Book theft is not, on the whole, a crime that rates high on the sensationalism scale. Thieves rarely don ski masks and papercut-and-fingerprint-proof gloves in order to knock off a truck of Grishams; a major crime involving books will usually be more of the caliber of “Morrissey attempting to describe sex like a human being,” rather than a desperate day-time raid on a B. Dalton’s.
Which is part of what makes it novel (ha!) to note that the FBI arrested a man earlier today on charges of operating a five-year campaign of dedicated book theft, allegedly using a variety of social engineering tactics in order to steal a large number of at-the-time unpublished manuscripts from the publishing industry. The man in question, an Italian citizen named Filippo Bernardini, was, per The New York Times, arrested at JFK Airport earlier today on charges of wire fraud and identity theft.
Bernardini has been accused of employing a number of tactics that largely centered on impersonating the online personas and email accounts of a variety of people on the inside of the industry to get access to unpublished manuscripts. His alleged targets have included a memoir by Ethan Hawke, Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, and the latest book in the Lisbeth Salander “Millennium” series originally started by Stieg Larsson.
If all of this sounds familiar, meanwhile, it’s probably because the thefts, attempted or otherwise, were the subject of a semi-recent (and fascinating) New York Magazine deep dive by Reeves Wiedeman and Lila Shapiro, which attempted to get to the bottom of the conspiracy—and instead became embroiled in the thief’s machinations as the writers got increasingly fixated on cracking the case.
It’s not clear if Bernardini is “the suspect” referred to in Wiedeman and Shapiro’s piece, and who appears anonymously at the end to deny his involvement. He does share at least a few similarities, though, most notably the fact that he’s from a country where English isn’t an official language who works on the edges of the publishing industry. (Bernardini has worked as a rights coordinator for a major publisher, according to the Times, a job that involves sniffing out and securing publication opportunities as early as possible.)
Given its (relatively) low stakes, and inherent interest to an entire profession who are, to put it politely, nerds, there’s been a pretty wide number of armchair and writing desk detectives trying to crack this case over the years, and who are hopefully feeling some measure of vindicated today. In any case, speculation remains rampant about why anyone would have bothered to commit this particular crime, especially since no ransom demands were ever issued for the stolen books. Suggested motives have ranged all over the place, from a pretty grudge against the publishing industry, to suggestions that it might be an initiation ritual for a gang of cybercriminals, to simply an attempt to secure a little bit of advance information and leverage in the tiny, insular world of big publishing.