I have often wondered about the wide variation in price for apparently identical products advertised online – not least for books, a subject close to my heart as both a reader and a writer. So I decided to put the matter to the test. And what better object for investigation than my own autobiography, The Patriotic Art: Random Recollections From A (Mostly) Diplomatic Career.
The print version of the book is published, in paperback only, by Memoirs Publishing of Cirencester, Gloucestershire. It is also available as a Kindle but, for the purposes of this exercise, I focused only on the paperback edition – which the publishers produce on a print-on-demand basis.
I was amazed to discover that amazon.co.uk lists no fewer than 15 potential suppliers of “New” copies and five of “Used – Like New”. (Aside: why any genuine owner would want to part with a copy of my book after reading it is, of course, beyond my comprehension.) With one exception, all of the 15 added £2.80 for UK delivery – and I happen to know that this is exactly the cost of posting a copy of the book in a padded envelope by 2nd Class Royal Mail – so I ignore that cost in what follows.
The price of “New” copies from UK suppliers ranged between £9.30 and £25.70. Two suppliers based in the USA offered copies at £23.06 and an astonishing £89.19 respectively (still with the standard £2.80 UK delivery charge). For “Used – Like New” copies, prices ranged from £13.77 to £15.13 from UK suppliers, and £14.98 to £89.19 (again) from the US. Note that even the lowest of these is greater than several of the “New” copies.
Now for delivery. Given that all suppliers bar one quoted £2.80 for UK delivery and that the publisher prints the book as orders are received, one might think there would be some similarities here. Wrong. One supplier offers delivery of “New” copies in 2–3 business days, and two in 3–5, but the general range is 7–15; one offers delivery in 3–5 days after a separate 2–3 days for dispatch. And one offers “1–3 weeks” (it’s not clear whether this one is in the UK). For “Used – Like New” copies, delivery offers range between 3–5 days and 4–14. Those suppliers that offer both “New” and “Used – Like New” copies list identical delivery times for both, which is interesting considering that the “New” copies would supposedly be ordered from the publisher while the “Used – Like New” ones are claimed to be “In stock”.
What do I take from this amateur-forensic analysis? It simply confirms what I always thought about buying things online. Most retailers have no interest in the detail of the item for sale, or perhaps even any knowledge of it. The prices seem to be created by some computer program, loosely based on what the publisher sets as the wholesale cost. Interestingly, when I checked 24 hours later, there were only five suppliers listed for “New” copies, and just one for a “Used” copy. (If only that meant that some copies had been sold in the interim!)
And delivery windows are completely random; when you place an order, you’ll more than likely find that the actual delivery date bears little relation to what is mentioned online.
But, as an author, why should this matter to me? I only want people to buy my book; what they pay for it makes no difference to me, as the royalty payment I receive from the publisher is the same irrespective of the online retail price. It does worry me, however, that some suppliers’ computers seem to be telling them there may be people out there prepared to pay almost ten times as much as someone else for a copy of my book!
As a buyer, however, it annoys me that online pricing is so unscientific. The example of my book explodes, once and for all, the theory that “you get what you pay for” and highlights the need to check and compare carefully before clicking the “Buy” button for any online purchase.
For the really obsessive, full details of amazon.co.uk’s prices and delivery times for my book are available here.
P.S. If you do buy my book – at whatever price – I hope you enjoy it!
 As at 14 October 2015