Earlier today, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York announced that it had arrested Filippo Bernardini, a 29-year-old Italian man, for allegedly conducting a dastardly scheme that has bewildered the book-publishing business for the better part of five years. Bernardini, who works in the foreign-rights department of the British arm of Simon & Schuster, is accused of impersonating hundreds of his colleagues — editors, agents, literary scouts — by creating fake email accounts in order to dupe others into sharing book manuscripts before they have been published. The thief had gone after hundreds of books, from titles by big-name authors (Margaret Atwood, Anthony Doerr, Jennifer Egan) to books by debut novelists most readers had never heard of. And no one could figure out why they were doing it at all.
The arrest was made shortly after Bernardini landed at John F. Kennedy Airport, an appropriately dramatic ending to a scheme that brought an air of international espionage to a typically sleepy corner of the publishing world. For several months last year, Lila Shapiro and I dug into the case and came away baffled at every turn. The lack of a practical motive, in particular, led to wild speculation about who was behind it all. Was it a writer in need of ideas? Greedy Hollywood producers? An avid reader? The Russians?
In many respects, Bernardini fits the profile that many in publishing were leaning toward: a low-level industry employee allegedly deploying their intimate knowledge of the business to nefarious ends. Bernardini works in foreign rights, the esoteric corner of the publishing world where the thief seemed to do most of their work. English didn’t seem to be the thief’s first language, and it isn’t Bernardini’s, either. The thief wrote emails in at least ten different languages, with varying degrees of fluency; on LinkedIn, Bernardini claims varying degrees of fluency in ten different languages. (“French: Limited working proficiency … “Dutch: Professional working proficiency.”) The thief’s behavior had always seemed more pathological than practical, and Bernardini wrote in his profile that he had joined the industry due to his “obsession for the written word and languages.”
But the FBI’s indictment, and the information immediately available online about Bernardini, still left everyone I talked to in publishing stumped over the second biggest question in the case: Why? Getting manuscripts early would offer little advantage in Bernardini’s role at Simon & Schuster, and only minimally so in the other jobs he had held in the industry. Bernardini also worked as a translator, and it was possible that the scheme could have helped him get his hands on manuscripts that he might pitch to Italian publishers — the thief targeted several books that Bernardini later translated — but there were easier ways to go about that work. The U.S. Attorney’s office seemed to offer at least a cheeky reference to the notion that he was simply looking for ideas for his work: “Mr. Bernardini was allegedly trying to steal other people’s literary ideas for himself, but in the end he wasn’t creative enough to get away with it.”
While the indictment said that Bernardini’s behavior continued through July 2021, the scheme did not stop then. Since we published our article in August, I’ve continued to hear from publishing people all over the world who were being impersonated or targeted. The thief even seemed to be deploying new tactics. In December, a Swedish publisher told me that one of their authors had just been contacted by someone they didn’t know on Facebook, claiming to be interested in her upcoming book. When the author suggested they communicate via email instead of Facebook, the person replied by telling the author to email them at an unusual email address — one of the addresses the thief had been using to steal manuscripts.
It remains to be seen whether Bernardini controlled that Facebook account — it is under a different name that doesn’t appear to be connected to a real person — or whether he is the only person who was sending all of these emails. Some people in publishing told me that even if Bernardini is guilty, they aren’t certain he was acting alone, and speculated that prosecutors will be interested to find out whether he was working on behalf of someone else. Whatever the case, Bernardini’s arrest is certainly the latest plot twist in a strange saga, but the story remains one without an ending.