Return Home

Why Amazon Lists Books For Over $20 Million

Sunday, March 9th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

Sandkings George RR Martin-smallIf you’ve been buying used and rare books online for any period of time, I’m certain you’ve run into strange pricing anomalies. I’m not just talking about George R.R. Martin’s paperback collection Sandkings listed for $2,000 at Amazon, or Philip K. Dick’s Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said for $7,700 (although there’s plenty anomalous about those prices, as anyone with a copy will tell you.)

No, I’m talking about the instances where prices for books inexplicably spiral out of control, as UC Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen noted on his blog:

A few weeks ago a postdoc in my lab logged on to Amazon to buy the lab an extra copy of Peter Lawrence’s The Making of a Fly … Amazon listed 17 copies for sale: 15 used from $35.54, and 2 new from $1,730,045.91 (+$3.99 shipping)… the two sellers seemed not only legit, but fairly big time (over 8,000 and 125,000 ratings in the last year respectively). The prices looked random – suggesting they were set by a computer. But how did they get so out of whack?

Intrigued, Eisen began to track the prices.

I started to follow the page incessantly. By the end of the day the higher priced copy had gone up again. This time to $3,536,675.57. And now a pattern was emerging.

On the day we discovered the million dollar prices, the copy offered by bordeebook was 1.270589 times the price of the copy offered by profnath. And now the bordeebook copy was 1.270589 times profnath again. So clearly at least one of the sellers was setting their price algorithmically in response to changes in the other’s price…

Once a day profnath set their price to be 0.9983 times bordeebook’s price. The prices would remain close for several hours, until bordeebook “noticed” profnath’s change and elevated their price to 1.270589 times profnath’s higher price. The pattern continued perfectly for the next week.

Why were they doing this, and how long would it go on before they noticed? As I amusedly watched the price rise every day, I learned that Amazon retailers are increasingly using algorithmic pricing (something Amazon itself does on a large scale), with a number of companies offering pricing algorithms/services to retailers. Both profnath and bordeebook were clearly using automatic pricing – employing algorithms that didn’t have a built-in sanity check on the prices they produced…

Like bidders at auction, the two algorithms continued to bid the price of the book up each day. The price eventually peaked on April 18th, 2011, at $23,698,655.93 (plus $3.99 shipping). At that point, someone at seller profnath noticed the irregularlity, and dropped the price to $106.23. Bordeebook’s price adjusted automatically, as Eisen notes, “to the predictable $106.23 * 1.27059 = $134.97.”

As Eisen notes,

What’s fascinating about all this is both the seemingly endless possibilities for both chaos and mischief. It seems impossible that we stumbled onto the only example of this kind of upward pricing spiral – all it took were two sellers adjusting their prices in response to each other by factors whose products were greater than 1… One can easily see how even more bizarre things could happen when more than two sellers are in the game… especially when they were clearly not paying careful attention to what their algorithms were doing.

Eisen has screen caps of several of the prices. Read his complete article here.

15 Comments »

  1. Maybe Peter Lawrence’s Making of a Fly is just really, really good?

    Comment by Joe H. - March 9, 2014 5:41 pm

  2. Aside from obviously insane prices like the ones mentioned, some of it is just booksellers charging very stiff prices for books that are in demand but are hard to find. For years I searched online for a copy of Bertrand Brinley’s “The Mad Scientist’s Club” (one of the all-time great YA books, by the way) and could never find a decent copy for less than a couple of hundered dollars. Then the wondeful people at Purple House Press reprinted it, and the air went out of that particular balloon.

    Comment by emcgargle - March 9, 2014 9:43 pm

  3. John, you and I must have pretty similar web-surfing patterns! I came across this Eisen article myself a couple days ago and considered sharing it in my post this week. Now I’ll have to go review an Arak comic or something…

    As a long-time hunter on half.com, and more recently on amazon, I’ve often noticed these exorbitant-price listings and wondered what was going on, especially when it’s $900 for an “acceptable” condition book that’s available for $5 in “Like New.” On half.com in particular, the same few mega-sellers crop up again and again, and my first conjecture was that maybe there was some sort of money laundering going on. But then I read Eisen, and discovered it’s the bots! (Similar bots are used in Wall Street trades these days as well, which may explain a thing or two there.)

    Comment by Nick Ozment - March 10, 2014 1:03 am

  4. I’ll try to be careful what I say and be abstract so I’m not directly saying about this auction, per se… So disclaimer I am NOT saying this auction is what I’m hinting at, nor the other reference, doubtless innocent mistake, mmmkaay?

    Frankly I’d ignore such an auction, some ‘collectors’ price item at an unreasonable sale…

    First rule is, don’t like it, don’t buy it, the price will go down. The last five years I’ve seen tons of stuff scalper priced at $300 (Clark Asthon Smith Panther reprints, Lord Dunsany books) but recently got piles of such items for 1c – $20, the price of ONE of the “Collector” items I got a box full last year or so.

    Second…

    I’d suggest googling – “amazon ordered tv got gun” – I’m so amazed, one man’s opinion, by the lack of digging the news is doing…

    Isn’t it obvious…?
    Code words. Underground market.

    Someone wants to sell something they might for … privacy … not want others to hear about. So in the ‘network’ of like minded privacy enthused free thinkers they work out ‘codes’ so they can sell in public markets stuff they’d otherwise have difficulty selling…

    Of course, why tell the authorities that? IMO they are only good at waiting early in the morning to stop worker slaves on the way to work to write them tickets. All they’d do is make it harder for you or me to try to sell the pile of paperbacks and those committed to using such misleading tactics would just switch venue.

    We could use this for LOTS of story hooks!? Let’s say a guy wins the lottery or something so he’s got money to burn – like he puts most of it in trust funds but takes out $100K in “Mad Money” — and he goes and collects lots of classic modern literature… He’s got signed copies of Burrough’s books with either buckshot damage or roaches mashed in the pages, a whole wall of first edition Steven King books (uh, can an average wall hold them!? hehe…) and well he buys a copy of “Lolita” that’s — “A special one time blonde edition, 8 years aged, unopened…” and it’s $20,000 + $600 shipping and handling for discrete secured delivery… So, hey, he’s not a perv but talk about conversation starter and with the movie out people know about it… Use that molybendium bank of mammon card man…you only live once…!

    Then a few days later some people drop off a large box, way too large for a book, and leave quickly… Don’t even get a signature, just say “You are…Mr…? Here is the product…we assure the quality…” and leave…

    Then inside the house he opens the box and out pops an 8 year old blonde girl!!! “Waaaahhhh! I want my Mommy!!!” And as he’s about to call the police the door is kicked in and in pops a man holding a baseball bat… He’s a slightly heavyset guy with an alcoholic’s nose and white hair, remotely looking like former prez Clinton… “Hey! You don’t know me, I’m … Chester M. And I don’t know HOW you got that sales info, you must have hacked my account on /…chang, but she was put up there for ME!!!”

    Comment by GreenGestalt - March 10, 2014 5:17 am

  5. I was going to say something about how fortunate I was in finding a signed copy of Sandkings for half price in a second hand store years ago, but after GreenGestalt’s comment, I’m speechless.

    Comment by westkeith - March 10, 2014 11:11 am

  6. That was intended as a compliment, GreenGestalt

    Comment by westkeith - March 10, 2014 11:12 am

  7. > Maybe Peter Lawrence’s Making of a Fly is just really, really good?

    Joe,

    It’s a theory… but not a great one. :)

    Comment by John ONeill - March 10, 2014 1:14 pm

  8. > For years I searched online for a copy of Bertrand Brinley’s “The Mad Scientist’s Club” (one of the all-time great YA books, by the way)
    > and could never find a decent copy for less than a couple of hundered dollars. Then the wondeful people at Purple House Press
    > reprinted it, and the air went out of that particular balloon.

    EMC,

    Indeed! The Mad Scientist’s Club (and its sequels, The New Adventures of the Mad Scientists’ Club and The Big Kerplop!) are some of the best YA books ever published. I absolutely adored them… although, unlike you, I read them in the cheap Scholastic paperbacks (which are still easy to find, even today).

    By the way, were you aware there was a FOURTH Mad Scientist’s Club book, first published in 2005? (!)

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Big-Chunk-Ice-Scientists/dp/1930900295/

    Comment by John ONeill - March 10, 2014 1:22 pm

  9. > John, you and I must have pretty similar web-surfing patterns! I came across this Eisen article myself a
    > couple days ago and considered sharing it in my post this week. Now I’ll have to go review an Arak comic or something…

    Hey Nick — sorry for stealing your idea! You can have the next one. :)

    Comment by John ONeill - March 10, 2014 1:23 pm

  10. > Then inside the house he opens the box and out pops an 8 year old blonde girl!!!

    Uh… Green, you have a very active imagination. But I have trouble mailing a bowl to the suburbs of Chicago. I’m pretty sure you’d have a very tough time mailing a person.

    Comment by John ONeill - March 10, 2014 1:25 pm

  11. > I was going to say something about how fortunate I was in finding a signed copy of Sandkings for half price in a second hand store years ago…

    Keith,

    Wow! Fortunate indeed. Well done!

    Comment by John ONeill - March 10, 2014 1:25 pm

  12. @GreenGestalt: That was another conjecture I’ve had exactly (er, well, not about the sending of actual “Lolitas”): when I’ve seen a listing for an in-print, common, low-demand book, scrolled down and seen a copy in “acceptable” condition with an odd asking price like “1,118.18,” I’ve wondered What is being sold there really, to the buyer who knows to look for the price with the repetitive digits?

    The “urban fantasy” angle to that story would be a similar set-up with a person who suddenly has money to burn and is collecting fantasy books. He orders an outrageously priced copy of Leiber’s Conjure Wife or some such, and what arrives is an ACTUAL spell book.

    Comment by Nick Ozment - March 10, 2014 2:28 pm

  13. To westkeith, Nick and others, hope my questionable humor wasn’t too offensive. I was just going to the ‘outrageous extreme’ of what I suspect is being done. And to John, I have no idea on actually mailing a person, I was just imagining some “Private courier” darknet arrangement where they pick up packages and drop them off on a local basis but there’s a nice aura of ‘plausible deniability’ where they pick up packages, drop them off but there’s no knowledge of the contents, so a large padded box with a person inside -esp a kid- is possible. And yes tiny air holes for the brat to breathe, just good padding and probably she’s drugged so she doesn’t make that much noise. But not what I’d order so just guessing. Again we have had people getting guns when they thought they ordered a TV… Uh, did they order from a pawn shop? And even then that’d be a BIG error.

    The oldest “Code” is essentially to have two people who agree on something work on something that stands for it. It’s largely unbreakable from any outside source. Say they agree for an illegal product on the darknet, but with Bitcoin still a bizzaro lottery under increasing attack the easiest way is to send $. But huge transfers in RL are scrutinized more and more. However, there’s very little micro managing to people who manage to sell ‘collectables’ -as long as they pay TAXES on revenue from such sources. Long standing tradition is something is worth what someone is willing to pay for. So the easiest way to disguise a darknet sale would be the sale/auction of an item at a price unlikely to be met by any actual interested parties in RL… “Whoa! He’s selling that reading only copy of Bat-Mutant 1/2 at $2000? They made 1 million of those in the Comic Book boom of the 90s…. Near mint is guide at $10 and that’s a stretch… Pass, fella…” As long as it sells and the marketplace gets its fees and there’s no complaint… Well, if the Feds tried to investigate on that alone they’d end up having a SWAT team burst down the door of real Comic Collectors, Magic card collectors, etc. probably stomping on tons of valuable stuff and beat to a pulp people who’d never jaywalked in their lives ten times before hitting anyone who actually was up to no good.

    I’m reminded of a similar thing known in RL, Japanese Pachinko. Lots of this on YouTube for quick lookup. Its essentially gambling, a much more elaborate in display version of our Poker and Slot video machines. Essentially that mindless pointless distraction with occasional wins that disguise a steady loss and rare high wins to feed the gambler’s fallacy. Technically Pachinko parlors are arcades since gambling is illegal there, you just purchase the balls to feed the machines… However, you can trade in the balls for junk gifts. And around the corner there is a “Business” that buys the junk gifts for real money… Obviously the police know about it, but “Hey, if people that desperate to give their money to criminals, fine. At least that place is open, clean and we can go in if there’s a worse problem.”

    Comment by GreenGestalt - March 10, 2014 3:49 pm

  14. GreenGestalt: What does “RL” stand for?

    I agree it’s likely that, in some cases, some sort of underground transaction is going on. Other times (like the example Eisen stumbled upon) it’s the bots — over-the-counter software with no commonsense to hold it in check. A third scenario I came across is that sellers who have items listed in multiple venues will sometimes kick up the price on one just to make sure it doesn’t double-sell (say, if they’re taking their stock to a convention), rather than delete and have to remake the listing again. And then there are people who are just nuts, and think what they have is worth its weight in gold. I think, in the aggregate, the plethora of exorbitantly priced items online are probably a combination of all four.

    Comment by Nick Ozment - March 11, 2014 1:31 am

  15. […] Why Amazon Lists Books For Over $20 Million […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » The Top 50 Black Gate Posts in March - April 30, 2014 12:45 am


Comments RSS  |  TrackBack URI

 

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.


Black Gate Home
This site © 2018 by New Epoch Press. All rights reserved.