The $23 Million Textbook

Martin is a contributing news editor and writer based in Amsterdam

The Making of a Fly, by Peter Lawrence of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, is a classic in the field of developmental biology. But is a single copy really worth $23,698,655, the price one seller was asking last week on Amazon.com? No—but that's what happens when a mindless algorithm sets the price.

University of California, Berkeley, evolutionary biologist Michael Eisen realized a few weeks ago that the book's price was hitting the stratosphere when a postdoc in his lab wanted to order an extra copy. The book, written in 1992, is out of print, but third-party sellers on Amazon still had 17 copies in stock. As Eisen writes on his blog, the site featured "15 used from $35.54, and 2 new from $1,730,045.91 (+$3.99 shipping)."

Eisen thought the number had to be a grad student's prank, but the two sellers seemed legitimate. And when he started tracking the book's soaring price, he discovered an odd pattern: Whenever one seller changed the price of the book, the other seller reacted by offering the book at 99.83% of that price. In response, the first seller automatically started asking 127% of the other seller's new price—and so on. The price peaked on 18 April before a human being intervened and the prices came back to earth.

"It's funny, isn't it," Lawrence told ScienceInsider. "I was hoping it would go up to a billion." Algorithmic pricing is not unusual, Eisen says, noting that Amazon practices it on a large scale.

Lawrence confesses that he looks on Amazon "out of curiosity" from time to time to monitor sales of his book. But he had missed the hyperinflation until Eisen sent him a screenshot of its Web page. And Lawrence says Eisen's desire to order a copy of the 1992 handbook suggests that, despite 2 decades of breathtaking advances in developmental biology, he succeeded at his intention to "write a book that lasts."

Although his publisher has refused to reprint the classic despite steady demand, Lawrence is not deterred. "I may have it reprinted myself," he says.

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