Turn the Italian manuscript thief loose.

Literature
Dan Sheehan

March 13, 2023, 1:20pm

As you may recall, back in January of 2022, after much speculation and an industrywide manhunt, a Tom Ripley-esque rights coordinator by the name of Filippo Bernardini was arrested at JFK airport for the extremely strange crime of impersonating literary agents and book publishers.

Between 2016 and his arrest, Bernardini impersonated hundreds of people in the publishing industry, sending emails from fake accounts in an (often successful) attempt to get his hands on manuscripts by authors like Margaret Atwood, Sally Rooney and Ian McEwan.

In January of this year, Bernardini, who never sold or leaked any of his digitally-heisted tomes, plead guilty to wire fraud encompassing the theft of more than 1,000 literary manuscripts, but his motive remained unclear…until now.

Yes, as reported by Sian Bayley in The Bookseller earlier today, Bernardini, like Bryan Adams before him, did it all for love. More specifically, for the love of literature. In court papers published on Friday, Bernardini apologized for his crime but claimed he did it so that he “could cherish [the books] before anyone else.”

I never leaked these manuscripts. I wanted to keep them closely to my chest and be one of the fewest to cherish them before anyone else, before they ended up in bookshops … There were times where I read the manuscripts and I felt a special and unique connection with the author, almost like I was the editor of that book … While employed, I saw manuscripts being shared between editors, agents and literary scouts or even with individuals outside the industry. So, I wondered: why can I not also get to read these manuscripts?

One day, I created a spoof email address for someone I knew of in the publishing industry, and I sent an email to someone else that I knew of asking for a pre-publication manuscript. I wrote in the style and using the language that my former colleagues had used. When that request was successful, from that moment on, this behaviour became an obsession, a compulsive behaviour. Writing this now, I feel my fingers shaking as I type this at the thought of how egregious, stupid and wrong my actions were. I had a burning desire to feel like I was still one of these publishing professionals and read these new books. A part of me wanted to believe that I was still one of them and I started cosplaying what people in publishing were doing as editors or literary agents.”

As Bailey notes, “Bernardini’s lawyer Jennifer Brown wrote in a sentencing submission on Friday that Bernardini grew up as a lonely, bullied, gay child in a conservative part of Italy who found comfort by burying himself in books.”

Ahead on sentencing on April 5, Brown and her team are asking the for leniency, arguing that her client has already “suffered professional and reputational ruin” and been blacklisted by the industry he loves. A Manhattan federal court judge will decide whether Bernardini will be given a custodial sentence, or allowed to walk with a fine and time served.

Your honor, if you’re reading this, please turn the poor guy loose.

There are crimes and there are crimes, and this…isn’t really a crime. Right? A lonely fantasist tricking a handful of agents into leaking manuscripts so that he can feel the illicit thrill of reading them a few months early is as close to a victimless offense as I can imagine.

We didn’t send any bankers to jail after the financial collapse. No Sacklers will serve time for their part in the American opioid epidemic. Surely we can’t condemn this meek Italian bookworm to the depravity of the US prison system? (We really shouldn’t be condemning anyone to the depravity of the US prison system, but that’s an op-ed for another day).

Turn Filippo loose. He’s agreed to a hefty fine ($88,000, or two years’ pre-tax entry-level publishing salary), been threatened by the FBI, held in custody for over a year, and publicly humiliated. That’s enough. Let him diminish and go into the west (Sardinia), where he can sit by the water and read his beloved books in peace…on or after their official publication dates, of course.

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