It was the stuff of novels: for years, a scammer has plagued the publishing industry, impersonate publishers and agents to carry out hundreds of literary heists. But manuscripts obtained from renowned authors have never been resold or disclosed, making thefts all the more perplexing.
Filippo Bernardini’s sentencing in Manhattan federal court on Thursday ended the saga and, with it, finally some answers. After pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud in January, Bernardini was sentenced to time served, avoiding prison for the crime of up to 20 years in prison. Prosecutors had requested a sentence of at least one year.
Bernardini, now 30, impersonated hundreds of people during the program which began around August 2016 and secured more than a thousand manuscripts, including renowned authors like Margaret Atwood and Ethan Hawke, authorities said.
In a moving four-page letter to Judge Colleen McMahon earlier this month, Bernardini apologized for what he called “gross, stupid and wrong” actions. He also gave insight into his motives, which have long stymied victims and observers alike, even after his plea.
He described a deep love of books that stemmed from childhood and led him to pursue a career as a publisher in London. While he secured an internship at a literary agency there, he wrote, he struggled to secure full-time employment in the industry afterwards.
“During my employment, I have seen manuscripts being shared between publishers, agents and literary scouts or even with people outside the industry. So I asked myself: why can’t I also read these manuscripts? he told.
He spoofed the email address of someone he knew and imitated his former colleagues’ tone of requesting a manuscript that had yet to be published. The success of this deception turned his quest for ill-gotten books into “an obsession, a compulsive behavior.”
“I had a burning desire to feel like I was still one of those publishing professionals and read those new books,” he wrote.
“Whenever an author sent me the manuscript, I felt like I was still part of the industry. At the time, I didn’t think about the harm I was causing,” he added “I never wanted and I never divulged these manuscripts. I wanted to keep them close to my chest and be one of the few to cherish them before everyone else, before they ended up in bookstores.
In an attempt to avoid jail, Bernardini’s lawyers also submitted more than a dozen letters from his friends and family to the judge. In a sort of romance, among them was a letter from a victim – writer Jesse Ball, author of ‘Saturday the Deafness’, ‘Curfew’ and ‘The Divers’ Game’.
Bernardini posed as Ball’s publisher to convince the writer to send in several unpublished manuscripts, Ball said in his letter asking for clemency. Decrying the state of the industry as “increasingly corporate and cookie-cutter” and calling the crime a “hug” and a “trivial, frivolous thing”, Ball argued that “we should be grateful when something human enters the picture: when the publishing industry for once becomes something worth writing about.
“For once someone cared deeply about something – who cares if he’s an intruder? You cannot imagine the soul-crushing boredom of mundane editing correspondence,” Ball wrote, adding that he suffered no harm from the thefts other than some confusion. “I’m thankful there’s still room in the world for something facetious to happen once in a while.”
Weighing the arguments of the prosecution and the defense, McMahon pushed back against the idea that the crime had no victims, with New York Magazine Vulture — the publication that brought the mystery to public attention with a 2021 story titled “The Thorn Collector” — reporting that “she was particularly moved by a letter from a literary scout” who had been accused of Bernardini’s crimes. Vulture also reported that McMahon expressed sympathy for Bernardini in light of a new autism diagnosis, but said that did not excuse threats he made in correspondence. But she concluded that a prison sentence would not help the victims.
Bernardini – an Italian citizen and British resident who was arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport in January 2022 – will be deported US court documents showing he asked to be deported to the UK, where he lives with his partner and his dog, with Italy as the designated alternative.
As part of his guilty plea, Bernardini agreed to pay $88,000 in restitution, which court documents say will go to Penguin Random House.
“The cruel irony is that every time I open a book,” Bernardini wrote of his onetime passion, “it reminds me of my misdeeds and what they led me to.”