Robot price wars — or, why does someone think my novel is worth $2425.70?

In his comment on the previous post, Jeff Carver pointed me to this article from a couple of years ago about an Amazon seller that charged $23 million dollars for an obscure academic book.

Eisen watched the robot price war from April 8 to 18 and calculated that two booksellers were automatically adjusting their prices against each other.

One equation kept setting the price of the first book at 1.27059 times the price of the second book, according to Eisen’s analysis, which is posted in detail on his blog.

The other equation automatically set its price at 0.9983 times the price of the other book. So the prices of the two books escalated in tandem into the millions, with the second book always selling for slightly less than the first. (Not that that matters much when you’re selling a book about flies for millions of dollars).

The incident highlights a little-known fact about e-commerce sites such as Amazon: Often, people don’t create and update prices; computer algorithms do.

I haven’t paid much attention to this sort of thing, since my old books are out of print, and I don’t get any royalties from their sales.  But this got me to take a look at their current prices, and it turns out that you can pick up what’s described as a new hardcover copy of my novel Senator for a mere $2425.70.  I love the extra 70 cents tacked on at the end.  (The book described in the CNN article currently tops out at $9899.00.)

But the “robot price war” explanation for the $23,000,000 book about insect development can’t explain the weird price for Senator, or the equally absurd price I spotted yesterday for The Portal. In both cases, there were no competitive prices — no other “new” hardcovers of Senator, no other used copies of The Portal.  So there has to be something else going on — either bad software, or stupid humans.  Or, I suppose, both.

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