June 27, 2006

The Language Log book, now at a discount of -319%

Far from the Madding Gerund, the book of selections from Language Log, has sold faster than expected. Our editor informs us that a caravan laden with new stock has been temporarily stalled by a late snow in the Karakorum passes, but Amazon.com (who shipped at a discount within 24 hours when they had copies in their warehouses) is sticking with a cheery "Availability: Usually ships within 2 to 3 weeks", while also offering a link to "limelightbookshop", who advertise a new copy for $48.99. Barnes & Noble (who also shipped within 24 hours before they ran out) says mournfully that "A new copy is not available from Barnes & Noble.com at this time", while its link to "Used Copies Available from our Authorized Sellers" reveals that Mildred Ibale, of Sherman, Texas, is offering a copy in "Like New" condition for $92.77.

Some reader who knows the book trade may be able to tell me what's going on here. A premium of more than 300% for a book published less than two months ago? It must be a misprint. Meanwhile, in order to protect our readers from unwarranted arbitrage (or to give them the opportunity to engage in a bit of their own profiteering, if they prefer), I'll point out that the publisher has copies in stock, and will take orders online or by phone, at the list price of $22. No need to panic: when they run out, they'll print more. Really.

[Update -- Geoff Pullum inferred the next value in the series:

The function that yields the pricing of our book across the country at the moment is (X*2^n)+5, where X = 22 and n > 0. It matches your data almost perfectly. Look for booksellers offering the book at $181 next, when n = 3.

And Reinhold Aman explained the forces behind the algorithm:

I just read your "The Language Log book, now at a discount of -319%."

Welcome to the seedy world of greedy used-book peddlers.

For more examples of such outrageous prices, see:


I'm still puzzled. I would have neither any moral nor any practical objection to the operation of supply and demand in such cases -- but it seems that the supply is basically fine. The book is far from being out of print, copies are available from the publisher at list price, Amazon and Barnes & Noble will be restocked shortly... Perhaps there are automated pricing algorithms that scan the bookstore sites and kick in whenever an out-of-stock situation arises? Or do Amazon and B&N sell lists of books that customers ask for but they are (temporarily) unable to ship?

Margaret Marks wrote:

I suppose there was more demand for the book in the USA than the distributors expected!

At amazon.de you can get it for 20 euros and it is sent out within 24 hours. (There is a separate tab for 'English books').

And Amazon.co.uk has 24-hour shipment for £11.94. But Jeremy Hawker in Norway to order from across the pond:

You may be interested to know that Amazon.com shipped your book Far From The Madding Gerund to me the same day I ordered it, on June 20.

They charged me $14.30, plus $8 for international shipping and "handling", or profit, presumably. Total, in other words, about $22.

I love your blog.

Well, Amazon in the U.S. was selling to everyone at $14.30 a copy, with immediate shipping, until they ran out of stock. I'm sure they'll go back to that practice as soon as the camel caravan with their new copies negotiates those passes in central Asia. Or was it the dockers' strike in Mogadishu? I forget. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 27, 2006 09:24 AM