Carlos Bueno wrote a book called Lauren Ipsum. It’s a book about understanding computers for kids. He priced it at about $14 and offered it as a print-on-demand title and ebook. All was going well, books were selling, when suddenly he noticed a few copies were being offered for $55 or more. But there were no copies to be sold at that price and presumably someone selling a used copy would reduce the price, not increase it.
What was happening was that a bot had found the book and priced it at some ridiculous level – $45 at last count. Bueno was bemused, at best, and realized that bots had found the book and were essentially running a price war amongst themselves in order to offer the same print-on-demand book Bueno was offering at a massively inflated price. They were, in short, going to buy the $14 book and resell it for forty dollars more.
As the bots fought, they reduced the price to below retail in order to grab sales. They hoped to make up the difference in shipping costs. Suddenly Amazon noticed the resulting power play and the company’s own bots reduced the price to below their price. Now Amazon is selling below Bueno’s price and still giving him $14 per book.
It’s no wonder publishing is so screwed up right now. With robots fighting over their profits and Amazon undercutting authors and then paying back the difference, it must seem like Battlestar Galactica to some Art History grad working through the slush pile. “Will this book sell well to the robots in Germany?” they think instead of “Man, this is some good writing.”