First off, how are you and how have you been coping in 2020?
2020 has been such a rollercoaster, but in my personal and professional life, it’s been a generous year for me, so I’m feeling very grateful. It sounds cheesy, but I’m enormously fortunate that my family and loved ones are safe, happy and healthy, so I’ve been waking up with gratitude for that every single day. My book subscription box business, Books That Matter, actually quadrupled in size which was astounding, and it has been amazing to watch my business baby continue to take such big strides!
Personally, I was actually shielding from March to early August because I have a chronic respiratory disease, so that was a bit of a wild ride, especially with Books That Matter growing exponentially at the same time, my whole life felt like a bit of a whirlwind. But, I was able to be in my lovely little home in Bristol with my partner, my cats and my books, and my lovely team on Zoom, so I learned to roll with it pretty quickly. I think, if anything, 2020 has taught me much more resilience than I knew I had, I’ve had to trust my instincts when it has come to the business growing, taking a few more risks with how we work, throwing the rule book out the window when it came to our schedule.
We started this year with around 800 subscribers and now that’s more than quadrupled, so the systems and ways of working changed so dramatically with that steep incline, but we’ve learned, grown and we’ve moved – my team and I say that all the time: “we MOVE!”
Tell us about Books That Matter and how you came to be?
So, Books That Matter was actually born when I was in my second year of university. I’ve always loved women’s writing, feminism, and feeling empowered by new characters, powerful protagonists and sharing reading experiences with other women. I was the first in my family to go to university and was aided by amazing grants at the University of Sussex for working-class students, and I loved every minute of it. I really envisaged myself going into academic teaching, but the cost of doing so was too high for me to manage, I was already working three jobs in my undergrad, I couldn’t see myself doing it and mentally being able to cope. Whilst I felt like my world was spiralling – I’m such a planner, I’d had this journey in my head for ages and I felt a huge block in not knowing what I was doing next after uni – I threw myself into more reading, and with the question of accessibility in the front of my mind, I started to think about all the other women who might not be able to access this amazing literature I’d discovered at uni because they can’t afford it, or they don’t know where to find it.
A lot of literature is shrouded in elitism and that has to change! So, I decided to work on bringing women’s writing to a platform that was accessible, affordable, and exciting – and Books That Matter was brought to life! I took the idea to a local entrepreneurship competition, completed all the workshops and business-related tasks with no business experience (up against lots of business students!), and became the first female winner of the £10,000 investment prize, and was able to start up Books That Matter from there! I’m now 23, running the UK’s leading and largest book subscription box, a winner of Female Start-Up of the Year, and a finalist for the Great British Entrepreneur Awards, also running a team of eight, and loving every second of it!
What can people expect from a Books That Matter subscription box?
Our boxes are glorious monthly parcels of empowerment and inspiration. At £17 each, each themed box includes one piece of fiction by a female or non-binary author, and at least 3 gifts from independent female creatives and ethical businesses, as well as a beautifully illustrated bookmark and a 12-page magazine containing author interviews and themed content from recipes to nail art. Our themes have ranged from Black Women’s History Month, self-care, Greek goddesses, witchcraft, to collaborations with the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and most recently, Penguin Random House and Elif Shafak.
Our boxes are always made with sustainable materials, and we work directly with global publishers and small indie publishers too. Our promise is always to provide a platform for incredible writers, as well as independent female-run businesses; you won’t find any testers or tiny freebies in our boxes, only full-sized, quality, often exclusive and limited-edition products from diverse, ethical businesses. We always want for our boxes to be something exclusive and special for our subscribers, a reading experience you just can’t get anywhere else!
What have you got coming up in next month’s box?
Our next box theme is “Season of the Witch”, and we’ve curated a sparkling, celestial, witchy and wonderful box. We are fully embracing the Halloween season and including a gripping novel which is a reimagining of an iconic gothic tale with a feminist and LGBTQ+ spin. Last year we did a similar spellbinding theme, Witch Please, which was one of our bestsellers, and putting this box full of magic, wonder and witchcraft has been equally as exciting and festive. Inside, we’ll be including self-care products for the Autumn months, celestial stationery, hair accessories and more! In a year completely turned on its head, we really wanted to ground this box in the turn of the season to get us all feeling connected and magical. As October is also Black History Month, we have a wealth of content planned to celebrate and uplift that, and we’re continuing our pledge to launch quarterly Diversify Your Bookshelf packages which will be curated for anti-racist reading and supporting black and minority background authors.
You also have a podcast, can you tell us who you have coming up?
YES! We are so excited about the rebranding of our podcast and have recently relaunched it at Feminist in Progress. All of our bookish interviews are still there to be enjoyed, but we felt we wanted the podcast to be a more open space for things beyond the bookish, so we can start conversations on feminism and equality, which is hugely ingrained in our ethos. Our first guest on Feminist in Progress was the lovely Essie Dennis, but we also have upcoming interviews with Lisa Taddeo (author of Three Women), Jo Westwood (who is an amazing co-dependency coach encouraging women to live their very best, independent lives), and Bami, a new business friend I made while speaking at Facebook, she runs amazing Twerk After Work exercise classes through her business Bam Bam Boogie!
What has been your biggest achievement as a business?
Being able to work with such amazing women is honestly the biggest achievement I could ever ask for. I get to talk to my favourite authors, work with inspiring business owners and support their trade, get support from thought-leading mentors, collaborate with some huge organisations, and have built a team who I absolutely adore. There were a lot of times when I was packing boxes by hand in my tiny Bristol flat, in our outdoor storage unit, and feeling lonely in my first little office, that I felt like this would never become what I dreamed of, it just felt like my dreams were too big and the path to them far too hard. But there was always something in the back of my mind that believed in it all, and now I have the most supportive BTM family and the business I always dreamed of.
Being featured in places like Forbes, Stylist, the London Evening Standard, talking at Facebook, winning Female Start-Up of the Year, on top of all that is just incredible and I could never muster the words to say just how much it means to me. I grew up in an incredibly small town where people just don’t run their own businesses, especially women, and especially without any experience; so, to be doing all of this, it’s just the best thing I could have ever envisaged for my life. Plus, I earned enough to get two cats, so there’s that too! If there’s something else I’ve learned this year it’s that we as women definitely need to hype ourselves more, don’t be so humble all the time, celebrate every single win, even if in this day in age it means dancing around your dining room in mismatched pyjamas! Celebrate yourself, and good things will happen.
Why do you think so many people turned to reading during the lockdown?
I think people like to think there’s a split here between people who genuinely just exhausted Netflix and Amazon Prime, and those who needed to escape, but really, anyone losing themselves in other narratives, be it on TV, podcasts, Youtube, or in a book, we’re all looking for a bit of escapism, aren’t we? I think books have brought a lot of people great comfort this year, and books really do have the ability to make us feel comforted, uplifted, empowered, and less alone.
Especially in the throws of lockdown, we all lost a little bit of our ordinary lives, and it perhaps can be supplemented by living vicariously through the travels, adventures, experiences and narratives of others through fiction. It’s been an enormous privilege to help a lot of people reconnect to their love of reading through lockdown, books are so important.
What are some of your team’s favourite reads of 2020?
This year has brought so many challenges, not just with lockdown, but with the civil rights movement of Black Lives Matter, and a lot of environmental disasters too; I think it’s been a wake-up call for a lot of people, and there’s such an amazing generation of people really pioneering new ways of thinking and supporting each other, and leading the way for how they want the world to look. So, we have enjoyed discussing a lot of very socially conscious novels like An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, Girl Woman Other by Bernadine Evaristo, and Queenie by Candice Carty Williams. But we’ve also been enjoying lighter novels that make us feel connected like Olive by Emma Gannon or fully submerge us in a new world like Women’s Prize winner Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. If, like me, you often feel overwhelmed by the news, I’d recommend picking up a politically motivated or socially conscious novel, and learning that way.
What is the best thing about the book community?
The love, all the love! We have people in our community that have been with us since 2018 when we started, and that feels so heartwarming. We get the best messages and support and comments on a daily basis from subscribers and followers old and new, it really does make this a very fulfilling job to do. Knowing that you’re creating something each month that people genuinely count down the days to is just so wholesome; and our community form their own circles of online friendships, discussion groups, and we see so much of that in our Facebook group too. The book community is also a very forward-thinking and inclusive one, which is a great place to be. It’s a pleasure to be part of it, and a place where conversations are started.
Who are some of your favourite ‘bookstagram’ accounts on IG?
I learn a lot from the amazing MJ who runs @novelallure, she creates amazing graphics of books you should read, often themed by country or nationality, which helps to keep your bookshelf and TBR diverse! I also love the bookish aesthetics on @booksandpeonies, the inclusivity of @whatsallyreadnext and @bethsbookshelf, and the amazing bookshop photos on @sajdareads.
What are you currently working on as a team?
We are spinning a lot of plates at the moment, but we’re making it work! At the moment, we’re working hard on the launch of our second book subscription business, Brave Girls Book Club, which is the first book subscription box for young girls; empowering and inspiring them through female-led fiction and powerful protagonists! We’re also working on our bookshop takeovers each week on our socials, so our followers can see bookshop tours and engage in Q+As with independent bookstore owners and support them in these trying times!
Additionally, we’re hosting an online festival in September to celebrate our 2nd birthday, full of interviews on our Instagram Live with loads of amazing authors. On top of this, we’re also launching lots of new ready to ship gift boxes and merchandise too!
What books are you most excited about reading next year?
It has to be Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, the author of Homegoing, I’m so hyped for it!
If you could recommend one book to our audience to read this year, what would it be?
This question made my brain hurt, and I so badly wanted to suggest 1,000,000,000 but the book I’m recommending to everyone at the moment is Untamed by Glennon Doyle. It’s a memoir by an incredibly powerful writer who talks of the transition of leaving her broken marriage for a new queer relationship, it’s incredibly moving and life-changing and really forces you to think about the choices and autonomy you have in your own life. We’re so often scared of change, but we need to embrace it more, especially big, radical, scary changes. Glennon captures it perfectly in this book.