At first glance, getting ahold of a copy of One Snowy Knight, a historical romance novel by Deborah MacGillivray, isn't hard at all. You can get the book, which originally came out in 2009, for a few bucks on Amazon. And yet according to one seller, a used copy of the book is worth more than $2600. Why? As The New York Times reports, this price disparity has more to do with the marketing techniques of Amazon's third-party sellers than it does the market value of the book.
As of June 5, a copy of One Snowy Knight was listed by a third-party seller on Amazon for $2630.52. By the time the Times wrote about it on July 15, the price had jumped to $2800. That listing has since disappeared, but a seller called Supersonic Truck still has a used copy available for $1558.33 (plus shipping!). And it's not even a rare book—it was reprinted in July.
The Times found similar listings for secondhand books that cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars more than their market price. Those retailers might not even have the book on hand—but if someone is crazy enough to pay $1500 for a mass-market paperback that sells for only a few dollars elsewhere, that retailer can make a killing by simply snapping it up from somewhere else and passing it on to the chump who placed an order with them.
Not all the prices for used books on Amazon are so exorbitant, but many still defy conventional economic wisdom, offering used copies of books that are cheaper to buy new. You can get a new copy of the latest edition of One Snowy Knight for $16.99 from Amazon with Prime shipping, but there are third-party sellers asking $24 to $28 for used copies. If you're not careful, how much you pay can just depend on which listing you click first, thinking that there's not much difference in the price of used books. In the case of One Snowy Knight, there are different listings for different editions of the book, so you might not realize that there's a cheaper version available elsewhere on the site.
Even looking at reviews might not help you find the best listing for your money. People tend to buy products with the most reviews, rather than the best reviews, according to recent research, but the site is notorious for retailers gaming the system with fraudulent reviews to attract more buyers and make their way up the Amazon rankings. (There are now several services that will help you suss out whether the reviews on a product you're looking at are legitimate.)
For more on how Amazon's marketplace works—and why its listings can sometimes be misleading—we recommend listening to this episode of the podcast Reply All, which has a fascinating dive into the site's third-party seller system.
[h/t The New York Times]