Why are some books so expensive on Amazon?

Last Updated on January 16, 2023 by Dave Farquhar

Books are expensive, but some books are a whole other universe of expensive. There are generally three reasons for that. I don’t think I’m giving away any deep, dark secrets, so I’ll explain why some books are so expensive on Amazon. Like, $800 expensive, sometimes. Better yet, I’ll also explain how to know if the book you’re looking at is overpriced, or if it typically does sell for those high prices.

Some books legitimately are extremely valuable and expensive. But sometimes low-demand books get caught up in price wars that drive prices up due to short supply.

Why are used books so expensive on Amazon?

why are some books so expensive on Amazon
This biography of Elvis Presley is an example of a recent-ish book that’s rare and collectible, and therefore, always expensive.

I was in between jobs. For some reason, I knew that a book I owned about religious fundamentalism was worth about $50 on the used market. I knew I’d never use the book again, but was afraid of listing it for sale. How would I know if someone bought it?

Not having a job solved that problem for a moment. I figured I’d just check my e-mail several times a day and see what happened. The $50 wouldn’t make or break me, but would be nice. To my surprise, the book sold within two days. So I visited a thrift store nearby that had a book section, where I found a book about rebuilding Chevy engines. I bought it and sold it for $75. It sold fast too. In between, I sold a bunch of books for more typical used book prices, between $5 and $10. It wasn’t going to make me rich, but I had enough to pay my utility bills.

The book on fundamentalism and the book about Chevy engines were out of print, but they had a large enough audience that people would buy them for more than their original cover price. These books live in a sweet spot for used booksellers. There’s not enough demand for them to warrant publishing 10,000 more copies, but enough people are willing to buy them to support a secondhand market for them.

That explains the books that sell for $50, $75, even $100 or so. But that’s probably not why you’re here. What about those books that sell for $500, $800, or $1,000?

There’s an explanation for those, too. And sometimes there are ways to get those books cheaper, even.

The battle of the book bots

A question came up in a vintage computer forum about why old computer books are so expensive. The coauthor of Mapping the Amiga chimed in, saying he didn’t understand why his book sells for $800 when one of his friends uses his old copy to level his washing machine to keep it from moving around on the basement floor.

The answer is repricing bots. Any bookseller who wants to sell books in quantity probably uses a repricing bot. These bots monitor used prices on Amazon to ensure a seller’s price is competitive. That way if someone beats their price by 11 cents–a tactic I used very successfully in 2005, before bots were common–the bot can adjust their price to match.

And on common books that sell relatively quickly, the bots do a pretty good job of getting the prices right. When supply outstrips demand, book prices fall to a penny.

When bots raise prices to the stratosphere

The most common scenario is for bots to lower prices, because they encounter common books more often than rare books. But bots will also raise prices based on market conditions. If a seller lists a book at a price and all of the competitively priced copies sell, leaving just one seller at the bottom and a cluster of people selling the book for more, it will raise their price to match the prevailing rate.

When no one else is offering the book for sale, most bots will default to a high price. One bot I used defaulted to $199. Another one I used defaulted to $399 or $499. If there’s actually demand for the book, prices like that bring more copies onto the market pretty fast, and the price corrects itself. Wayne Wesolowski’s books on model railroading sold for $100 and up for a couple of years, until people realized they were valuable. It turned out they weren’t as rare as we once thought, and the prices soon fell to $20-$35.

The same thing doesn’t happen to Mapping the Amiga because there aren’t very many Amiga assembly language programmers left, and the ones who remain already have a copy. It may or may not be a legal copy, but at that price, they don’t care. There aren’t enough copies out there to bring the price to equilibrium. So some expensive books sit, forever.

Amazon drop shippers

Usually when an expensive book hits the $200-$500 range on Amazon it’s due to a bot, but when the prices go even higher than that, there’s something else involved. It’s a tactic called drop shipping.

What drop shippers do is list books on Amazon for wildly expensive prices, often around $800. They don’t actually have the book in their possession. If the book sells, they’ll locate a copy, buy it, and ship it directly to the buyer. Amazon gives you a couple of days before you have to ship, so they figure they can probably find a copy somewhere in a couple of days, when you’re talking that kind of money. They’ll have to overpay too, but even if they have to pay $300, they still make enough profit to make it worth their while.

And in the event they can’t locate a copy, they cancel the order.

Amazon frowns on this practice, and it’s not all that hard to detect. If someone has 100 listings and they’re all books that no one else has, Amazon will just shut that person down. A clever seller can hide from Amazon’s algorithms for a while, by carrying some physical inventory alongside the drop shipping. But eventually they can figure out that’s what someone is doing, because they cancel an abnormally high number of orders and customers complain about consistently slow shipping times.

Books that are legitimately expensive on Amazon

There aren’t a lot of books published in the last 40 years or so that are worth hundreds of dollars. But there are some. The first one that comes to mind is Margin of Safety, a book on investing written by a billionaire. I never came across that one, but I know someone who did get a copy and eventually sold it. It’s legitimately a good book. It’s difficult to understand and even harder to follow perfectly, but if you do, you’ll make a lot of money, so people are willing to pay up to $1,000 for it, though it can sometimes sell for as little as $400.

Another expensive recent-ish book I know about is titled Elvis and Kathy. It was a biography of Elvis Presley written by one of his backup singers. It wasn’t printed in large quantities, and contains stories never recorded anywhere else, so the combination of rarity and the insider perspective cause it to sell for up to $400.

A lot of books that professionals need will sell for $100-$200 on Amazon. Out-of-print identification and price guides for antiques and collectibles come to mind. A lot of the Greenberg books about Lionel and similar trains published in the 1980s fall into this category. Dealers and collectors need these books, but there aren’t 10,000 people who want them. Oddly, they sell for very close to what it would cost to reprint a new copy in small quantities. It’s funny how precisely markets can work sometimes.

So how can you know the difference?

Distinguishing between legitimately expensive books and ripoffs

The way you tell the difference between expensive used books selling for the correct price and weird, temporary market conditions or drop shippers is by looking at pricing history. Amazon doesn’t give pricing history, but a site called Camel Camel Camel does. Look up the book you’re interested in there, and it will tell you what the book sold for in the past. On books that are hard to find but not super rare, you’ll be able to see the pricing cycles. The book sells for $25 for a while, then supplies dry up and the price shoots up into the hundreds, then gradually comes back into the $25 range. If the book you’re interested in has done that in the past, it’ll do it again.

But if you look at the historical pricing for Margin of Safety, you’ll see it’s always a really expensive used book. The only question is just how high into the stratosphere it is.

I’ve used Camel Camel Camel both as a buyer and a seller. As a seller, I’d check prices on expensive books rather than going by Amazon prices at that moment. That kept me from overpaying, and kept me from overpricing and ending up with the book sitting for months when it could move quickly at the prevailing rate.

As a buyer, I use it when I’m considering buying an expensive book. That way I don’t pay $100 for a Wesolowski book on model railroading that’ll be selling for $35 next month.

Finding bargains on otherwise expensive books

The other thing you can do is check lesser-known online sellers. Some books sell for less on Ebay than on Amazon, for whatever reason. Sometimes the reverse is true too. You can also check Alibris or Abebooks. Sometimes you can get a book cheaper on those sites than on Amazon, partly because they make it easier for international sellers to sell in the United States. I once saved more than $100 by importing a book from England through a seller on Alibris. It’s what drop shippers do, so you might as well cut out the middleman, right?

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