Would you pay $23 million for a biology book about flies? And if so, would you also splurge on the $3.99 for shipping? Last week, Amazon listed The Making of a Fly by Peter Lawrence for just that price. The outlandish price for the text, published in 1992, seems to have been the result of a price war between two bookseller algorithms programmed to adjust their prices automatically to keep pace with the market, reports John Sutter on CNN.
The flub was caught by a postdoc student in the lab of Michael Eisen, an evolutionary biologist at U.C. Berkeley. Eisen also reported it on his blog, it is NOT junk. Here he says that the postdoc student simply stumbled upon the book and its price at the time of $1,730,045.91 when trying to purchase an extra copy for the lab. At first, Eisen thought that perhaps the price was a joke, but he noticed that the books were being offered by two seemingly legit booksellers. The next day when he checked the site, the prices had gone up to $2.8 million and whereas the prices the previous day were $400,000 apart, they had come to within $5,000 of each other.
Sure enough. Eisen followed the pricing for days and each day, bordeebook's algorithmic pricing bot continued increasing the price by 1.270589, and profnath's pricing bot continue setting the price 0.9983 times the price of the book, escalating the price into the millions. On April 18, the price peaked at $23,698,655.93 (plus $3.99 shipping).
As Sutter points out:
Those algorithms are designed to underbid the competition in order to increase the volume of sales. In the case of the Amazon sale, the pricing bots were not kept in check with a pricing ceiling price ceilings that shuts off the increases at a certain dollar mark.
One has wonder how effective those stop checks are. Today The Making of a Fly lists for $976.98 new. You can get a used one on Blackwell's for a lot less.