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The $24 Million Book on Amazon

Sellers usually try to price their wares cheaper than their competitors, to make them more attractive to buyers. That’s how you get price wars.

But the strategy can be very different for rare goods, where price is usually not the limiting factor. Here’s the strange tale of how The Making of a Fly, a scientific textbook by Peter Lawrence, came to fetch almost $24 million.

Michael Eisen of it is NOT junk blog discovered this strange phenomenon, which was caused by Amazon’s algorithmic pricing:

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 – a classic work in developmental biology that we – and most other Drosophila developmental biologists – consult regularly. The book, published in 1992, is out of print. But Amazon listed 17 copies for sale: 15 used from $35.54, and 2 new from $1,730,045.91 (+$3.99 shipping). [...]

On the day we discovered the million dollar prices, the copy offered by bordeebook was1.270589 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. I continued to watch carefully and the full pattern emerged.

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.

Link (The price issue has been fixed) – via Wired

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April 28th, 2011

Stranger to the World


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