Life

'It's a Crazy Issue' – The Bizarre World of Scam Audiobooks

On sites like Amazon, there are thousands of books seemingly written by bots – and many of those are used to dupe audiobook narrators.
April 21, 2021, 8:30am
scam audiobooks2
Collage: Marta Parszeniew. Headphones photo via Pixabay

I recently discovered that I’m quoted in a book by the name of Young Professional Marxist Businessmen (RRP £38.95, paperback). On the self-publishing platform Lulu.com, there’s a short blurb for it, which reads: “This is a liberal playhouse book of young professionals and essays about them. It is a greedy liberal playhouse.”

The book is gibberish in the purest sense of the word. It reads like it was written by a broken AI trained on the paranoid ramblings of Alex Jones. The author is listed as Joseph Smith, the long-dead founder of Mormonism.

Advertisement

There are loads of books like this floating around the outskirts of the internet, and it’s hard to tell why or where they come from – they could be strange published experiments of some kind, but often they seem as if they’ve been written by bots. On Lulu.com, for example, you’ll find Roger Londoniary, whose works – from Shundershield to A Nazi Who Shagged Me – are a sort of smashed-mirror reflection of the James Bond franchise, with a main character called Sir Ian Shag.

Occasionally, books not too far from this make it on to Amazon’s flagship audiobook platform, Audible, and more commonly can be found on Audible’s behind-the-scenes platform, where authors can list work and narrators can audition and record it: the Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX). It’s here that these nonsense books can be used as scams.

“It seemed like the perfect job for me, because I have children, and I love to read out loud to my children,” says Aleesha Bake, a voiceover artist, appearing on Zoom from within the monochrome, chequered walls of a hermetically sealed StudioBricks recording booth. She’s remembering one of her first and only experiences on ACX, when she secured a gig reading a book of children’s stories.

“The problem came when the book probably had about two hours’ worth of narration, and they wanted it to be three hours,” she explains. She was asked to just drag the words out really, really, really slowly. “It was very stilted and awkward for me, and they were like, ‘Oh, I love it, it’s great…’ I hated it.”

Advertisement

“It’s a crazy, crazy issue,” says Anneliese Rennie, a well-established narrator, whose name is a pseudonym. “A narrator posted [on Facebook] just yesterday that they had spent the last two years building their career on these kinds of books. And they did, I want to say, well over 100 of [them]. They posted about how depressed they were. They posted about how much it had affected their self-worth and their ability to continue.”

These junk books are a hangover from Amazon’s original marketing strategy for Audible, which accidentally incentivised the proliferation of twaddle. When it launched in 2011 – and right up until March of 2020 – Audible would give out up to 200 promotional codes to anyone who completed production on an audiobook, no matter what the content. These codes could be given to members of the public, who could listen to the book for free, and Audible would pay out a royalty whenever a code was redeemed.

It seemed like a win-win – and then the scammers showed up. According to self-publishing YouTuber Dale L. Roberts, “gurus” were making tens of thousands of dollars a month by gaming the promo codes.

Rennie’s description of the ruse is that scammers would create a book by scraping content from webpages online into a barely formatted ebook, then list it as a royalty split deal on ACX, so narrators would only get paid when anyone bought it. Most likely, nobody would, but the scammers could still get codes – which had a cash value.

Advertisement

For Tony Neate, CEO of Get Safe Online, it’s unlikely this was ever just one scam. “I bet there’s a scam on a scam on a scam. It’s how they work,” he says. It’s possible that whoever wrote the junk book in the first place – possibly someone hired on a freelancing website, like Fiverr or Upwork, in Rennie’s telling of it – was also fobbed off. “Even to write enough rubbish, so copy and pasting, that’s a fair bit of work to do. There’s [another] scam there somewhere,” Neate says.

The classic gobbledegook scam title has become rarer since the promo codes had their cash value withdrawn, but the sheer number of new narrators who’ve joined since could almost have cancelled out any impact of this by adding to the numbers of newcomers likely to fall for brand new scams.

“When I started on ACX, there were roughly 40,000 narrators listed on the site,” Rennie says. “If I go to ACX right now, there are 402,930.” This is the number of free profiles set up on the site since 2011, rather than people actively using it to produce audiobooks right now – but it’s still a massive growth. “There are 1,824 titles open for audition.”

An Audible spokesperson said: “To provide the best experience for ACX Producers and Audible listeners, we require that the print/eBook edition for each title submitted through ACX remain available for sale at Amazon during production and through the length of its distribution with Audible. All audiobooks distributed through ACX are subject to Amazon's Content Guidelines. If we determine that the print/eBook edition of a work submitted through ACX has been removed from sale at Amazon or does not meet the content guidelines, we cease distribution of the audiobook.”

Advertisement

The platform insists they take reports of fraudulent content very seriously and immediately remove books that violate their policies. They urge anyone who sees a suspicious book for sale to report it to their team for investigation.

Peter Wilson is a classically trained opera singer with bushy Beethoven hair – he calls it lockdown-meets-headphone hair – and 25 years of experience on stage. This time last year he had three years of opera and theatre work booked in, but it was wiped out almost overnight when coronavirus hit the UK. “I remember walking on stage to do a dress rehearsal of Strauss’ opera ‘Elektra’ with the Bournemouth symphony orchestra… as we walked on stage, the whole country shut down,” he says.

He turned to ACX, and has recorded ten or 11 audiobooks since, which is prolific when you consider one of them was The Bible over 365 Days. He remembers one, in particular, that he flagged as a scam. “It was out of the ordinary and it was a bit funny, it wasn’t just rude. It wasn’t just an onanism anthology, let’s say, to put it politely. It was a cheeky, dirty postcard, wink-wink-nudge-nudge thing.”

The audition was for a book called Wank Diary: When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going Have A Wank (“I was a huge fan of Viz, and that’s the kind of book it was,” Wilson says with a grin.) When he scanned the audition script, it didn’t feel right.

Advertisement

“As soon as you looked at the script, it bore no relation to the book,” he recalls. “I think maybe the title was right, but then suddenly it was like a consent form that you would get at the end of an insurance document, or something like that. The wording of it was that you were giving consent to have your voice used… but then it started getting weird. It was sort of random words. Sentences that just didn’t quite make sense, and then… just a random series of words.”

Wilson believes the script could have been a kind of legal trap, and that this disclaimer – if read, recorded and sent back – could have handed over the rights to his vocal likeness, allowing the scammer to feed the tape into voice cloning AI that would then create a computerised robot voice based on the timbre of his voice. This isn’t particularly far fetched. According to Professor Johanna Gibson, Herchel Smith Professor of Intellectual Property Law at Queen Mary, University of London, it’s difficult to say straight-off-the-bat what the legal reality of a disclaimer in an audition script would look like in practice.

“The disclaimer might not be valid on the grounds it was based on a misrepresentation by the ‘scammer’,” she says. “If the disclaimer was the result of misrepresentation then it would be voidable, [meaning] the narrator could terminate it. However, merely not understanding the consequences of a disclaimer is not likely to help the narrator – unless the scammer knew the narrator did not understand what was being signed, and even then it is tricky.”

From a technological standpoint, it’s also less far-fetched than it sounds. Tim McSmythers runs the popular audio deepfake YouTube account Speaking of AI. He says pre-trained models for creating this kind of voice AI exist, and are relatively accessible. For now, though, getting an AI impersonation of a human to broadcast quality remains a rare ability. “To be honest, it’s much easier to just get… a professional to come in and say, ‘Read that chapter and I’ll give you some notes.’”

If a scammer was looking to take Wilson’s vocal likeness, it’s unlikely this was for the purposes of making future audiobooks. That said, a technological breakthrough could be on the horizon.

It’s difficult to say how much more subtly strange the scams around audiobooks will go on to become in the months and years ahead. They might seem like the most wholesome, analogue form of digital media there is, but nothing is sacred on the internet.

UPDATE 23/02/21: This piece has been updated to include further comment from Audible.