the spine collector

At Court for the Spine Collector’s Final Chapter

Photo: Filippo Bernardini/Facebook

On Friday morning in Manhattan federal court, Filippo Bernardini pleaded guilty to wire fraud, bringing a resolution to a bizarre saga that roiled the publishing industry for the past six years. Bernardini, a 30-year-old Italian man who worked a series of publishing jobs, most recently with Simon & Schuster U.K. in London, had engaged in an elaborate email-impersonation scheme aimed at duping others in the industry into sharing unpublished book manuscripts. The government said that he made off with “more than a thousand manuscripts.”

“I knew my actions were wrong,” Bernardini told the court on Friday, as part of a brief prepared statement. Bernardini’s lawyers and the government said that they had agreed to a recommended sentencing range of 15 to 21 months of imprisonment, a fine of between $7,500 and $75,000, and restitution of $88,000. His sentencing hearing is scheduled for April 5.

The government says that beginning in August 2016 and continuing through his arrest last January, Bernardini registered more than 160 fake domain names for various publishing companies and impostor email addresses for hundreds of people “crafted to be confusingly similar to the real entities that they were impersonating, including only minor typographical errors that would be difficult for the average recipient to identify during a cursory review.” The government said Bernardini also created a website designed to mimic the website of a New York–based scouting company; the site prompted users to input their username and password and delivered those login credentials to Bernardini. “Filippo Bernardini used his insider knowledge of the publishing industry to create a scheme that stole precious works from authors and menaced the publishing industry,” U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a statement, commending his office for “writing the final chapter to Bernardini’s manuscript theft scheme.”

In court, Bernardini was calm and attentive and spoke with an accent that bore traces of both his childhood in Italy and his professional life in London. He looked the part of a man in publishing — dark sweater, dark slacks, glasses — and perked up before the hearing when one of his attorneys mentioned that she was reading A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, a book of essays by George Saunders. He said that he was aware that pleading guilty would likely result in his removal from the U.S.

After the hearing, some of Bernardini’s victims expressed a sense of disbelief that the case had finally been solved, and even a little disappointment that such a bizarre mystery had come to such a procedural end. (The courthouse that morning was more abuzz about another guilty plea — that of Real Housewives star Jen Shah — and one of Bernardini’s former colleagues at Simon & Schuster in the U.K. said their office had actually been paying closer attention to the recent revelation that a romance novelist had allegedly faked her own suicide to boost sales of her book, only to reappear last week and admit that she was not, in fact, dead.) Even those who had been upset by the scam were surprised that Bernardini might face more than a year in prison, and everyone still wanted the answer to one question: “What’s the freaking motive?” one publishing person who dealt with the scam said, adding that she still wasn’t convinced he was the only culprit. “Was he the fall guy? Was someone else involved, or using him?”

But this is book publishing, and a great story never really ends. A few months ago, a literary scout sent Vulture a note from a book agent in Italy. Someone had been impersonating the Italian novelist Niccolo Ammaniti with a fake Gmail address that deployed one of the Spine Collector’s preferred misdirections: The person had been emailing people in publishing to ask for their copy of Ammaniti’s new manuscript, purportedly to make sure it was the latest version. Bernardini had already been arrested, so this seemed likely to be a copycat, albeit an amateur one. (It is a lot simpler to create a Gmail address than to register more than 160 fake domain names.) It appears that someone in the book world is ready for a sequel.

At Court for the Spine Collector’s Final Chapter