His identity was long unknown—until the FBI arrested him earlier this year. Now everyone in the publishing industry is asking, What motivated him?
For the last five years, the publishing industry’s most compelling story has been a mystery.
Somebody had been going to extraordinary lengths to steal manuscripts—mostly, but not always, unpublished ones—from agents, publishers, authors, and literary scouts across three continents by creating an extraordinary number of fake email addresses.
The person behind the scheme had an impressive facility for languages (though his English, oddly, wasn’t spectacular), as well as a palpable brazenness; a number of people I spoke to who received emails from him noted their “chatty,” familiar tone.
As the industry eased into the Covid-19 pandemic and everyone’s world got a little bit smaller, the emails increased and interest among members of the industry in this strange caper heated up.
On one level, the plot was incredibly elaborate and time-intensive: the stuff of Ocean’s 11. It involved registering hundreds of fake domains and creating a fake database to steal emails and passwords, and required an intimate knowledge of the international publishing world, both its luminaries and factotums.
He could be threatening if people called out his flimsy deceptions; he told several of his victims he knew where they lived and that he would pay them a visit one day.
The plot, however, also had a comical crudeness. Most of the email addresses the scammer used in his cat-fishing scheme involved changing a single letter from the original—often r to n or vice versa—or shifting a .com address to a specific country, making the plot into which he put this massive effort surprisingly easy for his marks to unravel.
And while the would-be thief chased after some big books from time to time—most of the early coverage of this escapade centered around his quest for unpublished works by Stieg Larsson, Margaret Atwood, and Ethan Hawke—he mostly seemed to be after titles that had little commercial appeal.
He stole, or tried to steal, several Icelandic short story collections—hardly the stuff that criminal masterminds dream of obtaining through illicit means.
In a famously gossipy industry, the lack of a clear motive fueled a frenzy of speculation. International publishing is, after all, a business highly dependent on email and, above all, driven by relationships; the scammer’s aggressive phishing scheme was fraying the bonds in a tight-knit world and causing widespread distrust.
When I first learned that someone had been stealing manuscripts in late 2020, the people I spoke with entertained an unending array of fantastical possibilities.
A particular favorite of mine—shared by several people across Europe—held that Russia’s security service, the FSB, was behind the thefts, no doubt in an attempt to undermine the Western cultural industry. There were also rumors that China was behind the plot.
Some assumed it was the Mafia—an Italian was long suspected of being the culprit by a certain cohort—or another international criminal syndicate. But the pilfered texts never appeared on the black market or even on torrenting sites; no ransom demands ever materialized.
Despite all the teeming interest and flights of fancy, no one could provide a plausible reason why an international criminal syndicate or a ring of Russian spies, or Chinese autocrats, would want to get their mitts on a collection of Icelandic short stories, or what nefarious purpose required them to snatch up the fifth posthumous volume of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium “trilogy.”
Finally, on January 5, the figure at the heart of the mystery was unmasked. Filippo Bernardini, an Italian citizen who worked as a low-level employee in Simon & Schuster U.K.’s foreign rights department, alighted at Kennedy airport in New York City, where he’d planned to begin a vacation with his partner.
He was met, instead, by the FBI, who arrested him on the spot.
He was charged with wire fraud and identify theft; it was alleged that he had poached as many as 160 aliases to steal unpublished manuscripts from publishers and authors.
In the end, what has made this such a mystery is that Bernardini—if, that is, he is the spine collector—surely could have put all of this hard work and thrift to better use.
If all of his herculean effort was mounted in the service of nothing more than piddling aspirations, then this is the story of one man’s incredible waste of energy. Never has so much work gone into achieving so little.
But for a short time, he became the most mysterious man in publishing. He may have to content himself with that accomplishment.
Photo credit: Mads Schmidt Rasmussen on Unsplash