'Book thief' suspected of stealing authors' unpublished manuscripts arrested

'Book thief' suspected of stealing authors' unpublished manuscripts arrested
Canadian author Margaret Atwood and Belgian writer Saskia De Coster were targets of the suspect. Credit: Man Booker Prize, Belga

A man who is accused of targeting various authors, from Belgian writer Saskia De Coster and prize-winning writer Margaret Atwood, to steal their unpublished manuscripts, has been arrested in the United States.

As part of a five-year scheme, the man, named Filippo Bernardini, who worked as rights coordinator for publishing company Simon & Schuster UK, used fake email addresses and domains to impersonate other people involved in the publishing industry.

By doing so, he fraudulently obtained hundreds of prepublication manuscripts of books and novels. Remarkably, he never tried to publish them or make them available to the public.

"Filippo Bernardini allegedly impersonated publishing industry individuals in order to have authors, including a Pulitzer prize winner, send him prepublication manuscripts for his own benefit," US Attorney Damian Williams wrote in a statement from the Southern District of New York of the US Attorney’s Office.

"This real-life storyline now reads as a cautionary tale, with the plot twist of Barnardini facing federal criminal charges for his misdeeds."

US, Canadian and Belgian targets

'The Handmaid's Tale' author Margaret Atwood and the American writer Ethan Hawke were victims of Bernardini's scheme, while Belgian writer Saskia De Coster almost fell prey to the swindler last summer, which she opened up about in a column published by De Standaard.

According to Assistant Director-in-Charge Michael J. Driscoll, Bernardini was trying to steal other people's literary ideas for himself, but "in the end, wasn't creative enough to get away with it."

"These prepublication manuscripts are valuable, and the unauthorised release of a manuscript can dramatically undermine the economics of publishing, and publishing houses generally work to identify and stop the release of pirated, prepublication, manuscripts," the Attorney's Office statement read.

Fake addresses and domains

Bernardini created more than 160 fake e-mail addresses and domain names between August 2016 and July 2021. Among other things, the suspect replaced the lower-case letter <m> with the lower-case letters <r> and <n>, which, when placed together as <rn>, resemble an <m>.

He was arrested in New York on Wednesday afternoon upon arrival at John F. Kennedy International Airport. He is facing charges including wire fraud, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, and aggravated identity theft, which carries a mandatory consecutive sentence of two years in prison.

On Thursday, he appeared in federal court in Manhattan where he pleaded not guilty.

Simon & Schuster was “shocked and horrified” by the allegations, according to a statement from the company's spokesperson, published by the New York Times. The spokesperson added that Bernardini has been suspended until there is further information on the case.

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