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The Literary World is Rocked by a Manuscript Scam
An Italian man admitted to stealing more than 1,000 unpublished manuscripts, including from distinguished authors, solving a mystery that had rocked the literary world for years.
Filippo Bernardini impersonated figures from the publishing industry to trick people into handing over their works. He used his inside industry knowledge, having been employed by the publishing giant Simon & Schuster in London by impersonating agents and publishers over email to obtain novels and other works from writers and their representatives.
Bernardini, 30, pleaded guilty in New York to wire fraud, but his motive has never been clear.
Manuscripts were not found to have been leaked on the internet, nor were any ransom demands made. The scam had been known in literary circles for several years with Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan and Sally Rooney among the novelists reportedly targeted.
Beginning in August 2016, and continuing up to his arrest, he made small changes to real email addresses to create similar internet domains with spelling errors that would be difficult to notice, court filings show. Bernardini used more than 160 domains to impersonate real companies and people in the publishing industry, and obtained manuscripts, as well as synopses and other notes and reports related to unpublished books, according to the US.
In one instance, he got a Pulitzer-prize-winning author in September 2020 to send him an email version of an unpublished manuscript, prosecutors said. According to the indictment, Bernardini also used an email phishing scam to obtain about 20 log-ins to a New York City-based literary scouting company.
In 2019, Atwood’s agent revealed that the manuscript for “The Testaments” had been targeted.
In 2021, New York Magazine reported that the Swedish editors of Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” series had been approached by a purported colleague in Italy who requested an advance copy so that it could be translated before release.
A New York Times investigation at the end of 2020 found that “Normal People” author Rooney, “Atonement” author McEwan, and actor Ethan Hawke had also been targeted.
While prosecutors didn’t say what Bernardini did with the manuscripts, the documents are often circulated by literary agents to publishing houses when they are ready to be sold.
Alleged victims were baffled by the fact the thefts were never followed by demands for money, nor did the works ever seem to appear online or on the dark web.
Screenshots from Bernardini’s LinkedIn profile shortly after his arrest described him as a “rights coordinator” at Simon & Schuster. The publisher, which was not accused of wrongdoing, said at the time it had been “shocked and horrified to learn of the allegations.”
Bernardini’s profile also said he obtained a bachelors in Chinese Language in Milan and a masters in publishing from UCL in London owing to his “obsession for the written word and languages.”
Bernardini agreed to pay $88,000 in restitution and is scheduled to be sentenced April 5 before U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon. The maximum sentence for one count of wire fraud is 20 years in prison.