Over this past week, you might have seen a familiar message popping up on your friends’ Instagram stories: something to the effect of, “I’m looking for people to participate in a huge book exchange. You can be anywhere in the world. All you have to do is buy your favorite book (just one) and send it to a stranger (I’ll send you their details). You’ll receive roughly 36 books back to you, to keep. They’ll be favorite books from strangers all over the world!”
One book for thirty-six? Where is that number coming from? Is it too good to be true? If you see one of these messages and wonder if the book exchange is a scam, the answer is—yes and no.
Here’s how the book exchange works: if you read an Instagram post about the exchange and message the poster to get involved, they’ll give you two addresses. The first is the address you’ll mail your book to; the second is their own address, which you’ll pass on to your followers when they ask to participate in the book exchange. That means that essentially, how many books you get back depends on how many people two degrees away from you choose to participate in the book exchange. The seemingly random “36” number presupposes that six of your followers want to participate in the book exchange, and each of those followers have six followers that want to participate—a pretty high estimate to me.
If you’re picturing this setup as a pyramid, you’re not wrong. The book exchange resembles a pyramid scheme in that you make an initial investment—the first book you buy—with the promise of future payment, that is, the books you’ll get back, via recruiting other members “below” you. And, as we know, the problem with a pyramid scheme is that it needs to continue indefinitely to benefit everyone involved; since the amount of people needed on each level expands exponentially, you need a shocking amount of people to keep it going. Twelve levels down in the pyramid scheme, assuming each member recruits six new people, the amount of people needed to fully sustain the pyramid scheme becomes more than the population of the entire world.
So, it’s not wrong to think of this book exchange as the friendly version of a pyramid scheme, minus the predatory practices and life-ruining potential that usually characterizes these businesses. You probably won’t get the 36 books advertised to you in the Instagram post.
But just because you’re unlikely to receive the promised 36 books doesn’t mean the exchange is valueless, either. A few years ago, when this same book exchange was previously making the rounds on Instagram, Slate interviewed Leni Zumas, a Portland-based writer, who had a successful experience with the exchange. She was initially suspicious of its promise—“I was intrigued by it, but I didn’t necessarily think it would work, just because people have good intentions and then they end up not sending things”—but as of only a few weeks after posting about the exchange, she had received 14 books in the mail. Not bad!
Ultimately, the book exchange isn’t foolproof, but it’s not evil, either. Your choice to join should come down to whether you’re willing to risk your initial investment—the price of a book. There’s an exciting community-building element to receiving the favorite books of others; but if you’re skeptical of this particular exchange, you can always start a book club. Or use Twitter to see what people are reading. Or buy 36 books for your friends. Your call.