The case of one of the most bizarre book thefts ever imagined has come to a conclusion. The culprit, one Filippo Bernardini, Italian citizen, British resident, arrested in New York, will face no jail time. He will be banished back to England, or Italy, as he undoubtedly wanted to do since being arrested on arrival at JFK airport in January 2022.
This very strange case goes back to 2016. That's when Bernardini began soliciting pre-published authors' manuscripts through misrepresentation. This being the 21st century, he was not seeking handwritten or typed manuscripts. Most authors don't write that way any more. He was seeking digital copies of their new, unpublished works. According to the Department of Justice, Bernardini “created fake email accounts that were designed to impersonate real people employed in the publishing industry, including literary talent agencies, publishing houses, literary scouts, and others. Bernardini created these accounts by registering more than 160 internet domains that were 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 identity during a cursory review.” He had just enough knowledge of the trade to pull this off as he had been a lower level employee at Simon & Schuster. Nonetheless, it is still hard to fathom how so many people fell for this. He was sent over a thousand manuscripts between 2016 and his arrest in January 2022.
What made this even more bizarre than the sheer volume of people fooled was Bernardini's reason for the scheme. Long before Bernardini's arrest, many people in the business were aware someone was stealing manuscripts but no one knew who or why. Even at the time of his arrest, authorities had no idea why, and it is not clear whether anyone but Bernardini really knows even today.
You might think he wanted to see these unpublished manuscripts so he could write a similar book first, or sell the manuscript, or maybe even use it as blackmail to get a payment from the author. He did none of these. In fact, he did nothing. He made no attempt to monetize his thefts, or claim some kind of fame from what he did. He just collected them and held them in complete privacy from the world. Why?
Last January, a year after his arrest, Bernardini pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud. He agreed to pay restitution of $88,000, and then waited for his sentencing, which could have been for as long as 20 years. He then submitted a letter to the court explaining his odd behavior. He said the basic reason was he wanted to cherish the books before anyone else did. He wrote, “I never leaked these manuscripts. I wanted to keep them closely to my chest and be one of the fewest to cherish them before anyone else, before they ended up in bookshops.” He went on to say, “While employed, I saw manuscripts being shared between editors, agents and literary scouts or even with individuals outside the industry. So, I wondered: why can I not also get to read these manuscripts?” In other words, he was a low-level employee dreaming of being an important person in the publishing industry, and to carry out that imaginary life he pulled off one of the largest, strangest, and most amazing thefts in the history of the book trade.
In a submission by Bernardini's lawyer, she described him as a lonely, bullied, gay child in Italy who buried himself in books. She also said he has been diagnosed with autism, which might somewhat explain his obsession with the book world. Adding to that he had to spend the year in America, away from home, with an ankle bracelet and only one friend. She also submitted some letters requesting leniency, including one from author Jesse Ball, saying we should be grateful that someone cared so deeply about books and provided something interesting to this “corporate and cookiecutter” industry. On the other side, the prosecution argued that the motive, whatever it might be, was irrelevant. He did the crime so he should do the time, so to speak. They asked for one year in prison.
Ultimately, Judge Colleen McMahon was as baffled by this case as everyone else. According to Vulture.com, she commented, “I have no idea what to do with this case, and I’ve thought about it a lot. I don’t expect to see anything like this ever again.” The verdict? No time. He is free to go, and go he must because, as a convicted felon, he can't stay in America nor ever return. But even though he has gone, he will not soon be forgotten by a book trade that is still scratching its head and wondering, will we ever really understand why?