The $200 mass-market paperback
December 13, 2006 11:44 AM   Subscribe

What's with some of the absurd prices I'm seeing with Amazon Marketplace sellers?

Over the past few years I have seen used book titles posted at absurdly high prices. One of them was my own book, which is in print and sells at $25, but starting in 2001 I saw a few marketplace sellers posting $200 for a used copy. It's ridiculous as my books are nowhere near rare, they're in-print, and are easily accessible. Curious about this, I emailed a couple of these sellers and never got a reply.

Lately it seems I've been seeing more of this kind of thing. For example, for a recently out of print paperback published in 1999, this listing shows 20 books ranging from $59 to $336.

The simple explanation is that people are getting or think they can get such huge sums. Still, something has never smelled right about all this.

For example, the above title is not particularly rare; it's plain that the book has 125 reviews, which means a huge number are in circulation. So why aren't one of these sellers trying to sell for less than $59 to guarantee themselves a sale, and at the same time precipitating a collapse in these jacked up prices? Or is there an unwritten agreement among Marketplace sellers to not bust the lowest price point?

It's occurred to me that since a lot of paperbacks run $1-2, a ring of merchants could make good money by buying out all available copies of a certain title, then re-introducing them at absurd prices.

Thoughts on this?
posted by calhound to Shopping (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Also when I say about my own book that my books are nowhere near rare, they're in-print, I also mean that my books are SOLD on Amazon... right there next to the Marketplace seller and at the $25 price.
posted by calhound at 11:45 AM on December 13, 2006

I've wondered this myself, but only noticed it getting really prevalent in the past 6 months. Before then, my sales were in line with the average price, now they're well below.
posted by bonaldi at 11:54 AM on December 13, 2006

I've noticed it also, are you sales touched? I assumed that there was something about the edition that I was missing (being a non-collector), or I assume money laundering of some sort.
posted by geoff. at 11:55 AM on December 13, 2006

I got nigh on fifty bucks for a beat-up paperback of Nick Cave's And the Ass Saw the Angel while it was out of print. Two months later it was back in print, much to my surprise.

There is no unwritten agreement not to bust prices.
posted by infinitewindow at 12:02 PM on December 13, 2006

the $336 one is autographed; since it's autographed without a personalized message, the resale value is higher.
posted by brina at 12:04 PM on December 13, 2006

I've seen this with out of print CDs. I think it's just greedy assholes doing whatever they can to drive up prices and artificially inflate the value of the product.

posted by drstein at 12:05 PM on December 13, 2006

hmm. nevermind last comment. seems all the expensive ones are autographed. not sure why one is so ridiculously expensive, especially since it doesn't seem to be first edition.
posted by brina at 12:05 PM on December 13, 2006

That Patriots book is weird...the listings at alibris are pretty much the same listings, and even those that aren't doubles are still priced high. Basically all the copies on Bookfinder are either Amazon or alibris copies. The prices on complete ebay auctions range from $26-$42. I'd say that at least in that case it's some strange supply and demand, with the number of reviews actually driving the price up rather than indicating the copies in circulation.
posted by OmieWise at 12:07 PM on December 13, 2006

Maybe one person made a typo, then other people copied it for their own listings, since it was the "going price".
posted by smackfu at 12:19 PM on December 13, 2006

In a former life I worked for a rare book dealer... If you read used/rare bookseller forums you will see conversations about this, basically two things are at work here:

1) If a book is hard to find even for a few days (ie if amazon runs out of stock and all of a sudden only used sellers have it) a seller will put it up for a crazy price in the hope that someone will NEED to have the book and have to order it for that artificially high price, it doesn't matter if you can find copies in used book stores or even elsewhere online, all that matters is that the book is rare on Amazon. This works actually. The thing about listing books is that you have a low cost of inventory once you've listed your book. It can be worth it to have a book listed for a year or more in hopes that it will net that crazy price. Some people only look at AMZN for books, shocking as it may seem.

2) The reason that often no one comes along and sets a more reasonable price for a book to get the sale is more complicated but basically you have two kinds of sellers on Amazon. One or two person operations and large warehouse dealers. The smaller operations mostly hope to sell a smaller amount of books for a higher price and put most of their efforts into scouting for books that will get them good prices. The larger warehouses can make a few pennies even if they sell a book for a cent because they get a little bit more for the shipping price than shipping in bulk actually costs. So they have to do huge volume to make this worthwhile, they have software that keeps lowering the offered price so they always have the lowest price listed for a book. If you look at amazon you will see used listing for tons of mass market bestsellers set at one penny, sometimes two and three pricing bots get in a war with each other and lower the price to a penny, cutting out the little guys who can't make anything on that kind of sale on what was formerly a book that the market priced at say $8 to $10 bucks consistently. So there is strong social pressure among the sellers in forums to NOT set a radically low price for a book as that will force any lurking price bot to undercut the price to nothing. So if there are two copies of a title listed at 200 bucks and I come along with a book I know is much more likely to sell if it's priced at 20 bucks and I want to make the quick sale, I would hesitate because I know that means I'll end up driving the price down to nothing if the warehouses enter that book into their software. It's sort of an informal price fixing that is partially influenced by software, kinda neat in the abstract, even though it sucks when you want a book and you don't want to pay a high price for it. Some people in the forums despise this price fixing but most look at as the free market at its best.

This isn't the only answer but it is a strong part of it.
posted by Divine_Wino at 12:26 PM on December 13, 2006 [6 favorites]

I've wondered this myself. There's a book I've been lusting after for years. It's part of a trilogy - I have both the first book and the third, just missing #2. That book is roughly $80 right now, and has been for the better part of 4 years. I refuse to pay $80 for a PAPERBACK BOOK that isn't even signed.

$30, maybe. $80? I refuse on principle.
posted by damnjezebel at 1:00 PM on December 13, 2006

I have seen it go the other way as well -- a book is listed very high, and drops gradually, which makes me think Divine_Wino's points are probably pretty valid. I'm still waiting for this particular book to drop lower though...
posted by sablazo at 1:12 PM on December 13, 2006

I almost paid way too much for a book via Amazon Marketplace. I buy pretty much everything I can on Amazon. It's got great service and if they don't have it in their catalog, it's probably not for sale. So I've been assuming that Amazon is just the best place.

In this case the book I was looking at was published right in my hometown by a museum, so I thought to check the museum. And they had copies for sale at a much lower price. But that was just look.

In other words, Amazon is so convenient that it removes the impetus to shop around. But sometimes the prices there are bad.
posted by Nelson at 1:26 PM on December 13, 2006

I think I know what's up. I sell CDs on and there are a few other sellers that I see doing this. One of them seems to have thousands of CDs listed and every for single one of them, they have the price set at $35 -- even though 90% of what they've listed is not going to sell at a price over $10.

Here's what I think is going on: This seller is a bricks-and-mortar store (or their primary venue is not Amazon, at least). I sell mainly on Amazon (and on a small scale) so I research the prices, etc., for each title. This other seller is just interested in using Amazon to find people who are willing to pay a premium for a specific title, so they just upload their entire inventory with a high price.

It doesn't cost anything if it doesn't sell. If they already have the inventory in a database, it takes very little effort to upload it to Amazon. They get the $35 sales where people are willing to pay that much, they don't have to bother the research to find out which CDs might get such a price on Amazon, and otherwise they sell to their regular customers.
posted by winston at 1:43 PM on December 13, 2006

calhound, cool question, and Divine_Wino, cool answer. A window into a fascinating little world I knew nothing about.

I <3 AskMe
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:02 PM on December 13, 2006

I noticed that people are selling fire truck board books for toddlers for $60 or more. They're just skimming the market. Some people are desperate to get their kid (or other giftee) the gift at the top of the wishlist. In other cases, there's some sort of need (business or otherwise) for someone to have a book. When people are pressed for time, some will pay the premium.

Also, some of these sellers are promising to get books to people before the holidays. Some online sellers are now only able to commit to getting books to major urban centres by a specific date.
posted by acoutu at 2:22 PM on December 13, 2006

I have seen this as well, and my pedestrian assumption is that some automated listing tool is pulling suggested pricing from some other (corrupted? outdated?) source rather than from what other things are listed for on Amazon.

(since it seems to me that the optimal listing price for a used book is $0.01 less than the cheapest other one in the same category, but what do I know?)

My tinfoilhat assumption is money laundering of some sort.
posted by phearlez at 2:43 PM on December 13, 2006

Kind of off topic but for those reading this thread who are looking for rare books you should check out Goodwill's website. As I understand it, all the books they get are sent to a central store where they are sorted. The crap gets sent back to the stores and the ones worth money are sold online.
posted by pwb503 at 3:12 PM on December 13, 2006

It might be sometimes just to catch people who are desperate. There have been a couple of times when I needed a book right away and the closest sellers had the price at 4-5 times what the normal listing price was, but I sprung for the book because I needed it immediately for a time-sensitive reference.
posted by perpetualstroll at 3:25 PM on December 13, 2006

In some cases (especially when the book is available online other places) it seems that people are listing books they know they can get their hands on if someone actually buys it for 80, 100, or even 300 dollars. Some of them may be leveraging costs that would make it worth the effort for them to find that book and then resell it to someone.

In other cases they may have set the price when they were the only one available (and thus had no competition to base a price off of) and simply not changed it when others got put into the system. As a fairly frequent amazon marketplace seller I can tell you that predicting what will sell and for what prices is night impossible for me. Whenever I list a bunch of books a ton of them seem to sell immediately, even if numerous others were available for similar prices. Maybe the volume on those titles is always high, but I can't fully explain it.
posted by haveanicesummer at 8:59 PM on December 13, 2006

It's occurred to me that since a lot of paperbacks run $1-2, a ring of merchants could make good money by buying out all available copies of a certain title, then re-introducing them at absurd prices.

I dunno, that strikes me as way too conspiratorial, and just a teensy bit absurd. It's not gonna happen with a mass-market paperback. I work at an antiquarian/used bookstore, and think you're probably overreacting, and conflating a number of different kinds of books into one off-target impression of the market.

For example, for a recently out of print paperback published in 1999, this listing shows 20 books ranging from $59 to $336.

Yeah, but it's an out-of-print book with strong appeal to a specialized survivalist market, from a small publisher in Louisiana, probably with one relatively small print run. It's not surprising that book is expensive.

my own book, which is in print and sells at $25, but starting in 2001 I saw a few marketplace sellers posting $200 for a used copy

There are always sellers who don't know the market, who misjudge a book's scarcity, or who just shoot for the stars. Spend some time at Bookfinder and you'll quickly see that ranges from $25 to $200 for a single book are not uncommon at all. Also, and perhaps most relevant to your question, don't forget that all of the *cheap* copies of Book X listed online are quickly being sold, and thus quickly disappear from search lists. The books you're consistently seeing listed at the high end of the scale stay there precisely because they're *not* the copies that are selling.
posted by mediareport at 10:37 PM on December 13, 2006

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