Local business offers monthly box of books and goodies
By Cheryl Minns, Columnist
For bookworms of all ages who enjoy young adult (YA) novels and a dash of mystery, OwlCrate offers a monthly subscription box with a newly-published novel and several book-related items. The twist? The contents of the box aren’t revealed beforehand, so it’s a complete mystery what subscribers will receive each month.
OwlCrate was founded in Vancouver by Korrina Ede and Robert Madden, former toy store employees who met at work in 2009. The couple had wanted to start their own business for some time, so in November 2014, they took a week off of work to finally solidify their entrepreneurial dreams.
“Even though our interests are quite diverse, we always connected over books,” Madden said. “When we decided to start our business together, we thought books were a great idea because we both like to read.”
“Robert said he liked the idea of a subscription box, which sounded really fun. Then we were like, ‘What should we put in it?’” Ede said.
“Within an hour we had just created OwlCrate,” Madden said.
The name OwlCrate was inspired by the Owl Post in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, which involved owls delivering mail to wizards. Ede and Madden write on their website, OwlCrate.com, that an “owl delivers your OwlCrate,” but the “owl usually takes the form of a postal worker.”
In February 2015, OwlCrate began taking one-month (US $29.99), three-month ($86.98), and six-month ($167.94) subscription orders for their first box, which would ship in March 2015.
“It seemed like a great way to start a business,” Madden said. “Instead of having to find investors, your customer buys a six-month plan upfront and then that money acts as cash flow for you to buy inventory.”
Madden and Ede used their retail knowledge and small business skills to secure well-known suppliers and independent artisans on Etsy.com to supply products for the OwlCrate boxes.
“In some of our early boxes, we actually used suppliers that we were familiar with from the toy store. For example, we had already communicated with Funko and knew the arrangements,” Madden said. “Korrina had a few Etsy shops in the past, so she was using her Etsy expertise to contact those people. Our small business past really helped.”
Ede also used her connections in the YA literary community to discover what upcoming books subscribers would be interested in. Since OwlCrate began, she has personally read and selected each month’s book. She typically chooses from about 5 advanced reader copies of upcoming YA novels that are scheduled to be published within 45 days of OwlCrate’s shipping date. She has also curated each month’s box with a theme that relates to the book.
The March 2015 box had a Fantasy theme and featured V. E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic. Along with the hardcover book, the box also included a Game of Thrones Mystery Mini figure by Funko, a package of Enchanted Unicorn Bandages by Archie McPhee, a promotional poster and pin for A Darker Shade of Magic from Macmillan Publishers, and a three-pack of mini magnetic bookmarks by Vancouver-based Etsy shop Craftedvan.
“OwlCrate reached out to us on Etsy and introduced themselves to us prior to launching their subscription box,” said Diana Luong and Erica Carreras of Craftedvan, which opened in October 2013. “They expressed that they’d love to have our bookmarks in one of their boxes. It turned out we were both from Vancouver and our bookish focuses made it a perfect fit.”
When OwlCrate began, Ede and Madden planned to sell 150 subscriptions for the Fantasy box, but they quickly sold out. They decided to add another 100 boxes, which also sold out exceptionally fast. They shipped a total of 250 boxes for their first month of business.
For months, OwlCrate had long waitlists of customers wanting to subscribe. Since each month has a different theme, some months were more popular than others, and sometimes the subscription period would end early because they had reached the maximum number of subscriptions and couldn’t add any more.
OwlCrate now has thousands of subscribers each month, with about 80 per cent of them located in the USA and 20 per cent located in Canada and internationally.
“We have customers in Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Dubai,” Madden said. “It’s great to see how many people are part of this community around the world.”
At first, Ede and Madden used Canada Post to ship the boxes, but they soon became more cost-effective, using a fulfillment centre in Portland, Oregon. Shipping costs are US $6.99 for American subscribers, $10.59 for Canadian subscribers, and $19.99 for international subscribers.
Although international shipping is expensive, subscribers find OwlCrate to be a great way to get North American exclusives.
“For some people, it’s worth it because different countries produce different editions of books and a lot of people in Europe want the North American edition of the book,” Madden said. “They want the edition that represents the original, especially with the American authors.”
Since OwlCrate works with an American fulfillment centre, Canadian Etsy artisans who want their products in the boxes have to figure out customs for shipping their product to the USA.
Craftedvan decided to work out the customs requirements in order to continue having their products in OwlCrate. Along with being featured in the Fantasy box, their mini magnetic bookmarks have also been featured in the Spooky box in October 2015 and the Royalty box in June 2016.
“They let us be as creative as we’d like, which makes it so much fun,” Luong and Carreras said. “But since we make our bookmarks by hand, it took us two whole months to complete the bookmarks needed for June’s Royalty box.”
In July, the Good vs. Evil box sold out several days before the subscription sign-up period ended on July 20. The box featured V. E. Schwab’s This Savage Song and items from Harry Potter, Star Wars, Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s Illuminae, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. What made the box unique was that half of the subscribers would receive a Good box with hero-related items while the other half would receive an Evil box with villain-related items. The boxes were sent to subscribers at random, so no one knew which box they would receive.
“I really loved the Good vs. Evil theme. It was so fun opening the box to see which side I was on,” said Shannon Silvey, an OwlCrate subscriber who runs the Facebook buy/sell/trade group OwlCrate Official B/S/T and Chat.
The group provides the OwlCrate community a friendly space to chat, as well as an opportunity for members to buy, sell, or trade their items with other members.
“If you’ve been thinking about subscribing to OwlCrate, do it. You will not regret it,” Silvey said. “If you ever receive anything that you don’t want or can’t use, I’d be happy to help you trade or sell it in the B/S/T group.”
On September 3, Ede and Madden started a Facebook group called The OwlCrate Society, a space for OwlCrate fans to discuss their reading-related interests and activities. Within a few days, the group already had over a thousand members, and it continues to grow.
To encourage community involvement, Ede and Madden ran a photo contest in The OwlCrate Society and on their Instagram account, @owlcrate, which has over 100,000 followers. The contest invited participants to take photos of the contents of the Fast Times at YA High box that was sent out in August.
“It was a fun way to get people to use the items in their boxes,” Ede said.
The box included Kasie West’s P.S. I Like You, an OwlCrate original necklace of Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, a Rainbow Rowell art print, a Harry Potter art print by Suzanne Draws, a Hogwarts button by Taryn Draws, a mini Decomposition Book, Blue Star Colouring’s Adult Colouring Book, coloured pencils, a Chapter Raptor button, a signed bookplate, and a letter from the author.
The first author letter to be included in OwlCrate was Julie Murphy’s letter in the Leading Ladies box from September 2015, which included Murphy’s book Dumplin’.
“Harper Collins asked us if we wanted to include a letter from Julie Murphy,” Ede said. “Then we just decided that every box going forward would include a letter from the author.”
“It’s a great way to connect the author to the reader through the OwlCrate experience,” Madden said. “Often the author will give some unique insight into their inspiration to write the book.”
Inside the lid of an OwlCrate box, there is a Guide to Unboxing that includes three instructions: “Photograph and film your unboxing experience,” “show off your treats to the OwlCrate community,” and “snuggle up and enjoy your new book.” This has led to a variety of photographed unboxings on Instagram, unboxing videos on YouTube, and online discussions about subscribers’ favourite items.
In every box, there is an info card that states the box’s contents on one side and has an illustration on the other side. To show their support of literary video bloggers who film their OwlCrate unboxings, Madden and Ede chose four popular BookTubers and had their likeness illustrated into the Fast Times at YA High info card illustration of students in a high school hallway.
Since November 2015, the info cards have been illustrated by artist James Maxwell, who worked at the toy store with Madden and Ede. Starting with the August box, he will also be providing a collectible button in each box featuring an image from the info card illustration. The August button featured a dinosaur reading a book with the caption Chapter Raptor. Maxwell’s Myths & Legends info card from the November 2015 box can be found on his Instagram account, @spykles.
OwlCrate has even inspired members of their community to create their own subscription boxes, such as Craftedvan’s Read Happy Plan. Craftedvan’s subscription box offers magnetic bookmarks and various other goodies, such as greetings cards and magnets. The theme for the August box was ocean/sea.
“Running our own subscription bookmark business allows us to be super creative. It pushes us to follow a theme each month and creatively design bookmarks that support that theme,” they said. “Working with OwlCrate taught us that we could be creative with the theme. It also taught us the importance of adding as much value and personality as possible into each package.”
Besides connecting with the online community, Ede and Madden also enjoy connecting with OwlCrate fans at young adult literary events, such as the American festivals YA Fests, YALL Fest, and YALL West.
“We’ve only done a few shows so far, but we’re enjoying actively engaging in-person with our community,” Madden said. “There are all of these online relationships, but to actually meet someone in person is really great.”
OwlCrate’s September box has a Darkness theme and includes items featuring Ransom Riggs’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass, and Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows. Being a popular theme, the box sold out before the subscription sign-up period ended on September 20. The October box has the theme Once upon a Dream and include items from fairy tales and stories about dreams.
To learn more about OwlCrate, check out their website at OwlCrate.com.