Changing the Culture of Consumption, One Book at a Time

by Joe Brewer: environmental writer, cognitive scientist, co-founder of hivethrive blog, and agent for progressive social change

I have an addiction: I love books! My wife won’t let me near a used book store without an armed escort, and for good reason. I’d come home with another pile of paperbacks that have no place on the cramped shelves in the living room or the office. I calm my moral sentiments by avoiding new books at every opportunity. After all, I’m well aware of the problem of over consumption in our society. So I was delighted to learn that there is a way to share books online without having to buy a thing.

A great example of how a clever entrepreneur can (a) deliver millions of books from the misery of neglect, (b) transform the culture toward a mindset of sharing, and (c) make some cash - all at the same time.

John Buckman is well loved in the free culture movement for challenging the music industry’s stranglehold on the intellectual property of musicians through an open source record label called Magnatune (with the clever slogan “we’re not evil”) and his new enterprise, BookMooch, a book sharing extravaganza that is doing a lot more than easing the moving process for a world of book worms - it is helping transform the relationship between people and products.

BookMooch provides a great learning opportunity for anyone who wants to change the world. A simple idea - list the books you have but don’t want, create a wish list of books you do want, and pay postage for anything someone else has and you want - can have powerful consequences. It’s about a lot more than exchanging books. Think about this scenario:

You hear about a cool new book and go over to Amazon to read an excerpt. It sounds like a winner and you’re about to jump at it when you notice a little message flashing at the top of the screen, “Get this book now for free!” You’re not a sucker so you take the freebie and let the new version continue to sit in its warehouse.

This happens a few times and you start to feel a little guilty. It’s only fun to mooch for a little while and there are perks for listing your books to give away. Pretty soon, you’ve got arrangements to send an old novel to New York and are about to get that new thriller from Montana. And every time you hear someone say they “just bought the latest copy of X” you chide them for buying new. Don’t they know that there is a world of book sharing going on!

Somewhere along the way, a new cultural understanding has been born. Buying is not so cool anymore and sharing is sounding pretty smart. You might even decide that this works for bigger things, like cars. That’s what Zipcar is doing. Why buy a car when a fleet of them can be accessed in your city for a low monthly fee?

If I was still at the Rockridge Institute, I’d call this a cognitive policy for your business. It is as if you asked the question, “How can I change the way people think about consumption and generate revenues at the same time?” You’d quickly be immersed in thoughts about the values people have and their ways of thinking about their experiences. Simply moving widgets from the factory to the store shelf would seem pretty trite. There is a world of possibilities for addressing real needs (book hording and disastrous consumption habits) while gaining a monthly paycheck (BookMooch is profitable because 1 in 100 Amazon searches results in a new book purchase, with a percentage going to the seller - John Buckman). Not a bad deal for anyone involved.

Hidden in all of this is the part of community. Over time a book sharing community grows as more people sign up and list their books to give away. This community is the source of wealth - it is where all the books come from.

A business grows through the expression of sharing.

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  • Posted on June 24, 2008. Listed in:

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