Algorithmic book pricing and its implications

John Henry said to the captain,
“A man ain’t nothin’ but a man,
But before I let your algo beat me down,
I’ll die with a pencil in my hand
Lord, Lord
I’ll die with a pencil in my hand.”

Back in September the issue of algorithmic pricing surfaced in one of the ABA (Antiquarian Booksellers Association) email Bulletins. It came in response to a letter sent by a member to myself and the ABA office seeking an explanation for a strange phenomenon he had recently observed: out-of-print text books on sites like Amazon and AbeBooks were being listed at absurd prices, in some cases reaching into six figures.  He wondered if this might possibly be evidence of a new scam devised to fleece careless librarians who used automated ordering systems and may not be noticing the prices that they pay.  I suggested, instead, that the most likely explanation was that software, rather than human intelligence, was being used to price the books.

Shortly thereafter  the ABA newsletter editors, ever conscious of the need to fill pages, asked if I could elaborate on the subject for a forthcoming issue.  Having already exposed myself in the pose of someone who understood this depressing subject I did not then find myself in a position to refuse their request.  It is not a subject I would otherwise choose on my own, but here it is.

Let me say, right off, that what I know about this subject has no basis in personal bookselling experience.  I have never let a machine price my books or even been in the presence of a machine that I knew was programmed to do so.  I would be fascinated to hear a personal account from a colleague who had actually tried this with his own books, but I suspect that if there really is someone amongst us who has already ventured down this gloomy path he would be reluctant to step forward and tell us about it. So you are left with me.

Algorithmic pricing (also known as robo pricing) refers to the use of specialized computer programs  to automate the pricing of  books (or anything else for that matter).  The best known providers of these programs are Monsoon and Fillz. Once provided with the ISBN number of any book, either of these services can connect to the internet and retrieve the prices and other relevant information for all the copies of that book available on the major book sites.   This is, of course, an automated version of what most of the rest of us already do manually nearly every day.  But the robopricing engines take this one step further and include the ability to customise a small program (the “algorithim”) that processes all the data that it collects and spits out a price to match the particular instructions it was given.   It might, for instance, decide that it wants its copies to be priced at the exact median of all available copies (a bad strategy I would think) or to be 5 pence cheaper than any other copy, or half the average of any book with over 10 listings, or to be priced with virtually any other clever strategy the bookseller might conceive.  Moreover, the software  runs on a kind of auto-pilot that can continuously update prices online as things change, or even if they don’t .  The knowledge and experience of the bookseller plays no role in this operation.   Facts about the book itself are irrelevant.  All that is taken into consideration is the quantifiable information that can be gathered from the current online listings tied to a given ISBN.

The “algo” has no problems doing its job as long as it is given data to process,  but the situation can become  “interesting” when there are little or no other copies available for it to price against. Then anything is possible.  This was almost certainly the situation with the books that the concerned member was noticing. With nothing real to go on, the algorithm just went fishing with a very optimistic idea of what price might be possible.  It did not have to do this, of course.  The algorithm could have been designed with more reasonable expectations.  In this case it was just badly designed, and the result was a book that would not sell, at least until the algorithm decided to bring it back down to earth, which it probably eventually did.

An even crazier situation can result when there are only two copies of the same book available at the same time and both are being priced by algorithms that require their copy to always be the second least expensive available.  (Or the most expensive, though I doubt that actually occurs)  Books in this circumstance have been known to reach prices in the millions.

When this happens to a rare but insignificant book it may be good for a snicker or a chuckle, but in the end it is probably harmless.   What robo pricing does at other end of the scale, however, is much more significant and, increasingly, pervasive.   This is because the algorithms are really designed to drive prices down rather than up. They are meant to find the price at which an item is most likely to sell, and that price is almost always the lowest price. When there are hundreds, or even just dozens of identical copies available it is a clear sign that the supply of that book greatly exceeds the demand.   In that case, the successful algorithm will be the one that prices a copy at the lowest possible price.  If multiple sellers are using similar algorithms  then it is likely the price will drop to a penny, or whatever is set as the minimum price for that particular site.

The issue of profit may be irrelevant in this case.  It is probably more a question of minimizing final costs.  Once a book has been purchased, entered into the system, and determined to be too common to sell, it then becomes a question of cutting the bookseller’s loss.  Does it produce the least loss to cull and pulp it, indefinitely allocate a section of finite shelf space for it, or sell it in return for 1p + postage + the email address and personal details of someone now known to buy second-hand books.  In many cases it will be the one penny sale.   This is probably the kind of decision a machine can make much better than a human.

Fortunately, hardly any of us ever have to deal with books of that sort.  But there are books that fall somewhere between the two extremes described above, and it is with these that the robo pricers expose a new reality that most of us will need to understand and, in a some cases, adapt to.

In the past, the price of a given book, usually pencilled onto the fly leaf,  was set by the seller at a carefully considered figure he believed one of his potential customers might eventually be induced to pay for it.  At the point of sale, in most cases, only one copy and one price would be involved in the decision to purchase.   Unless sold to another customer, the book that was refused one day would almost always have the same price two weeks, two months or two years later.  This is the way most retail products have traditionally been priced, and second-hand booksellers were no exception.  The arrival of the internet  changed this in at least one important respect:  the seller, for the first time, had easy access to the prices and other details of all the copies being offered by his competitors at that moment  and could set his own price on that basis.

There had always been something that you could call a “marketplace” for old books, but before the internet it operated in a dense fog.    Some historical information about the prices of books existed in auction records, price guides and in the proprietary memories of booksellers.  Generally accessible information about current availability and prices, however, did not exist.  There was no real marketplace where public knowledge of current prices and supply was available to all participants.   By making that information available in real time the internet changed  the “marketplace” for rare and second-hand books from a metaphor to a reality.

We are all now dealing with the enormous disruption that results from this.  Our accustomed ability to operate as free traders outside the pricing forces of an open marketplace is continuously challenged and reduced.  Only the portion of the book trade that deals in genuinely rare books escapes these pressures.

It would be merciful to leave the story there and not look further ahead, but the subject I started with cannot really be closed without noting one further aspect in which algorithmic pricing significantly alters the business of selling books: commoditisation.  Algorithms can set their prices dynamically.  The idea that you pencil a price into a book and then leave it there until it’s sold may soon become a quaint anachronism.   And when a book price can change dynamically on the basis of all the other prices that are also continuously changing it creates a pricing process where the acquired knowledge of booksellers is, ultimately, unnecessary, if not useless.  In that circumstance the book becomes a commodity plain and simple.  As with any commodity exchange, the market sets the price and the human participants are only there to record the transactions, collect the money and arrange delivery.  On the product side, Amazon has, of course, been treating books as commodities in this respect from it’s very beginning.  When dynamic pricing engines come to set the price of a given ISBN or ASIN in an open online marketplace then the transformation, for that book at least, is complete.

Our one consolation is that this commoditisation, if it does indeed take place, will most likely be restricted to books that have ISBN numbers and always have at least a few similar copies for sale online.  I suspect that there are very few ABA members who derive a major portion of their income from online sales of books like these.   They can be thankful that they do not.  But for the portion of the online book trade that does not regularly handle rare or pre-ISBN books the future may not be so bright.

(Updated July 16, 2018)

viaLibri profiled in Business Weekly, demonstrating that the future of paper is still secure.

Business Weekly (“The Voice of Europe’s Innovation Capital – The East of England”) has just published an article about viaLibri.

It always feels a bit odd seeing yourself through the prism of other people’s interests and world view.  This was no exception, but I am not about to complain. I’m always happy when someone takes an interest in what I am doing, especially when they are approaching it from outside the generally biblio-centric universe I usually inhabit.   There was, naturally,  the inevitable interest in identifying the oldest books available, but I was spared having to also identify the most expensive.  Instead, the interviewer was curious to know about what countries the oldest books came from, and where they ended up.  That was actually an interesting question which I might have enjoyed answering at length, but I restrained myself.  Perhaps I will blog about it on another day.

Being interviewed was an interesting experience.  This publication is focused, in particular, on the fast growth, innovation-driven business community that is part of the technology cluster that has developed around Cambridge, England, where we are now based.  The people at the centre of it are working with stuff like genomes,  artificial intelligence and all the impossible to understand inventions that brainy people come up with when they start out doing pure research and then suddenly realize “hey, we could actually make something really useful out of this.”  Writing about all these freshly minted venture-backed technology companies and their more mature science park neighbors is what Business Weekly normally does.  Interviewing me was a bit off their usual beat.

So, as might be expected, the reporter was especially interested in knowing how viaLibri fit in with the well-reported march of disruptive technology as it applies to printed books.  He wondered if the growth of digital media and the reported death of paper might mean there was no future for books.  My opinion, of course, was to the contrary, and I was happy for the opportunity express it to an audience that might be thinking otherwise.

But what pleased me most was the discovery that Business Weekly itself offered irrefutable testimony to the superiority of paper over screen.  Because, you see, it is still a product of the printing press.  Of course, it now also has an online version, but that is a far less satisfactory product, albeit a far cheaper one to produce and distribute.   The article about viaLibri shows this.  In the printed version the article takes up all of page 4 (apart from an advertisement), and includes a large photograph in the middle.  In the photograph I am holding an interesting old book.  It is, moreover, a folio.  (The cheerleaders for ebooks are, of course, silent on the subject of folios).  The version of the article which appears on the website also has its picture, but the constraints of pixel and screen dictated that it had to be cropped.  The picture you see there shows only my head and shoulders.  The book I am holding is nowhere in sight.

Unfortunately, I cannot offer you a link to the printed version. That technology does not yet exist.  However, there is something else that I can link  to which will allow my point to be demonstrated quite well.  In addition to its ink and paper edition Business Weekly also appears in an “epaper” version. This is an exact digital facsimile of the printed version which allows you to “leaf” through its pages to the accompaniment of an annoying scratching/scraping sound.  If you scrape the epaper version of this week’s edition to page 4 you will see an image of the article, with the full photograph, as it also appears in print.  The epaper will show you what the website version has lost.

epaper version of Business Weekly

But you will not be able to actually read the epaper version because the type is much too small.  To make it legible you must zoom in.  That gives you type that is big enough to read, but forces you to scroll all over the page and read the text through what is, essentially, a moveable rectangular peep-hole. It is not a satisfying way to read.  Why? Because Business Weekly is a folio, as any good newspaper should be. epaper only comes in one format: small.  It is inextricably constrained by the dimensions of the screen on which it is displayed.  Folio is out of the question.  For that you need paper, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Which is one of many reasons why I think, for books at least, the future of paper is still secure.

May we please have our description back?

Plagiarism has been in the air lately.  Its latest draft blows our way from a recent report in the Guardian about an award-winning poet whose award-winning poem (with many others) turns out to have been written by someone else.  And he wasn’t even the first prize-winning British copy-cat poet this year.

You might expect otherwise, but the latest victim, Canadian poet Colin Morton, is more puzzled than angered by what seems to be a growing trend. Why steal a poem, of all things? Well, there was a prize, but the imposter has had to give it back.  It has not been mentioned whether Morton now gets the prize money instead. He is probably disqualified by some technicality, but I doubt he will complain. Poets are like that.

And besides, in most cases when this sort of thing comes to light the author whose work was cribbed does not actually suffer as a consequence.  If anything, his stature is enhanced and his creative work receives public attention that might never have come to it otherwise. It was, after all, the poem’s previous lack of recognition that made it suitable for theft.  No more.  One can well imagine that it has been read more times during the  last two weeks than during the first 30 years following its publication.   Its author has become, for the moment at least, a celebrity among his peers

All of which I would not have thought worth commenting on if it had not been for a book we almost bought at about the same time.

The book was Les Jardins Precieux by Raymond Charmaison, a copy of which appeared at auction in Paris last week. It is a book we know well.  There is not much to it in the way of text, but the 8 large plates are a tour de force of pochoir color printing. It is a beautiful book that begs for display, or, unfortunately,  for sacrifice to the framer.  If you happen to be in possession of a copy of Hinck & Wall Catalogue # 54 (“Garden History,” copyright 2002) you will find a lengthier and even more enthusiastic description of it at item number 29.  For those who do not have a copy readily at hand I will reproduce our description here:

Edition limited to 300 numbered copies. Illustrated with eight stunning pochoir plates colored by Jean Saudé. Each plate presents a garden view focused on a special garden feature – a yew walk, an oil jar, a berceau, etc. – rendered in the richest colors of the pochoir technique: for example, the “Salle Verte” is a profound green hedge room with a yellow sky and a pool reflecting all the green variation as well as the vibrant color combinations of the flower plantings in the setting; the rose trellis is set against a star-lit, full-mooned midnight blue sky, again with pool reflections and with a rich parterre and border planting colors. These imaginary “Precious Gardens” are a testament to the power of the printed book as a vehicle for transporting the viewer/reader into the garden and a world of dreams. As Henri Régnier observes in the book’s gold-printed preface, “Il contient quelques feuilles avec des lignes and des couleurs, à peine les aurez vous considerées que vous serez transporté dans un pays de lumière et de soliel...” Pierre Corrard, novelist and poet, established his publishing house in 1912 and began working with such noted illustrators of the day as Georges Barbier, Charles Martin and A.E. Marty. After his death his wife, Nicole Corrard, resumed his publishing efforts under the name “Collection Pierre CorrardSuccessive issues of “ALBUM DES MODES ET MANIERES D’AUJOURD’HUI and similar luxury productions made the house’s fame. Much as their luxurious pochoir renderings of fashion designs helped express the artistry of French haute couture during this period, so did the stunning plates of LES JARDINS PRÉCIEUX give graphic expression to the new artistic visions of the “jardins d’artiste.”

It is, I think I can say, a nice book. We had easily sold our first copy and so thought we might like to buy another.   Naturally, before making a bid, we checked on viaLibri to see if any other copies might already be for sale.  We were not surprised to discover that there were.  What did surprise us, however, was how familiar the descriptions sounded.   Ann Marie had written our catalogue description over 10 years ago, but she immediately recognized her own words and comments in the current listings she found online.

Ignoring the framed prints, there were, in fact, two different copies offered for sale, and each of them included significant chunks  that had apparently been copied from our original description. But not all the same chunks. In neither case had we been consumed whole. Instead, we had served more as a banquet at which the two cataloguers had each picked out just those dishes that appealed to them the most.  Some other parts were, on the other hand, completely ignored.  Perhaps those were parts that we still needed to improve.  We were never told. But if you are curious to know the parts which did satisfy the standards of these particular plagiarists you will find them in boldface in the excerpt above.

All this is nothing new.  I probably would not have thought about it further if I had not made this discovery on the same day that I read the story in the Guardian.   At first I looked at the obvious parallels and thought that, in some diluted way, our copied catalogue description might be like a stolen poem.  I quickly realized, however, that it is not.

In truth, no one can steal a poem.  Once you have written it and shown it to the world you can always put your name on it and claim it for your own.  And that seems to be true of almost any published work that later comes into the grasp of a plagiarist.  Once the author reclaims his authorship the plagiarist is readily exposed.  An author never loses the ability to republish or recite what is rightfully his.

But I now see that there is an exception…

Once a catalogue description has been copied online it is, for all intents and purposes, no longer available to its creator.  In our case, we can no longer use our description of Les Jardins Precieux.  How could we?  If we tried to catalogue another copy our potential customers would almost certainly do what we did: they would check first to see what other copies were available online.  Doing this they would find two others  described with the same words we were presenting as our own.  Two thirds of our description would appear to be plagiarized from other booksellers.  Any expertise or integrity we might previously have had in our customers eyes would be destroyed.  That is something we dare not risk.


As I said before, plagiarism is nothing new.   The internet has, however, significantly changed its dynamics, both for the good and the bad.  Much of the commentary about Morton’s stolen poem focused on this.   One the one hand,  the plagiarist is presumed to have found the poems (there were many) by searching online.  This is certainly where the lazy booksellers hunt and trap.  A quick cut and paste and it’s theirs.  They will not always be foolish enough to copy current online listings, but any unlisted item that can be found by Google is regarded as fair game, especially if it doesn’t show up on the first one or two pages of results.

On the other hand, the internet is an equally powerful tool for discovering that copying has taken place.  The first stolen poem discovered in the most recent case was recognized  by its author at an online poetry site.  After that, it only took an hour to find a dozen more.  Obviously, internet search tools make this sort of theft much harder to get away with.  It may mean the end of an era, at least as far as poetry plagiarism is concerned.

It is an encouraging thought, and it inevitably lead me to wonder whether internet search engines might not at some point also bring a similar benefit to antiquarian booksellers.  Unfortunately, I tend to think not, at least as things stand now.   The reason is that, in order for the plagiarists to be easily exposed, the original material that they copy must be easily found.  At present, booksellers do everything they can to keep their descriptions off of the internet once the books are sold.  They do this precisely because they do not want others to copy them.   But the plagiarists will find them anyway, especially if they also once appeared in printed catalogues, as much of the most useful specialist material has always done.  By hiding their intellectual property from easy online discovery the only thing they really accomplish is making it safer for plagiarists  to use their material without fear of exposure.  Hiding material from search engines will become an increasingly futile task as the age of Big Data rolls forward. In the long run, the only protection that will work will be one that makes is it harder and harder for plagiarism to go undetected when it occurs.

Most booksellers claim copyright for their catalogue contents, and a few even threaten legal action against violators.  The law may be on their side, but I have never heard of a bookseller actually taking a plagiarism claim to court.  Copyright is, it seems, a toothless protection.

But I have an idea for something that might actually provide the protection that copyright alone does not.  As you might expect, it involves, once again, the internet.  If that is where the crimes are now being committed, that is where we should put our cops to work.  What I have in mind is a descriptive bibliographic database where booksellers can publish all their copyrighted descriptions in a way that clearly establishes priority and ownership.  It would be a public place where you can claim what is yours.  But it would also be much more than that.  If enough booksellers participated, an open searchable database of this nature would soon constitute a valuable bibliographic reference that collectors, librarians, students and scholars could use for all types of research.  It would make a useful permanent resource out of information that is now mostly ephemeral.  It would also be a magnet for anyone with an interest in old books.  An entry could be freely quoted, but only with complete and unambiguous attribution to the bookseller who was its source.    This wouldn’t make it impossible to plagiarize, but any booksellers who tried to use these descriptions as if they were their own would be soon exposed.  Once established, I would expect the incidence of plagiarism in book cataloguing to decline dramatically, at least among any booksellers who hoped to claim a reputation for expertise and integrity.

And if such a database existed today we would still be able to use our own words to describe our next copy of Les Jardins Precieux.  What Ann Marie had created would once again be hers.

This is my suggestion.  I think it is a good idea.  As it happens, I also have the means to put such a thing in place, but only if I knew that there were others who agreed and were willing to join in.  I am now, as they say “all ears”.