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How Bots Seized Control of My Pricing Strategy

Before I talk about my own troubles, let me tell you about another book, “Computer Game Bot Turing Test”. It's one of over 100,000 “books” “written” by a Markov chain running over random Wikipedia articles, bundled up and sold online for a ridiculous price. The publisher, Betascript, is notorious for this kind of thing.
A story about computer science
and other improbable things.

It gets better. There are whole species of other bots that infest the Amazon Marketplace, pretending to have used copies of books, fighting epic price wars no one ever sees. So with “Turing Test” we have a delightful futuristic absurdity: a computer program, pretending to be human, hawking a book about computers pretending to be human, while other computer programs pretend to have used copies of it. A book that was never actually written, much less printed and read.

The internet has everything.

This would just be an interesting anecdote, except that bot activity also seems to affect books that, you know, actually exist. Last year I published my children's book about computer science, Lauren Ipsum. I set a price of $14.95 for the paperback edition and sales have been pretty good. Then last week I noticed a marketplace bot offering to sell it for $55.63. “Silly bots”, I thought to myself, “must be a bug”. After all, it's print-on-demand, so where would you get a new copy to sell?

Then it occured to me that all they have to do is buy a copy from Amazon, if anyone is ever foolish enough to buy from them, and reap a profit. Lazy evaluation, made flesh. Clever bots!

Then another bot piled on, and then one based in the UK. They started competing with each other on price. Pretty soon they were offering my book below the retail price, and trying to make up the difference on “shipping and handling". I was getting a bit worried.

The punchline is that Amazon itself is a bot that does price-matching. Soon after the marketplace bot's race to the bottom, it decided to put my book on sale! 28% off. I can't wait to find out what that does to my margin. (Update: nothing, it turns out. Amazon is eating the entire discount. This is a pleasant surprise.)

My reaction to this algorithmic whipsawing has settled down to a kind of helpless bemusement. I mean, the plot of my book is about how understanding computers is the first step to taking control of your life in the 21st century. Now I don't know what to believe.

It's possible that the optimal price of Lauren Ipsum is, in fact, ten dollars and seventy-six cents and I should just relax and trust the tattooed hipster who wrote Amazon's pricing algorithm. After all, I no longer have a choice. The price is now determined by the complex interaction of several independent computer programs, most of which don't actually have a copy to sell.

But I can't help but think about that old gambler's proverb: “If you can't spot the sucker, it's you.”

Update, 29 Feb: The Goodwill Industries of Greater Nebraska has jumped into the ring, offering a used copy of Ipsum for $12.18. I believe this one. It mentions that their copy is signed by both me and the illustrator. We sold about 250 signed copies during our Kickstarter campaign, and 2 or 3 went to Nebraska.

Translations: Hebrew, Japanese

Like what you read? Lauren Ipsum is a children's story about computer science. Buy a copy, and you'll be helping us translate it into Spanish, Portuguese, and other languages.