The End of a Book World Mystery: A Suspect in Manuscript Thefts to Plead Guilty
The mystery captivated the book world: For years, someone impersonated authors and agents, editors and publishers, trying to steal unpublished book manuscripts from high profile authors like Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan and Ethan Hawke, but also from debut novelists and writers of more obscure works.
Now, a resolution to the yearslong scheme is near. On Friday, Filippo Bernardini is expected to plead guilty to wire fraud in front of a magistrate court judge in Manhattan, according to an email from the office of the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York that was sent to victims on Tuesday.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Bernardini early last year, saying he had “impersonated, defrauded, and attempted to defraud, hundreds of individuals” over five or more years, gaining access to hundreds of unpublished manuscripts in the process.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment on Tuesday. Bernardini’s lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Bernardini, an Italian citizen, worked as a rights coordinator for Simon & Schuster UK, and in his phishing attempts he displayed an insider’s knowledge of how the industry works. He deployed shorthand like using “ms” instead of manuscripts, and had a detailed understanding of how agents, publishers, editors and translators operate.
To impersonate publishing professionals, he would make small changes to the domain name of an email address, so that an email that appeared to come from penguinrandomhouse.com in fact read penguinrandornhouse.com, with an “rn” in place of an “m.” According to the indictment released when he was arrested, Bernardini registered more than 160 fraudulent internet domains that impersonated publishing professionals and companies. His phishing scheme dated to at least August 2016, and continued until the summer of 2021, the indictment said.
“They know who our clients are, they know how we interact with our clients, where sub-agents fit in and where primary agents fit in,” Catherine Eccles, an owner of a literary scouting agency in London, told The New York Times in 2020. “They’re very, very good.”
Bernardini at times appeared to choose his targets based on deal announcements in industry publications like Publishers Marketplace and Publishers Weekly.
After Publishers Marketplace ran a small item noting that the novelist James Hannaham had sold his book “Re-Entry” to Little, Brown, Hannaham received an email that appeared to be from his editor, Ben George, requesting the latest draft. But the email went to an address that Hannaham seldom used, so instead of replying, he wrote to his editor directly, with the document attached. His editor called and said he’d never sent the message.
Other times, Bernardini made broad attempts to gain access to company databases. In addition to authors, Bernardini went after literary scouts and other publishing professionals. He targeted a New York City-based literary scouting company by setting up impostor login pages, which tricked victims into entering user names and passwords, and gave him access to the company’s database, which contains plot synopses and other details about forthcoming books.
Even after Bernardini’s arrest and his expected guilty plea, a number of questions remain. The biggest is his motive, as well as how he planned to profit from his thefts — if he planned to profit at all. Cyber criminals who target Hollywood scripts, for example, often try to make money by posting them online and charging fans to read them. In other cybercrime schemes, thieves sell pirated works and stolen passwords on the dark web.
But in its indictment, the Justice Department never said that Bernardini had attempted to sell the manuscripts on the black market or publish pirated versions. Several publishing industry professionals who were targeted told The Times that they never saw the material surface. Some in the industry who followed the saga speculated that he may have been trying to enhance his reputation with insider knowledge of closely-held projects in order to advance in an insular world.
Bernardini claimed on his LinkedIn profile that he had received his bachelor’s in Chinese language from Università Cattolica in Milan and obtained a master’s degree in publishing from University College London. He had some experience as a translator, and worked on the Italian translation of the Chinese comic book author Rao Pingru’s memoir, “Our Story.” On LinkedIn, he described his passion as ensuring “books can be read and enjoyed all over the world and in multiple languages.”