Pay $3,200 or $1.35 for the same book

Shoppers at an Amazon bookstore in Washington, US.The retailer directly sells some books, while others are sold by third parties like booksellers who mark the price of books online to four figures.
Shoppers at an Amazon bookstore in Washington, US.The retailer directly sells some books, while others are sold by third parties like booksellers who mark the price of books online to four figures.PHOTO: AFP

Wild book prices can be found in the Amazon bookstore. Some sellers are trying to justify exorbitant prices by making some books appear scarce

SAN FRANCISCO • Many booksellers on Amazon strive to sell their wares as cheaply as possible. That, after all, is usually how you make a sale in a competitive marketplace.

Other merchants favour a counterintuitive approach: Mark the price up to the moon.

Zowie, the romance author Deborah Macgillivray wrote on Twitter last month after she discovered copies of her 2009 novel, One Snowy Knight, being offered for four figures.

One was going for "US$2,630.52 & Free Shipping", she noted. Since other copies of the paperback were being sold elsewhere on Amazon for as little as US$0.99 (S$1.35) , she was perplexed.

"How many really sell at that price? Are they just hoping to snooker some poor soul?" Macgillivray wrote in an e-mail.

Amazon is by far the largest marketplace for both new and used books the world has ever seen, and is also one of the most inscrutable. The retailer directly sells some books, while others are sold by third parties. The wild pricing happens with the latter.

"Amazon is driving us insane with its willingness to allow third-party vendors to sell authors' books with zero oversight," said Ms Vida Engstrand, director of communications for Kensington, which published One Snowy Knight.

"It's maddening and just plain wrong."

The wild book prices were in the remote corners of the Amazon bookstore that the retailer does not pay much attention to, said Mr Guru Hariharan, chief executive of Boomerang Commerce, which develops artificial intelligence technology for retailers and brands.

Third-party sellers, he said, come in all shapes and sizes - from well-respected national brands that are trying to maintain some independence from Amazon to entrepreneurial individuals who use Amazon's marketplace as an arbitrage opportunity.

These sellers list products they have access to, adjusting price and inventory to drive profits.

Then there are the wild-pricing specialists, who sell both new and secondhand copies.

"By making these books appear scarce, they are trying to justify the exorbitant price that they have set," said Mr Hariharan, who led a team responsible for 15,000 online sellers when he worked at Amazon a decade ago.

Amazon said in a statement that "we actively monitor and remove" offers that violate its policies. It declined to detail what its policies were.

A decade ago, Elisabeth Petry wrote a tribute to her mother, renowned novelist Ann Petry. At Home Inside, published by the University of Mississippi Press, is now out of print, but late last week secondhand copies were for sale on Amazon.

A discarded library copy was US$1,900. One seller offered two copies, each for US$1,967, although only one was described as "Nice!". All these were a bargain compared with the copy that cost US$2,464.

"I wish I had some of that money," Petry said.

Buying books on Amazon can be confusing, because sometimes the same book can have more than one listing.

For instance, a search for the Petry book turned up another listing. This time, there was just one copy for sale, which cost a mere US$691. Whether a customer paid that price or three times that sum apparently depended on what listing he found.

"Let's be honest," said Mr Peter Andrews, a former Amazon brand specialist who is manager of international client services at One Click Retail, a consulting firm.

"If I'm selling a US$10 book for US$610, all I need to do is get one person to buy it and I've made US$600. It's just a matter of setting prices and wishful thinking."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 17, 2018, with the headline 'Pay $3,200 or $1.35 for the same book'. Print Edition | Subscribe