One thing you should know about me is that I am a huge sucker for subscription book boxes! I love getting a new surprise book each month, with all sorts of goodies to go with it; it’s like a little piece of Christmas every four weeks! There are so many awesome boxes out there, but just as many that fall short of the mark. So when I find a box I love, I feel like I want to shout it from the rooftops! Unicorn Crate had been on my radar for a while, thanks to Instagram, when I was fortunate enough to become a rep for them! It only took one box to cement it as one of my very favorites! I was lucky enough to sit down with the owner, Naomi, for a little Q&A so we could talk about this amazing company and their equally amazing product!
When did you start Unicorn Crate and how many boxes were in the first run?
I started Unicorn Crate in February 2017 and the first box shipped out in May 2017. I started with 50 boxes and crossed my fingers they’d sell. They sold out pretty quick! I’m so thankful for the warm response I got that first month. It really inspired me to dive in and go all out with my ideas.
What made you decide to start Unicorn Crate?
I believe stories are one of the most important things in life and just love them so much! Telling them, reading them, living them. Life is tough, bad things happen, it can be tough to deal. Stories can help us deal. I wanted to create something to spread the magic and joy that fantasy books and bookish things can bring into our lives. One of my greatest passions is books and I also have an MFA in Creative Writing. A few months before thinking up Unicorn Crate I had been making bookish videos on YouTube and fell in love with the “bookstagram” and “booktube” communities. I knew I had found “my people”! I’ve also been working on a YA fantasy book off and on, for about a two years now. It’s almost finished!
At the time I started Unicorn Crate I was in a tough place in life having just sold the wedding blog I’d built up over the past four years, about to go through a divorce, and navigating multiple health conditions. I was burnt out and feeling quite lost about how to make a living (selling the blog only made enough to survive for a few months). I was doing a lot of soul searching and knew it was time for a big change. After researching everything I could about subscription boxes for a few months, the idea for Unicorn Crate popped into my head one early winter morning. I jumped out of bed and claimed the Instagram handle right away. I knew I finally had something.
Tell us about your very first box! What was the book? What were the goodies?
The May 2017 box featured Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh. I curated a ‘Warrior Wisdom’ theme around the book and designed the theme art myself, as well as the bookmark. I put all the corked glass vials of cherry blossom tea together myself and also created an instruction card on the art of the tea ceremony. There was a pocket mirror, purple fairy lights, an exclusive candle inspired by Okami (a character in the book), a mini button pin that I designed with the unicorn reading (I still sell those in the shop), and a poster of the book cover. I hand wrapped each book, tied it in purple twine, and then affixed a tag with hand written ‘happy reading’ on it before stamping a custom Unicorn Crate wax seal. Purple wax, of course. I loved wrapping the books that way, but by the time I was hand wrapping 400+ books per month I just couldn’t continue that anymore. It ate up so many hours that I should have been working on other crucial parts of the business, and ouch, my hands! But they sure were pretty. Still love my custom wax seal. I look back on those first months very fondly.
Is Unicorn Crate your full-time job?
Yes, I put full-time hours into it, though it doesn’t make enough to live off of. Running this type of subscription box requires not only a lot of time but profit margins are relatively slim, especially compared to sample-based subscription boxes. Hardcover books aren’t cheap, and I try to choose high quality items to accompany them. So, I also work as a freelance editor as much as I can, and also moved back in with family for a while to help reduce overhead.
What is the best part about running Unicorn Crate?
The best part is getting notes from subscribers who really love their boxes. I received an email from one customer who buys them for her daughter who is bedridden, and she said receiving Unicorn Crate is one of the highlights of her month. It brings tears to my eyes that I can brighten someone’s day. Another of my favorite emails was from a subscriber who is a writer and she said the box that month really helped encourage her to keep writing. If I’ve inspired people, and brought more magic into their lives, I’ve succeeded. And on a personal note, it’s fun getting to read ARCs from the publishers five, six, sometimes even ten months before publication! And I love being able to commission art from artists all over the world.
What is the most challenging part?
There are SO many moving parts and so much of it is out of my control. After I do a ton of reading and create a theme and some ideas for items, I reach out to many different artists, makers, designers, manufacturers, printers etc. to make the whole vision happen. I might be working with ten different people each month to make it happen, and next month it will be different people, and I’ll have to figure out how to make something I’ve never done before and keep it within budget. There is a lot of problem solving. Then I have to hope that everything will ship and arrive on time, and not be damaged in transit. Sometimes there are shipping delays, sometimes vendors send giant boxes of goods to the wrong address. And there are only about three weeks between shipment and when all the items for the next month need to arrive at the warehouse to be packed. It can be a stressful cycle.
Customer service can also be difficult. Most people are nice, but there are always the people who might be having a bad day and lash out at me in an email because their box is late or this or that. Again, most people are nice, but it’s hard not to internalize the negative comments when I’m doing everything I possibly can to please everyone. The thing is, you can’t please everyone.
How has Unicorn Crate changed since it first opened?
It’s changed a lot! During the first five months I offered two different types of boxes. The book box, and a lifestyle box. The lifestyle boxes were not themed but included five to six unicorn inspired items. Some of the items I included were unicorn lip balm, purple liquid lipstick, a unicorn horn bubble bath bar, enamel pins, coin purses, glitter gel, unicorn nail decals, unicorn playing cards, unicorn pillow case, highlighter etc. The lifestyle boxes were not being purchased nearly as much as the book boxes and it became clear to me by month four that not only could I not keep up with running two boxes each month, but my customers were really telling me what they wanted. So I focused only on the book box after that and it grew exponentially. So glad I made that decision!
It has also changed in that I no longer pack everything myself. After seven months I couldn’t handle it anymore. I currently outsource fulfillment to a warehouse down in North Carolina (though I’m in New Hampshire). They are the second fulfillment center I’ve hired, and I’m very happy with them compared to the first one I worked with (which caused so many issues I almost went of business).
What box has been your favorite so far?
I really loved the January 2019 ‘Fairy Tale Favorites’ box! But I also really loved the October 2018 ‘Wild Hearts’ box. Ohh, but I also really loved the June 2018 ‘Potions and Poisons’ box. I had such a good time making those bath salts with my mom. What a great memory I’ll be able to look back on.
Other than the books, what are your favorite types of items to include?
I’m loving the wall scrolls! I first included one in the October 2018 crate, and then another in the January 2019 crate (which apparently are my favorite boxes). I’m planning more for the future! I also love scarves. I included a fox print infinity scarf in the October 2018 crate and a moon and stars infinity scarf in the February 2019 crate.
How far ahead do you plan your boxes?
Four to five months ahead of time. Though there are always little things that might not fall into place until a month before. I try to pick the book, plan the theme, and majority of items at least four months ahead.
Do you choose the themes first, or the books?
Books. There are a certain number of books being released each month in the YA fantasy genre and I choose from the ones that are new first in a series or standalone. So, if there are five August releases in YA fantasy that fit that description, I read those and more often than not I’ll start leaning toward one or two. I jot down potential theme ideas as I read. Sometimes it is really hard to choose, and other months it’s a no-brainer. Some months there might be a lot to read. There was a stack 12 February titles on my desk for consideration last fall. When there are that many, I’ll read the first hour of each (for me that means the first 50-60 pages) and only some make it to my “second round” in which I continue reading them in entirety. Some I go back and finish later when I have more time, because I was interested, but they just weren’t jumping out at me for Unicorn Crate. Those ones often make it to my “recommended reads” section of the monthly newsletters.
Talk us through the planning process.
After the reading / theme selection phase which I described above, I start brainstorming item ideas. I look at what I’ve recently included, what I haven’t included for at least three to four months, so people don’t get the same type of thing two months in a row. And I start a process of elimination to see what theme idea will go well with a certain type of product, and if I can squeeze it into the budget etc. It’s like trying to figure out a giant puzzle each month, but you don’t even know where you’re going to find the pieces or what they look like. I describe a lot of the trials and errors of box curation in my Behind the Box series on The Unicorn Pages.
Tell us a fun, but totally random, fact about you!
Hah! Okay, well, you know how some people have a fear of spiders, or snakes. For me its fish. They disgust me and scare the hell out of me. If I’m flipping through the magazines in a waiting room and all the sudden there’s a fish gaping at me in a National Geographic photo, I’ve been known to scream and chuck it across the room. It’s reflex. I wrote a personal essay about this phobia (it’s called ichthyophobia, if you’re interested). The funny thing is, when I lived in southeast Alaska, I sold an old Subaru for a freezer load of salmon. But that’s another story!
I don’t know if that was necessarily a fun. Here’s a few more. I eat a mostly vegetarian diet, I have books about plants all over my desk, and have had some of my best moments in the mountains. When I was eight or nine years old my grandmother, who I call MorMor (Swedish for mother’s mother), taught me how to crochet. So I crocheted a big bowl full of bracelets and set up shop selling them for 25 cents each to people who walked by our house. I guess small business has always been in my blood!
A HUGE thank you to Naomi for taking the time to do this Q&A. You can get your own Unicorn Crate subscription by following this link! While you’re at it, make sure you give them a follow on Instagram.
Additional thanks to the awesome people whose photos I featured in this post! Each image is linked to the corresponding Instagram page, and I highly suggest following all of their amazing accounts! @bibliophile_nikki @novelpairing @read_by_a.cave