Last month, we reported that the lock screens of Amazon Kindles were displaying ads for what were obviously AI-generated books, leading to an outcry from readers on social media.

At the time, our best theory was that bad actors were somehow manipulating Amazon's algorithms to boost their garbled offerings ahead of worthwhile books by human authors.

But as readers pointed out, the reality is even worse: Amazon is actively accepting money to place the Kindle lock screen ads, as it discloses in its own documentation.

"Lock screen ads allow you to promote your eBooks directly to the customers most likely to buy them," the company wrote in a guide to buying the ads. "Set your own bids and budgets. You'll only pay when readers tap your ad."

According to New York Times bestselling author Bree Bridges, who writes under the pen name Kit Rocha with her co-author Donna Herren, the scheme is basically an attempt to exploit Amazon's Kindle Unlimited subscription plan.

Kindle Unlimited charges users $11.99 per month to read as many books as they want — from a large but limited library that's mostly indie and self-published — and pays writers based on how many pages of their work users read. There's some serious money at play: in 2019, the company paid authors and indie publishers some $300 million through the program.

When Amazon tweaked the Kindle Unlimited program to pay out based on "volume of pages read, the only incentivized game in town was churn," Bridges explained. "There are people who spend $20k monthly on advertising without blinking [because] they'll make $30k back if they flood the charts and get enough people to idly flip through."

There have always been scams around Kindle Unlimited, Bridges says. Previously, she wrote, these bad actors would "underpay a stable of ghost writers to churn content." But now, AI lets them crank out even higher volumes without paying any humans at all — and all that saved money, she says, can "can go into ads."

Still, it's unclear just how much profit these book ads are garnering. As noted in a Vox report about Amazon ebook scams, "the way people make money these days is by teaching students the process of making a garbage ebook." Or in a word: the grift is in selling the grift.

On the other hand, the monthly fund that Amazon uses to pay authors whose books are read through Kindle Unlimited has steadily ballooned in size. Three years ago, it was $35.4 million. This March, the fund reached an appreciable $53.9 million. In theory, the scam — paired with the dizzying output of generative AI — is potentially more lucrative than ever.

The ads are clearly in violation of both the letter and spirit of Amazon's own ad guidelines, which prohibit "deceptive, false, or misleading content" and "misspellings or incorrect grammar and punctuation." What is, for example, Amazon's excuse for overlooking this fake book titled "ForbobedenN Magric" that prominently features hallucinated letters of the English alphabet?

The guidelines also stipulate that "ads must not target or appeal to children through messaging, imagery, or other targeting," in spite of the fact that many of the books feature cartoonish AI-generated characters and child protagonists, or are described with variations on the phrase "Bedtime Stories for Kids and Adults." We suspect that the "and Adults" tacked on at the end is how the scammers technically make it so that their books target a general audience. Look at these examples, though, and tell us that they aren't trying to prey on unwitting children.

The company essentially admitted that the AI sludge violated its guidelines in response to our initial story, when it promised to remove the books we identified. (Many of these books remained up in the weeks following, but when we reached out again for this story, some of the books were finally removed.)

"We aim to provide the best possible shopping, reading, and publishing experience, and we are constantly evaluating developments that impact that experience, which includes the rapid evolution and expansion of generative AI tools," an Amazon spokesperson told us. "All books in the store must adhere to our content guidelines, regardless of how the content was created. We both proactively prevent books from being listed as well as remove books that do not adhere to those guidelines."

Amazon claims that all ads must comply with its ad policies, and that it takes action when that's not the case.

"When we become aware of an issue, we investigate and act quickly to protect customers," the spokesperson. "We suspend publisher accounts when warranted to prevent repeated abuse. We are committed to protecting customers from bad actors attempting to abuse our services, and we continue to invest in improving our protections."

To be fair to Amazon, any effort to combat AI-generated spam will be an uphill battle. Forget just Kindles; the broader Amazon marketplace is horribly infested with garbage ebooks that are nothing more than the dashed-off ramblings of a large language model.

But the lock screen-invading books — as opposed to the random detritus floating around on the ebook market — are a different case. Because these nefarious "authors" pay for those promotional slots, their hack-job book ads are being directly submitted to Amazon for review, obviating the legwork of having to painstakingly track down spam in the wild.

And what does Amazon continue to do with these obviously fraudulent books? Take the money — hand over fist — of the scammers that churned them out. Even now, AI-generated ads of a nearly identical style as the last wave are plaguing Kindle lock screens, the majority of which don't even feature author names on the cover.

Bridges doesn't think Amazon will meaningfully take action until its bottom line takes a hit.

"The only thing that might get Amazon to waver on this is customer complaints about garbage and a loss of [subscribers]," she wrote. "Because of course they like authors dropping thousands in ads to stay afloat."

"And this made me sad," she added, "because I legitimately and earnestly LOVED self-publishing."

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