Skip to main content

The Toronto literary agent Denise Bukowski keeps tabs on coverage of her authors and their books with Google Alerts. And for years, she’s been getting regular notifications of sales of new e-books and essays about those books. Readers scheming to get rich quick have long flooded Amazon and Google results with summaries and analyses, in some cases fooling readers into buying them instead of the real thing.

She’s seen it happen with Waubgeshig Rice’s Moon of the Crusted Snow and the works of the late Wayson Choy; in the case of Monkey Beach and Son of a Trickster novelist Eden Robinson, Bukowski sees new e-books and essays pop up “literally every day.”

Rice, an author from Wasauksing First Nation on Georgian Bay, will publish the highly anticipated novel Moon of the Turning Leaves with Random House Canada in October. He was surprised to recently find a study guide for sale for the predecessor, Crusted Snow. He’d already authorized a free, open-source study guide with Ontario Tech University researchers.

“When I see someone, something, some robot trying to create something for profit, that’s discouraging and disappointing,” Rice says. “It contravenes the spirit of learning that the study guide is trying to foster.”

Sixty-two books to read this fall

And yet technology is making it easier than ever before for bad actors to clog up search results with books, reviews and other content that can distract or dissuade readers from actually buying the books they set out to get.

Summaries and study guides routinely pop up in bestsellers’ Amazon search results. More recently, some users appear to be harnessing generative artificial intelligence models – those robots Rice speaks of – to write whole books under the names of established authors to make a few bucks.

That’s what Jane Friedman, who’s published numerous books on the publishing industry, such as Publishing 101 and The Business of Being a Writer, believes happened to her this summer. At the start of August, a reader e-mailed the author saying she’d found five or six books on Amazon under her name that looked suspicious. “Sure enough, these were books with my name on them that I had not consented to,” Friedman says. It turned out that the fake books had already shown up on the Goodreads review website, too.

The tomes all purported to provide advice about publishing e-books, with titles such as Promote to Prosper: Strategies to Skyrocket Your eBook Sales on Amazon. And they were filled with writing that Friedman says reminded her of ChatGPT output: “generic, not substantive,” overly repetitious, often seeming to miss the point of its arguments.

She reached out to Amazon and Goodreads with infringement claims, but says she struggled to get the point across that the offending products did not infringe upon individual copyrighted books – instead, they took advantage of her name and subject-matter expertise.

With little luck, Friedman went public with a scathing blog post on Aug. 7, after which she says she finally heard back from Amazon for the first time. (She shared Amazon’s outreach that day with The Globe and Mail.) The books soon disappeared from both the retailer and from Goodreads, but she fears the problem could persist for other authors.

Friedman also worries text-generating AI services will only make things worse.

“It takes so little effort and can be replicated across countless titles,” she says. “We’re talking about endless titles being uploaded in the hopes that a few of them will make it to the top.”

Book distributors and sites such as Amazon, Friedman says, need to set up guardrails to protect authors’ authentic works.

Asked about this, Amazon spokesperson Ryma Boussoufa said in an e-mail that the company “is constantly evaluating emerging technologies and is committed to providing the best possible shopping, reading, and publishing experience for customers and authors.” All publishers must adhere to Amazon’s content guidelines, Boussoufa continued, adding that the company welcomes authors to reach out with these kinds of concerns, and removes any books that don’t follow its guidelines.

Goodreads, which Amazon bought in 2013, said that it regularly invests in “improvements” to its service to catch inauthentic books that violate its guidelines. Spokesperson Suzanne Skyvara said they “have clear guidelines on which books are included on Goodreads and will quickly investigate when a concern is raised, removing books when we need to.”

The consequences of a market full of fake books could have prolonged effects on readers, says Thomas Wharton, the Edmonton-area author of adult and children’s fiction books, including Icefields and The Perilous Realm trilogy.

“What scares me is that a whole generation of potential readers will grow up inundated with this crap and accept it as normal,” Wharton says by e-mail. “Like kids growing up with constant digital distraction and consequently losing the creative value of boredom, future readers could have their intellectual lives stunted by an avalanche of easily available fake books.”

But the damage may come first for authors. “With any author who makes this work their primary livelihood, this is potentially damaging,” says Moon of the Crusted Snow author Rice. “Unfortunately today, there are a lot of people who aren’t quite digitally literate enough … this can be detrimental to people’s careers.”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe