The Instagram Book Exchange Only Sounds Like a Scam

Users are actually sending each other books—and reclaiming the ever-sketchy genre of chain letters.

Stock image of several books with the Instagram Stories logo on top.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Andyborodaty/iStock; pialhovik/iStock.

“I’m looking for people to participate in a huge book exchange,” begins a message that’s been popping up on Instagram, mostly in Stories, for the past few months. “All you have to do is buy your favorite book and send it to a stranger.” If you saw this note and dismissed it as suspicious or scammy-looking, you’re not alone. Chain letters have cluttered our letter receptacles—first analog, more recently digital—since time immemorial, and now they’ve wormed their way into Stories, the self-exploding messages at the top of your Instagram app.

Whether this particular chain began as something sketchy or benign, it’s now very real. Thanks to a string of participants who saw the message and figured “Why the hell not?” the Instagram book exchange has been going strong—or at least going—all summer, resulting in an unknown, but certainly nonzero, quantity of books exchanged, as well as what may constitute Instagram Stories’ first bona fide back-to-the-real-world movement.

Leni Zumas, a writer based in Portland, Oregon, and the author of, most recently, Red Clocks, first saw the book exchange in a friend’s Story. “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 it did work: As of last week, a few weeks after posting about the exchange on her account, she had received 14 books in the mail, with titles ranging from classics like The Alchemist to newer fiction like The Vegetarian.

It turns out that giving your address to strangers on the internet … can be good?

Two Instagram Stories screenshots about the book-sending challenge.
Screenshots by Thea Thompson; Lila Carpenter.

Coming across a prompt to do something in real life is itself strange on Instagram Stories, and the message initially confused Thea Thompson, a sales development representative in Walnut Creek, California, when she saw it on a friend’s account. “My first impression was that she was actually the one orchestrating the whole thing. I was like, ‘How are you going to send out all these books to all these people that are participating?’ ”

But then she decided to participate because, well, free books! “Sending your favorite book to someone is something so cool and so personal,” Thompson said. Acknowledging that such displays of earnestness can be seen as distasteful online, Lila Carpenter, a paralegal in Brooklyn, New York, added a disclaimer to her post: “Hi I’m a big nerd and love these things.”

It wasn’t lost on Zumas or other participants that the book exchange didn’t sound like the most reputable thing in the world. For one, if you Google it, the first results are a bunch of warnings. “I was immediately reminded of old chain letters, when I was little, which I’m sure don’t really exist anymore, the physical letters, like ‘Oh if you send this to one person, you’ll get 50 letters back,’ ” she said. That the messages expire after a day, of course, also makes them harder to trace back to an original source. But she thought about it and “couldn’t figure out how it would be a scam, who would benefit from it. I was only giving my address privately to people who followed me and wrote to me.” Still, after reposting it on her own account, she fielded messages from a few followers warning her to be wary, including one from a friend whose mother recalled a bad experience with a booze exchange scam in her youth.

The way the exchange works may limit some of the exposure risk. When user A messages user B (the account on which A would have seen the original note about the exchange—stay with me here!) to tell him or her that he or she wants to participate in the exchange, user B provides user A with two addresses, one for A to mail a book to and one to pass onto A’s followers that end up wanting to take part once A posts the note. So the people mailing books to each other are only separated by a few degrees. “I think the risk is pretty low,” said Carpenter. “Your address is involved, but it’s person-to-person. Your mailing address is not super-confidential.” Indeed, it’s practically nothing compared with the data tech companies—like Instagram!—already have on us.

Almost everyone agrees, though, that one of the fishiest-seeming elements of the message is that it promises participants 36 books in exchange for sending out one. “I don’t know where they get the number 36,” Zumas said. “That’s the one part that seems like a pyramid scheme,” Carpenter agreed.

“I guess I’m still kind of confused about the 36. I don’t know where that number came from. But if I get 36 books, I’d be happy so I’m not going to complain,” said Thompson.

The number of books a participant gets would seem to be dependent on how many of his or her followers respond and then how many of their followers respond, and of course how many of them end up following through on mailing books. One could theoretically get more than 36 books—or one could end up with none. (One could also, of course, get any 36 books one wants from a library.)

The thought of being down a book wasn’t enough to deter the participants I spoke to. “I actually am … a little skeptical that any of the friends who said, ‘Hey, I’m interested’ actually ended up reposting it. If they didn’t repost it, then I’m not getting anything. Which is fine!” Carpenter said. She was still working on choosing which book she would mail out when we spoke.

Thompson was even willing to lay down some cash to join in on the exchange—she didn’t want to give away her copy of The House at the Edge of Night, so she ordered a used one for $12.
She’ll have to part with a few more dollars to mail it out. “I think it’s kind of fun to pay it forward a little bit,” she said.

The mystery of not knowing what, if anything, they would get back may be what drove some people to try the exchange in the first place, especially as contrasted with a social media landscape where endless detail means barely anything is a mystery.

“There’s that excitement of getting a physical object in the mail, which is becoming more and more rare in our world. It’s a very nostalgic kind of thing,” Zumas said. “When I got all these books, I felt sort of moved by it in a different way than if I would have gotten 15 random messages from people about something online.”

When Olivia Latney of Wilmington, Delaware, received a book from the exchange in the mail, “It just really humanized the whole social media space for me, and I really liked that,” she said. “It kind of reaffirmed my faith in community and the future given our country’s current political climate. Knowing that we have the power to stand by each other even when we’re alone truly warmed my heartstrings.”

Latney was still deciding what book she’d be sending out to her assigned stranger. “I want to send a book that could possibly mean something to someone,” Latney said. When we spoke, she was leaning toward The Festival of Insignificance, by Milan Kundera, an apt selection for a surprisingly poignant book exchange born on that most superficial of social media platforms. Its recipient won’t be able to double-tap it, and for once, that’s the point.