On the verge of selling my first book, I was scammed by a manuscript thief. My deepest insecurities about wanting to be a writer came rushing to the surface.
By Peter C. Baker
March 14, 2022
At 2:47 p.m. on September 20, 2020, I received what appeared to be an innocuous e-mail from my literary agent, Chris. Could I send over the latest version of my unsold novel-in-progress as a Microsoft Word file? “I just realized,” the e-mail read, “that I only have it as a PDF.” It wasn’t like Chris to misplace things, but the situation didn’t seem implausible. People switch computers. In-boxes get gnarly. I found an old e-mail with the Word file attached and forwarded it along.
At 3:44 p.m., another e-mail arrived: “Strange, I haven’t received anything now . . . can you resend please?” I re-forwarded the old e-mail with the Word file. At 4:03 p.m., I got another e-mail, which explained that Chris’s agency was in the process of switching servers, and perhaps this explained why my e-mails weren’t coming through. Could I try again, this time working around the problem by changing the .com suffix in Chris’s normal e-mail to .co?
Looking back, this is the part where I can’t quite understand my actions. Why didn’t I just call Chris and ask him what was going on? Here’s my best attempt at a defense. The night before, I’d been up several times, tending to my nine-week-old son, and never finding my way back to true sleep. I started on coffee sometime around dawn. When these e-mails came, I was a quivering zombie, incapable of real thought, looking only to move forward, dealing with whatever came up until the next time my son slept, when I could try sleeping, too. I was in no condition to think, only to do.
Not long after I sent the Word manuscript to the .co address, my phone rang. It was Chris. He’d been offline for a few hours, he said, so he was just now seeing that I’d sent him my manuscript twice that morning. Why, he asked, sounding more than a little bit stressed, had I done that, when he hadn’t asked me to?
I’d been scammed.
First, the shame. I pored over the e-mails from Phony Chris, castigating myself. Through the high-res zoom lens of hindsight, I saw linguistic tics that were decidedly unlike Chris, or, really, anyone for whom American English was a native tongue. Chris wouldn’t have said “haven’t received anything now,” for instance—he would have said “haven’t received anything yet.” I also noticed things that made me feel less embarrassed, if not less disturbed. Chris’s familiar e-mail signature was at the bottom of the messages. His real e-mail address, the .com one, was in the “from” field. (If I’d hit Reply, as my scammer had clearly been hoping I would, the To field of my response would have been sneakily populated by the heretofore hidden .co address.) Whoever wrote the e-mail referred to my novel by name, even though Chris had not yet begun formally shopping it around—besides him and a couple of editors he’d spoken to, the only people who knew the title were my wife and a few of my friends.
It was the first book I’d ever tried writing, and, during the previous near-decade, it had become an overburdened locus of my ambitions, hopes, doubts, and fears. Many times, I’d looked at the manuscript and wondered if I was fooling myself. Getting fooled into handing it over made me feel sick.
I felt slightly better after learning from Chris that I wasn’t alone: in recent years, he told me, many other manuscripts had been snatched with similar trickery. Everyone in publishing knew about it. No one knew who the scammer was, or what this person’s motives were. No ransoms had been demanded, and no piracy seemed to be afoot. Many, though by no means all, of the manuscripts in question were, oddly, like mine, first books from unknown authors. Why go to the trouble of stealing an unfinished début by a writer no one has heard of? I didn’t even have a publisher yet. We were late in the Trump Presidency, with speculation about foreign hackers wafting thick through the ether—maybe, Chris joked, we would get word, in a few years, of a Russian TV show with the same plot as my book.
In December of that year, the Times ran the first news story about the manuscript thief, whose identity was still a complete mystery. The Times revealed that luminaries including Ethan Hawke and Margaret Atwood had been targeted, along with, as the paper of record put it, “little-known debut writers” whose work “would have no obvious value on the black market.” (Look, Mom and Dad, I made the news!) By then, I’d sold my book, and was in the middle of editing it. I tried not to think about the old version, with all its holes and errors and infelicities, sitting on some nefarious stranger’s hard drive.
On January 5, 2022, a twenty-nine-year-old Italian citizen named Filippo Bernardini flew to New York City for a vacation. After he landed at J.F.K., he was arrested by the F.B.I., which alleged that Bernardini was the manuscript thief—or, as New York magazine had dubbed him in a long feature story the previous August, the Spine Collector. The Department of Justice charged Bernardini with wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. (Bernardini has pleaded not guilty.) Bernardini worked in publishing, in the rights department of Simon & Schuster U.K. The indictment accused him of registering more than a hundred and sixty fake Web domains, which seem to have been used to prop up e-mail addresses like the .co that snared me. He allegedly set up fake log-in pages to harvest the usernames and passwords of publishing professionals and got his hands on hundreds of manuscripts, including one from an unidentified Pulitzer Prize winner. But, for all its details of how Bernardini had allegedly done what he’d done, the indictment shed no light on why.
Media interest in the story exploded, fuelled not only by the scope of the scammer’s exploits but by the ongoing mystery of his motives, and, it seems likely, by Bernardini’s youth and somewhat lowly position in publishing’s power structure. People have a soft spot for underdogs, even underdogs who have done something wrong. On the Instagram page @publishersbrunch—to which low-ranking publishing employees flock to share gossip and gallows humor about overwork, low pay, and the erosion of their ideals—Bernardini became something of a hero, at least of a partial, ironized variety. The account even started selling T-shirts and hats with “publishing scammer” emblazoned on the front.
Journalists began digging into Bernardini’s background. He’d written an apparently autobiographical novel, “Bulli” (Italian for “bullies”), with a narrator who is tormented by his schoolmates and becomes determined to prove himself superior to them, even if it means becoming a bully himself. Bernardini venerated the world of publishing but failed to make much progress scaling its corporate ladder, perhaps in part because of his impatience with the less than glamorous work that often falls to those at the entry level. He was good with languages and had sought to build a career as a literary translator, with mixed success.
I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember, since long before I had any real idea what “being a writer” might mean. I needed to write, but that wasn’t all: I wanted to publish, and I wanted people who cared about literature to care, or at least to take notice. Back then—and, really, for a long time afterward—the literary world was, for me, an imaginary place, one that I thought about often but had no idea how to get to. Now I understand that it really is imaginary, by which I mean not that it’s false (though it can be) but that it’s a collective fiction, a story people stitch together in large part through force of will.
This, I think, goes a long way toward explaining the fascination with Bernardini’s alleged crimes—and also the sympathy, and the disgust, that they prompt. It’s not just that he lied––told tales––to people in the business of telling (and selling) tales. It’s that, in doing so, he touched up against an uncomfortable truth about how little space there can sometimes be between legitimate and illegitimate participation in a collective fiction. The work of the scammer and the work of making it as a writer have, in their most mundane details, much in common. You have to know who to e-mail, and how to e-mail them correctly. What to say outright, what to imply, what to avoid altogether. How to project a winning image of yourself, and how to vary this projection as needed from publication to publication or even from editor to editor.
What might it have been like, I asked myself, if, when I’d sent my novel to agents, none had wanted to represent me? Or if, when Chris sent it around to publishers, none had offered me a contract? What if magazine editors stopped answering my messages? Not long ago, I came across an interview with George Saunders in which he referred to an alternate life where his writing never took off, referring to it as a “shadow life,” one in which his “negative inclinations would have bloomed.” The wording gave me the chills.
Like many people who spend years writing and hoping to get that writing out into the world, I know a little bit about the dangers of such hoping. Wherever there are people who want something badly, there are also people who can sense that want, and intuit possibilities for turning it to their own advantage. Mentors who want more than to impart wisdom. Patrons who want more than literature in exchange for their money. I’ve had my own entanglements of this type, and seen other writers have theirs, and they’ve made me wary––of other people, but, more fundamentally, of myself. My desire to be seen as a real writer has at times burned so brightly that it shrank my field of vision, impairing my ability to perceive my own experience and choices, getting me into situations that I would later regret. This, I have come to realize, is part of why getting my manuscript stolen was so discomfiting. My wariness had failed to protect me, and old embarrassments had come rushing to the surface, reminding me of how vulnerable I’d been––and, perhaps, remained. Fictional worlds can be conjured from nothing, and they can vanish in an instant.