The book thief is Filippo Bernardini
Joshua Smith unravels the mystery behind Filippo Bernardini’s book thievery but, like much of the publishing industry, continues to ponder his motive.
Not very often would you find book theft feature in a Raymond Chandler novel, but the arrest of Filippo Bernardini, a 29-year old rights-coordinator for Simon & Schuster, exposed the auteur behind acts of thievery worthy of all the ambiguity and sophistication expected in one.
For five years, to the bafflement of publishers, unpublished manuscripts disappeared into the ether via a sophisticated international phishing scheme that involved 160 fake domain names and masterful imitation. Authors from Margaret Atwood to Sally Rooney were targeted amongst many first time novelists waiting eagerly for a response from the annals of the publishing industry, unknowing that it would never arrive. A spokesman for Simon & Schuster has said the publisher was “shocked and horrified” by the allegations against Mr. Bernadini adding that “the safekeeping of our authors intellectual property is of primary importance”. Many also expressed shock at the allegations against just one person since it has previously been thought to be the work of multiple people.
Today, when manuscripts aren’t like breezeblocks clandestinely handled around town from author to agent to publisher, it apparently only takes a sly, sophisticated grasp of publishing lingo and a clever imitation of style to gain the trust of publishers, and for Bernadini, access to manuscripts. He would send emails impersonating people in the publishing industry to everyone from authors to literary directors to dupe them into trusting him, altering the 160 fake domain names he created slightly from the original such as “@penguinrandornhouse” instead of “randomhouse”. He would use industry knowledge of abbreviations such as ‘ms’ for manuscript and detail things about characters only the imitated person would know in confidently composed e-mails with a diplomacy that raised very little suspicion. This would have required an almost sociopathic level of depth in Bernardini to switch around so many different personalities and styles so often. Hundreds have been tricked into sending unedited manuscripts of famous authors, first time writers and even those of short story collections. When he was occasionally met with doubt, he would retort in disbelief, not make a virtual dash for it like the conventional thief – this was a man with full confidence in his intricate plan.
unpublished manuscripts disappeared into the ether via a sophisticated international phishing scheme
According to his LinkedIn profile, Bernadini obtained a bachelor’s degree in Chinese language from Università Cattolica in Milan and a masters in publishing from University College London, while in the time between his degrees he worked as the Italian translator for Chinese comic book author Rao Pingru’s memoir, “our story”. His “obsession for the written word and languages” was frequently expressed across all his social media platforms, from which he removed his surname to distance his identity from any suspicion.
Before Mr. Bernadini’s arrest it was thought that the culprit was a literary scout. Scouting is an essential part of how the publishing industry works internally. Scouts arrange for the sale of book rights to international publishers and film and television producers; it involves a huge network of contacts which leads to an unparalleled knowledge of all the tricks of the industry. What their clients pay for is early access to information, therefore an unedited manuscript would have value for them. Theories circulated the possibility that a network of scouts was behind it, but no evidence ever arose, the thief regularly changed and deleted domain names and online accounts, staying one step ahead.
While reading the comments on the New York Times’s initial coverage of this story I came across a lot of people in the comments labelling this ‘poetic justice’ for an industry that ‘routinely humiliates would-be authors seeking publication’ and ‘the scammers are wrong but so is the system’. This reminds me of the French film Betty Blue, especially a moment in which one of the characters’ books has been rejected by a particular snobbish publisher, he attacks this publisher, but the policeman responding to the incident is reluctant to press charges since the publisher also rejected a novel of his. This exemplifies the inherent vice which people see in the publishing industry, so must we ask: is the publishing industry unfair? Many seem to think so and this scandal has only seen it reveal it’s soft underbelly and a nature completely unfamiliar to any kind of deception. To many this forced subordination is an injustice they can turn a blind eye to.
this was a man with full confidence in his intricate plan
Bernardini has so far not made any profit off the manuscripts. The stolen works have not yet surfaced anywhere nor have publishers experienced any ransom demands. It appears as if it’s a crime without an easily identified motive. Daniel Sandström, literary director of a Swedish publisher commented: “if you try and find financial or economic gain, it’s hard to see…but if the game is psychological, a kind of mastery or feeling of superiority, it’s easier to visualise” before adding “this is a business full of resentment as well, and in that sense, it becomes a good story”.
I agree with Sandström. Speculation about a motive for this crime could possibly lead you down a rabbit hole designed by Italo Calvino, what secrets or psychological necessities lay behind it? The burning of books features as part of the totalitarian regime in The Handmaid’s Tale, and Margaret Atwood has revealed that there were concentrated efforts to steal chapters of The Testaments before it’s publication. Could we suspect Bernadini had something to do with this? Could it have been a clue to a possible political motive behind the thefts? Other theories follow the line that the scammer was stealing the rights, perhaps to secretly file for rights against a certain character to profit off once it’s released and becomes popular?
Alas, as U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said, “this real life storyline now reads as a cautionary tale, with the plot twist of Bernadini facing federal criminal charges for his misdeeds”. This story seems to have come to an end, but with a significant amount of pages missing, I wonder where they are?