Friday, April 29, 2016

Why Robots Shouldn't Sell Books

Yesterday, on something of a whim, I spent fifty bucks to buy a book I already have from a seller who doesn't actually have the book in the first place.

It was the self-published version of my novel, which I used Amazon's Createspace to pitch to friends and family and a couple of folks who'd expressed interest.  It's cheaper than photocopying, way I figure it.  The English Fall has a real publisher now, which is a cool thing, and as soon as went to contract I made it so's you couldn't actually buy the first effort at the book from Amazon.

Which was all well and good.  The novel has benefited from some great, insightful editing, and it's a better story for it.

But what got me was that there were resellers out there claiming to have used copies of the proto-book.  I tracked the sales, and I know with certainty that there aren't more than a couple dozen copies of that novel out in the wild.  Most of those are owned by my parents.

So these resellers were, well, they were most likely lying.  The probability they have it in stock is near zero.   As a business model, buying multiple copies of a book that is sitting at number 7.6 million on the Amazon Bestseller List isn't a recipe for success.

My assumption: they'd set some automated system to claim they have every CreateSpace book in stock.  "Lightly used."  In "good as new" condition.   Then, when an order comes in, they just order it from Amazon, and sell it as used, while skimming a little bit o' shipping and handling.

That, as a business model, seems to have legs.

It also involves couple of little white lies.  "One in stock!"  "Order Soon!"

If the book is out of print, the machine intelligences deal with that by setting the price point higher than they calculate the market will bear.  For a while after I'd shut it down, the price point was in the high hundreds.  Then, of course, the illusion of demand drifted away, and the price drifted down.

Still, the reseller-bots claimed to have it.  So I decided to test my hypothesis, gritted my teeth, and ordered a copy for slightly more than it costs to fill up our van with gas.  "Daily Deals" was offering their imaginary "used" copy for $43 bucks, plus four dollars in shipping and handling.  I ordered it.

Mid-day, I checked back in.  The one other reseller-bot had fallen away, and only "Daily Deals" remained.  Their price for the book they likely do not have and cannot get, though, had gone up to over $200.

By evening, the price had risen further still, to $1,170.

It's supply and demand, and the machine is pricing for zero supply and one demand.  Still lying, of course.

But is it actually lying?  It doesn't know any better.  Reality means nothing to an algorithm.  It just responds as it was designed to respond, unaware, subsentient, unable to change in the face of something unexpected.  It knows nothing of the content of what it's doing, has no sense of aesthetics or purpose.

Which is why, honestly, robots make terrible salesmen.

They just don't know the product.