You Won’t Get 36 Books By Sending 1

By now you’ve probably seen lots of people on Facebook inviting you to a book exchange that requires you to send 1 book to a child in return for 36. Sounds great! Exponents though, they have a way of blowing up in your face.


These schemes aren’t new, but they don’t seem to be going away. The short story is that this is a pyramid scheme, except with books instead of money, and dressed up as a fun way to get some great books for you child. In this iteration you find 6 people to sign up under you who in turn move your name up a list that they each give to 6 additional people. The 36 people two layers below you are then supposed to send a book to the first name on the list (yours), add their name to the bottom, and repeat.

In practice, things break down quickly. Success first depends on each of your 6 recruits to fulfill their obligation of recruiting 6 additional people, rotating the list correctly, and not forgetting to send it out. For every 1 of your recruits that fails a step, that’s 6 books out of the 36 that you are guaranteed not to receive. Of your 6 recruits that do send out their lists, you still have to rely on each of their 36 participants to follow through with mailing you a book. Keep in mind, to take part you are asked to fill out your name, kid’s name, age range, and mailing address to inform who and where the book should be sent to. This information is eventually passed on to 36 strangers who you haven’t met.

Still, that doesn’t sound insurmountable, right? Maybe you started a branch with particularly reliable leaves. Or maybe you go through all of this effort and some people flake out, other’s don’t, and you still end up with 10 or so books. This is still a win, considering it only cost you a book. And technically if your goal is to optimize the number of books you receive (which is obviously the goal, if you are signing up to receive 36 books in exchange for 1), the optimal strategy is to not send your 1 book since following through with sending your book is in no way tied to the receipt of your 36. This sounds cruel, sure, but this is the guaranteed fate of all schemes designed this way – the people at the top get paid by the people at the bottom, until there are no more people left at the bottom.

This happens quicker than you may think.

Let’s assume for a second we live in a perfect world where every single person who signs up follows through and sends the book to the person two levels above them. Whoever started this is at level 0, so they need 62=36 people to participate in order for them to receive 36 books. Everyone on level 2 is paid by the new recruits on level 4, so we are up to 64=1,296 participants. Level 4 is paid by level 6, so we are already up to 66 = 46,656 participants.

When you are just 10 levels below the exchange creator, it will require 612 = more than 2 billion participants for everyone to receive their books. This is more than the population of the United States. Extending this to level 11 brings us beyond the population of the entire world.

Even in the best case scenario where everyone fulfills their obligations, you quickly run out of participants and are left with exponentially more kids and parents who have sent books but receive none themselves than people who received any books at all, let alone all 36.

And when you actually do factor in people who don’t follow through and a limited supply of interested participants, things go about as you’d expect. I browsed a few mom forums where some women were reporting the success of their participation of this type of exchange in the past. Some ended up receiving 1 or 2 books. One said she was sent 5. Others reported not getting sent any at all.

Schemes like this are legally questionable. Pyramid schemes are explicitly illegal. Multi-level-marketing schemes (Herbalife, Advocare, Amway, etc) are constantly in debate, but they generally try to tweak enough parameters and emphasize the personal sales aspect (at least when being judged by regulators) to come out further on the white side of the gray area they sit in. In any case, it isn’t fair to call this book scheme an “exchange”, because exchanges don’t have winners and losers, and this emphatically does.

So the upside is that, sure, you could net a few extra books that you didn’t pick and may or may not like and possibly already own. The downside that it’s an unethical model because your profit by definition has to be at the expense of someone else. Beyond that though, you certainly won’t receive 36 books. Odds are you’ll be better off just picking out a few books your kids will love and sending them to yourself.

2 Responses to “You Won’t Get 36 Books By Sending 1”

  1. Vanessa says:

    And still so many people are thinking this is a great new idea….

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