The Manuscript Thief

Rosa Lyster

I was in New York a few years ago when a Big Summer Book came out. One of those novels where it’s impossible to gauge from the reviews whether or not it’s any good, because the publicity campaign is so aggressive and anyway the critical response isn’t focused on whether the book is good or bad, but on the mere fact that it exists. The Big Summer Book is here, and now we are all reading it.

The book was not good – a plot dependent on the assumption that men and women basically hate each other, a catalysing dilemma I couldn’t care about, hundreds of ideas and conversations so annoying they made me slightly breathless – but to judge by the ecstatic tenor of the reviews, no one shared this assessment. It was a bit of a lonely feeling, but not really – sometimes, people have to like things that are rubbish.

Up until that point, I hadn’t really spent any time around publishing people, had had only glancing contact with what we are still legally permitted to describe as ‘the New York literary scene’, and I was ready to be knocked out by all of it. What a life, to be able to go to a bar on the afternoon that a provocation by Mary Gaitskill has appeared in the New Yorker and sit down at a table with people who are ready to talk about it! Imagine: you are in a diner, and a quite well-known critic is sitting a few tables away with his head in his hands. The woman you are having lunch with turns out to be his colleague, and she tells you that the reason he has his head in his hands is that, having run out of excuses, he has no choice but to write about the new adaptation of Cats, which he hates in a way that is not enjoyable. To be moved beyond exasperation by something like that – it’s ridiculous, obviously, but it’s also sort of thrilling, as well as an underlying requirement of the job. Why do it, otherwise? That’s how I’d always thought about it, and so the way everyone was carrying on about the Big Summer Book didn’t really bother me, because from far away, it seemed sincere.

One afternoon, I bumped into a friend of a friend, who had recently written a short but glowing review of the Big Summer Book for a legacy publication. There it was, poking out of the top of her Bayswater bag. I asked her if it was good and she looked at me blankly and asked what I meant. ‘The book,’ I said. ‘Is it one of the ones that are good?’ ‘Of course not,’ she said, and then gave herself an admonishing little shake as she retied her ponytail. ‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘Maybe it is good. It easily could be – it’s just that I haven’t read it.’ I was already in a terrible mood – very hungry and sweaty – but an actual wave of despair washed over me as she spoke. I remember standing in the street blinking sunscreen out of my eyes and thinking: These people. These people don’t care about books at all.

I’ve since modified this opinion, and seen that for every person who does this job for cynical and ultimately mysterious reasons, considering its objectively thin rewards, there is someone for whom these things actually do matter, but I’ve never managed to regain my initial sense of dazzled proximity to glamorous intellectual life. I have wanted to, though. So when the news of the manuscript thief started circulating, I was ready.

Someone, or possibly a cartel of someones, was impersonating influential figures in the publishing industry to get access to unpublished manuscripts. They would pretend to be a heavyweight literary agent, say, or an editor, and would send convincing-looking emails to publishers asking that they send on the soon-to-be released novels of an array of writers, some famous and some not. Sometimes they’d approach the writers themselves. They’d make such underhand moves as changing a letter or two in their email address (e.g. instead of, using great sneakiness and considerable amounts of time and energy to do – what? To read a book slightly earlier than everyone else did.

This was the best bit: there was no evidence that the thief was benefitting in any material way from all this devious labour. It was a mystery. As Cynthia d’Aprix Sweeney said to the New York Times, it was ‘befuddling’. ‘Why on earth is someone stealing unpublished book manuscripts?’ the Times asked. They could not answer the question, and neither could anyone else, beyond saying that this was one of these weird things, basically, which may be more of a satisfactory answer than people like to admit. All this stealthing around would, of course, have taken on an entirely different cast had there been any evidence that it was being done for motives of greed or revenge. As matters seemed to stand, however, there was not. The manuscript would be sent, the error would be realised, the wait for the menacing email would begin, and then – nothing! The end! Even people who reasonably got the creeps about the lengths to which the thief was prepared to go to secure a copy of Beautiful World Where Are You? before it hit the shelves could find nothing more to say about what was happening than that it was weird.

Someone has now been arrested on suspicion of this weird behaviour, and is facing federal criminal charges for what the prosecutor terms ‘his misdeeds’. Filippo Bernardini, a 29-year-old Italian employee of Simon & Schuster in London, was nabbed by the FBI on arrival at JFK on 5 January. In a statement the prosecutor said that Bernardini ‘allegedly impersonated publishing industry individuals in order to have authors, including a Pulitzer prize winner, send him prepublication manuscripts for his own benefit’. The prosecutor didn’t expand on what that benefit might be.

If found guilty, Bernardini could get up to twenty years in prison for wire fraud and aggravated identity theft, because tricking people into sharing copies of manuscripts with you turns out to be seriously illegal even if you are not going to do anything with the manuscripts except read them, or maybe just stare at them in your inbox and think: I love books. Reading is the life for me.


  • 26 January 2022 at 3:34pm
    tom says:
    gotta be fleishman is in trouble

    • 26 January 2022 at 4:14pm
      Caroline Spearing says: @ tom
      That was my thought, but I think it’s too recent.

    • 30 January 2022 at 1:48pm
      Sean Iles says: @ tom
      Shuggie Bain, maybe?

  • 26 January 2022 at 7:14pm
    Byron Black says:
    This one may go in the "When Pranks Go Seriously Wrong" file. The Italian lad most likely did not realize the legal ramifications of what he was up to. Rather reminds me of the renowned "A"-list author who importuned his Chicago publisher to give him a sizable advance on a stinker-in-progress, like NOW, immediately if not sooner. The poor publisher, eager to cater to their male cow-of-cash, did handsprings with their long-suffering finance department to cut the guy a cheque on the spot. So why did the doofus do it? He didn't need the dough. "Because I wanted to see whether I could. And I did it."

  • 27 January 2022 at 5:50pm
    Phil Edwards says:
    What I remember of the London literary scene (having grazed an outer ring of it and bounced off, some years ago) is just how London it was. The streets were paved with review copies (most of them pretty awful, admittedly) and there were fees to be earned (most of them pretty small, granted) - but the one essential condition was being around: being able to say Yes to that party, that launch, if you were very highly favoured that lunch. It was no kind of life for anyone living in Manchester.

    I say all this because it's just struck me that other people probably get repelled (and/or rationalise their experience by thinking of it as being repelled) by other factors entirely, and think of the London literary scene's - what? ageism, sexism, class bias, Guelfism? - as its defining feature; picture the proverbial blind men trampled, gored, deafened (etc) by the elephant of Soho Square.

  • 27 January 2022 at 5:54pm
    prwhalley says:
    I read a lot of books but I'm finding it hard to give a flying one about any of this.

  • 27 January 2022 at 8:22pm
    nlowhim says:
    Nice post.
    A manuscript thief looking at 20 years seems a little much, especially if there was no major loss of money damage done, etc. One seriously has to wonder why law enforcement is spending any effort on something like this (is the lit world that connected to law enforcement types they can get them moving) when things like domestic terrorism, the overlap of police and white supremacy groups seems to go completely under the radar.
    It's a genuine question. And in terms of actual copyright violations (or wire fraud and identity theft), I'm sure there are enough (where money is made, damage is done) that they can actually use up all the manpower they have dealing with that alone.

    I actually like the first part the most, the disillusion with NYC lit world. Any more on that?

  • 30 January 2022 at 2:43pm
    ianbrowne says:
    It is worth remembering that James Kelman made very much the same point about the way poor books are praised and other books are neglected. He has spoken about the closed shop character of the London literary world: “In the UK you find second-rate, or rather fifth-rate, work treated as though it were a masterpiece, especially in literature." Such as whose? "Oh, they're all well known, because they're in the paper every week and they all get huge sums of money."
    When he won the Booker Prize it was not the opening of a door to success. As Alan Taylor pointed out, the win was followed by Kelman’s work being characterised as the barely literate rantings of a working class Scot by people who were part of the London literary scene, but whose CVs give little indication of a serious interest in contemporary fiction – the criticisms amounted to what Taylor characterised as “infantile stereotyping, faux metropolitan sophistication and crass attempt at humour”.
    Kelman described the London literary world of the 90s as “very clubby and conservative”, and that there was ”a palpable sense that publishing was an occupation for men with an Oxbridge degree and a private income.” While the parameters seem to have expanded to take in more women and more Americans, Kelman’s point remains true, that much of what is promoted as great or even good fiction is simply rubbish. It is interesting to compare the catastrophic response to Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late (a relatively manageable 400 pages) with the response to the widely praised James Tait Black prize-winner Ducks, Newburyport (an interminable 1000 pages, and only four sentences).
    For comparison, besides Julia Neuberger’s well known comment that How late it was, How Late, was “frankly . . . crap”, Dillons, the second largest bookseller in the UK at that time refused to stock Kelman’s book. By comparison, the literary elite fell over themselves praising Ducks, Newburyport – “a soaring example of how a gifted writer can spin one sentence into a complete, immersive story” according to the Financial Times, and “a genre-defying novel, a torrent on modern life, as well as a hymn to loss and grief”, an “audacious and epic novel” of “wit” and “humanity” which “challenges the reader with its virtuosity and originality” according to the 2019 Booker Prize Jury Citation.
    The effect of this has been, in my case, to make me ignore reviews, particularly ones which praise a novel’s wit and humanity, which is about as close to vacuous as review can be. In fact, that a novel won a major literary prize is usually grounds for me to ignore it, unless a friend recommends it and can explain to me why it might be worth reading.

    • 2 February 2022 at 1:48pm
      Delaide says: @ ianbrowne
      Thank you for that. Very interesting.

  • 3 February 2022 at 4:10pm
    Raj Karamchedu says:
    Look at "advances" in natural language processing with GPT-3. Those algorithms and networks need near-infinite textual data. I wouldn't be surprised if someone decided to train a network using only unpublished manuscripts and then the network would "learn" to write. An unpublishable novel, maybe.

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