The Manuscript Thief
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. @randornhouse.com instead of @randomhouse.com), 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.