Price of used book on Amazon suddenly skyrocketed--why?
December 20, 2019 12:33 AM   Subscribe

For a month or two I've been keeping an intermittent eye on a used book being sold on Amazon by 3-4 sellers for ~$30-40. The price hadn't changed much when I looked a week or two ago, but today all four sellers are listing it for over $900(!) What gives?

All four, once you add shipping and taxes, total to within 3 cents of each other. I vaguely recall reading several years ago about a similar situation(?) arising from a price-matching algorithm(??) and some sort of positive feedback loop(???) but I can't find it now.
Anyways, if you have an explanation for the price jump, I'd be interested to hear it. Bonus points if it predicts the price falling back to a reasonable level.
posted by mpark to Computers & Internet (16 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Perhaps you are looking for this article?

In this previous instance, the price eventually came back down when, presumably, a human noticed. But then, the human noticed the problem only when the price went up to $23,698,655.93.
posted by applesurf at 1:32 AM on December 20, 2019 [15 favorites]

Your book is almost certainly out of stock. So the vendor has the choice of removing the listing or discouraging people from ordering it temporarily. If they take the listing down they will have to pay to put it back up again. But they can change the price as much as they want. So probably the listing is just there as a place holder until the vendor gets more of the books in stock, or decides they can't source any more of the books and can take the listing down.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:21 AM on December 20, 2019 [3 favorites]

Try other options. Like this one (unfortunately also owned by AMAZON AFAIK) .

In the end prices can fluctuate a lot. I bought this book (English versions) on ebay for 5 USD. The Italian version is always available for cheap. But I have seen English versions get sold for 500-1000 USD. Currently there are copies available around 50 USD (if it is really the English Version)
posted by yoyo_nyc at 5:26 AM on December 20, 2019

Best answer: There’s a WSJ article about this. (If the direct WSJ link doesn’t work, try clicking a link to it on twitter e.g. in an incognito window.)
posted by caek at 6:48 AM on December 20, 2019

Folks have pointed to articles but I'll type it out here. Uncommon used books are priced by computer algorithms. Part of the prevailing algorithm is to jack the price up sky-high if no one is selling a book. A second seller then comes in and undercuts the other by $1. The price slowly ladders down but never becomes reasonable unless some human intervenes and sets a real price. It's a profoundly stupid market.

Some things to try:
  • Just wait a month
  • Contact a seller and ask for a real price
  • Look on Abebooks, eBay, or Amazon in other countries

posted by Nelson at 7:49 AM on December 20, 2019 [4 favorites]

Best answer: will show you the price on many different sites and tries to include shipping. I would not be surprised if you saw a similar price on many other sites and they were all feeding off of each other. In Diary of A Bookseller by Shaun Bythell, he talks about some of the pricing options and I think there is even a similar example with different sellers undercutting each other instead and the price dropping rapidly.
posted by soelo at 8:07 AM on December 20, 2019 [4 favorites]

I enter permanent searches on eBay for books that are hard to find. They notify you by email when someone lists it. It may take a year or more, but eventually they show up at a much lower price. I just spent $8 on a book that’s been running at $60 to $80 on both Amazon and eBay. Another book that runs around $130 was eventually listed at $35. That took several years though.
posted by FencingGal at 9:05 AM on December 20, 2019 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the informative answers!

applesurf, that was indeed the article I was thinking of. It doesn't appear to apply in this situation, though, as the price has not risen exponentially. I installed the price-tracking extension mentioned in the WSJ article (thank you, caek) and the price history shows an abrupt leap a week ago from ~$50 to ~$600, then 5 hrs later to ~$900. Except for a couple of brief dips, it's stayed steady since then.

soelo, thank you for the link. I see listings starting around $50. I'm not finding the book on ebay, so I'll probably buy it via bookfinder.
posted by mpark at 11:33 AM on December 20, 2019

Response by poster: Darn, I shouldn't have marked this resolved. I still have no real explanation for the price jump.
posted by mpark at 12:07 PM on December 20, 2019

posted by oceano at 1:36 PM on December 20, 2019

Mod note: Unmarked that resolved tag for you, carry on.
posted by cortex (staff) at 1:56 PM on December 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

What's the book?

Price jumps on used article can come from various things: the book suddenly finds fame due to a write-up/review, the author dies, it's been announced for reprinting and the seller hopes to sucker people who want an original, etc. For instance, I know out of print books that appear on the podcast Backlisted suddenly skyrocket because the hosts are spot on in picking great books so their listeners will want whatever they discuss. Sellers take advantage of this.
posted by dobbs at 6:03 PM on December 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

As an alternative to waiting for that collection's price to come down, you can probably get the individual books of that volume pretty cheaply.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:44 AM on December 23, 2019

That book appears to have been published in the UK and I am guessing that these high/fluctuating prices are in part the result of enterprising folks/bots looking to leverage that distance to charge people a premium to get the book without waiting. Searching by ISBN gets a few different results.
posted by zenon at 9:24 PM on December 28, 2019

Price history is all over the place, with a notable spike of late.
posted by rhizome at 11:29 AM on January 7, 2020

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