Wednesday 25th June 12:46 pm
The world’s most expensive book
Wednesday 25th June 2014 12:46 pm
You might remember that in a previous US presidential election, Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska, was considered as a potential presidential candidate. She actually did gain the nomination as the Republican vice presidential candidate.
But I do remember one comment she made about scientific research. She said:
“And sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good, things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.”
Like many people, she probably didn’t realise that the common fruit fly is one of the most widely used organisms in genetic research. In fact, the fruit fly is incredibly valuable to scientists working in the field of developmental biology. But I must admit I was astonished when one of the classic works in developmental biology — Peter Lawrence’s book The Making Of A Fly — was offered on Amazon.com for $23,698,655.93.
Sure, that 1992 book is a classic and it is out of print. However, developmental biology, while it is fundamental to evolution, is a fairly narrow field. So overall, $23 million is more than you would reasonably expect to pay. And I was flabbergasted at how cheap the shipping price was — only $3.99, for a book costing $23 million.
It took a while, but this mystery was solved by Michael Eisen, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California at Berkeley. There were actually two different sellers or retailers offering the book. They were fairly substantial retailers, with over 8000 and 125,000 seller ratings respectively in the previous calendar year.
When Dr Eisen first checked, the smaller retailer was charging $1.7 million, while the larger retailer had it for about $400,000 more, at $2.2 million. But the next time he checked, they had both gone up to about $2.8 million, with the bigger retailer only $5000 ahead. Then, the higher priced copy jumped to about $3.5 million. After a delay, the smaller retailer relentlessly followed their larger competitor upward.
It took a while, but Dr Eisen worked out the pattern. The retailer with 8000 seller ratings would, once a day, deliberately reset their price to be 99.83 per cent of the bigger retailer’s price — they would always undercut them by the same tiny margin.
After a few hours, the larger retailer, the one with the 125,000 seller ratings, would somehow notice that their smaller competitor had almost matched them. So they would then re-price their copy of the book to be 27 per cent higher than their smaller competitor’s offering.
The smaller retailer would then follow upwards and offer their copy of the book at 99.83 per cent of the bigger retailer’s new improved price — again, the same fraction cheaper. And then the biggest retailer would increase their copy to be 27 per cent above the smaller competitor. And so the pattern would continue, going up and up.
The two book retailers were using automatic pricing computer programs — programs that obviously didn’t have any kind of sanity check.
The bigger retailer — the one with 125,000 seller ratings — figured that potential buyers would be happy to pay a few dollars more to deal with somebody like them who had a bigger client base. So they charged 27 per cent more.
The smaller retailer — the one with only 8000 seller ratings — didn’t enjoy such a reputation. So they chose the option of undercutting their larger competitor by a fraction of a per cent — in fact, by 0.17 per cent.
After the price peaked at $23 million, they both dropped their price to around $100. And sure enough, the automatic pricing programs started chasing the price up again.
So what’s driving this process?
Perhaps the computer programs had acquired awareness and consciousness, and were each going through their own internal processes of developmental and evolutionary biology? Or maybe not…
You’d have to think that anyone who fancied this book, and was keeping an eye on the price war, had another option. Once the book had reached 10 million dollars, surely it would have been cheaper to simply approach the author, Peter Lawrence, and offer him $5 million to move in next door and be available to answer your questions 24 hours a day?
These computerised re-pricing programs continue to roam Amazon.com. Of course law books are expensive, but $84 million is a lot, even for a book called The Law of Mortgages.
But the record seems to be held by a bioscience book, Recent Advances in Epilepsy. It was priced at around $60 trillion dollars — almost four times the US national debt.
Surprisingly, a few weeks later this book on epilepsy had dropped in price to just two cents — with, of course, $3.99 shipping…
This blog first appeared on Dr Karl's Great Moments in Science
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