Books with a surprise beginning

Story Surprise cofounder Eric Shmuely.

A “lifetime” in the book business and five-plus years as a parent have led entrepreneur Eric Shmuely to a surprising new development. Literally.

Following a “very soft launch” for friends and family in December, Shmuely has officially uncovered Story Surprise LLC, a children’s-book distributor based on the monthly subscription-box model.

Offering new, high-quality kids’ books from virtually all publishers at rock-bottom prices, the startup thickens the plot with an element of mystery: Subscribers enter an age range but don’t know what book they’re getting until their monthly package arrives.

“Everyone loves a bargain,” Shmuely told Innovate LI. “Everyone loves to get a box in the mail. And everyone loves a surprise.

“On top of that, all parents want their children to read,” he added. “We deliver all of that in one happy little package.”

While tapping into old knowledge about the importance of reading to young, developing minds, Story Surprise rides the cutting edge of marketing strategy and modern distribution. Subscription boxes are quickly redefining retail. Targeting a wide range of customers with specific needs and interests, the “subcom” industry – for “subscription-based e-commerce” – is catching fire, with thousands of subscription box services emerging in the United States over the last two years.

In most of those cases, however, consumers know exactly what will be in their monthly box; in Story Surprise’s case, anticipation over what’s waiting in that monthly package is half the fun.

“Part of the excitement of getting children to read at a young age is the surprise aspect,” Shmuely said. “Once subscribers choose their age range, we curate a book specifically tailored to that age.”

Whatever age range the subscriber chooses – there are five, from “0-2” to “teen” – a “brand-new, high-quality hardcover book” flies off Story Surprise’s shelves. The customer keeps the book, which according to Shmuely “generally retails for $15.99 to $19.99.”

Monthly subscription fees range from $5.79 per month on an annual subscription to $6.99 monthly, and both plans include free shipping – putting Story Surprise in rare space insofar as subscription boxes go.

“Our price point is very disruptive,” Shmuely noted. “And a lot of subscription-based sites charge shipping. There are some sites that offer free shipping, but they’re far more expensive.

“This is one of the cheapest monthly subscription models out there, across every category,” he added. “Price-wise, we’re probably even competitive with the Dollar Shave Club.”

Shmuely’s startup gets a big lift from his other company, Hauppauge-based discount book distributor AMD Inc. – the main reason the online, subscription-based service can distribute at such a low price point, according to the CEO.

The industry veteran, who started hanging around his father’s Brooklyn-based book-distribution warehouse as a toddler, launched AMD in 2008; today the e-commerce retailer fills about 1,500 orders a day, shipping directly to consumers – with some wholesale orders sprinkled in – from a 30,000-square-foot Hauppauge warehouse stocked with about 1 million books.

Dealing from AMD’s healthy stock, Story Surprise – which markets out of an office in LaunchPad Huntington – also makes use of AMD staffers, including a former New York City school teacher, to help determine the startup’s monthly list of age-appropriate books.

This month’s subscribers will enjoy a “my first colors” board book, a Mickey Mouse adventure from Disney and Audrey Penn’s “The Kissing Hand,” a New York Times No. 1 bestseller tackling children’s separation anxiety, among other selections.

Of course, Shmuely – the father of 4- and 5-year-old children – knows a thing or two about book selection himself. Not only has he observed which books resonate with his younglings out of the “huge stacks” he brings home, but “I was kind of raised in the book industry,” the entrepreneur noted.

“As soon as I could walk, I started going to work with my father,” he said. “He had a much smaller operation, but that was the core basis of the lifetime of relationships that make Story Surprise possible.”

Also making it possible: the right people in the right places, including those AMD staffers, the in-house tech team that designed the Story Surprise website and Anthony Manetta, the former head of the Suffolk County Industrial Development Agency, who cofounded Story Surprise with Shmuely.

Manetta, who now heads the Melville-based consultancy Standard Advisors Group, lends more gravitas to a reimagined subscription-box model that, if all goes according to plan, could rewrite the books on how bibliophiles of every stripe get their next page-turner.

“We do have the ability to carry the Story Surprise model to other genres, such as fiction and cookbooks,” Shmuely said. “But right now, we’re heavily focused on the children’s books angle. We’re shipping nationwide, and obviously there are millions of children out there from ages 0 to 18, and whether you’re a parent or a grandparent or an aunt or uncle or neighbor, everybody knows a kid.

“This market is vast,” he added. “And there are many statistics out there showing that the sooner you put books in babies’ hands, even if they’re just chewing the corners, the better the odds that as they grow older, they’ll have a love for books.”

Story Surprise LLC

What’s It? Children’s book distributor based on monthly subscription-box model

Brought To You By: Cofounders Eric Shmuely and Anthony Manetta

All In: Undisclosed personal investment, dedicated primarily to website development, marketing and staffing

Status: Off to a surprising start

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