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

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

When Kara Swisher's latest book, titled "Burn Book," came out, she noticed that biographies of her started popping up on Amazon with very similar-looking covers. They were apparently generated by artificial intelligence. And Kara Swisher told The New York Times' "Hard Fork" podcast how she got them removed.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "HARD FORK")

KARA SWISHER: So I, of course, put them all together. And I sent Andy Jassy a note and said, what the [expletive]? You're costing me money.

KEVIN ROOSE: The CEO of Amazon.

SWISHER: Yes. So I literally - I was like, what the [expletive]? Get these down. Like, what are you doing? These are...

SIMON: Andrew Limbong reports that AI-generated books have become a problem for many authors.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Marie Arana is a writer, and she put in a lot of work getting together her new book.

MARIE ARANA: I invested probably about four or five years of research. I did almost 250 interviews - 237, to be exact.

LIMBONG: It's a more than 500-page nonfiction book titled "Latinoland: A Portrait Of America's Largest And Least Understood Minority." It published February 20. The day after, she checked out Amazon to see how it was doing, check out any reviews.

ARANA: Right below the cover of my book was another cover, and the cover said "America's Largest And Least Understood Minority." And then it said "A Summary Of Latinoland."

LIMBONG: It was written by an author named Clara Bailey, who, Clara, if you happen to be listening, please get in touch. I have been trying to reach out to you because in February alone, Bailey has written a number of these so-called summaries and got them onto Amazon. And either Clara Bailey is an incredibly prolific reader and summarizer, or these are the products of generative AI.

MARY RASENBERGER: Scam books on Amazon have been a problem for years.

LIMBONG: That's Mary Rasenberger, CEO of the Authors Guild, which is a group that advocates for writers. But she says the number of these scam books have exploded as generative AI got more popular.

RASENBERGER: In the last month, every new book seems to have some kind of companion book, some book that's trying to steal sales. And to be clear, that's what this is all about - because these books are so easy to generate. I mean, they take minutes.

LIMBONG: Amazon didn't offer anyone up for an interview. Also, after I asked about Clara Bailey in particular, those summaries have since been pulled from Amazon. But you can still find some of the titles on Goodreads. Amazon spokesperson Lindsay Hamilton sent a statement outlining the efforts they've taken on the AI front. On their Kindle Direct publishing service, there's a limit to how many titles you can publish in a day. Also, publishers are required to say if their content is AI-generated. The company also says it has methods to help proactively prevent books that violate company guidelines from getting posted. But the scammy books that do make it onto Amazon can hurt more than just an author's bottom line.

JANE FRIEDMAN: It's reputational harm.

LIMBONG: Jane Friedman has written a number of books guiding writers through the publishing industry, but she makes money through her paid newsletter and classes she offers. Last year, she wrote a blog post about finding books about publishing purporting to be by her that she did not write.

FRIEDMAN: Even the most beginning writer would read it and say, this person is not going to give me any helpful information. They have no business telling me how to get ahead in the writing business, and then off they go to find some other, better resource.

LIMBONG: That said, as of right now, it's kind of easy to flag when writing is AI-generated, says Friedman. There's a vagueness and a flatness to the writing.

FRIEDMAN: It just feels like a human didn't write these. Like, humans would actually, funny enough, do a better job being bad.

LIMBONG: But what Mary Rasenberger over at the Authors Guild is thinking and lobbying Congress about is a future where it won't be so easy.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.