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How a book about flies cost $23.7 million on Amazon

Amazon

The current going price for a new copy of "The Making of a Fly" is a mere $976.98--a bargain in comparison to the previous price of $23,698,655.93.

If you were shopping for a new copy of Peter Lawrence’s The Making of a Fly — a classic work on developmental biology — on Amazon recently, you might've gotten quite a shock. The book was priced at $23,698,655.93 (plus $3.99 shipping)! What happened?

Michael Eisen, an evolutionary biologist at UC Berkeley, first noticed the strangely high book price.

Initially he saw new copies of the tome going for about $1.7 million, but each time he checked Amazon's site the price seemed to crawl a bit higher:

At first I thought it was a joke — a graduate student with too much time on their hands. But there were TWO new copies for sale, each be offered for well over a million dollars. And 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?

Amazingly, when I reloaded the page the next day, both prices had gone UP! Each was now nearly $2.8 million. And whereas previously the prices were $400,000 apart, they were now within $5,000 of each other. Now I was intrigued, and 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.

Eisen began to keep track of the prices until he caught on to what was happening: The two sellers of that particular book — bordeebook and profnath — were adjusting their product prices algorithmically based on competitors:

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.

The biologist continued to watch the prices grow higher and higher until they hit a peak price of $23,698,655.93 on April 19. On that day "profnath’s price dropped to $106.23, and bordeebook soon followed suit to the predictable $106.23 * 1.27059 = $134.97." This means that someone must've noticed what was happening and manually adjusted the prices.

It seems that no safety measures were put in place to prevent similar pricing phenomena from happening again though, because we found that there is a single new copy of The Making of the Fly available on Amazon right now — and it's priced at $976.98.

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Rosa Golijan writes about tech here and there. She's a bit obsessed with Twitter and loves to be liked on Facebook.