You may have heard that Baron Fig recently announced a massive number of new quarterly subscriptions: one for each of their main product lines, including the Confidant hardcover notebook, the Vanguard softcover notebook, the Squire pen, and the Archer pencil. The idea behind stationery subscription services is pretty simple: subscribers will be among the first to receive limited edition versions of the Company's products that are issued on a quarterly basis. Once you subscribe, you don't need to take any further action in order for the latest and greatest to show up at your door.
The Black Box Is a Big Winner, for Me
So far, Baron Fig has announced two limited edition notebooks that subscribers will receive. The first was the Work/Play II, a reboot of last year's acclaimed Work/Play Confidant. More on that below. The second is the Black Box, a run of limited edition Vanguard notebooks that I absolutely love, and that I'm going to talk about first.
The theme of the Black Box is "Mysteries." Each Black Box contains three softcover Vanguard notebooks (the medium-sized, A5-ish "Flagship" size) featuring Baron Fig's excellent dot grid paper and a black cover with different "mystery-themed" illustrations in unique colors. The three mysteries are (by my best guess) The Bermuda Triangle (yellow), Bigfoot/Sasquatch (Green), and UFOs (Red). As a fan of The X-Files, Supernatural, Stranger Things, insert-scifi/horror series here, these are a huge win for me.
I've reviewed Baron Fig notebooks before, so I don't see a need to talk at length about the paper quality, etc. here. In short, Baron Fig paper is very good, and will hold up to most pens, though you may see bleeding and feathering with especially wet or broad fountain pens. I really enjoy writing on Baron Fig paper with pencils, and I think it's among the best pencil-friendly paper available. What I would like to talk a bit about, however, is the flak that Baron Fig has taken during the initial rollout of their subscription services, some of which I think is unfair and fails to take into account the nature of Baron Fig's products and who their end users are.
My Thoughts on Baron Fig's Subscription Strategy
It surprised everyone that a company would take the unprecedented step of announcing a quarterly limited-edition subscription service for ALL FOUR of their major product lines. It's an ambitious move fraught with a lot of risk. Baron Fig is a small shop, and it will take a lot of work for their team to maintain the existing business while attempting to develop fresh ideas for four different limited editions on a quarterly basis. That's 16 special editions a year across all of the product lines. Companies like Field Notes, Write Notepads, and Palomino-Blackwing do four.
Before Baron Fig had even announced any new editions, chatter started on blogs, Twitter, forums and podcasts saying that "there was no way" Baron Fig could come up with "inspired" or "unique" ideas for each one of these limited editions. Predictably, when Baron Fig announced the Work/Play II as the first limited edition Confidant, it was criticized as just "a reissue" of a past L.E. (despite the fact that the past Work/Play was highly acclaimed and sold out in days, leaving many - myself included - disappointed and empty-handed). Even the Black Box has been minimized as "just a new cover on a pre-existing notebook." IMHO, the critiques of the Work/Play II have some validity, but the snipes at the Black Box are unfair. (The first year's worth of Field Notes Colors were essentially standard graph-paper notebooks with different color covers and rulings. It took Field Notes a while to get to where they are now). Additionally, I think both overlook why many people would subscribe to Baron Fig products in the first place.
It's easier for a company like Field Notes and Write Notepads to take risks with crazy designs on smaller items like 48-page pocket notebooks. Even if you get an "out there" edition with your Field Notes subscription, like Sweet Tooth or Expedition, you can still find some use for them, whether it be as substitutes for post-it notes (Sweet Tooth) or a garage/car notebook (Expedition). This is harder to do with a larger notebook or a journal. Personally, if I'm subscribing to a service that sends me four large 100+ page notebooks a year, I want a bit more predictability. That's not saying that I'm paying in advance for four reissues - I want to see some creativity - but I also want to be sure that I will receive four Confidants or larger Vanguards that I can reliably use. Baron Fig's following is also smaller than that of Field Notes, and I'd venture to say that a larger percentage of them tend to be professionals who use their notebooks daily for work. I'm not above carrying and using some absolutely insane notebooks, but if I were to subscribe to a service, I'd want some comfort that the notebooks I was going to receive wouldn't stray too far from what I've come to expect from my daily-driver Baron Fig books.
From this perspective, I like what I've seen so far from Baron Fig, and would gladly pay a subscription price to receive products like the Black Box and Work/Play II. With respect to the Work/Play II, it may not have been the best launch strategy to lead with a reissue, but the original Work/Play was such a huge hit and sold out so quickly that I see it as a perfectly legit business decision to kick things off by giving your hardcore fans - those most likely to subscribe - what they've been asking for.
To date, Baron Fig has put a lot of thought into their products. Everything I've reviewed from them has been high quality and - importantly for me - highly practical and usable in my daily life. I'm perfectly willing to give them the benefit of the doubt until they have had, at a minimum, a year or so under their belt with the subscriptions before trying to declare whether it's been a success or not. Enough on this from me. Enjoy your weekending and Holiday decorating!
Disclaimer: Baron Fig sent me the Black Box notebooks featured in this review at no charge. I was not otherwise compensated for this review, and the views expressed here are just like, my opinion, man. If you disagree with me on anything, I'm sure you'll let me know. :)