Get 100s of EA books for your student group

by velutvulpes2 min read16th Aug 202116 comments


BooksCommunityEffective altruism groups

If you run an EA student group we’d be interested in potentially enabling you to receive dozens to hundreds of EA books for you to use and give out at your student group. This service is run by a new student group support team made up of: James Aung, Emma Abele, Bella Forristal, and Henry Sleight; with support from Ed Fage.

If eligible, you’d be able to on-demand request books to be delivered to you within a few days and we’d cover the costs of the books and delivery.

Giving out EA books is a potentially quite cost-effective means of outreach: We think books are great because you can get someone to engage with EA ideas for ~10 hours, without it taking up any of your organiser time. Even if a given recipient is only ~20% likely to read the book, we believe it would still be cost-effective to give out the book. 

We think the main bottleneck in these large book projects is finding ways to give people books in a way that doesn’t come across as weird or strange in your local context. 

If you are interested in receiving dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of EA-relevant books for your local group, we’d love for you to order them through our service. Below we list out some example ways in which you might give out books at your group.

Give out books as part of your programs and events

  • If you run a program such as an Introduction to EA Program/Fellowship, you could give out EA books to all your participants 
  • You can give away copies of books at your speaker events, intro talks, socials, careers fairs, and meet-ups. 
  • You can add an option to your event feedback forms for people to tick if they want to receive an EA book, and then deliver the book to them afterwards 

Give out books via your mailing list

  • You could run regular book giveaways via your mailing-list where people can sign up to receive a book. You could then either deliver them the books you’ve received in bulk, or use our service for us to mail them the book directly. (estimate: 2-5 hours)
  • You can offer a free book in return for signing people onto your mailing list at your activities’ fair

General tips

  • We recommend you offer a selection of different books (not just one), only give them to people who show interest, and combine the book give-aways with mailing list sign-ups and other activities/offerings.

If you are interested in signing up your group for this service, we’d love to talk to you and chat about the details in more depth. Please start by filling out this expression of interest form.


16 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 3:26 PM
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Feedback:  We gave out books we ordered through this form at a student org fair last week and it was a  success!

We were moderately exclusive in giving out books, but still gave out nearly all of the 50+ books we had. By moderately exclusive, I mean that we only gave out books to people who seemed genuinely interested in EA and joining EA UW-Madison. We also tried to match the books we gave out to what people were studying (e.g. Superintelligence to CS majors, Poor Economics to econ students), although this likely doesn't need to be forced since that's what the students themselves would choose.

Even just having the books on our table at the student org fair made us more interesting, per a friend and new members feedback. People who joined our Slack after the follow-up email also again expressed their gratitude for having received a book – I think this is a really good first impression for a club (they gave me meaningful free stuff!). 

We are now ordering more books for an upcoming Intro to EA presentation, an intro fellowship, and tabling on campus. 

Just a note for non-student groups especially! 
All groups are welcome to apply to CEA for funding for books:

You can either apply to get money to purchase and distribute books yourself, or you can use this team's book service and they can charge CEA for your books. 

Reach out to me with questions:

It's great you're helping  make this easier.

One quick thought: while handing out a book at a talk is probably net positive, I expect eg getting someone onto your mailing list will be significantly better, because then you can then tell them about future events. 

Getting someone into EA usually takes several years, so my guess is that we should use free books to get people to fill out feedback forms, sign up to fellowships, join mailing lists, ask people to make referrals, and things like that - more than just handing them out.

Asking for something in return might also make the giveaway seem less like it's by a religious group. Though it's possible to do random giveaways that don't seem like this (e.g. it's common to give out free books at conferences) and turning it into a quid pro quo has other downsides.

To me it sounds like you're underestimating the value of handing out books: I think books are great because you can get someone to engage with EA ideas for ~10 hours, without it taking up any of your precious time.

As you said, I think books can be combined with mailing lists. (If there was a tradeoff, I would estimate they're similarly good: You can either get a ~20% probability of getting someone to engage for ~10h via a book, or a ~5%(? most people don't read newsletters) probability of getting someone to engage for ~40h via a mailing list. And while I'd rather have one person engage deeply than many people engage shallowly, I think the first few engagement hours tend to be more valuable (less overdetermined) than the ones that follow later.)

I think I disagree with those fermis for engagement time.

My prior is that in general, people are happier to watch videos than to read online articles, and they're happier to read online articles than to read books. The total time per year spent reading books is pretty tiny.  (Eg I think all time spent reading DGB is about 100k hours, which is only ~1yr of the 80k podcast or GiveWell's site.)

I expect that if you sign someone up to a newsletter and give them a book at the same time, they're much more likely to read a bunch of links from the newsletter than they are to read the book.

With our newsletter, the open rate is typically 20-30%, and it's usually higher for the first couple of emails someone gets. About 20% of subs read most of the emails, which go out ~3 times per month. The half life is several years (e.g. 1.5% unsubscribe per month gives you a half life of over 3yr). I don't think our figures are especially good vs. other newsletters.

If you give someone a book, I expect the chance they finish it is under 10%, rather than 20%.



The other point is about follow up. I think book with no follow up might be almost no value.

A case study is South Korea. DGB had top tier media coverage and sold around 30k copies, but I've never heard of any key EAs resulting from that. (Though hopefully if we set up south korean orgs now we'd have an easier time.)

The explanation could be almost no-one becomes a committed EA just from reading – lots of one-on-one discussions are basically necessary. And it takes several years for most people.

There are lots of ways to achieve this follow up. If a book is given out in the context of a local group, maybe that's enough. But my thinking is that if you sign someone up to a newsletter (or other subscription), you've already (partly) automated the process. As well as sending them more articles, you can send them events, job adverts, invites to one-on-ones etc. I'm confident it's more reliable than hoping they reach out again based on their own initiative. 

This also matches my model. I think book completion rates are quite low, and I expect book distribution without followup to have very little effect. In my Fermis this can make book distribution still come out reasonably high, but it doesn't tend to come out competitive with the best other interventions I've thought of.

I think there are ways to increase completion and followup rates, mostly by getting people to give books to their friends instead of doing broad distributions, but that also tends to be a bit harder to scale.

In 80K's The Precipice mailing experiment, 15% of recipients reported reading the book in full after a month, and ~7% of people reported reading at least half.

I'm also aware of some anecdotal cases where books seemed pretty good - e.g., I know of a very promising person who got highly involved with longtermism within a few months primarily based on reading The Precipice.

The South Korea case study is pretty damning, though. I wonder if things would look better if there had been a small number of promising people who help onboard newly interested ones (or whether that was already the case and it didn't work despite that).

I'd be pretty interested in engagement hours based on email clicks, if you have that data. I care less about open rates and more about whether someone goes on to read through key ideas pages for several hours based on that.

All that said, the high open rates you mentioned have updated me somewhat towards mailing lists being more valuable than I previously thought.

Building on Brian Tan's comment below, what about a way for anyone to get EA book cheaply or free but you have to tick a box saying it isn't for yourself or that you can't afford it.

I don't think any EAs would lie on this box (what would the point be) but it might help poorer EAs or children get copies.

I have in the past said "I'll send anyone a copy of this book" at my own expense and given away my copies and I reckon these are more likely to be read.

Regarding the concern of broad distribution of books being low-impact due to  low completion rates/readership/engagement, do you have a sense of how impactful reading groups are for books when coupled with broad distribution? They can have a high initial fixed cost and then pretty low marginal costs for repeated run-throughs (e.g. it takes a long time to make discussion sheets for the first time you run the reading group, but afterwards you have them ready, create breakout rooms, and if you don't participate in them this requires minimal effort/time).  

I had the assumption that reading groups are much less impactful and lower quality without having a facilitator in each breakout room. Has EA Stanford experimented with reading groups without a trained facilitator? If so, how are these done - do you just give them discussion questions to talk about with each other? Would a participant be assigned as a facilitator per breakout room?

This is very exciting! I was wondering though, if there is a free service like this open to student groups, why not also allow EAs to order one or more of these books for themselves for free? There's probably a way to vet whether a person is highly engaged enough and worth giving one or more of these books to. I'd love to get printed copies of some or all of these 23 books. 

Btw, "80,000 Hours Key Ideas" was listed as two separate options in the form - you might want to fix that. Also, 80K's Key Ideas has a book version already, or is that their 2017 Career Guide?

Seems like they've changed the form to be the 2017 career guide.

It might also be worth noting that some of the books on the list have a track record of getting great people into EA, while most of them don't. I expect the EV of getting someone to read DGB or the Precipice is over 10x the EV of many of the other books on the list.

I think the ROI for existing EAs is far lower, since they are already engaged, and less likely to increase engagement because they got a book - though I'd also love free books.

The ROI for existing EAs is far lower if the EA doesn't lend out or gift away the book afterwards. If they lend it out or gift it away, then the ROI becomes similar. I'll probably be lending out the books afterward, so the ROI should be similar. 

It makes sense to target people who are newer to EA, but I think a non-biased case could still be made for allowing even engaged EAs to get free books. I don't have the time to try making that case though right now.

Since you are a group organiser you most certainly can get funding through CEA for all 23 books (for your own learning + I suspect you won't be able to help yourself lending them out to group members too!) - Happy to help!
- Catherine

Thanks Catherine! Yep I can lend them out to group members. I'll probably email or Slack you to ask more details about this soon!