's many bots feud over book-prices

Carlos Bueno, author of a kids' book about understanding computers called Lauren Ipsum, describes what happens when the cadre of competing bots that infest Amazon's sales-database began to viciously fight with one another over pricing for his book. It's a damned weird story.

Before I talk about my own troubles, let me tell you about another book, “Computer Game Bot Turing Test”. It's one of over 100,000 “books” “written” by a Markov chain running over random Wikipedia articles, bundled up and sold online for a ridiculous price. The publisher, Betascript, is notorious for this kind of thing.

It gets better. There are whole species of other bots that infest the Amazon Marketplace, pretending to have used copies of books, fighting epic price wars no one ever sees. So with “Turing Test” we have a delightful futuristic absurdity: a computer program, pretending to be human, hawking a book about computers pretending to be human, while other computer programs pretend to have used copies of it. A book that was never actually written, much less printed and read.

The internet has everything.

This would just be an interesting anecdote, except that bot activity also seems to affect books that, you know, actually exist. Last year I published my children's book about computer science, Lauren Ipsum. I set a price of $14.95 for the paperback edition and sales have been pretty good. Then last week I noticed a marketplace bot offering to sell it for $55.63. “Silly bots”, I thought to myself, “must be a bug”. After all, it's print-on-demand, so where would you get a new copy to sell?

Then it occured to me that all they have to do is buy a copy from Amazon, if anyone is ever foolish enough to buy from them, and reap a profit. Lazy evaluation, made flesh. Clever bots!

Then another bot piled on, and then one based in the UK. They started competing with each other on price. Pretty soon they were offering my book below the retail price, and trying to make up the difference on "shipping and handling". I was getting a bit worried.

Sidebar: Lauren Ipsum sounds so interesting, I've just ordered a copy to read to my daughter!

How Bots Seized Control of My Pricing Strategy (via JWZ)


  1. The real punchline is that at the same time, Amazon is trying to AOL-ify its vendors, jacking up their margin, meanwhile the environment their site has engendered makes them a *worse* marketplace for their vendors.

  2. I recently tried to buy an obscure type of solid state drive on Amazon for my University job. I looked up a good price, then gave the requisition form to my buyer. He started to place the order, but the price had gone up by $40 in that hour. Maybe these folks never heard of buyers needing requisitions with accurate prices on them?

    I eventually placed the order with a non-Amazon vendor, since the Amazon affiliate bots seem determined to shoot themselves in the metal foot.

  3. ” Pretty soon they were offering my book below the retail price, and trying to make up the difference on “shipping and handling”.”

    Not likely since Amazon sets the shipping fees that Marketplace vendors have to abide by.

    1. A hardcover book is $3.99 for S and H. 10 to 15 cents for the envelope, ~$2.50 for media mail postage. > $1 profit on the S and H.

        1. I’ve never quite figured out how I can buy hardcover books for $1 on eBay.  And yet, there are a hell of a lot them for sale.

          1.  I’m pretty sure you’d have to charge $1.87 shipping minimum to break even on a $1 book (after eBay & Paypal fees, 1lb Media shipping, and you stole the book and the envelope).

            There’s some kind of bulk mail discount through USPS, but I’m not sure how it works and it can’t be all that much. I’m sort of inclined to believe it’s really elaborate money laundering.

      1.  Amazon charges $1.35 transaction fee in addition to a 15% commission on the sale price of the book. The transaction fee makes it almost impossible to profit off of the shipping reimbursement. If a book is light and skinny enough to ship First Class Package you can maybe clear a dollar on shipping and handling but in virtually all cases the combined cost of shipping and the transaction fee eats up the whole of the shipping reimbursement.

        If you’re in the business of selling textbooks, which most high volume Amazon marketplace sellers are, then a great deal of the profit made on shipping smaller items is needed to offset the frequent expedited orders for large textbooks. In those cases you lose about $3.50 per item on the cost of shipping.

        For large enough sellers who ship around 200+ media mail items a day, there is the possibility of arranging for pre-sorted media mail to lower the per item shipping cost enough to clear a small profit on the shipping reimbursement, though most of that will go to the labor, software, and possible infrastructure costs of dealing with pre-sorted mail (the postal service might make you drop off your presorted packages yourself rather than coming out to pick them up).

    2. For a seller like say, me, that’s true. But if you ever check out the Featured Merchants sub-section under New, there’s definitely leeway in S&H pricing for the Big Sellers.

    1. I’m glad I found out what was up. I came across something like that and I thought it was some badly translated and marketed work. (based only on the amazon page info)

  4. put a self-published two-book set on Amazon in December, $16.95 each new.  for about a week someone had a used copy available for $999.95.  perhaps this is the i’ll-buy-a-bunch-of-lottery-tickets bot at work.

    1. I had the same thing happen with a book I self-pubbed on – it was selling for around a thousand dollars, but now they’re only asking 27.00 – still three times the cover price, but for a first edition of my first book, quite a steal.

  5. Bots also cross over vendors:  my old time string band CD on CDBaby was crossed over onto Amazon by a bot and sold for 3 times the prices: $35 plus.  They, of course, bought it on CDBaby and had it shipped to the Amazon customer.
    I of course set up an Amazon marketplace account to get around that.

  6. The Amazon pricing algorithms are getting especially interesting now that Amazon offers buyback of their books.  One imagines that the total liability that Amazon has, if everyone decided to sell them their entire catalog of books back to them, would be larger than Amazon’s actual operating budget.

    Of course it’s possible that they have a warehouse full of laid off used books salespeople constantly jiving to set the prices for millions of books, butits probably just an algorithm. If only I knew what algorithms they were!

  7. I initially found the idea of the book interesting, but was somewhat discouraged when the online sample chapter appeared to be a ripoff of Gödel, Escher, Bach. Might still read it anyway.

    1. (author here) that chapter is a play on What the Tortoise Said to Achilles, by Lewis Carroll. GEB was inspired by the same story. In math writing, those two are very common stock characters, esp when talking about infinity.

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