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Is that Insta / Facebook Book Exchange a Scam?

Book Exchange

Give 1 book. Get 36. Really? #BookExchange

Around charitable times like Christmas, some well-meaning friend on Facebook or Instagram will share something like this:

I’m looking for people to take part 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. You’ll receive roughly a maximum of 36 books back to keep. They’ll be some favorite books from strangers around the world! If you’re interested in taking part, please send a message saying “IN”

The message turns up with the regularity of an arthritic pain. The people posting them mean well.

Let us say one of the “Book Exchange” participants is Pansy. Pansy believes in the Universe and knows that what goes around comes around. She sees an opportunity to participate in this cosmic reward system of Book Exchange, be a part of something bigger than herself, and get 36 books for the price of one. The idea of getting many favourite books from strangers has some intrigue, especially in lockdown-Covid times. What the Universe (a.k.a.  Facebook friend) promises looks like this: 

Pansy sends books = 1

Pansy receives books  = 36

Gap plugged by Universe = 36-1 = 35 books.

Now, I believe in the Universe and it’s benevolence. I have been ridiculously lucky many times over. My wife is heaven sent. I walked away from a Casino with winnings (never went back). I am often at the receiving end of amazing serendipity.

But I also know some basic math. So I asked myself: Where do these 35 books in this Book Exchange come from? Does the Goddess of knowledge buy these books off Amazon, ensuring every trusting soul who gives one book gets 36, therefore multiplying knowledge, wisdom and unread books in the Universe? But Goddess Saraswati rarely comments  “I’m in” on the Facebook post’s I’ve seen. I could have missed that, though – after my first acerbic comment I get unfriended and thrown out by the cosmic one posting the “book exchange” pretty quick.

Those 35 books come from people who sent books but got nothing in return. They’re left holding the can, feeling like the universe let them down. Or that somebody scammed them.

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Technically speaking, this is a sort of “member-get-member” Ponzi scheme. Wikipedia defines a Ponzi scheme in more financial terms , but the basic premise of a Ponzi scheme is “rob Peter to pay Paul”.

Clearly those 35 books did not appear out of nowhere. 35 people who sent books out and didn’t get any in return.

So what really happens in this book exchange is similar to what happens in a Ponzi scheme. The people signing on early – on Facebook, those who start these posts and get a good number of “I’m in” responses – get good returns (many books) although they invest little (only one book). Some folks we checked with got two books and one got five. Nobody we spoke to got 36 or anything close to that!  But as the scheme spreads out, many people who send out books later get none in return. A few we spoke to sent out two and got none (talk about too much trust!).

Okay, but a Ponzi scheme actually benefited Mr. Ponzi (Yes, a real person). But who is benefiting from this? Why would anyone scam strangers into sending books to strangers.

What’s the motive in this whodunnit? 

People are spending real money, and that money is being spent on Amazon or Flipkart to buy books. So the beneficiaries are Ecommerce giants and Publishing Companies. Maybe it is Bezos laughing all the way to the bank – so that he can buy it. With your money.

Another beneficiary is Facebook : the more time you spend on Facebook, the richer Mark Z and his socially-conscious shareholders get. (If you have a social media addiction, we help with that through our Digital Detox Workshop).

So there are some folks out there who benefit. We do have a motive now. But it could just as easily be someone’s idea of a joke. Like an arsonist thinks lighting fires is fun, someone just gets tickled by seeing gullible universe-believers fail at basic math. They’re cracking up as you charge your credit card and send books off to strangers.

They must get a kick out of knowing their prank is now on a multi-million dollar scale and continues to grow. And nobody is calling the cops because there is no visible perpetrator or motive. The scale of individual loss is small. It is your trusted friend sharing this message on fb. “She doesn’t mean to cheat me,” Pansy says to herself. So the victims voluntarily give their money away, and look to the sky for a 35X return. 

Oh, and that number 36? It came out of nowhere. There is no logic or science behind it. It’s just a figment of someone’s imagination. It could just as easily be 2 or 49. The creator of this scam had to come up with a nice sounding number and 36 has a nice ring. 

So are 35 people getting scammed each time?  Not really. Let us assume five people sign up for the book exchange, and each gifts the other a book. It can look all neat and pretty like this:

Everyone gives one book and gets one book. The world stays in Orbit. Everyone is pissed off because they were promised 36 books, but at least nobody is a loser. 

However, This isn’t how it really works. The books aren’t being mailed out as clean and even as shown above. Taking our example of five participants, it is more likely to look like this in real life. 

This explains the variation is how many books each participant gets, and why many get none.

Instead of falling for this spiel of 35X returns, there is a legitimate way to get free books. You don’t pay money – you write an honest review in exchange for a book. In the U.S., many sites like Book Sirens and Net Galley do this. They give you free books in exchange for reviews. They charge the authors money, and the reviewers get the books for free. 


The Himalayan Writing Retreat also has a book reviewers club, except we don’t charge anybody – the writer or the reviewer. Our service is free for everyone. The way it works is simple. If you love reading, and can commit to writing one review each month, you enroll with us as a reviewer by filling this form.

As authors share their books or Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) with the registered reviewers we select based on Genre and other preferences. The author sends you the book at their cost, so you pay nothing. Our only request is that you review the book in 30 days. 

And if you’re an author, you can sign-up for  having your book reviewed by filling this form

The Himalayan Book Reviewers Club is blessed with the Universe. And just to be safe, we checked the math as well. It works.

So relax, you’re in good hands. 

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