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Authors push back on the growing number of AI 'scam' books on Amazon

Amazon.com started requiring writers who want to sell books through its e-book program to tell the company in advance whether their work includes material generated by artificial intelligence.
Matt Slocum
Amazon.com started requiring writers who want to sell books through its e-book program to tell the company in advance whether their work includes material generated by artificial intelligence.

When the super-influential tech journalist Kara Swisher came out with her new memoir, Burn Book, there were reports of seemingly artificial intelligence-generated biographies of her suddenly coming up on Amazon. Swisher promptly responded, telling The New York Times' Hard Fork podcast, "I sent [Amazon CEO] Andy Jassy a note and said, 'What the f***?' You're costing me money," Swisher said.

But while Swisher was able to get the offending books removed from Amazon, the issue of AI-generated scam books has been of widespread concern for authors, most of whom aren't on email terms with the CEO of Amazon.

"Scam books on Amazon have been a problem for years," says Mary Rasenberger, CEO of the Authors Guild, a group that advocates for writers. But she says the problem has multiplied in recent months. "Every new book seems to have some kind of companion book, some book that's trying to steal sales."

Marie Arana is a writer who spent years researching and writing her book LatinoLand: A Portrait of America's Largest and Least Understood Minority. The book came out in February. The day after its release, she went on Amazon to see how it was doing. "Right below the cover of my book was another cover," Arana says. "The cover said 'America's Largest and Least Understood Minority. A Summary of Latinoland.'"

Arana sent NPR a photo of the search result on Amazon. The book says it was written by Clara Bailey. A review of Bailey's work showed that Bailey had published a number of these so-called summaries and put them up for sale on Amazon. NPR asked an Amazon spokesperson about Bailey but did not receive a related response. And the company did not offer anyone up for an interview when asked, generally, about AI-generated books. Since NPR's inquiry, Bailey's books have been removed from Amazon. Bailey's publishing history still appears on Goodreads, which is owned by Amazon.

AI-generated biographies, summaries and even copycat books tend to offer low-quality writing that makes it easy to flag as AI generated, says Jane Friedman, a writer and publishing industry analyst. She says there's a generic quality to the writing. "It just feels like a human didn't write these," she says. "Humans would — funnily enough — do a better job being bad."

Amazon spokesperson Lindsay Hamilton sent a statement that outlined the recent steps the company has taken on the AI front. Last year, the company implemented a policy where all publishers using Kindle Direct Publishing must provide information about whether their content is AI generated. There is also a cap to the number of titles that can be published in a day.

"We both proactively prevent books from being listed as well as remove books that do not adhere to those guidelines, including content that creates a poor customer experience," the statement says. "We have more recently begun limiting the publication of summaries and workbooks based on existing titles in our store." It adds: "When patterns of abuse warrant it, we also suspend publisher accounts to prevent repeated abuse."

Rasenberger says the publishers posting these books benefit from increasingly more sophisticated AI tools that can generate low-quality "scam" books quickly. "By the time Amazon finds out about them, they've already made some money and they move on to something else," she says.

But the issue of AI-generated books can harm more than just an author's sales numbers.

"It's reputational harm," Friedman says.

Last year, she wrote ablog postoutlining her experience with books about publishing that purported to be by her but that she didn't write. "Even the most beginning reader would read it and say, 'This person is not going to give me any helpful information,'" she says. Friedman says that she makes most of her money through paid newsletters and classes she offers and that the books could be seen by potential customers. "And then off they go to find some other better resource."

And while it's possible to flag writing that's AI generated right now, Rasenberger and other writers are thinking ahead to a future where it won't be so easy.

Amazon supports NPR and pays to distribute some of our content.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.