Fairy-tale happiness and endings usually only occur in novels, but sometimes, they happen in real life, too. Emily Cromwell knows this because she has been living her dream as a small business owner and artist, finding her niche in whimsical and colorful book-related products.
Nearly 200 bookmarks and countless other products later, her Sutton-based business, Emily Cromwell Designs, was created out of her shared love of art and reading. Her bright, bold colors; scrolling patterns and lettering; And drawings and sayings related to the book world — like overflowing TBR (“to be read”) carts and shelves and charming bookshops — have captured the attention of not only local readers, but throughout the country and even overseas.
“My inspiration is my daily life in the book world,” Cromwell said. “I love to make relatable book designs so bookworms can look at them and say, ‘That’s so me.'”
When she was younger, one of Cromwell’s favorite playtime activities was to use her toy cash register and pretend she had a business, and she always loved to draw and read. In high school during her free periods, she would read books on how to start a business, and on weekends, she took business classes at the Worcester Public Library and online. What she described as her “atypical” high school life paid off, because after graduating, she received her first business license in 2011.
Throughout the years, her business has changed focus and names — her first company name was Creations by Emily — but her determination has remained the same. “I’ve always had that entrepreneur spirit,” she said.
While a student at Framingham State University, Cromwell worked her business part time, setting up displays at arts markets and craft shows, selling handmade jewelry and bookmarks and even dog treats. In 2017, the year after she graduated from college, she started focusing on party goods, such as cupcake toppers and custom party labels. It wasn’t until 2019 that Cromwell had an idea that would change her business for the foreseeable future. After she finished reading the “Fallen Crest” book series, she wanted to connect with other people who loved it as much as she did. She found that on Instagram, as well as an entire “bookstagram” community of people posting reviews, photos and suggestions.
“I had a thought — why don’t I just combine my love for reading and my love for art with my business? Once I found the book world, it really clicked. It’s been skyrocketing, and it’s been the best thing ever,” Cromwell said.
Her first product was a sticker, and after printing a sample, she designed five more, followed by her traditional bookmarks and then magnetic bookmarks. She began promoting the products on her bookstagram account on Instagram, eventually creating a separate business account as her followers and ideas grew.
Since then, Cromwell’s product list has expanded to include not only the bookmarks — the magnetic ones are her bestsellers, she said — but also mugs, keychains, coloring books, blankets, T-shirts, planners and notepads, book sleeves and other reading- related items. Her inspiration comes from bright colors, flowers, friends and people in the book world, and her own reading habits. One time she was awake several nights until 2 or 3 in the morning reading a book she loved, and that sparked her to create her “Late Night Dreamer” collection.
Cromwell also loves hearing suggestions from her customers. Recently, on her Instagram and Facebook pages, where she personally responds to comments and questions and often shares stories of her personal life or glimpses into her daily business routine, she asked what products and designs they would like to see for Halloween, her favorite season .
“I always want to make sure my customers are happy and getting what they want,” she said.
Once Cromwell has an idea for a design, she decides what type of product it will be and then draws a rough outline on paper, although she does the majority of work on her iPad using a sketching pencil, working in layers and adding the bold colors . If it is a product she has created before, like a bookmark, it’s easier, but if it’s a newer item, like the paint-by-number kits and puzzle she recently created, “there’s a huge trial and error that goes on behind the scenes that people don’t see,” she said. “It’s a long process in making a new product, especially when you haven’t done it before.”
Cromwell also has to work against the calendar. Right now, for instance, she is brainstorming ideas for Halloween and Christmas, as her products are also related to seasons and holidays. When wintertime comes around, she is working on spring and summer designs. And, she said, the lead time on seeing a finished project can often be a long time in the making — her “My Weekend Is All Booked” coloring book, which is one of her bestsellers in her own online storefront, retail shops and wholesale orders, took more than six months to create.
But, Cromwell said, “It’s always exciting. I’ve been doing this a long time, and that excitement never goes away. Even the week building up to a launch, I’m all excited and giddy. I love the buildup.”
Although most of her products are outsourced in order to keep up with the demand — except for the magnetic bookmarks, art prints and planner sticker sheets, which she produces in-house — Cromwell is a one-woman show when it comes to everything else regarding her business. From checking product samples, to calculating how much to order, taking and editing photos of her merchandise, adding everything to her shop, packing all the orders and signing her name to the thank-you cards she encloses, and maintaining her social media accounts, she is constantly busy. The photo shoots alone require at least a day, with her taking over the kitchen table or living room floor with all of the new products that are ready to be launched.
“Even through that, I still love it more than anything. All that hard work is very fulfilling when the launch goes live. It’s a nice rewarding feeling,” Cromwell said, adding that her mom, Kristi, always gets so excited when a launch goes well or when a new order pops up on the live feed.
Her mom sews the book sleeves that are imprinted with Cromwell’s designs; the product is so popular that they often sell out quickly after being added to her website. Cromwell said she loves working with her mom on the project, adding, “She’s always been my biggest supporter since day one and my best friend throughout the process.”
In addition to her own storefront, Cromwell sells her products wholesale to more than 200 retails bookshops and stationery shops across the United States and United Kingdom. She has personally shipped to all 50 states, as well as to New Zealand and Australia. And, two of her products have been available through art licensing, a notebook in Barnes & Noble stores and a doormat in The Home Depot.
“That was unbelievably surreal,” Cromwell said. “That is something that pretty much every artist dreams of — going to a store and seeing your product in a store you’ve shopped in.”
She added, “My ultimate dream goal is to have a flagship storefront. I’d want it to be part my products and part indie books, to give them space to have in a store. Hopefully that will happen one day.”
Other future goals are to start a quarterly subscription box, based off the success of her monthly bookmark and sticker clubs, which are very popular, and she also will launch a weekly planner journal, a fall bookshelf puzzle and her first-ever set of pajamas for readers.
“My biggest tip would be, don’t give up on yourself,” Cromwell said. “Keep taking it one step at a time. It’s always going to feel like you’re going up a hill. If you keep showing up every day, if you keep making products that spark your soul, people are going to see that. If you let yourself be pulled to what’s calling you to your niche, that’s the key to success.
“There’s only one you, and there’s only one you that can create what you create,” Cromwell added. “The world needs what you have to offer. Don’t be afraid to share what you have to offer. People love to purchase from people who love what they do.”