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Are Stationery Subscription Services Worth It? (Or, Why Do I Need All These Blackwings?)


Subscription services of all kinds are having their moment. Whether it be books, vinyl records, food, clothes, quirky pop culture swag, or, yes, stationery, the rise of vocal communities of internet enthusiasts has revitalized the market for the old concept of the “book of the month” or “record of the month” club. If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember (fondly or not) those promotions where you could get nine different books/records/CDs/tapes up front in exchange for subscribing to the monthly club, and agreeing to buy at least four of whatever over the next year. Some of these clubs were legit, and occasionally you could get some good books or albums, but what you usually ended up with was a monthly shipment of whatever item the record company or publisher had in overstock (translation: that they couldn’t sell at retail). I don’t recall any of my friends becoming longstanding members or subscribers – most of us just bought our three CDs and cancelled. (And, of course, subscribed again under your dog’s name to get another nine free CDs.)

Most of the Blackwing Volumes pencils that I own, minus a few that didn’t catch my fancy before I subscribed.

Most of the Blackwing Volumes pencils that I own, minus a few that didn’t catch my fancy before I subscribed.

Today’s riff on the mail order subscription service is less about freebies and discounts than about offering your customers willing to pay extra some combination of first access to new products, exclusive “members only” releases, or a curated experience in which the member gets a box of stuff specially selected for them. For stationery, the two most popular options are the Blackwing Volumes pencil subscription service and the Field Notes pocket notebook subscription service (formerly Field Notes “Colors”). I’ve subscribed to both, along with the now-discontinued Write Notepads subscription. Currently, Blackwing Volumes is my only active subscription. I’m asked a lot about whether I think these subscriptions services are a good idea. Here are my thoughts.

So what do I like about being able to subscribe?

  • You don’t miss any limited edition releases. I prefer brand-specific subscription services. If there’s a brand that I enjoy, such as Blackwing, I can subscribe to the Blackwing Volumes program and ensure that I’m among the first to receive a dozen of each new limited edition pencil without having to remember to place an order. I did the same with Write Notepads before that service was discontinued. (BRING IT BACK, CHRIS!!!)

  • You support a brand you really enjoy. For me, this is probably the most compelling reason to subscribe. If you like a brand, and want to make sure they keep releasing special editions (or stick around in general), paying for a year’s worth of their limited releases in advance gives the company a predictable revenue stream that allows them to plan for the future.

  • You get a slight break on price. Blackwing recently raised their prices on the Volumes editions, so by subscribing you get $2-3 off retail.

  • Subscriber extras in the box. Brand-specific swag isn’t a particularly big draw for me, but some people collect this stuff. Of more interest are special promotional codes with discounts on “subscriber days,” and sometimes “members-only” sales where you can purchase limited-run products.

While I was writing this review, I made a point of sharpening one of each Volumes edition, just to make a point to myself that I’m going to use all of them.

While I was writing this review, I made a point of sharpening one of each Volumes edition, just to make a point to myself that I’m going to use all of them.

Downsides to Subscription Services

For me there’s really only major downside: Hoarding and paying for things you don’t need or won’t use. It’s why I discontinued my Field Notes subscription. I like Field Notes fine, but I realized I was subscribing simply to collect the latest design of the notebooks, whereas from a practicality/usability perspective there were other brands whose paper I enjoyed more. I still use Field Notes occasionally, but not enough to justify having nearly three dozen pocket notebooks shipped to me every year, which only adds to the never ending S.A.B.L.E. stash. For Pete’s sake, use this stuff, don’t hoard it! A major issue I have with the “limited edition” culture pervading stationery – and pretty much everything else these days – is that it encourages a mentality where all the things are meant to be kept sealed, unused, and pristine in a box and later sold on eBay for $150 for a dozen pencils or a three-pack of pocket notebooks. I don’t get it.

So that begs the question: What am I going to do with all these pencils? Fortunately, I have a daughter entering Kindergarten this year, so these pencils will get used one way or another. (She’s already started raiding my stationery cabinet for drawing supplies.) I’m also starting to use more pencils at work, and have become more proactive in giving them away when people come up to me at work and express interest.

Conclusions and Final Thoughts

Are subscription services “worth it?” Honestly, it just depends on your personal reasons for subscribing. If you find yourself enjoying everything that a brand has released over the past year, go for it. Personally, I’ve enjoyed all of the past four Blackwing Volumes editions, including the vinyl-themed Blackwing 33 1/3 edition that nobody else seemed to appreciate. I have no regrets about re-upping my subscription, and in fact I wish I had subscribed a year earlier. On the other hand, if you find yourself not using or not appreciating all of the various releases, or if you’re simply looking to save money, I’d discourage you from subscribing because the few dollars you might save off the retail pricing are more than offset by the 1-2 quarterly releases you won’t be crazy about and wouldn’t buy other than through the subscription program.

You’ll notice that my personal experience extends only to brand-specific/limited release subscription services, not any of the “curated” stationery boxes that are available. Those include the CW Pencils Pencil Box Quarterly Subscription, which offers a curated selection of pencil-related goodness four times a year for $30 per box, the Rad and Hungry kits that bring you stationery from different travel destinations around the world, Art Snacks (focused on art supplies), and even fountain pen ink sample subscriptions such as Ink Flight, where you can get a set of five new inks sent to you monthly. If you’re interested in trying out new products that you might not otherwise pick up yourself, you might enjoy a curated box!

Disclaimer: I purchased each of the products featured in this review with my own funds, for my own use. I was not compensated for this review.

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