The five-year literary mystery finally ended on Jan. 5 at John F. Kennedy International Airport when the real life “Book Thief” Filippo Bernardini was arrested for stealing unpublished book manuscripts.
The 29-year-old was an employee at the publishing company Simon & Schuster UK when he decided to impersonate different publishing industry workers and convince authors to send him their manuscripts.
Manuscripts are an important part of the publishing process, allowing the author of a piece of writing to share a small portion of their unpublished work with their team.
Sacred Heart University Librarian, Gavin Ferriby, defines manuscripts as personal, one-of-a-kind writings. “Manuscripts are precious to authors because they represent the ‘first instance’ of a work and are important not only legally but emotionally.”
If this emotional connection between authors and their manuscripts are as strong as Ferriby describes, then why would Bernardini want to sever it? Federal authorities stated that they were unsure of the motivation behind Bernardini’s scheming.
Due to the fact that Bernardini had been stealing unpublished manuscripts since Aug. 2016, it allowed him to perfect his criminal craft with the help of his industry insider knowledge.
According to NPR, Bernardini created fake email addresses and “more than 160 internet domains that were deliberately designed to be ‘confusingly similar’ to the real pages.”
He would use publishing shorthand and replace the letter “m” with “rn” on fake company websites. This made it extremely difficult for authors to distinguish if the publisher contacting them was legitimate.
Authorities were even more perplexed after realizing that none of the manuscripts were leaked online after they were stolen.
According to The Guardian, “Publishing industry figures and authorities have been stumped for years by possible motivations behind the phishing scam, with no ransom or blackmail demands ever materializing after manuscripts were mistakenly sent on.”
After hearing about Bernardini’s actions over the last five years, several Sacred Heart students found themselves shocked, but not entirely surprised.
“Publishing, as well as the entire world, is becoming more virtual, making it easier for scams like this to arise,” said senior Grace Curley. “Not only would I have lost the opportunity to have my work published, but I would also have lost an opportunity to advance my career and achieve a lifelong dream of having real people read my work.”
Ferriby compared these stolen manuscripts to “Cases in which one roommate at SHU has stolen or plagiarized a paper for assignment. It’s not only legal theft, but emotionally abusive and dishonest. The emotion is more vivid than the legal infraction.”
Some of those who were affected by Bernardini’s scam included Sally Rooney, author of “Normal People,” and Margaret Atwood, author of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
In an interview with The Bookseller, Atwood describes the unknown sources who tried to steal her manuscripts. “There were lots of phony emails from people trying to winkle even just three pages, even just anything.”
Though the past few years may have made authors overly protective of their creative works, not all faith in the publishing industry should be lost.
Adjunct English Prof. Amie Reilly said, “This was a fluke thing, that the lack of clear motivation means this was just one man’s wild idea. This one rogue rights coordinator isn’t representative of any larger weak spots in manuscript safety.”
In a statement released by the Southern District of New York U.S. Attorney’s Office, it was said that Bernardini would be charged with wire fraud and aggravated identity theft.
U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said that, “This real-life storyline now reads as a cautionary tale. The plot twist of Bernardini facing federal criminal charges for his misdeeds.”