselves are so niche, it’s hard to appeal to the masses when creating “merch” for a box like this. Most of the time, subscribers end up with drawers filled with “junk” and that hurts my little heart. However the case may be, boxes like this are still popular and for some, the biggest draw is the “stuff” aspect of it. At the end of the day, these items are exclusively created for these boxes, in most cases you can’t get them anywhere else other than that box, and so it makes them a bit more desirable.

Dawn of the Status of Merch

So how and why does this work? “If you received surprise shipments of Beautiful World merchandise and posted a picture of it, you have implicated yourself as an advertising device by generating aspiration in others. We are in the “era of status merch,” as GQ described it” (Pockroos, 2021). Publishers see this draw to “stuff” from subscription boxes and have taken it a step farther by creating their own curated PR boxes for influencers that includes themed exclusive items to pair with their book. Because these PR boxes are exclusive, and limited in quantity, it becomes a “status symbol” to receive, which in turn creates buzz around that specific book. “How does status merch work, beyond creating demand through scarcity? And why did publishers decide slapping a book’s cover design onto vehicles and clothing items was the right way to advertise forthcoming books?” (Pockros, 2021). Well according to the article “When Did the Book Become the Brand?,” “Merchandise enables people to create engaging content in a way a book cover can’t on its own.” Meaning that when an influencer posts a photo of the exclusive merch online, it puts the book on the radar of the consumers. Personally? That doesn’t make sense to me. I will remember a book cover over a shoe designed to match a book cover, but that could just be me. But according to the same article, book bloggers/influencers feel like merchandise is more necessary now than before because people need something to remind them of a book.  And on platforms like Instagram and Tiktok, merch helps certain books stand out in a sea of other titles. Our attention span is much much shorter now, so taking in many little bursts of information, specific titles can be lost throughout your viewing / scrolling time. In order to help your book stand out among all the others that are featured in these short little bursts, bucket hats, shoes, and other exclusive items are created and featured with it so that they stick in the brain of the consumer better. 

Image courtesy of the article “When Did the Book Become a Brand?”

So in conclusion, I guess we can expect to see more PR campaigns for books that include exclusive merchandise going forward.

What do you think about all this “stuff?” Do you personally find that “merch” helps you remember a book, or even that it makes you want to pick one up? Do you subscribe to boxes like Fairy Loot and Owl Crate for the exclusive “stuff” included?  Tell me your thoughts!

References

Ellis, Danika. “The Past, Present, and Future of Booktube, According to Booktubers.” Book Riot, 26 May 2021, https://bookriot.com/booktube-according-to-booktubers/

Pockros, Alana. “When Did the Book Become a Brand?” Eye on Design, 13 Sept. 2021, https://eyeondesign.aiga.org/when-did-the-book-become-a-brand/?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Check+Your+Shelf+092421&utm_term=BookRiot_CheckYourShelf_DormantSuppress

Pullmann, Erin. “The Best Monthly Book Subscription Boxes-2021 Reader’s Choice.” My Subscription Addiction, 2 Mar. 2021, https://www.mysubscriptionaddiction.com/best-subscription-boxes/best-book-boxes

Robins, Becki. “The Untold Truth of Subscription Boxes.” Grunge, 10 Jan. 2019, https://www.grunge.com/142608/the-untold-truth-of-subscription-boxes/

Images

“Beautiful Deceptions.” Fairy Loot, 11, Oct. 2018, https://www.fairyloot.com/blog/2018/10/11/beautiful-deceptions/

“Bookstagram Props to Use in the Winter.” Julie Anna’s Books, 7 Feb. 2021, http://www.sincerelyjulieanna.com/bookstagram-props-to-use-in-the-winter/.

“Book of the Month February 2020 Subscription Box Review + Coupon.” Hello Subscription, 18 Feb. 2020, https://hellosubscription.com/2020/02/book-of-the-month-february-2020-subscription-box-review-coupon/.

“When Did the Book Become a Brand?” Eye on Design, 13 Sept. 2021, https://eyeondesign.aiga.org/when-did-the-book-become-a-brand/?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Check+Your+Shelf+092421&utm_term=BookRiot_CheckYourShelf_DormantSuppress

12 thoughts on “When Did Books Get Merch? A Discussion About the Commercialization of Reading

  1. I don’t really understand how exclusive merchandise is supposed to help me remember/want to buy a book. If it’s something only a small set of influencers received, I’m not going to be interested enough to remember it because I’ll know that it’s not something I can obtain, anyway. Seeing a book cover would impact me much more both because I CAN get a copy of the book and, because the book cover will be staring at me repeatedly from social media, blogs, and bookshelves. By the fifth time I see the cover, I’m going to be thinking, “Oh, yeah, it’s that book again! Maybe I should get a copy because I keep seeing it everywhere!” An exclusive candle or something isn’t really going to have that type of exposure.

    I also really don’t like book subscription boxes. I appreciate the genius of them and how they market themselves. But I have no interesting in paying good money for items I might not even want. And I worry that they are ultimately very wasteful and have a bad environmental impact because they are producing a bunch of stuff many of their subscribers probably don’t want, either. I know people who subscribe to other types of subscription boxes in real life such as makeup and they do stuff like only subscribe for a few months and then try another type of box because, really, how much lipstick can one person use? Assuming it’s even in a color you wanted in the first place. At first the thrill of the surprise, and the idea that next month will be better keeps them paying. But eventually they realize it’s not a good spending habit.

    That being said, I do have a soft spot for bookish merchandise that I can buy to show my love of a series, or that can remind me of a favorite book. I’d probably go for multi-use things like board games or purposeful things like umbrellas more than the random stickers and cards book subscription boxes often have, though. And I still limit my consumption of these items. But I do appreciate being able to buy fandom-related objects!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I am 100% on board with everything you said. It does not compute in my mind the reasoning of making exclusive merchandise for the sheer purpose of promotion. I ABSOLUTELY remember a book cover over a silly bucket hat, especially if the book maybe has an exclusive cover that I like more than the original. It doesn’t make sense to create all this “stuff” when we really don’t get anything out of it.

      As for subscription boxes, I have always liked the idea of them but could never pull the trigger because even when I see a box of things that I would mostly like, there are at least three or four from the same company with not one thing that I like (including the book!). This is why I have stuck with BOTM. I get to choose my book, and if I don’t like the choices, I can skip without any charge. No fluff included (other than ONE bookmark, which, I happen to always be looking for so I have stashes of them everywhere).

      I agree with you though on the bookish merchandise. GIVE ME ALL THE THINGS for the books I love! But like, I have to be able to buy them, you know? I am a sucker for a tote bag (can never have too many! I use them for groceries too so I limit my use of plastic bags) and I have to be honest, candles also really make me happy. But these are items I am going to use! I may be inclined to purchase a particularly stunning print once in a blue moon, but it is not something I seek out every month (nor do I have the wall space for that kind of thing)!

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  2. Wow! This was great! Honestly, book merch doesn’t do anything for me so I don’t subscribe to any, but I can definitely see the appeal to them. Some of the stuff I do see is pretty cool but I know I’d never use the stuff and wouldn’t know what to do with it. Loved reading this! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it 🙂

      I agree with you, I like the idea of a few of the things, but not enough of it is appealing to the point where I would want to subscribe to a box I would receive every month. That’s why the only box I get is BOTM. It’s literally just a book (or a few), that I picked out myself, and maybe one bookmark. Simple enough!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is all so wild to me. I had no idea it was this expansive! I know we’ve talked about this but I still found myself learning a lot about the size and scope of this in your piece. On the one hand, I guess I sort of just ignore this side of things as I don’t get excited about it. I’d rather read something thoughtful about a book than watch something on BookTok or BookTube or scroll through images on Bookstagram.

    But on the other hand, it does seem…hm, sort of wrong to me. Is that too strong a word? Maybe. OH! It feels like the commodification of something sacred. That’s how it feels to me! Reading, for me, is a very intimate and very special experience. It is sacred! So this takes the personal experience of reading – that intimate connection of person and book and, from that initial road, the connection they have to the author and others who have read it – and are making it about, as you said, flashy STUFF. “Look what I have!” “How cool is this?!?” “Check out this gift box!”
    Everything other than the book is important.

    Now, I’m not against merchandise in general. As I write this, my wall of Doctor Who art prints is behind me and my Scrubs and Ghostbusters Funko POPs stand before me. I’ve five Spider-Man prints adorning the walls in my home and four of my favorite Billy Joel albums hang in my living room. Eating at my kitchen table means dining with a Wonder Woman and Black Panther movie poster looking down on you. And I have little TARDISes everywhere XD. But it feels like there’s a difference between something I buy (or am given as a gift from a loved one) because I LIKE a particular series or character or whatever, and something given to me by the publishers (or something I buy from them (or something I compete with others for)) that is intentionally created to turn me into an ad. Maybe this distinction only exists in my head. Maybe I’ve made reading something more than it is. But that’s how it feels to me!

    And no, I’ve never done – nor would I ever do – a subscription box. I’m too anxious to gamble like that! I’d get it and be resentful of all the stuff I didn’t like and then it’d end up in that junk drawer you mention above. Heck, as a kid I never even liked putting a quarter in those little machines at grocery stores that spit out toys! I’d do it but I was almost always disappointed by the one I got XD. So a subscription box is too much of a risk for me!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I liked what you said about reading personal to you and the other people who have read a particular book, and how now it just feels like everything but the actual book is important.

      I struggle with this a lot in general, but it feels like since advertisers have caught on to social media being a efficient platform to promote their products, content, and people in general have now become extremely commercialized. Like I understand that, I don’t know, a celebrity could potentially be developed into a brand, but what social media (and advertisers) have done is create much smaller, but very well targeted mini brands out of what ultimately would be considered “regular” people. Here is this book reviewer I really like, and find myself in line with, and now their social media is spammed with ads and affiliate links instead of the reviews that I related to. I don’t know. Its really nice that us “regular” people could potentially start a small business by making ourselves into a brand and advertising for big companies (for a much smaller compensation than what celebrities or “professional” advertisers would make) but at what cost? So your whole newsfeed of followers get spammed to death with “try this vitamin!” “these snack boxes are the best!” “get your first month free with my code!” It just gets so tiring.

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  4. This is a topic I’d love to see discussed more often! While I’ve tried several book boxes at this point, I find the amount of stuff that comes with it to be overwhelming. I enjoy receiving practical things like candles, soaps, teas, etc – things that I use up often. But other things I may have to rehome eventually, especially larger items like water bottles and mugs like you said, because they’re so frequently distributed in these boxes, and I feel like I’ve already acquired many of these through work and school events. I’ve noticed that some book boxes might be addressing this by advertising that the items are still “useful” if you don’t like the fandom it’s for, but in general I’d much rather have generic items or a book-only option.

    I made blog and Instagram mainly to discuss books and experiment with my creativity, but in that time I realize that I’ve acquired so much. It’s a tough balance, as I want to use my platform to promote not just books but also small businesses that I’ve been enjoying. But I feel like in a lot of online communities it’s easy to feel like consumption is necessary for participation, and I know I’ve definitely been influenced by that the past couple of years that I’ve been doing this. Ultimately I think there’s an achievable balance for that. But when it comes to book boxes, even if you happened to like everything in the box, there’s just so much that comes with each one and as of late it’s becoming more overwhelming than anything.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This post is sooo interesting!! I love merch related to my favourite books but not everyone can afford special editions and monthly subscriptions with book boxes and I can’t help think that the system is a little unfair. Also!! Exclusive or signed editions/ merch favors US residents because shipping is not available or costs too much for international readers! Merch is great when it doesn’t become “junk” as you mentioned but it still shows differences among readers. I still love the fact that reading is more respected and appreciated and some authors get to have their books being praised and appreicated enough to become merch! 🥰

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Really interesting post! Personally I don’t think merch helps me remember a book, but I do love merch for books I love – particularly merch like soap and candles that I can actually use, rather than a bunch of random objects that will just sit around collecting dust. I’ve previously bought FairyLoot boxes whenever one of their themes has caught my eye and, to be perfectly honest, I am more interested in the stuff in book boxes than the books themselves. I love that these boxes can introduce me to books I may not have come across any other way, but I’m a marketer’s dream when it comes to merch. Plus, any merch I’ve ever received in a book box for a fandom I’m not in, I’ll either pass on to a friend or sell on eBay so they’ve never felt like a waste of money to me even though I totally get why some people don’t see the point in them.

    From a marketing point of view, I do think merch in a book box that isn’t based on the book in the box is a very cool marketing tactic. Using FairyLoot as an example, if you’re very into a particular theme and you receive merch for a book you haven’t read, there’s a very good chance you’ll go and look that book up and get your hands on a copy. These work particularly well when the merch includes a quote from the book, which will also give readers an idea of the writing style.

    I went to an event at the Hay Festival a couple of years ago where Markus Zusak was speaking, and he said something that’s stuck with me ever since: ‘books are the only things that still make us wait’. We live in a world of instant gratification – we don’t have to watch TV shows week after week, we can binge entire series on Netflix if we want to – so books have a lot to compete with. It’s no surprise, then, that book merch has become popular, because it’s an extra way to help books compete with the average person’s short attention span.

    Liked by 1 person

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