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Why Would Some Crazy Guy Try to Steal Authors' Manuscripts?

Gotta' be a better way to get rich

gloved hands on a keyboard in a darkened room

If you were a criminal, what would you steal?

Recently, while preparing for a book club discussion on The Feather Thief, I researched various crimes.

Diamond thefts. Art heists. Bank robberies. Ponzi schemes. Criminals figure out lots of different ways to steal millions and millions from other people, but a recent crime in the literary world his crime has me scratching my head.

I mean, if you were intent on stealing something to make big bucks, would you choose to impersonate a literary agent to steal manuscripts?

Not the first thing that came to my mind, but then again, I'm not criminally minded.

The criminal art of phishing and getting authors on the hook

For more than five years, authors - both known and unknown - became phishing bait.

Since 2018, someone in the literary world was using announcements in Publisher's Weekly and other industry sources to track who had sold manuscripts and what agents had represented them. Then the thief would buy domain names that mimicked those agents, editors, or people in the publishing industry and send emails to authors, asking for their manuscripts.

It's hard to believe, but it worked occasionally.

Whoever was doing the impersonation was obviously an "insider" because of the jargon used and the knowledge of how the publishing process works. This bibliophile criminal sent emails that looked like they were from agents and publishers, targeting both known and unknown authors, including Margaret Atwood and the actor Ethan Hawke asking for their manuscripts.

The perpetrator of the phishing scheme had purchased domain names with tiny, minute variations in the address. One that worked was a domain name for Substituting the "m" in Random House with an "r-n" made the fake domain difficult to detect at a glance, and truthfully, most of us don't carefully study the address the email comes from if it appears to be from someone we know.

The publishing world is a big one, and the phishing scheme was not just concentrated in the United States. Publishing professionals from Italy, Sweden, Taiwan, and Israel were also targeted. The rate of these phishing emails reported to authorities rose significantly after the Frankfort Book Fair in 2020, a virtual event because of the global pandemic.

But why?

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney was an author who was scammed by the phishing thief after she sold her second novel. She asked the question that everyone in the industry was asking:

"Ultimately, how do you monetize a manuscript that you don’t own?"

Often, stolen scripts or manuscripts end up on the internet where unscrupulous thieves charge people to get an "early look." Sometimes, the thief asks for money — a kind of ransom — with the promise of not releasing a manuscript into freewheeling cyberspace if the money is paid. Occasionally, criminals make copies and sell their stolen works to a strange kind of clientele delving into the dark side of internet commerce.

But in this weird literary phishing scheme, no clear motivation or way to make money from the lifted manuscripts existed. Stranger still, the thief was targeting unknown and debut authors who hadn't as yet made a name for themselves and had little public demand for their work.

People in the publishing world who had heard of these attempted crimes were asking, "but why?"

The culprit is caught

Early in 2022, the culprit was caught. His name was Filippo Bernardini. He was arrested by the FBI, ending almost six years of a guy who had gone "phishing."

Fillippo Bernardini is an Italian citizen who worked for Simon & Schuster, UK, as a coordinator of "rights." His experience and position gave him the insider knowledge he needed to attempt to steal unpublished manuscripts by pretending to be agents and editors.

In February of 2023, Bernardini appears before a judge. The indictment charges Bernardini with registering 160 fraudulent domain names over a period of more than five years with the intent of impersonating and defrauding. Not only did he use fake emails, but he also set up false login pages on literary agent sites and got names and passwords that accessed manuscripts for books scheduled for publication.

During Fillippo's Bernardini's crime spree, he accessed hundreds of unauthorized manuscripts.

"But why? Again...

Over and over, people asked "why?" when hearing about Fillippo Bernandini's crime.

Since none of the works ever surfaced on the internet, and since there didn't appear to be any monetary gains, industry professionals can only hypothesize that Bernandini wanted to strengthen his reputation as an expert with his insider knowledge of acquisitions and publishing plans.

I don't know. Seems a pretty weak reason to me. I'm more likely to believe that Bernardini got turned on by the challenge of seeing if he could do if tricking people into believing you're someone else and then stealing from them is an achievement.

Takeaways for writers and/or criminals

If you're developing illegal schemes to make lots of money, trying to steal unpublished manuscripts probably isn't the most lucrative idea.

If you're willing to risk a lifetime of incarceration, you're probably better off plotting a heist of a rare book, first edition, or illustrated manuscript from a museum. (Did you know that only 10% of stolen art is ever recovered? Please know that the inclusion of that statistic is NOT intended as motivation for stealing books!)

If you're an author and you get a request for the newest chapters in your upcoming book or the most recent edits, check the "from" email address and make sure you're not being baited.

If you're a writer, an agent, a company, or a criminal interested in the perils of the publishing world, then you'll want to know about the case of the phishing felon.

A strange case, indeed.


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