Paperback book swaps are a beautiful concept, humbly and simply executed, and they offer some great insight into how people think and how thoughts and ideas are transmitted. You’ve seen them, the dinged up bookshelf in the local café with “book swap” carved onto the front and a jumble of the most eclectic selection of titles imaginable, or the executive lounge at the airport, bed and breakfast, or rental condo with a shelf full of books, ranging from vintage 70’s crime novels to the latest Grisham thriller or Harry Potter title.
They all share the same basic premise, one so basic that it’s often not even stated: you can’t buy these books. If you want one, leave one. If you want to take a free copy of that new Elmore novel, leave your well-thumbed Tolstoy or annotated Shakespeare. If you want the Checkov, leave the Steele.
There’s a Zen-like beauty in this concept, to the idea that a book that I leave in one place will be picked up by someone else, read, dropped into another exchange location and continue on its journey until it’s quite literally pulp and too mangled for even one more person to enjoy.
I think that there’s a business application of this concept too.
Maybe it’s because I am renting a condo that has just such a shelf and that I just finished up a Cussleresque paperback in time to swap it for Grisham’s “The King of Torts”, but the concept of book swaps is tremendously appealing, harkening back to an era when we didn’t try to accumulate so much as consume, where sharing was more important than acquiring.
When was the last time you loaned out a book to someone without caring if it ever made its way back to you anyway?
British evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins talks about “memes”, the intellectual equivalent of genes, complete with its own “meme pool”. Ideas — memes — can persist much longer than genes can too: within about a half-dozen generations, my personal contribution to the gene pool will have been diluted away, but I constantly read books from people more than six generations old (anything pre-1900 would fit this category), and there are great thinkers who continue contributing to the meme pool hundreds of generations later, like Budda, Mohammed and Jesus.
Think about the parallels. If you read a good book, you should have a stronger urge to share it, whether through a book swap, if convenient, or by simply loaning it to someone else. Read a bad book and you’re probably more likely to deliberately leave it on a bus or train or donate it to the public library. In memetic terms, the more you’re affected by the ideas the author is communicating, the more you want to continue having them enter the meme pool. Make sense?
From a business perspective, the question then is: how can your company have a strong enough and interesting enough message to engage the quirky and transient attention of your customer base? What ideas can you communicate that help you lift your message up from the background drone of marketing to the foreground excitement of “cool ideas” that not only engage your market segment, and not only get them sufficiently jazzed to share links with their own colleagues (yes, I’m talking “viral” here, but even “sub-viral” or “quasi-viral” is oodles better than 99% of companies experience), but good enough that your company gains credibility as a source of innovative thinking?
Blogging isn’t the answer, because it’s just the digital equivalent of that wooden bookshelf in the café — a tool, not a message. But blogging is a big step in the right direction, because to truly engage your market and share ideas worthy of floating to the top of the meme pool, you have to be engaging in a two-way (not one-way) communication. Book swap shelves don’t just start out populated with interesting books, by analogy, they have to be primed with a stack of great works.
The next time you’re thinking about how your company is going to communicate its latest message to your customer and potential customer base, think about this: what are you sharing that’s sufficiently compelling that they will want to keep the ideas moving in the community? For that matter, what kind of venue are you giving your customer for leaving their own virtual paperback on the shelf, their own ideas and thoughts on the subject?
There’s ostensibly risk, just as there’s risk that a book swap shelf can become a stack of porn or end up emptied, but the reward, the upside, is great enough that it’s worth taking that risk.
What would happen if you just had an area on your site labeled “idea swap: leave one, take one” anyway?