Storytime: How I Almost Joined a Book Pyramid Scheme

A few weeks ago, I came home tired after a closing shift at work but still stayed up swiping notelessly through Instagram in my pre-bedtime ritual. I paused when I saw a post of my friend’s on her story that was about “a fun worldwide book exchange.” It proclaimed that to participate, all one would need to do was send their favourite book to someone and receive up to 36 books back. If you’re interested, reply to this message with “I’m in!” it said. The 36 books part sort of seemed off to me, but I was already caught up with ideas of which one of my favourite books I would send to a stranger.

I didn’t have just one favourite book. Would it be Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, a favourite which I had just recently reread? Or should I send a lesser-known favourite like I Was Born For This by Alice Oseman? I loved the idea of sharing my favourite book with someone and receiving someone’s favourite book back. While I didn’t completely understand how the exchange would work, the person who had posted it was a trusted friend. I figured she would elaborate, so I replied saying “Um ? Hell yes” (knowing I’d be a poor booklover friend if I just ignored it).

She immediately replied back with excitement at me joining and an address for me to send a book to. While I now had somebody to send a book to, I was still confused about how exactly it worked and how one could get up to 36 books. If I reposted it on my story and people replied, I would be sending them my friend’s address to mail her a book, so it seemed to depend on how many people responded to someone’s story – if any at all. I realized then that it was in fact not a personal post but something similar to chain mail. I tried my confusion on my mom who was sitting on the bed across from me. She looked up and immediately answered very matter-of-factly:

“That’s a pyramid scheme.” 

“What?” I had heard of pyramid schemes before, but the word seemed a bit ludicrous to describe a book exchange. I messaged my friend saying, “help my mom says it’s a pyramid scheme” but she didn’t think it was as it did not involve a company. Still, my mom was unrelenting, so I searched it up and sure enough, found an article titled “The 36 books for 1 “book exchange” pyramid scheme debunked…” and immediately forwarded it to my friend. The article explains the illegal scheme:  

“Basically, if you were recruited by someone, you’d buy a book and send it to the person who recruited the person who recruited you. Then you’d recruit 6 people who’d each send a book to the person who recruited you. Then those 6 people would recruit 6 people each and they would all send books to you! Voila, 36 books! The scheme would continue with each person sending 1 book and recruiting 6 others into the scheme.”

It goes on to explain how pyramid schemes like this one are unsustainable, as they must continue recruiting members to function. After some math, they deduct the end result to be “approximately 3% of kids will get books and 97% will not.” 

I can’t lie, a little part of me felt guilty that I had expressed interest, only to stop the chain and not follow through. I was really excited about those books, and I could tell my friend had been too. Maybe in the future, I will organize a book exchange that is not quite as illegal and ends up with everyone happily receiving a new book. So, in one night I learnt all about pyramid schemes after narrowly avoiding one. Phew. I was also reminded that “mother knows best.”

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