AI is now authoring biographies of dead celebrities, often shoddily

Frequently, no publishing company is listed and the named author appears to be fictitious, or is even the name of a dead person plucked from the internet.
Last Updated 19 February 2024, 04:26 IST

After Joseph Lelyveld, a former executive editor of The New York Times, died last month, his brother Michael Lelyveld went online to see how he was being remembered. He found obituaries in major news outlets, as expected. But he also found other, unexpected portraits of his brother.

At least half a dozen biographies were published on Amazon in the days immediately following Lelyveld’s death. Several of them were available for purchase on the very day he died. The books, he said, described his brother as a chain smoker, someone who honed his skills in Cairo and reported from Vietnam — none of which is true.

“They want to make a buck on your grief,” Michael Lelyveld said.

Books like this are part of a macabre new publishing subgenre: hasty, shoddy, artificial intelligence-generated biographies of people who have just died.

Among the biographies that appeared soon after Lelyveld’s death was “Beyond the Byline: Unraveling the Heart of Joseph Lelyveld: The Man Who Smoked His Way Through History.” According to GPTZero, a program that detects AI-generated text, there is a 97% chance that the book is created by AI.

Tom Smothers, of the 1960s “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” television show, was another recent subject. Smothers died Dec. 26, and that same day, a new book with a clunky and ungrammatical title became available on Amazon: “Tom Smothers: Revealing 4 Untold Truth About Half of Smothers Brother.”

Toby Keith, a country music star, also had biographies show up after his death this month. One came with an unusual disclaimer: “The author and publisher make no warranties about the accuracy or completeness of the content,” it said. “Resemblance to real persons is coincidental.”

Some of these books, like “Chita Rivera: Biography and Memoir of Chita Rivera the West side story star,” were available on Kindle Unlimited, which pays authors per page view. Other titles are available in a Kindle or paperback edition for a few dollars: For $3.25, customers could purchase a Kindle copy of “Biography of Norman Lear a TV Legend Dies at 101: A comedy legend norman lear biography, legacy, achievement and things you probably don’t know about him.”

Amazon declined to answer questions about sales for these books, but their publication does not appear to be a robust business. Few of them had any customer reviews, and those that did fared poorly. Disappointed readers described one book as “a 60-page pamphlet,” another as “a glorified brochure” and a “rip-off.”

Even with such small payouts, the ease of creating these books might make it worthwhile if the sales volume were high enough. One author, listed as Bettie Melton, publishes several books a month. Some of the recent titles published under that name include biographies of recently deceased celebrities such as Henry Kissinger and musician Myles Goodwyn, as well as books about people who are still very much alive, like football coach Bill Belichick.

“It’s almost statistically impossible that these were human written,” said Edward Tian, the founder of GPTZero.

Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing guidelines require that authors and publishers tell the company if their content is AI generated. Lindsay Hamilton, a spokesperson for Amazon, said the company allows AI-generated books to be sold on its website, unless they create “a poor customer experience.” When alerted to several biographies included in this article — which, according to GPTZero, are all very likely to be AI creations — Amazon took them down.

“We have proactive and reactive measures to evaluate content in our store and have removed a number of titles that violated our guidelines,” Hamilton said.

Amazon said it could not supply contact information for those publishing on its site, and it is difficult to identify who produces these books. Frequently, no publishing company is listed and the named author appears to be fictitious, or is even the name of a dead person plucked from the internet.

Lori M. Graff was listed as the author of books on Keith and Lelyveld, among many others.

But at the top of a Google search for “Lori M. Graff” is an obituary for a woman who died in 2016.

(Published 19 February 2024, 04:26 IST)

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