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Savannah’s book became part of a copycat scam. How to spot AI-generated, or fake, books online

Here are some tips to avoid falling for an AI-generated book scam.
/ Source: TODAY

Artificial intelligence is making it easier than ever for scammers to impersonate authors and sell fake books online.

TODAY's Savannah Guthrie has firsthand experience with the nefarious trend, as do a number of other authors. Unfortunately, many readers have also unknowingly purchased copycat books online.

What's behind this rising issue, and how can you spot a fake book? NBC News senior consumer investigative correspondent Vicky Nguyen spoke with authors and industry experts to find out.

What happened with Savannah Guthrie’s new book, ‘Mostly What God Does’?

When Savannah was preparing to release her new book, “Mostly What God Does: Reflections on Seeking and Finding His Love Everywhere,” the TODAY co-anchor started noticing fake books being advertised as companion workbooks to her book. She even warned viewers about the issue on the air and shared a message with her Instagram followers, notifying them about the imposters.

"PSA 🚨- so many fakes out there! I didn’t write anything other than the book Mostly What God Does — no workbooks, no studies, no nothing! 💛💛💛,” she wrote Feb. 25.

For instance, one workbook was authored by "Savana Gathrie," a clear misspelling of her name.

Other authors are experiencing the same issue

Just days after she released her book, “Gravitas,” last September, Lisa Sun spotted fake workbooks in the suggested books field right under her legitimate book’s Amazon listing page. Neither Sun nor her publisher wrote or authorized any of them.

“I had a good friend text me saying, ‘I’m so excited to read your book, and I bought the workbook.’ I said, ‘Cancel the workbook order. It’s not mine. I don’t know where it came from,’” she told Vicky.

Jane Friedman has written three books, but she found six more bearing her name on Amazon last summer.

“As soon as I saw these books available for sale, I knew they were likely AI-generated. It really coincided with the explosion of AI writing tools, and it was exactly the kind of generic, vague, not very good writing that I would expect," she told Vicky.

Mary Rasenberger, the CEO of the Authors Guild, told Vicky these copycat books are nothing new but noted that AI has made it “so much easier and faster to produce them.”

“And they are crowding out the actual real book before it even comes out,” she added.

According to the Authors Guild, many of these copycat books come from companies that are based overseas, which makes it difficult to hold them accountable.

What are booksellers doing about the problem?

When Sun and Friedman issued complaints to Amazon about the fake books, the website eventually took them down. But the authors said the problem still persists. 

"It’s like whack-a-mole. I went on and spent an hour, reported a number of them, they were taken down. And then just a few weeks later, more popped up," Sun said.

In a statement to NBC News, Amazon shared the following: "We both prevent books from being listed as well as remove books that do not adhere to our guidelines, including content that creates a poor customer experience."

Goodreads also weighed in on the phenomenon to NBC News, saying, "We both work to prevent the addition of books that violate our guidelines as well as quickly investigate when a concern is raised, removing books when we need to."

How to spot a fake book online

Authors continue to urge booksellers to be more proactive about spotting AI book scams. The Authors Guild is also suing OpenAI and Microsoft, saying they should license book content and pay authors for their original intellectual property.

NBC News reached out to both companies for comment but did not hear back.

As the industry adjusts to this rapidly evolving issue, there are a few things you can do as a consumer to make sure you don't waste your money on a fake book:

  • Check out the ratings and reviews: Typically, a fake book will not have the same amount of ratings/reviews.
  • Look carefully at the spelling of the author's name and the book's title: Fake books often misspell the author's name or provide a variation of the book's actual title.

If you do fall for a fake, you can always return the item and report it.