Many years ago, my husband and I met a couple who seemed like people we might want to get to know better. After we'd gone out to dinner together a couple of times, they told us that they knew about a terrific business opportunity that could really increase our income. Rob and I were just out of college; he had an entry level job and I was submitting my first novel. More income sounded great. However, when we asked for specifics, our new friends clammed up. They couldn't just tell us, they said. They had to show us. And they couldn't show us at their house--they had to come to ours. OK, we said, that's fine, but we'd at least like to know the name of the business. Uh uh, they said. That information couldn't be revealed unless we agreed to let them make their special visit.
By now, I'm sure that some of you will have guessed that the business was Amway.
Recently, on a writers' message board, I came across a series of posts announcing a fabulous promotional opportunity for writers of small press-published books (I'm not changing the subject--bear with me). A brand-new book club called BookWise was just getting underway, with the goal of eventually selling more books than Barnes & Noble online. Along with bestselling books published by commercial publishing houses, it planned to feature books by lesser-known authors. Anyone wanting to get involved was urged to contact the author of the posts for special information available only by email.
The messages, with their vague claims and repeated requests for direct contact, triggered a feeling of deja vu in me. So I did a bit of research, and located the BookWise website. (There's also another, less official-looking one.) Clicking on the "What is BookWise?" link took me to an animated trailer that crashed my browser; luckily, the FAQ page is plain old text.
So...what is BookWise? Quoting from the FAQ: "BookWise is a book club / network marketing company with a structure that is unique to both the book and network marketing industries. BookWise takes the best from both worlds to help our Associates build a library as well as a financial opportunity."
That's right. It's a multilevel marketing scheme. It's Amway for books.
Here's how it works. To join the club as an Associate, you pay a $39 enrollment fee. Thereafter, you're charged $35 per month (plus applicable taxes and shipping), with an annual renewal fee of $30. For that, you get a starter kit (a BookWise business guide, instructional CDs and DVDs, BookWise bumper stickers, BookWise brochures to hand out to your friends, and more) plus a variety of perks, including one hardcover book, the ability to buy additional books from the BookWise catalog at wholesale price, a newsletter, reduced fees at BookWise conferences, various online tools for managing your BookWise business, and "a minimum $1 donation to literacy and other charitable projects throughout the world."
As an Associate, you can re-sell the books you purchase from the BookWise catalog. You can sign up other Associates, and receive a commission on the books they buy, plus a one-time signing bonus. You can sign up Preferred Customers (people who want to participate in the book club but not the multilevel marketing scheme) and receive a commission on the books they buy. And if the Associates you've signed sign up Associates in their turn, you'll receive commissions on the books they buy. Commissions are paid to nine levels down. You're eligible to attend an annual conference, and if you're really successful (at least $50,000 monthly in commissionable sales), you get to go on an all-expense-paid annual retreat to some exotic location "for training and pleasure." (Hmmmm.)
I'm sure that it was a cinch to get publishers interested in this venture. It's not a bad thing for authors, either (some authors, anyway; the wording of the website suggests that the focus will be on bestsellers); and encouraging reading is great. Yet despite BookWise's noble mission statement (The Mission of BookWise & Company is to increase literacy, reading and access to great books through neighbor-to-neighbor book selling. We champion the spirit of the corner bookstore and embrace the values of the independent bookseller with a passion for great literature and the personal connection with friends who love to read), it's not hard to see that the main incentive for those who join the club won't be books, but the promise of cash. That's the lure of multilevel marketing schemes: not the product, but the scheme itself, and the opportunity to sell it to others. Certainly this seems to be the intent of my message board poster, a large part of whose website is devoted to BookWise dogma. In using small press-published authors' bottomless hunger for promotion as bait, you have to give him credit for coming up with a very smart angle. (The source of his claim appears to be one of the Associate perks: "A free downloadable book from a new [hoping to be discovered] author." This perk isn't available till 2007, and there's no word on how the authors will be chosen.)
It's also interesting to note that except for the CEO, Richard Paul Evans of The Christmas Box fame, none of the company's founders appear to have any connection to the book world. They're all entrepreneurs and marketers. None appear to be associated with not-for-profit organizations, either, despite BookWise's emphasis on charity.
Back to Rob's and my brush with a multilevel marketing scheme...our would-be sponsors came over as planned. They revealed to us the Secret Name of Amway (which wasn't a surprise: a friend had clued us in ahead of time), demoed some products, gave us a catalog from which we could order more, and explained how we could become Amway distributors ourselves. To be polite, we bought some cleaning fluid (it was more expensive, and worked no better, than the stuff we'd gotten at the supermarket), and said we'd consider it. I think Rob actually may have, for about five seconds. When they followed up a few days later, we told them we weren't interested. To their credit, they took us at our word. We never heard from them again.
Thus speaketh the Mighty Beware. Namaste.