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Sunday night strangeness: why does an academic book about fruit flies cost $23,698,655.93 on Amazon?

Michael Eisen is a biologist, who studies the fruit fly drosophila with especial interest as nearly all biologists appear to do for some reason some of our learned readers will, I hope, explain to me. In his own words,

A few weeks ago a postdoc in my lab logged on to Amazon to buy the lab an extra copy of Peter Lawrence’s The Making of a Fly – a classic work in developmental biology that we – and most other Drosophila developmental biologists – consult regularly. The book, published in 1992, is out of print. But Amazon listed 17 copies for sale: 15 used from $35.54, and 2 new from $1,730,045.91 (+$3.99 shipping).

And the price was rising steeply almost as he watched. Why? I had often wondered this myself. Not that the development of the fruit fly has generally been my first choice for a riveting read, but I did once come gulpingly close to pressing the “Buy now with 1-Click” button for Connie Long’s Easy Guide to Sewing Linings before noticing just in time that it was going for more than two hundred pounds. It is now down to a mere £86 new / £44 used. I was kind of hoping for under £10. I am an idle waster who noted the strangeness and passed on; Doctor Eisen is a research scientist. He duly researched and explained all.

22 comments to Sunday night strangeness: why does an academic book about fruit flies cost $23,698,655.93 on Amazon?

  • M4-10

    Money laundering?

  • Laird

    Very interesting article. I had wondered about Amazon pricing. I have bought more than one used book on Amazon for $0.01 plus $3.99 shipping. My assumption was that they were making their money on the shipping, and had bought the book in bulk for next to nothing. That could still be the case, but it could also be that they use a pricing algorithm which automatically pushed the book price down to the minimum possible price (one cent) and I was lucky enough to buy the books before anyone noticed. That’s the problem with putting too much faith in technology. Computers do what you tell them to do, not what you want them to do.

  • the other rob

    This isn’t the first algorithmic death spiral on Amazon to be reported. IIRC The Register has written about it in the past.

  • Mr Ed

    As I was saying before a fat finger intervened, is the ‘workhorse’ of the genetics lab. It is a fruit fly, about the size of an ant, it lives for a few days, and reproduces rapidly, it has a relatively simple genome and it is readily observable under a light microscope, and a quick whiff of carbon dioxide will render it motionless for examination, from which it recovers rapidly. It has cornered the market in insect genetics in a way that Microsoft had a few years ago in business computing etc. I understand that pubs near genetics labs often have populations of particular weirdness as escaped mutants that make it to a pub may flourish in the yeasty/boozy environment and breed with other mutants.

    I often put a drop of my beer on a wooden surface in a pub to help the resident fruit flies along. I would not spend a vast amount of money on any book about them, they aren’t worth that much beer.

  • Jake Haye

    $1,730,045.91 (+$3.99 shipping)

    Perhaps the shipping includes the ship?

  • veryretired

    I don’t know—for anything over $25 I get free shipping. I have a hunch you’re getting screwed for that $3.99…

  • VR, you get free shipping on purchases over $25 only on items sold and shipped directly by Amazon, not by one of its many partners.

  • Stonyground

    I’m not sure if this is relevant but I was checking out a CD by prog band Trans Siberian Orchestra the other day and spotted that a copy was on offer for £3,000 along with the more realistically priced ones.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Thank you for your explanation, Mr Ed. During the period between you posting your first comment too soon and you posting the follow-up I kept obsessively checking if I had misspelled “drosophila”.

    Jake Haye, you don’t get much of a ship for a million dollars these days. Cheapskates, trying to fob us off with a crummy little Hinckley.

    General comment: it does make me laugh how some of the comments to the original post by Dr Eisen and other reports of the same story cite it as evidence of the “irrationality” of the free market. If you had told the same people ten years ago that some benign wizard, or some benign government, would make practically any book in the English language available for next day delivery, not to mention instantaneously available in a magic reading device, they would have regarded it as a beautiful but impossible fantasy. But when the free market in the form of Amazon and its rivals do exactly that, the existence of the odd amusing glitch is proof that the whole system is crazy.

  • Harry Powell

    Those one p or one cent guys on amazon are often charity resellers like Better World Books or World of Books who discount charity chain’s or other bookseller’s books. Their logistics must be prodigious, and they’re probably the future of book selling for all those Vinne Jones autobiographies. As far as dynamic pricing algorithms go you can (and I have) gamed them. If you notice a book that shifts in price a lot then list your own copy for 2p and within a few hours the other copy will be 1p. I know, I’m a stinker, but someday someone will buy my 2p book…

  • CaptDMO

    Oh yeah?
    Just WAIT until I put up my *sigh* parlor pump organ collection for bid.
    I’ll personally “run up” the price on the first one, and end up “re-owning” it for the cost of “shipping”, gaining all the appropriate social accolades for spending “stupid money” for such a “rare collectable artifact”, and somehow be lauded as an “expert” on such things.
    The NEXT four will go for “the going rate”, AND I’ll “resell” the first one for…say…one MILLION DOLLARS!
    Bwa ha ha ha ha.

    Now, about those paintings of flowers by relatively obscure artists from 500 years ago…
    (bought at yard sales…$US 5.00…for the frame.)
    VERY “rare”, and very…um….IMPORTANT.

    Only a FOOL would fail to see how EXQUISITE the Emperor’s New (Parlor Pump Organ) reflects upon his “station” in life, and wouldn’t try to get one of those VERY RARE items, AT EXORBITANT COST, to display how smart and important THEY are. (My “agent” will get 10%)

  • Fruit flies…

    1. They are dead easy and cheap to breed. You need mushed fruit and a container covered in gauze and a reasonble temperature and you can produce a Biblical plague of ‘em very quickly.

    2. They display very obvious discrete Mendelian variations (including sex-linked ones).

    These make them extremely good teaching tools for, say, A-Level (I know). This kind of becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy as far as higher-up study goes so they become a standard organism. This of course leads to positive feedback. For instance the fruit fly genome was sequenced way back so they are even more handy as a standard for genetics research because they are so well known.

    Oh, and they aren’t cute so PETA won’t call ‘em “Fruit-bowl Kittens” and the ALF won’t burn your lab down. But basically they are simple genetically so they are great for checking out an idea without all the huge complexities of something more complicated getting in the way.

    Hope that helps.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Ah, good old Drosophila melanogaster, beloved of high-school and college biology teachers since at least 1958. Drive-in movies, and cute guys with convertibles and duck-tails, and … fruit flies.

    Maybe we can get Kathleen Turner to star in a biopic, Romancing the Fruit Fly. Maybe send it to the schools as a more wholesome replacement for An Incovenient Truth.

  • Richard Thomas

    Similar but not directly related, some goods that are no longer in production are deliberately priced higher to exploit the wishlists. As I understand it, it goes something like this:

    1)Person X would kinda sorta like widget W, current cost $5, puts it in their wishlist
    2)Item is out of production, company Y lists for $3000
    3)Person Z, loving but slightly distant aunt of person X takes a look at person X’s wishlist, sees the widget listed for a high price, assumes it must be a rare collectible or somesuch that person X dearly wants and would pay the price if only they could afford it.
    4)Person X gets a $3000 gift worth $5 for Christmas. Company Y makes out like a bandit.

    I ran across quite a few complaints of this when I was looking for a Millenium Falcon that was selling for $60 at Walmart about 6 years ago. It was being listed for 4 figures on Amazon. Not that I am saying that people should not be able to sell for whatever they wish, only that it is possible to get caught out when assumptions are made (in this case that the wishlist represents what someone wants at the price they would pay for it).

  • Julie near Chicago

    Ummm–is Han Solo included in that Millenium Falcon? (Himself, not a copy.) If Chewie is also part of the deal, I’d kick in up to $ 90. :>)))

  • Julie near Chicago

    Wow, cool, Richard! I wish I were 13 again, with indulgent parents possessed of disposable income. Thanks for the link. :>)

    But as it is, it says “action figures” Han Solo and Chewbacca. Sorry, but if I’m gonna kick in up to $90, I want the real thing. Princess Leia will just have to deal with it.

  • Julie near Chicago

    It sure is. Wow! Thanks, Alisa. :>)))