Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The 23 Million Dollar Book

Even in an age of upended electronic book sales numbers, these ones are pretty crazy. The Making of a Fly, essentially a biology textbook, published by Wiley Blackwell in 1992, ended up being flogged on Amazon for over $23 million earlier this month. The answer to the question is not held in the product description of The Making of a Fly:
Understanding how a multicellular animal develops from a single cell (the fertilized egg) poses one of the greatest challenges in biology today. Development from egg to adult involves the sequential expression of virtually the whole of an organism's genetic instructions both in the mother as she lays down developmental cues in the egg, and in the embryo itself. Most of our present information on the role of genes in development comes from the invertebrate fruit fly, Drosophila.
Not exactly the stuff Da Vinci Codes are made of. So what happened? According to CNN.com, “it appears it was sparked by a robot price war.”

Go on…
[Evolutionary biologist and blogger Michael] Eisen watched the robot price war from April 8 to 18 and calculated that two booksellers were automatically adjusting their prices against each other.

One equation kept setting the price of the first book at 1.27059 times the price of the second book, according to Eisen's analysis, which is posted in detail on his blog.

The other equation automatically set its price at 0.9983 times the price of the other book. So the prices of the two books escalated in tandem into the millions, with the second book always selling for slightly less than the first. (Not that that matters much when you're selling a book about flies for millions of dollars).

The incident highlights a little-known fact about e-commerce sites such as Amazon: Often, people don't create and update prices; computer algorithms do.
In case you’re wondering, the pricing has been brought back to more or less normal now.


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