Along with the impressive demonstrations and sounds of alarm that have come with the dawn of generative-text chatbots, we’re also now seeing some of the more questionable and perhaps less desirable outcomes starting to materialize.
Authors and several news outlets have recently reported a significant uptick in AI-generated books showing up in multiple best-seller lists, many seemingly sounding like nonsense.
Self-publishing, such as via Amazon’s Kindle Direct Program, has become a way for many genuine authors to bring their work to the public and build a following without the help of a large publisher. Because these self-publishing capabilities are purposely easy to sign up for, it seems anyone can generate endless AI-written books and upload them to be sold on Amazon’s eBook store and make them available for reading via Kindle Unlimited.
Recently, an indie author, Caitlyn Lynch, tweeted about noticing that only 19 of the best sellers in the Teen & Young Adult Contemporary Romance eBooks top 100 chart on Amazon were real, legit books. The rest were nonsensical and incoherent, and seemingly AI-generated.
The AI bots have broken Amazon.Take a look at the Best Sellers in Teen & Young Adult Contemporary Romance eBooks top 100 chart.I can see 19 actual legit books.https://t.co/fy9rtV6Ck6The rest are AI nonsense clearly there to click farm.@AmazonKDP what are you doing about it? pic.twitter.com/cziuKcQrq3June 26, 2023
The Motherload website later looked into dozens of books on the platform and saw that a few days after Lynch’s tweets, the AI books had vanished from the best-seller lists, probably removed by Amazon.
They were, however, still available for purchase, and had enjoyed a significant amount of visibility before vanishing. Also, as Lynch very understandably speculates, the mass uploading of AI-generated books could be used to facilitate click-farming, where 'bots' click through a book automatically, generating royalties from Amazon Kindle Unlimited, which pays authors by the amount of pages that are read in an ebook. So, it doesn’t matter that these books disappear. The people running such a scheme could just upload as many as they like to replace the removed ones.
A major concern quickly emerges both for authors and readers - most of us readers are seeking out books that, at least for now, are written by human authors, and this makes it harder to find those kinds of books. Lynch, elaborating on her views in a Twitter thread, emphasized that this “will … be the death knell for Kindle Unlimited” if Amazon cannot contain this.
What is Amazon doing about it?
Motherboard reached out to Amazon and received a reply that stated that it had “clear guidelines” for which books can be listed for sale and would investigate when concerns are raised in order to protect both readers and authors. It didn’t explicitly state that it was making an effort specifically to address the apparent spam-like persistent uploading of nonsensical and incoherent AI-generated books.
It’s worth Amazon taking an active approach to rectify this issue in order to reassure readers that it’s worth continuing to support authors via ebook sales and page views (which result in royalties for authors on Kindle Unlimited), and reassure authors that it’s worth putting their work on sale on Amazon.
We’ve also contacted Amazon to find out what it is doing about this, and a spokesperson told us that "We have clear content guidelines governing which books can be listed for sale and promptly investigate any book when a concern is raised. We invest heavily to provide a trustworthy shopping experience and to protect customers and authors from abuse."
AI-generated and assisted books aren’t totally new, and followed quite quickly after the debut of text-generator and image-generator Artificial Intelligence tools such as ChatGPT and Midjourney. These books were already contentious, as many artists and authors felt that such generated books denigrated the work it takes to put together, write, and publish a book.
Furthermore, AI generators work by scraping huge amounts of visual and text content from the internet - some of which the creators of this content never consented to.
Mass-flooding of best-seller lists with nonsensical books will only intensify these concerns of quality control and authenticity. It’s not clear why there is such a boom in AI-generated books appearing in best-seller lists, but many speculate that it’s due to bot-farming, where large amounts of books are automatically generated and published. In my opinion, if this is the case then it’s definitely up to Amazon to address this problem, as authors and readers don’t have the technical capabilities to counteract such operations.
Not just about plagiarism
Chris Cowell, a software developer, talked to the Washington Post about such an instance where an AI had plagiarized his work, which was sold on Amazon. AI is still taking work from human authors, which raises concerns of plagiarism and copyright infringement, but there’s also the matter of AI text generators spitting out misinformation.
That can then lead to one AI-written book using text from another AI-written book, without any fact-checking, and (especially in the instance of non-fiction books), a worrying feedback loop is created that spreads misinformation and makes it hard to pin down the origin of statements.
For now, maybe Amazon will optimize its process of removing AI-generated nonsensical content as it appears, but greater efforts are needed. As of May 2023, Amazon’s Kindle Publishing didn’t require sellers to disclose if the book had been written (or illustrated) with the help of AI generators such as ChatGPT or Midjourney.
There's also a big problem that continues to plague Amazon and other online marketplaces for a multitude of products, and books are no exception: fake reviews. Text AI generators make this worse by making it easier to flood a review section both in the content and quantity. With Prime Day coming up, make sure you check out our guide on how to spot fake reviews on Amazon.
Unfortunately, along with all the positive new things that are possible with AI generators, inevitably, they can also be misused. Hopefully, Amazon acknowledges the growing concerns coming from both authors and readers, and makes efforts that help set a precedent for protecting human-created works – and their audiences.
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Kristina is a UK-based Computing Writer, and is interested in all things computing, software, tech, mathematics and science. Previously, she has written articles about popular culture, economics, and miscellaneous other topics.
She has a personal interest in the history of mathematics, science, and technology; in particular, she closely follows AI and philosophically-motivated discussions.