Hunt for the book thief: The inside story of the mystery that baffled the literary world

‘Folks were seeking to steal it,’ Margaret Atwood instructed a BBC reporter simply after the launch of her novel The Testaments in September 2019. ‘In Reality making an attempt. There Have Been faux emails from cyber criminals – we had to use a lot of codewords and passwords.’

The sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale was one in all the most important releases in recent publishing history, but information of surreptitious attempts to procure its manuscript upfront – ‘a phishing exercise,’ as Atwood put it, ‘a commercial challenge of a theft type’ – still came as a wonder.

Booker Prize judging chair Peter Florence – one in all a handful of individuals granted get admission to to the unpublished manuscript – steered at the time that ‘essentially the most most likely hackers can be other people looking to extort ransom money’. This Is a familiar follow in Hollywood – the script to Quentin Tarantino’s movie The Hateful Eight used to be illicitly obtained and published on-line before filming had even began, and stolen first-draft screenplays incessantly seem on the dark web, introduced to impatient movie enthusiasts for a fee. But this kind of factor was rarely observed in the guide international – till a couple of years in the past.

Whilst it did happen, Atwood’s agent, Karolina Sutton of Curtis Brown, observed a devious relentlessness that went a long way past Hollywood’s worst stories. She says that the company had been besieged on a daily basis for three months, with deceptions of burgeoning complexity. ‘This used to be a carefully orchestrated marketing campaign. Fraudulent emails with addresses indistinguishable from our personal had been used. We had not noticed this stage of attack prior to.’

Some emails incorporated threads of purported exchanges between actual editors and retailers, discussing in detail tweaks to the exposure agenda and so on, including an ever deeper veneer of authenticity – except for the reality that the ones exchanges had been solely fictitious. 

‘the trouble they went to – fabricating conversations with depended on folks and kind of appearing as though they’re filling within the objective on those conversations to supply themselves credibility – no doubt demonstrates very particular targeting, and possibly more effort than we see in so much phishing emails,’ mentioned Roman Sannikov, a cyber-danger analyst who has noticed the messages.

The Testaments’ grand debut was tarnished: shellshocked Curtis Brown bosses made up our minds they couldn’t possibility sharing the final manuscript with a few around the world publishers earlier than family unlock, diluting an expected international mega-release. But regardless that Atwood’s manuscript ultimately stayed out of the wrong arms, there have been no sighs of aid within the trade.

Margaret Atwood, writer of The Testaments and The Handmaid’s Tale, advised reporters that folks had been “actually making an attempt” to scouse borrow her unpublished manuscripts Credit: Jamie Coe

Hundreds of editors, authors, agents and literary scouts everywhere the sector had already been duped into emailing hundreds of different develop manuscripts, generally in the type of PDF files. A Few were strung alongside for years. Many put it down to the paintings of a gang of manuscript thieves, operating with substantial luck due to the fact that 2016, by means of id-robbery scams of ratcheting elaboration.

In technological phrases, the modus operandi used to be hardly ever subtle. The thieves emailed from a roster of lookalike domains that closely resembled those of high-profile literary businesses – penguinrandornhouse or macrnillan, with ‘rn’ rather than ‘m’; ‘wylieaqency’; substituting a country identifier comparable to ‘.it’ or ‘.se’ with ‘.com’ or vice versa. It’s a common ruse in cyber crime, known as ‘area typo squatting’. 

Detecting these micro inconsistencies on a reveal calls for shut scrutiny. (Whilst the book industry’s beginner detectives delved into the bogus domain names, they found they were registered to random addresses and contact numbers across the arena: an H&M in Copenhagen, a well being health center in London, a new York housing construction.)

but the darkish brilliance of the scheme really lay within the perpetrators’ plausibility. Whether posing as a Penguin Random Space editor, or a Wylie Company overseas rights manager, or a best literary scout, they perceived to recognise exactly who knew who, and who knew what: the publishing jargon, the scoop and gossip. 

‘They realize who our clients are, they know the way we interact with our shoppers, the place sub-sellers slot in and where primary marketers slot in,’ mentioned Catherine Eccles, proprietor of the London-primarily based EcclesFisher literary scouting agency last year. ‘They’re very, excellent.’

actually, the culprits had been capable of mimic the e-mail personalities of people around the complete spectrum of publishing, from massive gamers to junior assistants, and in a large swathe of languages: Danish, Swedish, Korean, Spanish… They have been breezy, well mannered, empathetic or cheekily waspish as required. 

‘such a lot of it was just chitchat,’ says Laurence Laluyaux, international rights director at RCW, one in all the uk’s major literary businesses. ‘kind of “Wish you’re smartly, I’m discovering it really onerous to juggle children and work within the pandemic.”’ Email greetings and sign-offs were pitch perfect, with most effective the rarest slip-up (an assistant at US tremendous agency WME deduced that an e mail purportedly from her blunt boss was bogus while she noticed it incorporated the words ‘please’ and ‘thanks’).

However in all probability essentially the most unsettling part of the thriller was the absence of any conventional purpose. No ransoms had been demanded. Now Not one PDF used to be leaked as a spoiler: the stolen manuscripts simply vanished into a phantom inbox.

Jo Nesbo, Margaret Attwood, Dylan Farrow, Sally Rooney were just some of the high-profile authors targeted in cyber attacks Jo Nesbo, Margaret Atwood, Dylan Farrow, Sally Rooney had been only a few of the prime-profile authors targeted in cyber assaults Credit Score: Getty Photographs

And, at the same time as massive-name releases via the likes of Atwood, Sally Rooney and Dan Brown have been focused, the thieves additionally invested critical attempt in procuring difficult to understand experimental novels, works by first-time authors, young-adult fiction and minor overseas writers slightly recognized even in their personal nations. A guide defined by means of its own agent as ‘a modestly promoting creator’s 5th novel’ used to be pursued with vigor. As a prison enterprise, it made completely no feel.

However the largest marvel of all used to be the twist the legal research took remaining month. Whilst, on 5 January, the FBI arrested a suspect at JFK airport in Ny and charged him with wire fraud and aggravated identification robbery, it wasn’t the pinnacle of a cybergang with an external harddisk full of PDFs and bitcoins. Nor used to be it, as a couple of had speculated, a web based safety advisor hoping to scare his victims into shopping for expensive device coverage, or an unscrupulous e-guide service provider. It was once Filippo Bernardini, an unassuming 29-12 months-vintage Italian who worked in London as a rights coordinator for publishers Simon & Schuster.

The ebook world processed the news with disbelief. If the FBI is correct, a solitary, low-level staffer had duped all of the trade for half a decade. ‘I’ve been impersonated for five years, every so often six or seven times a day,’ says Laluyaux. ‘Publishers and agents who I paintings with in Sweden, Spain, the Netherlands, France, Italy… it’s nearly unattainable to bring to mind a unmarried company on this trade that hasn’t been affected.’

A US-based literary scout who prefers to remain anonymous had his trade brought to its knees after the rumour took hang that he was once the manuscript thief. ‘The person who did this didn’t simply injury my reputation,’ he says. ‘They unmarried-handedly created an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion within the entire publishing international.’

Bernardini has denied all charges. He pleaded now not guilty, and was launched on $THREE HUNDRED,000 bail. His spouse is said to have post the home they percentage in North Finchley as collateral. Bernardini is lately staying with a female loved one in New York’s West Village, dressed in an digital tag. His father – a physician and local councillor in Amelia, the small the city in Umbria the place his son grew up – is alleged to have flown out too.

Bernardini has no previous convictions. If found to blame, he faces a sentence of among and twenty years.

Publishing is an old-formed and really human business, built on trust, courtesy, friendship and private favours. But, as the deceptions multiplied, places of work that had slightly afflicted with passwords started securing PDFs with watermarks. Agents and literary scouts took to secreting code phrases into emails to make sure mutual authenticity. ‘I got sent a 70-page novella with a non-disclosure agreement,’ mentioned one scout, quoted in New York Mag. ‘An NDA for a 70-web page Dutch novella!’

On 5 January, the FBI arrested Filippo Bernardini at JFK airport in New York and charged him with wire fraud and aggravated identity theft On 5 January, the FBI arrested Filippo Bernardini at JFK airport in Ny and charged him with twine fraud and aggravated id theft Credit Score: Fb

Virtually everyone within the business had a concept on who used to be behind it, with a few changing into totally fixated on a case that would have come from one of the novels they printed. Big Apple Magazine said that another scout stated: ‘There’s a bunch people novice Nancy Drews and Hardy Boys who have made our variations of the Claire Danes Place Of Birth wall.’

Given the wrongdoer’s extensive inside of knowledge, many feared it must be one among their own. But with a minimum of A HUNDRED AND SIXTY hijacked identities and THREE HUNDRED faked domains – including 13 variations at the Wylie Company by myself – it used to be nigh-on impossible for the in-area sleuths to growth beyond a guessing sport.

Just as celebrities began doubting their pals and families within the midst of the phone-hacking scandal, so the publishing fraternity broke aside, undecided who to trust. The e book global’s blind religion in itself used to be shattered.

Simon & Schuster suspended Bernardini, liberating an anguished remark: ‘we are stunned and horrified to be informed of those allegations. The safekeeping of our authors’ highbrow property is of number one importance to Simon & Schuster, and for all within the publishing industry, and we are grateful to the FBI for investigating these incidents and bringing fees against the alleged offender.’

the full main points of the FBI investigation haven’t been revealed. Rumours are, clearly, flying round throughout the trade that there’s more to the story. ‘Could the FBI be interested if it was just about spoofing email addresses?’ speculates Laluyaux. ‘It’s a big deal, those investigations call for a lot of cash and tools.’ May Just there, she asks, be more to it?

The Yank prison government’ legitimate line on their leader suspect’s apparent cause used to be laid out with a hammy flourish: ‘Mr Bernardini was once allegedly seeking to thieve other people’s literary concepts for himself,’ Michael J Driscoll of the New York FBI stated after the arrest, ‘but within the finish he wasn’t creative sufficient to break out with it.’ US attorney Damian Williams went to the town with the literary allusions: ‘This real-existence storyline now reads as a cautionary story, with the plot twist of Bernardini facing federal criminal fees for his misdeeds.’

however the query is still: may any individual really have planned to fillet loads of manuscripts – from global blockbusters to niche Icelandic novels – to compose or inspire their own masterpiece? it seems an absurd proposition. Particularly as virtually every stolen manuscript has long in view that passed into the public domain as a broadcast guide.

'Many put it down to the work of a gang of manuscript thieves, operating with considerable success since 2016, via identity-theft scams of ratcheting elaboration' ‘Many put it right down to the work of a gang of manuscript thieves, working with substantial luck on the grounds that 2016, via identity-theft scams of ratcheting elaboration’ Credit: Jamie Coe

For a 29-12 months-old Ecu operating within the schmoozy inventive world, Bernardini turns out to had been extraordinarily reticent online. His social-media cupboard lies eerily bare, with a now-deleted LinkedIn page that it sounds as if belonged to him registered only as Filippo B. Its content material was sparse, however compelling.

In it he claimed a grasp of 10 languages, from Dutch to Korean. His fluency in Mandarin bore fruit in an Italian translation of a memoir by way of the Chinese Language writer Rao Pingru. A profession in publishing is said almost as a calling: ‘i’ve an obsession with the written word and languages… an urge to make sure books will also be learn and favored everywhere the sector.’

After finishing a point in Mandarin at Milan’s Catholic University, in 2015 he moved to London to take a master’s in publishing at UCL. the next yr, aged 23, he embarked on a whirlwind of internships and junior positions within the industry: months at Granta; 4 months in the overseas-rights department at Andrew Nurnberg Friends, a number one agency; two months with literary scout Mira Trenchard, six months at writer Hay Area; 3 months as a Bloomsbury royalties assistant. In 2019, he secured a task in overseas rights at Simon & Schuster in London.

In 2021, a US journalist named Reeves Wiedeman who used to be investigating the tale for Big Apple Magazine exchanged a few emails with Trenchard. Hers have been a subsequent-stage ordeal: emails she won from real people had been on occasion being resent verbatim to others inside of minutes of arrival, by the use of one among the scammer’s impersonations. All The Way Through an exchange of messages with one editor, Trenchard noted the continued manuscript thefts, and requested if her loved one knew approximately them. ‘I didn’t!’ she spoke back. ‘How sinister.’ Nearly immediately, another answer pinged into Trenchard’s inbox, sent from an address mimicking the editor’s. ‘NO, I didn’t!!! How sinister!!’

This incident found out two things: the thief had it appears been accessing Trenchard’s emails in actual time – and knew the web was starting to close.

Trenchard changed her passwords immediately, however in the meantime Wiedeman found himself bombarded with emails from a roster of impersonated industry figures: wheedling attempts to find out how so much he knew, teasing gives to submit doable guidelines and clues if he supplied his house cope with. Posing as a Dutch editor, the scammer steered Wiedeman that this was once all a exposure stunt via a fictitious publishing institution. Wiedeman’s e-book agent was once impersonated; someone attempted to get entry to considered one of his long-dormant on-line relationship debts.

A colleague of Wiedeman’s made a daring move: she wrote an email to the scammer and sent it to one among their impersonated accounts. To her amazement, the scammer answered and instructed meeting up in individual, claiming to reside near her in Brooklyn. but if she proposed a area in Cobble Hill, the thief abruptly flipped. ‘How approximately F—ok You Hill? TAKE MY ADVICE. DROP THIS DULL ARTICLE AND PREVENT WITH IT IMMEDIATELY!!!’

There Have Been other cases of the thief – or thieves – growing more and more confrontational and aggressive. A Swedish editor who despatched a curt riposte (‘in your desires!’) to a suspicious Spaniard on the hunt for manuscripts gained a reply that stated: ‘Hoppas att du dör av coronaviruset.’ (‘Wish you die of the coronavirus.’) in the related month, the thief tried to blackmail several agents: surrender your new manuscripts or see different unpublished ones leaked online. Literary translators were duped into writing lengthy manuscript studies, promising charges that have been by no means paid, and authors were allegedly bullied and manipulated. 

‘This is an international thriller that for now remains an open book,’ declared the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero ‘That Is a world mystery that for now continues to be an open e-book,’ declared the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero Credit Score: Jamie Coe

Indonesian novelist Eka Kurniawan, once nominated for the International Booker Prize, was once pressurised over a looming closing date by way of his agent: ‘You informed me the manuscript can be ready ahead of the 18th of July and it’s now the 14th.’ By Way Of the time his agent assured him that the email used to be from an imposter, Kurniawan was once spooked and wired, causing the ebook’s additional extend. 

By the tip of 2020, so much in the trade had been confident that this was an inside of task, and sure the paintings of a scout. One title stored coming up: Wiedeman used to be told it through greater than a dozen other people. The scout in question claims that the rumours towards him had been seeded by means of the scammer; he says that one lookalike domain was registered to a Gmail deal with very with regards to the scout’s. ‘Other Folks stopped sending me manuscripts. I misplaced clients. I’m very, very angry.’

As with all epic sagas, there could also be a last twist within the story. In April 2021, it emerged that the £30,000 prize cash, awarded to the winner of the 2020 Rathbones Folio Prize, had been stolen via what had been described as ‘sophisticated cyber criminals’.

in truth, the fraud comprised a unmarried electronic mail, despatched to the prize organisers via anyone pretending to be the winner, Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli. In it, the pretend Luiselli with courtesy and apologetically asks if the prize cash might be despatched to her at once for an urgent non-public circumstance, and supplied a PayPal cope with. She signs off with mention of an interview she had given to Radio FOUR’s Nowadays programme that morning, adding a hope that this may have equipped the organisers and sponsors with some useful publicity. the cash was despatched and remains unrecovered. That discreet but chatty style, the charm, the knowledgeable connection with a media look that had taken position earlier – it’s a cut above your typical cyber rip-off.

So why would possibly the offender – if certainly the similar person is in the back of this, and all the fake emails – have pulled this fraud, after years of no longer-for-profit manuscript robbery? Just as a fresh challenge for his or her skills? Or as a result of, with the tip in sight, they felt they deserved a golden handshake, a final reward for the thousands of hours of unpaid, highly professional work?

It’s just one extra unknown in a story stuffed with questions. Given how tough it is to understand how someone may allegedly keep all the ones plates spinning for five years, it seems nearly unnecessary seeking to figure out why.

‘i think there should be a mental component of this,’ says the united states scout. That much seems simple. even though the offender was once a bibliophile and picked up the books for the affection of novels, the random acquisitions had been rarely those of a thought to be collector, and anyway, the huge bulk of the correspondence had nothing to do with blagging PDFs. Which has led a few to invest that the draw was perhaps the approach, no longer the end.

Whether posing as a Penguin Random House editor or a Wylie Agency foreign rights manager or a top literary scout, the culprit - or culprits - seemed to know exactly who knew who, and who knew what Whether posing as a Penguin Random Space editor or a Wylie Agency international rights supervisor or a top literary scout, the culprit – or culprits – perceived to understand exactly who knew who, and who knew what Credit Score: Jamie Coe

‘That Is an international thriller that for now continues to be an open guide,’ declared the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero after Bernardini’s arrest. Information web page Umbria 24, in the meantime, was rather more gushing, describing the suspect as: ‘Introverted, sweet, sensitive, however principally creative… What other phrase may just you employ to explain somebody who, operating alone… procured unpublished manuscripts from probably the most famous world authors?’

Further bills of Bernardini’s persona were equipped to native Italian newspapers via former schoolmates. the one child of separated oldsters, he is defined as a shy, nerdish loner who struggled to slot in. ‘He used to be sensible but troubled,’ remembered somebody who known as themselves Bernadini’s adolescence ally however asked to remain nameless. Different schoolmates offered much less pleasant reminiscences: ‘He was once bizarre… far away… effeminate.’

An angst-ridden teenage memoir, Bulli (literally ‘Bullies’), launched in 2008, has been attributed to Bernadini – it was revealed beneath the name Filippo B. The e-book centres round Diego, who’s consumed by way of resentment and bent on revenge. ‘Diego is misunderstood by adults, rejected and persecuted via his friends,’ says the blurb. ‘He doesn’t have the proper denims or the right haircut, he wears glasses, he’s delicate, he’s clever… Necessarily, the rumour starts that he’s “a fag”… but when he can’t make pals, then as a defence towards the bullies, he’ll transform a bully himself. He doesn’t need to be “similar to everybody else”, he desires to be higher than them.’

The e-book barely sold, however a copy made its approach to Bernardini’s faculty. Classmates say they have been disturbed to find their complete names in print, ceaselessly in eventualities of nastiness that they declare endure no relation to reality. ‘To us, it used to be simply every other side of what we believed was once his stricken state of thoughts,’ mentioned one. Whilst a local lady approached Bernardini with the ebook and asked him to sign it, she used to be rebuffed. ‘I don’t recognize anything approximately that,’ he stated. He hasn’t ever publicly said that he’s the author of this ebook.

Of the tiny handful of opinions for Bulli that exist on-line, essentially the most interesting – and by way of a long way the lengthiest – was once left on an Italian e book website in the yr after its e-newsletter, through a reader called ‘Davide’. ‘i’ve learn the e book, and heard all the criticisms aimed on the creator, who stands accused of getting made all of it up,’ it begins. ‘However for me the tale is so smartly instructed, it feels so completely actual, that I don’t even care if it’s precise or not. If it truly is a fabrication, then whoever created it is merely a genius.’

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