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Caution! A.I. can Literally Kill You

Six months ago, I spoke with a man named Elan Trybuch about a problem he was seeing online. He kept coming across different e-books about mushroom foraging that looked somehow off. Off as in: maybe poisonous.

The books were shorter than most foraging guides were, and way, way cheaper, says Trybuch. He’s a software engineer and volunteer secretary for the New York Mycological Society, a nonprofit devoted to “spreading knowledge, love and appreciation of fungi.” He knows mushrooms and he knows AI, and he thought the covers of these books were probably AI-generated.

“They had mushroom structures that don’t quite make sense,” says Trybuch. They were the mycological equivalent of a picture of a hot blonde with six fingers and too many teeth.

Most disturbing was the information inside the books was totally wrong. “They aren’t even giving you descriptions of real mushrooms. They’re giving you something completely made up,” Trybuch says. Any readers looking to try to use these books to figure out which mushrooms were safe to eat and which weren’t (safe to eat) would be out of luck, which to Trybuch was seriously concerning. “It could literally mean life or death” if you eat the wrong mushroom, he says.

The problem of very low-quality, very low-priced, probably at least partially AI-generated e-books is not confined to mushroom foraging. Garbage e-books have been a problem on Amazon for at least a decade, but — not unlike many strains of fungi — they’ve exploded over the last few years.

I spent months investigating the shadowy economy where they’re produced, and what I learned took me by surprise.

Inside the scammy world of garbage e-book publishing

Garbage e-books are all over Amazon’s Kindle store, on every topic. Searching for Jonathan Haidt’s bestselling new book The Anxious Generation, I found Jonathan Haidt: The Biography of Jonathan David Haidt, Navigating Morality and Policy; A Joosr Guide to... The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom; and The Jonathan Haidt Story: Exploring the Life and Work of a Renowned Social Psychologist, Author, and Advocate.

None of these are actually books so much as book-shaped digital files, designed to be picked up in keyword searches and get clicked on in a hurry by someone a tiny bit distracted or not digitally savvy enough to notice what they’re doing.

This kind of grift has been around for a while. Now, with the rise of large language models, garbage e-books have become easier and cheaper than ever to make. Garbage book grifters often don’t use AI to write their books, but they do use it to pick a topic and build an outline. Then they give the outline to a wildly underpaid ghostwriter to flesh it out into something that will pass muster as a real book. The model is a dangerously inviting prospect for anyone who’s ever toyed with the idea of publishing a book but doesn’t want to actually write one.

It turns out, though, that the people who make garbage e-books mostly lose money.

The real cash seems to come from the people who teach others the garbage e-book scheme. These teachers claim they’ve shared the key to a life of passive income, but their students say all their courses offer is demands for more and more money, with the ever-deferred promise to teach you the real secrets to easy money once you’ve paid just a few thousand more dollars.

Even these grifters are not the real villains. They are often small-time operators working one level of a very big grift industry.

The grift is that technology and retail platforms have incentivized a race to the bottom when it comes to selling books. They’ve built an ecosystem where all the incentives are to sell at high volume and low cost. In book production, the biggest cost-saving and time-saving measure you can take is cutting out the labor of writing the actual book. Together, without ever caring enough about the issue to deliberately try to do so, these corporations have built a landscape in which it’s hard to trust what you read and hard to sell what you write.

In the end, everyone loses: the would-be writers getting grifted in a fake publishing school, the real writers whose products are getting choked out of the marketplace by floods of cheap garbage, and the readers who just want to be able to buy a book without having to check to make sure the author isn’t a robot.

I asked Elan Trybuch if he thought anyone was buying all those fake mushroom foraging guides.

“Yeah,” he said. “I mean, there’s a sucker born every minute.”


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