True Crime Thursday – Please Send Your Unpublished Manuscript

Photo credit: Dim Hou, Unsplash

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

A weird literary crime made news on January 5, 2022 when the FBI announced the arrest of an Italian citizen Filippo Bernardini, 29, at JFK Airport in New York.

The charges against him? Wire fraud and aggravated identity theft.

What did he do? He allegedly impersonated publishing company executives and persuaded authors to send him pre-publication manuscripts. Targets included luminaries like Margaret Atwood.

Since 2016, the writing community has speculated about this peculiar case. For five years, well-known authors had received emails purportedly from editors and agents, requesting unpublished manuscripts. Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware and trade organizations like the Authors Guild publicized the strange requests and alerted writers.

It appeared to be a scam yet no one could quite figure it out.

Turns out Mr. Bernardini was an employee of Simon and Schuster in London where he worked as a rights coordinator. S&S has not been named in the indictment and is not believed responsible.

To further his scheme, Bernardini secured more than 160 web domains and set up bogus email accounts and lookalike websites to mislead people into believing they were communicating with an actual editor, agent, scout, or publishing executive.

For instance, if a legitimate email was XYZ@penguinrandomhouse.com, the letters r and n placed together were substituted for m. Without close examination, XYZ@penguinrandornhouse.com passed muster.

Bernardini allegedly used multiple phony email addresses to contact Pulitzer-winning authors and bestsellers, asking them to send their manuscripts to him before they had been finalized.

According to the FBI statement:

These prepublication manuscripts are valuable, and the unauthorized release of a manuscript can dramatically undermine the economics of publishing, and publishing houses generally work to identify and stop the release of pirated, prepublication, manuscripts.  Such pirating can also undermine the secondary markets for published work, such as film and television, and can harm an author’s reputation where an early draft of written material is distributed in a working form that is not in a finished state.

The biggest question remains WHY?

The stolen manuscripts were not published on pirate sites. No one appeared to reap benefits, financial or otherwise, from the thefts.

If Bernardini hoped to receive credit as the author for works written by others, surely in the small, insular world of publishing, such books would have been recognized long before they were released.

Photo credit: Ben White, Unsplash

Did he receive a thrill because he possessed pre-publication drafts by noted authors?

Was it like having an early unfinished version of the Mona Lisa hidden in your attic?

Whatever his motivation, he now faces a mandatory two years in prison with the maximum sentence determined by the judge.

~~~

TKZers: Care to speculate on Bernardini’s motives?

This entry was posted in #amwriting, #truecrimethursday, piracy, Writing by Debbie Burke. Bookmark the permalink.

About Debbie Burke

Debbie writes Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with Passion. The first book in the series, Instrument of the Devil, won the Kindle Scout contest and the Zebulon Award. Additional books in the series are Stalking Midas, Eyes in the Sky, Dead Man's Bluff, Crowded Hearts, Flight to Forever, and Until Proven Guilty. Debbie's articles have won journalism awards in international publications. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers. http://www.debbieburkewriter.com

39 thoughts on “True Crime Thursday – Please Send Your Unpublished Manuscript

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Debbie. What strikes me is that this guy um, allegedly went to a heck of a lot of work to do this. My first guess is the thrill motive, as you mentioned. My second is that he was planning to send the manuscripts to non-English language publishers as his own work under pseudonyms in order to hide the original source, though that may be unlikely. I will be watching this to see if we ever learn the reason.

    • Joe, a lot of work over a lot of years sounds like an obsession. Sending to non-English publishers is a possibility, too. Wonder if the true motive will ever come out.

  2. Hey, many serial killers keep trophies, right? 😉 This reminds me of Devil Wears Prada, where the poor beleaguered assistant had to get copies of Rowling’s next (prepub) book.

    Maybe he just wanted bragging rights?
    A lot of work to go through for the above, but there are weirdos everywhere, I guess.

    • Laura, good point about trophies. Except if you brag, you get caught.

      The story kinda reminded me of the 1982 movie Deathtrap, except the concept was flipped on its head. Michael Caine is a has-been playwright who plots to murder his former student Christopher Reeve and present the younger man’s brilliant script as his own.

      Mystifying.

  3. Interesting story, Debbie. I have no idea what motivated Bernardini. Joe’s theory sounds logical to me. Maybe he knew he would be caught, and wanted a movie to be made about himself. Maybe he has already written the script. Interesting that his name contains an R beside an N.

    Have a great day!

    • Steve, I like your theory about getting caught and making a movie of his story.

      Keen eye to spot the R and N in his own name. We all know what weird things trigger our criminal writing brains. Maybe he made that typo one day and thought Hmmm, there’s a story in that. .

  4. Like Joe mentioned, I think he was sitting on the manuscripts till the authors forgot about them (as if that would ever happen). At which time he’d sell them overseas. Another website speculated his motive was pure revenge, to keep those manuscripts away from S&S. Even if he never sold the manuscripts, at least S&S wouldn’t benefit with the next big release. We’ll have to wait and see if Bernardi comes clean. My guess is, he won’t.

    • Thanks for sharing another theory, Sue. Certainly the author and other editors and agents had prior drafts. Eventually someone at S&S would ask, “Where’s that revision you promised to send months ago?” The author would reply, “I already emailed it to you.” Then they’d figure it out.

      Why don’t we write to him and see if he’ll confess to a couple of crime novelist?

  5. I’ve been wondering about this, too. Here’s what Wikipedia says about the motive(s):

    “Motives for the phishing attacks were unclear.[2] None of the manuscripts were subsequently sold on the black market or dark web and no ransoms were asked.[4][6] Speculation as to motive included talent scouts or others in the industry or in Hollywood seeking early access to anticipated releases, impatient readers wanting the book solely for their own use, or “pleasure in the act itself”.[2] One IT professional speculated that portions of a highly-anticipated book might be used to convince readers to enter credit card information online.[2] One agent wondered if the motive could be to sell security software to those who had been targeted.[2] Hackers speculated that the attempts could be a low-risk training program for teaching hacking techniques.[2]

    “After the arrest, the New York Times wrote, “Early knowledge in a rights department could be an advantage for an employee trying to prove his worth. Publishers compete and bid to publish work abroad, for example, and knowing what’s coming, who is buying what and how much they’re paying could give companies an edge.”[6] Other industry professionals were still puzzled, saying that early access to unpublished manuscripts would be of little benefit to a low-level foreign rights specialist like Bernardini.”

    The cost/benefit ratio seems a bit out of whack.

  6. I read once – in an Indian business law journal, no less – that pirated books are printed and sold in shops, and are a huge problem in India. This would mean less chance of finding these versions online. There seems to be money made in that, since India has the largest population of English speakers next to the US.

    Found it: https://law.asia/cost-fake-books/

  7. What is that saying? Give a million monkeys a million typewriters and they’ll eventually type the entire works of William Shakespeare? Maybe the people sending in the WIPs were the monkeys, and he was going to piece together something great.

  8. Thanks for the fascinating article, BJ! I notice it dates back to 2007, indicating the problem has been around a long time. Printing pirate copies could certainly mean substantial profits for the perps.

    As the saying goes, follow the money.

  9. The thing that struck me was how young he was — 29 years old when arrested. It sounds like a foolish prank performed by someone who wanted to use the knowledge to impress upper management.

    I suspect we’ll see a first-person account of his adventure. I wonder if S&S will publish it.

  10. Intriguing case, Debbie.

    I’m always, always amazed at folks who work so hard to be bad, instead laboring to make the world a better place. Think of all the time this nutcase put into this. Think of all the good he could’ve done.

    Staggering.

  11. This guy’s motive is baffling, to say the least. I’m leaning toward the same motive behind most vandalism – some kind of twisted thrill. Whatever is behind this doesn’t matter legally, because there is no onus on the prosecution to establish or prove motive in a criminal case.

  12. Fascinating! I admit I hadn’t heard of this guy. Even considering all the theories you all have posited, he just sounds like a wacko.

  13. This is an interesting story. I read the indictment but those don’t often get to the matter of motive. There are parallels with some book thieves like Stephen Blumberg of Ottumwa, Iowa just ninety miles from me whose passion is the possession of the artifact itself rather than the money to be made.

    Kinda like someone who steals a Vermeer and then it hangs on the wall of his kitchen for forty years. Of course there is also the thrill of the ‘big score’ even though the payday is speculative.

    There’s that thought though. When I was a student working in the law library I found a copy of Blackstone’s Commentaries printed in 1797 in the removed books heaps in the basement and for one second I held it and only I knew of its existence. Now it resides in the rare book collection but there was that moment…

  14. The intellectual arrogance of the publishing industry meets the intellectual arrogance of someone who despises them. Failed author or publishing industry candidate having an imaginary f you, perhaps?

    And in other scam news, I’m still getting phone calls from people with very foreign accents who call themselves “Emily Johnson” and other white bread names and claim they work for (insert name similar to publisher or popular review website). The names are changed every time. They want to talk about GUARDIAN ANGEL and promotion deals. They think my novel is self-published. It isn’t. I keep telling them to leave me alone, but the calls continue. Sigh. Please pass the word along about this scam to other authors who aren’t as world weary of scams as I am.

  15. Money is powerful motivator. If the author’s works are best-sellers, an early version manuscript would quickly be worth a lot of money. What might the value be of J.K. Rowling’s discarded napkins with her early ideas about Harry Potter? Either return-for-ransom or auction would likely be highly profitable.

    • Barbara, ransom is an interesting theory. Although these days manuscripts are backed up on the cloud, external drives, thumb drives, etc., etc. so it’s just another copy, even if it’s by Margaret Atwood.

      Count on TKZers to come up with imaginative answers!

  16. Money is a powerful motivator. If the author’s works are best-sellers, an early version manuscript would quickly be worth a lot of money. What might the value be of J.K. Rowling’s discarded napkins with her early ideas about Harry Potter? Either return-for-ransom or auction would likely be highly profitable.

  17. The motive is easily deduced. Filippo BEMardini is not a human, but a BEM*, an alien disguised as a publisher. Light-years away on Metaluny, the planet of the alien lizard people, human-written books are very popular. All that is necessary is to transmit the text via dilithium-FTL** radio to Metaluny, where the books can be openly marketed.

    * Bug-Eyed Monster
    ** Faster Than Light

  18. Fascinating true crime story, Debbie! Put me down with the consensus opinion that this was thrill seeking on his part, perhaps with a side of revenge against S&S. Like Kay noted, he’s just 29 (pretty young in our present era) and will likely be living with some long-term consequences.

    • Dale, a friend on Twitter just suggested maybe he’ll use prison time to write his memoir…inn the tradition of Ezra Pound, Jean Genet, Oscar Wilde, and O. Henry.

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