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The Bizarre, Unsolved Mystery of Filippo Bernardini and the Stolen Book Manuscripts

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 Somebody had been going to extraordinary lengths to steal manuscripts—mostly, but not always, unpublished ones—from agents, publishers, authors, and literary scouts across three continents by creating an extraordinary number of fake email addresses.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 catfishing 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chased after some big books from time to time—most of the early coverage of this escapade centered around his quest for unpublished works by Stieg Larsson, Margaret Atwood, and Ethan Hawke—he mostly seemed to be after titles that had little commercial appeal.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, an 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. Bernardini is also alleged to have set up a fake scouting database that he used to harvest passwords from figures in the international publishing community. The wire fraud charge alone carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. Multiple people I spoke with noted, upon hearing this, that where they lived convicted murderers typically face much less time incarcerated. (Last month, Bernardini pleaded not guilty to all charges. Dubbed a flight risk, he surrendered his passport after his father, an Italian politician, posted $300,000 bail.) 

The FBI crowed that they got their man. “Unpublished manuscripts are works of art to the writers who spend the time and energy creating them,” said Assistant Director-in-Charge Michael J. Driscoll in a statement. “Publishers do all they can to protect those unpublished pieces because of their value. We allege Mr. Bernardini used his insider knowledge of the industry to get authors to send him their unpublished books and texts by posing as agents, publishing houses, and literary scouts.”

But whatever motivated Bernardini remains a mystery—and a confounding one at that, at least for industry veterans. I’ve spoken with dozens of publishers, agents, scouts, and authors in several of the countries Bernardini was allegedly swiping manuscripts from—the United Kingdom, the United States, Sweden, Iceland, China, and Germany, as well as Italy, where he was aggressively pitching himself as a translator of books from many of those countries. No one really bought the FBI’s alleged motive; it flew in the face of how the creative process and the publishing world actually work. 

Bernardini does seem to harbor some authorial ambitions. As a teenager, he wrote, under the nom de plume Filippo B., a heavily autobiographical novel, Bulli, about his high school experience. And yet, while Bernardini was pitching himself willy-nilly as a translator across at least six languages, there’s little evidence that he was doing the same with any of his own writing.

Regardless of Bernardini’s aims, it still made little sense to industry vets for a scammer to swipe ideas from novels and story collections that were already in manuscript. Publishing is a notoriously slow business. By the time Bernardini got his own work out the door, it would most likely be too late—the purloined material would already be on the market under the original author’s name. One U.K.-based scout summed it up: Bernardini did “a lot of work to get nothing out of it.”

The FBI had only commentary to offer in lieu of an explanation. “Mr. Bernardini was allegedly trying to steal other people’s literary ideas for himself,” acting director Driscoll quipped, “but in the end he wasn’t creative enough to get away with it.” 

It’s a good line—the kind of thing you would expect to hear in an episode of Law and Order (that is, if Law and Order ever reached a point where it was so desperate for storylines that it turned to the international publishing world for inspiration). But it leaves a blank space at the heart of the story. What was it that Bernardnini was trying so hard to get away with, exactly? What was driving him? 

Late last October, shortly after an event in Reykjavik celebrating the release of his latest book, the popular Icelandic novelist Hallgrímur Helgason contracted Covid-19. On Facebook, he identified himself as having been recently infected but noted that he was vaccinated and only moderately ill. He had been driven by a firefighter the previous night to Reykjavik’s quarantine hotel, where the Covid-positive are required to stay. “At least the timing could not have been better,” he observed. His new book, after all, had just launched and was already in stores. 

Hours after word of Helgason’s diagnosis began to circulate, editors and authors in Iceland’s tight literary community began receiving emails from him. The emails followed a familiar line—he was bored and wanted something to read; he had heard of a forthcoming novel or short story collection that interested him. Would it be a problem to send a copy along? There was, of course, just one problem—the hotel wasn’t allowing mail to be delivered, so they’d have to send a PDF. 

One recipient was the writer Friðgeir Einarsson. “It was quite weird” to receive such a request from Helgason, he told me over the phone, given that they were friendly, and his request was “a little brazen.” It was especially odd because Einarsson was still working on his book, which wasn’t due to be turned in for another week. What’s more, few people aside from his editor and immediate family knew about its existence at all. Einarsson told Helgason he’d send a copy when he was finished. Helgason responded by, once again, insisting on receiving a PDF. 

Alarmed by the multiple requests for digital copies of a book that wasn’t even complete, Einarsson looked more closely at the email and came to the same conclusion many others across the small island were simultaneously reaching: The email address wasn’t Helgason’s at all; it belonged to an imposter. They were the latest targets of the mysterious figure dubbed the “spine collector” by New York magazine.

This wasn’t the Icelandic publishing community’s first run in with the scammer. For two years, the “spine collector” had targeted them aggressively; the effort seemed to heat up considerably after the publication of a special issue of Words Without Borders, an English-language magazine focused on international literature in translation, that came out in the spring of 2021, with a focus on Icelandic literature. Icelandic, one editor who had been targeted by the scammer told me, “is a very complicated language. Even if you can understand it, it’s easy to make [errors] while writing it.” But the Icelandic from the scammer was “very good.” (Google translate, as I discovered working on this story, is not particularly advanced when working between Icelandic and English.)  

The scammer most often sought out manuscripts under the guise of a writer or editor. He didn’t always think things through: On one occasion, he emailed a German book printer, posing as an Icelandic author seeking, of all things, a PDF of their own book. 

But he rarely chased after the manuscripts of Iceland’s most popular authors, like Helgason. Instead, he focused on debut writers and authors with smaller profiles, like Einarsson, who told me he can reliably count on his books selling about 1,000 copies in his home country. “It’s totally worthless material, in the sense that it was in a language that, at most, 350,000 people speak,” author Bjorn Halldórsson, who was among those contacted by the fake Helgason, said last fall. “There’s no apparent reason for it.” 

Everyone I spoke to expressed amazement at the scammer’s apparent lack of financial motivation. Some privately speculated that the same person responsible for stealing the manuscripts had recently hit upon a much grander score: Last summer, someone posing as the author Valeria Luiselli stole £30,000 in prize money from the Rathbones Folio Prize before trying and failing the same phishing scheme with other British literary prizes. As of now, no arrest has been made in that case; Bernardini, moreover, has not been accused of stealing any money from anyone. 

And yet there was occasionally a financial element to his deceptions. Posing as a scout or agent, Bernardini was also known occasionally to request reader’s reports—summaries of books written for editors and agents who hadn’t read them—from junior or aspiring publishing employees, particularly in languages like Icelandic that he was less familiar with. This is time-intensive, poorly paid work ($150 is the going rate) done by people hoping to build relationships that could one day lead to more lucrative employment. While Bernardini has been treated as a Robin Hood figure in some corners, this aspect of his scheme is particularly cruel: Taking advantage of vulnerable people who are eager to impress and excited for an opportunity and deceiving them is hardly the stuff of working-class heroism. Bernardini would often register his domains in the name of publishing figures—leading, in some cases, to rumors that these people, often his victims, were the scammer. One European agent told me that she suspected he had registered a credit card in her name, as well. There is, moreover, considerable evidence that Bernardini used passwords he had harvested from a lookalike website to access the emails of several figures in the international publishing world, a profound violation of privacy.

The scammer’s incursion into Iceland’s literary community was a textbook example of his operation. Words Without Borders, in particular, seemed to act as a kind of guidebook for him: Many figures in international publishing noted an uptick in phishing attempts after it featured a certain writer or country. Publishers Marketplace, the industry tip sheet that publishes a “deal of the day,” also seemed to be one of his sources for would-be victims. While he would sometimes try to swipe a well-known author’s manuscript, he mostly stuck to relatively obscure writers and works. And he always wanted PDFs. If sent a Word document, he would often respond requesting a PDF—a strange and staggering demand, given the relative sophistication of his operation and the fact that nearly everyone in book publishing knows how to convert a Word document to a PDF. 

Perhaps the most compelling thing about Bernardini’s plot is how plainly inexplicable it was. The project was an elaborate contraption that took zeal and organizational effort to construct; at the same time the scope of his ambitions was so comically modest that it hardly seemed a worthwhile undertaking. The fact that the pieces of the puzzle don’t quite come together to form a coherent whole has fueled an added layer of speculation from those who have seen the “How” of Bernardini’s machinations but can’t quite grasp the “Why.”

Some have speculated that Bernardini was attempting to use his collection of stolen manuscripts to somehow boost his career as a translator. He had been actively pitching his services to publishers in Italy—where he had previously published translations of works from Chinese and Korean—offering expertise in several languages. Translation can be a tough market to break into; it’s also not an especially lucrative one, to say the least. One of the strategies for advancing in this field is to attach yourself to a rising star. Bernardini, in this interpretation, was looking for such an author in his pile of obscurities, hoping it would provide him with the means to get a leg-up in a competitive field. 

If this theory bears out, it might provide an answer to one of this mystery’s biggest questions. Even though the FBI insisted in its statement that “publishers do all they can to protect … unpublished pieces because of their value,” anyone who has spent any time in proximity to the industry knows that this is absurd. Publishers are constantly sending unpublished works to reviewers, booksellers, and other industry figures; often shifting hundreds, or even thousands, of manuscripts in this fashion. In more than a decade of writing on and working in the publishing industry I can count on one hand the times I was told that I couldn’t receive a book that hadn’t yet been published. “You don’t have to steal most of this stuff,” Larissa Kyzer, a translator who was targeted by the scammer, told me. “You literally couldn’t pay people to give you books fast enough” if you wanted them for any remotely professional reason.

What kept Bernardini from simply procuring manuscripts through legitimate means? He has been described, almost uniformly by people who worked with or encountered him, as shy and awkward. It’s possible that this facet of his personality gave rise to concerns that seeking out manuscripts might somehow damage his relationship with his employer, even though this is relatively unlikely. Besides, there’s an additional problem with the logic of this theory: Had Bernardini pitched himself as a translator of unpublished works that had yet to be widely disseminated and were known to be targets of the “spine collector,” he would have inevitably outed himself. Moreover, in the emails I have read in which Bernardini pitched himself as a translator to Italian publishers, he only offered to translate books that had already been published in their original language. 

Was Bernardini trying to boost his career in some less apparent way? Perhaps he hoped to ascend in the industry’s ranks by developing a reputation as someone with a vast knowledge and appreciation of international literature and its less well-known figures. Bernardini’s ambition, shown via his translation work, his aggressive pitching of himself as a translator, and the range of languages he claimed to be proficient in (his LinkedIn page boasted that he had a degree of fluency in 10—not including Icelandic) suggest someone whose ambitions far outstrip his place in the publishing world’s pecking order.

While most of the people I spoke to who either met or spoke with Bernardini described him as unremarkable—he was “completely forgettable in the nicest possible way,” one U.K.-based editor told me—some noted that he would occasionally drop the name of a book that few knew about. 

Some even suspected that his ultimate goal was to become a literary scout himself; using his cache of stolen manuscripts and ill-gotten emails, he had surreptitiously assembled the kind of network that many scouts spend years putting together. Bernardini had previously interned at at least one scouting firm and frequently imitated scouts, particularly those based in the U.S. and the U.K. His plot even resembles a debased form of scouting: scouring the globe for overlooked gems while connecting with editors, agents, and authors—albeit via deception. 

But these are some very banal motivations, to be frank. Like translation, scouting is not a lucrative or prominent profession. Scouts are not particularly well remunerated; nearly all translators receive a pittance for the intense labor that they put into their work. When you consider that Bernardini went so far as to register nearly 160 different domain names, for the purpose of exchanging thousands of emails to facilitate his fraud, these are absurd lengths to go to rise a few paltry rungs up the publishing world’s ladder. Indeed, the total cost of the domains themselves—possibly in the thousands of dollars—would likely outstrip the fees from most translation assignments, particularly in languages like Icelandic.

This leaves the possibility that Bernardini simply had a chip on his shoulder—that he conjured this elaborate scam out of a need for vindication or just to feel as if he had some power at his disposal. While many of the figures he spent time impersonating weren’t powerful by publishing industry standards, those personas did offer Bernardini the chance to play-act as someone who wielded far more influence than he had managed to amass on his own. Nevertheless, even the identities he adopted weren’t particularly awe-worthy: The foreign rights department is far from a glamorous posting within the world of publishing, and Simon & Schuster U.K. is puny compared to its stateside equivalent. 

His autobiographical novel, Bulli, published in 2008, may offer some clues. Its protagonist is a 14-year-old whose parents are separated and who rarely sees his father. He has just started high school, where he’s a loner and self-described “loser”; he’s picked on for having uncool clothes and seeming effeminate and gay. He’s miserable, taking to his diary to unleash his frustrations. His goal, ultimately, is to become a bully himself, so he can protect himself and others from the bullies in his school. That way, he writes, “everyone will like me, and I will ignore the bullies. But the truth is that I am better than them.” The novel, meanwhile, is dedicated to “all the young people who decided to read this book, because by reading it, they show their maturity.” (In the acknowledgments, he also thanks “all of the people who hate me and who love me, for it is thanks to them I move forward in life.”) 

If this book represents the keenest insight into Bernardini’s personality, it’s hard not to notice the way his main character comes across as desperate for recognition and eager to settle scores, real and imagined. It’s also, it should be said, a slight piece of work—it’s written as a diary; its aggrieved tone somewhere between Catcher in the Rye and The Perks of Being a Wallflower—and the only evidence that he once imagined an author’s life for himself. It is a book obsessed with being trapped in a place where you are not appreciated and, per its title, bullied incessantly for being different. Its arc is one of escape: of finally leaving school and ending up somewhere, as the book’s final lines read, “without anyone who forces me to do anything I don’t want to do, because I don’t belong to anyone and nobody belongs to me.” 

Bulli may not have been far from Bernardini’s mind as he carried out his complicated plots. The bitterness and occasional cruelty he often displayed are reminiscent of his main character’s same base attractions. Posing as figures more renowned than himself, Bernardini was allowed a level of intimacy and power that was otherwise withheld from him. As promised in Bulli, Bernardini was becoming the figures that had stymied him, despite his extraordinary and obvious talent. The shy, awkward loner was, by virtue of his deceptions, allowed the opportunity to enmesh himself in a community that he was otherwise an outsider in. 

Ultimately, however, we’re left with a portrait of the scammer as an incredible oddity: someone whose efforts to achieve his goals grew more frenzied, complicated, and outlandish even as his aspirations diminished. He continued to contact publishers for manuscripts; one Icelandic editor I spoke to told me they had been contacted just days before Bernardini’s arrest.     

It’s possible that the FBI will uncover more destructive goals and deeds than previously divined, or that others will: Two reporters from The New York Times are, in fact, currently shopping a book about the scammer, tentatively titled Disappearing Ink. For now, Bernardini is facing extraordinary jail time for stealing manuscripts and … not doing anything with them. In addition to the 20-year maximum sentence for wire fraud, identity theft has a minimum sentence of two years. And yet, while he could be threatening and cruel, Bernardini did little material harm; most of his victims, moreover, were located in Europe—why the FBI was investing resources in this case at all remains something of a mystery in and of itself. “They say this is stealing, but this is not stealing,” one Italian editor told me. “He didn’t do anything with them.” 

That’s not to say that he didn’t cause harm. For his victims—and particularly those whose names were used to register fake domains and were falsely suspected of being the scammer by their colleagues—there was not just embarrassment but clear reputational harm. His manipulation of interns and other aspirants within the publishing industry was particularly nasty. As one scout told me, his crimes were “bloodless, probably … but not victimless.” For many, the harm was more abstract. The international publishing industry functions atop a delicate web of intimate relationships, and Bernardini’s actions have resulted in considerable fraying. “The damage that this has done to this industry is significant,” a Swedish publishing employee told me. “People have changed their way of doing business. They don’t trust each other.” 

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.