Read “The Spine Collector,” originally published on August 17, 2021.
Filippo Bernardini was just a high-school student when he published his first novel. It was 2008, and Bernardini, who lived in a small town an hour north of Rome, wrote it for an independent publishing house in Milan using a thinly veiled pseudonym: Filippo B. The book was called Bulli — “bullies,” in Italian — and was an epistolary novel in the form of diary entries by a teenage loner named Diego. He’s good at school and loves two things more than anything else: the internet and books. But his mom doesn’t let him wear ripped jeans or dye his hair or get a tattoo — a recipe for social exile. “Life sucks,” Diego writes. “Everyone says I’m gay and the school bullies want to beat me.” He experiences a rare moment of triumph when he impresses his schoolmates by obtaining a copy of the new Harry Potter. “I’m sure they wish they were me!” he writes. “I like to be at the center of attention by showing people something that they don’t have.” But his experience is mostly miserable, and eventually Diego decides that the way to battle bullies is to become one himself. “I should find some time to commit a robbery,” he says. “I admit to being very good at that.”
On January 5, Bernardini, a 29-year-old working in the foreign-rights department of Simon & Schuster’s U.K. operation, was arrested by FBI agents at John F. Kennedy airport and charged with conducting a bizarre spree of digital robberies that has baffled the worlds of book publishing, Hollywood IP, and cybersecurity. For the past half decade, someone spent an incredible amount of time impersonating agents, editors, literary scouts, film producers, translators, and authors by creating fake web addresses for publishing companies — like simonandschusfer.com — in hopes of surreptitiously obtaining unpublished manuscripts. The thief, or thieves, stole the digital identity of hundreds of people, writing countless emails in the idiosyncratic vernacular of the publishing world, with a real-time grasp of the industry’s information flow. They made off with hundreds of manuscripts before their release, from Sally Rooney’s latest to novels that would be lucky to sell at all. And for what? The stolen books weren’t being pirated online. No one was demanding a ransom. Book auctions weren’t being disrupted.
As far as anyone can tell, the caper itself might have been the point. By 2021, the book thief had begun copying passages from freshly stolen manuscripts and sending them back to the authors themselves, for no apparent reason other than to taunt. If someone caught on to the ruse and tried to spoil the fun, the thief became spiteful, responding by cursing or, say, telling an editor in Stockholm, in Swedish, “Hope you die of the coronavirus.” Last spring, the thief became aware that my colleague, Lila Shapiro, and I had begun looking into the case. They reached out to us via email, pretending to be a literary scout, then an editor in the Netherlands, and eventually agreed to our offer to meet in person. When Lila suggested Cobble Hill, they changed their mind:
How about Fuck You Hill? Or can I meet you at Silly Cunt Square?
TAKE MY ADVICE: DROP THIS STUPID ARTICLE AND STOP WITH IT IMMEDIATELY!!! Don’t you and your friend Reeves have better stories to report? I can’t believe you’re being paid for this rubbish!
Should anyone have suspected Bernardini? He did fit a certain profile: Many in publishing suspected the thief was among them, perhaps a young person on the outskirts of the industry. (Multiple sources pointed us to a different young Italian, but the evidence fell apart under scrutiny. After Bernardini’s arrest, Kent Wolf, a literary agent, asked his colleagues on Twitter, “Which of us is in charge of ordering the gift basket for the poor soul everybody was fingering as the manuscript scammer?”) Like the polyglot thief, who wrote emails in at least 10 different languages, Bernardini claimed to be fluent in Italian, English, French, German, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Mandarin, and Korean. And yet of all the potential suspects that sources suggested to us during the long course of our reporting — hackers, Russians, nefarious Hollywood producers — no one ever mentioned Bernardini.
If he did commit these crimes, the publishing world has been left to look back at his career for clues to a possible motive. In more ways than one, Bernardini seems to have gone unnoticed and underestimated. Some in the industry have been reminded of Lee Israel, the failing writer (played in a fictionalized adaptation by Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me?) who tried to rejuvenate her career by forging letters from successful authors. At the same time that Bernardini was diligently trying to build a career in publishing, he was allegedly conducting a scheme that involved impersonating his classmates from graduate school, bosses he’d worked for, and people he’d hoped to one day work alongside. “He was almost cosplaying as a person in publishing,” says Kelly Farber, a literary scout. The Italian press has dubbed him the “Lupin of literature.”
On Tuesday, Bernardini appeared in federal court in Manhattan. He wore a suit and glasses and peered around the room, but mostly he sat in silence. He has been released on a $300,000 cash bond and was required to surrender his passport and agree to a curfew while staying at a friend’s one-bedroom apartment in the West Village before finding a place of his own. He faces up to 20 years in prison and has pleaded not guilty. During the proceedings, Judge Colleen McMahon expressed her own confusion about the case. “What exactly did he do?” she asked the prosecutor. McMahon understood what thieves sometimes did with pirated movies. But what did Bernardini want with the books? The prosecution said it was not aware of any attempt to remarket the stolen manuscripts, and it didn’t offer an alternative explanation for the alleged crime. “So he wanted to read books before they were published?” Judge McMahon mused. “Interesting. Very interesting.”
Bernardini began charting a career in publishing when he was young. As an undergraduate in Milan in the early 2010s, he majored in modern languages, with a specialty in English and Mandarin, and worked as a proofreader for the publisher that released Bulli. His love of books was clear on Instagram, where he posted pictures of advance copies for upcoming releases by Jonathan Franzen, Nick Hornby, and Harper Lee*, accompanied by hashtags that highlighted his delight at getting an early look: #uncorrectedproof #advancereaderscopy #notoutyet.
In 2015, Bernardini moved to the U.K. for a master’s in publishing at University College London, where his classmates remember him as a good student and one of the many stock characters that populate such programs. “He was loud, boisterous. Nothing would really daunt him,” a classmate who worked on several projects with Bernardini told me via email. “My lasting impression of him was how confident but borderline rude he was.” Bernardini started dating a British man who worked as an internal auditor for a large corporation, and the classmate said he bragged about spending more than £1,000 a week on groceries — a seemingly preposterous claim backed up by the elaborate meals Bernardini posted on @ilove.vegan, his now-deleted Instagram account. “We’d eventually all just take anything he said with a pinch of salt,” the classmate said. “He seemed like someone who would always exaggerate to ensure they had the best story in the room.” According to a résumé he later sent to potential employers, Bernardini wrote his dissertation on the translation of children’s literature with a case study of one story in particular: the tale of Pinocchio, a puppet who can’t help but lie.
Bernardini seemed to spend most of his time preparing to hustle up the publishing ladder. “I always felt like he was sizing me up to gauge me as future competition,” the classmate said. On paper, Bernardini was an excellent candidate. During his master’s program, he worked as a reader for Marleen Seegers, a literary agent based in Ojai, California, and interned at Granta, the venerable London publisher and literary magazine. The range of languages he could read — not to mention a proficiency in PHP and HTML — would make him a valuable asset to London’s international book scene. But it was also difficult to stand out. “We were all trying to break into publishing,” Alex Stephens, who interned at Granta alongside Bernardini, told me. “It can be quite dispiriting because there’s so many people going for every job, and when you have 15 candidates with the exact same CV, a lot of it comes down to personality.”
In 2016, Bernardini landed an internship at Andrew Nurnberg Associates, a literary agency in London. One of Bernardini’s colleagues recalled him as friendly but difficult to get close to. “He seemed too keen, too ambitious,” the colleague said. Multiple Nurnberg agents told me Bernardini was eager to impress his foreign-language skills upon them, but hard to work with. He seemed to see himself as above the more pedestrian duties required of an intern. Once, when Bernardini’s computer was being fixed, he sat idly in his chair, spinning around. An agent suggested that he might tidy up some bookshelves. Bernardini declined. “I remember him saying that something was ‘too boring,’” the agent said. “I think he expected lots of doors in the industry to open for him.” When Bernardini applied for a full-time job at Nurnberg, he didn’t get it. (The agency declined to comment. Bernardini, through his attorney, broadly disputed the description of his time at Nurnberg.)
Bernardini apparently did not take the rejection well. According to one person who knew him at Nurnberg, Bernardini later accosted several of the company’s agents on the street, shouting and swearing at them. Shortly after he left Nurnberg, the company’s website was hacked. Someone had logged in and defaced the profile pages of many of its agents, publishing their personal information alongside various nasty comments. “There were some really insulting things, either about personal appearances or really sexualized inventions,” the agent said. Nurnberg never identified the culprit.
It was during Bernardini’s internship at Nurnberg, when he was 24, that the FBI alleges he began trying to steal manuscripts. The scheme’s earliest victims were the kinds of people that Bernardini and his colleagues at Nurnberg would be emailing every day, all over the world. That fall, an editor at a Spanish publisher was impersonated, as was a Greek foreign-rights manager, both asking an agent about an upcoming short-story collection. Bernardini’s perch at Nurnberg would have given him an understanding of the global book trade: who talks to whom and how. (One early message made reference to Bradbury Phillips, a back-end software platform exclusive to the book business.) And yet the thief also stumbled into mistakes that only someone new to the industry would make, like impersonating a Swedish book editor to ask someone at Scribner about a new collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald stories without realizing it was odd for this particular Swede to ask such a question: They worked exclusively in children’s books.
In the real world, Bernardini struggled to find a job. He left Nurnberg without a good reference, and by 2018, he was doing quality-assurance testing for a video-game company. He eventually got a temporary position at Hay House, a British publisher specializing in self-help books, followed by a three-month gig at Bloomsbury working on “the migration of India royalty contract data into Bloomsbury’s royalty system.” The cover letter he sent to potential employers emphasized his ability to be discreet, saying that “no content is compromised in any task required of me.”
Most people who worked with Bernardini after his time at Nurnberg found him to be a genial colleague — a bit strange, perhaps, but no more than plenty of others in publishing. The cover letters and job applications he sent out displayed the deference and willingness to work for cheap that the industry requires. Shortly after leaving Nurnberg, Bernardini agreed to read manuscripts for a literary scout if the scout would pay a fee of £50 per book, then expressed regret at having been so insolent. “I do believe that I owe you an apology,” he wrote. “When you asked me if I was up for freelance reading, I replied saying that I charge a fee. Later on, I realized how tacky and unprofessional that attitude was and I am really sorry for this.”
Bernardini was having more success on another path. Beginning in 2016, he had been pitching himself to Italian publishers as a translator. His cold emails were typical of young translators trying to break into the business, though he displayed an unusual persistence — emailing multiple editors at the same publisher multiple times over multiple years — and seemed to possess a surprising amount of information about the industry: what books were on submission, how agents were pitching various titles, who was buying them. Strangest of all was the catalog of languages he claimed to speak. In addition to Mandarin, which he had studied in college, Bernardini pitched translations from Swedish (Tina Frennstedt’s Forsvunnen), German (Sharon Dodua Otoo’s Ada’s Realm), Dutch (Tobi Lakmaker’s The History of My Sexuality), Danish (Olga Ravn’s The Employees), and Korean (Choi Jeong Hwa’s The White City Tale). One of the last books he proposed to publishers before his arrest was Frida Isberg’s Merking, which meant he was now claiming to read Icelandic. Publishers were willing to give him a shot — it isn’t easy to find an Icelandic-to-Italian translator — but several editors told me Bernardini’s translations were, as one put it, “not up to our standards.”
His breakthrough came in 2018, when the Italian publisher La Nave di Teseo hired Bernardini to translate the Chinese writer Rao Pingru’s best-selling memoir, Our Story. Another Italian publisher had him translate Unfree Speech, a memoir by Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong. (Bernardini’s Twitter handle was @tradurrelacina: “Translating China” in Italian.) Elisabetta Sgarbi, the director of La Nave di Teseo, said that Bernardini “always gave smart suggestions regarding less famous and less obvious translations” and that his work with the publisher was “an occasional but intelligent collaboration” — nothing, she said, to make her suspect he might be up to anything nefarious. La Nave di Teseo hired Bernardini to translate two more books, this time from Korean: Bong Joon Ho’s storyboards from the movie Parasite and the novel Kim Ji-young, Born in 1982, about a woman who plunges deeper and deeper into a psychosis that finds her impersonating the voices of other women.
Were Bernardini’s alleged crimes somehow aiding his translation career? All three of the books he translated for La Nave di Teseo were targeted in the impersonation scheme, as were some of the other titles he was pitching to publishers. One Italian translator told me that early access to manuscripts might give Bernardini a head start on working up a sample translation. Others pointed out how unusual it was for a literary translator to work in both Korean and Mandarin, not to mention the other languages Bernardini claimed to read; perhaps the reason the thief sometimes asked for manuscripts in their original language and also in English was to make his translation work easier. On several occasions, the thief had even tried to dupe other translators into writing up a reader’s report on a book, which scouts and agents use to help determine whether a book is worth their time. Still, it was hard to imagine a meaningful advantage to all this — let alone one worth the amount of work and risk required.
The alleged scam also began to overlap with Bernardini’s broader professional aspirations. In 2018, agents at Curtis Brown, a literary agency in London, spent months defending themselves against aggressive attempts to steal Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. Not long after, Bernardini walked in to Curtis Brown for an interview about an assistant position that would have him handling the work of several big name authors. “If Filippo is the hacker, it’s like something from a film for him to have sat in the very office of the people he’d been tormenting for almost a year,” one Curtis Brown agent said. When Bernardini interviewed for a job at another agency, he told an agent there that he had enjoyed reading one of their big titles — a book the thief had desperately tried to steal just months before.
If what the government alleges is true, Bernardini also didn’t seem to hesitate in going after people who had given him opportunities. In 2020, Mira Trenchard, a literary scout in the U.K., dealt with a bizarre series of events. In one instance, Trenchard emailed a friend who was being impersonated to ask if she knew about the scam. “I didn’t!” the friend replied. “How sinister.” Minutes later, the thief sent a similar reply to the same message. “NO, I didn’t!!!” the thief wrote to Trenchard. “How sinister!!” Somehow, the thief seemed to have access to Trenchard’s inbox. As it happened, a few years earlier, Trenchard had hired Bernardini as an intern.
By last year, Bernardini’s career seemed to finally be getting somewhere. He had landed a full-time job in the foreign-rights department at Simon & Schuster U.K. and even got a promotion. His translation of Kim Ji-young, Born in 1982 appeared on Esquire Italia’s list of the 10 books to read last summer. And yet the scheme he’s accused of conducting seemingly continued up until the day before he was arrested, when a British editor was impersonated trying to convince a Korean-speaking writer to produce a report on a new novel by Sang Young Park. “It’s 400 pages long and I would need a report by end of January,” the thief wrote with faux magnanimity. “We usually pay 100 GBP but in this case we can do 150 GBP.” Bernardini’s arrest seems to have caught even those close to him off guard. On the morning he was taken into custody, Bernardini’s boss at Simon & Schuster cc’d him on an email sent to colleagues around the world, talking up a new thriller they were shopping out of New Zealand. The government’s prosecutor said that when Bernardini was apprehended at JFK, he expressed surprise that he, a non–U.S. citizen, could be charged with a crime in the U.S.
The indictment against Bernardini charges him with wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. In addition to the fake domain names, the indictment alleges that Bernardini created “at least two malicious webpages” that resembled the home page for a database maintained by a New York scouting agency. Bernardini allegedly convinced several of the agency’s clients to input their passwords on the impostor site, potentially giving him access to the database’s trove of information.
But the FBI’s indictment remains silent on the big remaining question: Why? The access to manuscripts and information flying around publishing could have been helpful as Bernardini tried to make inroads into the industry, but not enough to make the effort worthwhile. Some in publishing believe that Bernardini must have had some unnamed accomplice. Hollywood has a hearty appetite for getting its hands on adaptable IP, and Bernardini did seem to attend a lot of movie premieres. (From his Instagram in 2016: “OMGGGGGG just 40 metres far from goddess #AmyAdams at the premiere of #Arrival at #bfi #bfilondonfilmfestival #oscars2017 #film.”) And then there is the suggestion that Bernardini simply loved books or that he got some satisfaction from a game that brought him closer to the heart of an industry he aspired to be a part of. In Bulli, the narrator seems to recognize that most bullies aren’t abusive for practical reasons. “There is a relationship between tormentors and victims, something close to a real friendship, or even love,” he wrote. “A person cannot live without others, just as the tormentor cannot live without his victim.”
Bernardini has so far declined to comment. He is expected back in court on April 5—the first day of the London Book Fair, one of those annual publishing events when the thief has seemed especially intent on sneaking into inboxes. Most people in publishing have reacted to the news of his arrest with a mixture of confusion, relief, and, in some cases, a certain admiration for the audacity the scheme required. “Ugh! Kind of love it,” one agent told me upon discovering that Bernardini had interviewed with her agency after allegedly impersonating its agents and trying repeatedly over many months to steal one of its manuscripts.
The idea that anyone could love books as much as the thief even appeared to engender a certain empathy. “I hope they don’t deal with him too harshly,” Jesse Ball, a novelist who had his manuscript nabbed last year, told me via email. “After all, reading so many ms pdfs must constitute its own special kind of punishment.”
*This article has been updated to remove a reference to Lee’s novel as “posthumous”; it was published while she was alive.