For years, an Italian posed as an editor and agent to gain access to more than a thousand manuscripts by writers, some of them renowned, although he never sold or publicized the works and ended up avoiding prison.
Some responses to the strangeness of the case emerged in the trial of Filippo Bernardini, 30, which ended Thursday in federal court in Manhattan, USA, where the suspect pleaded guilty to computer fraud, was found to have served time and avoided a charge that could carry up to 20 years in prison.
Bernardini impersonated hundreds of people in his scheme, which lasted from August 2016 until January 2022, when he was arrested, managing to obtain manuscripts by authors such as Margaret Atwood and Ethan Hawke.
In a letter sent to Judge Colleen McMahon, Bernardini apologized for his “disgraceful, stupid and wrong” actions and described a deep love for books since childhood.
The author of the scheme explained that he had done an internship in London at a literary agency, that he had not been able to stay full-time in the sector and that he had seen manuscripts being shared between writers and agents.
Bernardini forged an email address of someone he knew and imitated the tone of his former colleagues to ask for a manuscript that had not yet been published. The success of this fraud turned his search for books obtained in this way into an “obsession, a compulsive behavior”.
“Whenever an author sent me their manuscript, I felt like I was still part of the industry. At the time, I didn’t think about the harm I was doing,” he added. “I never wanted to do it and I never released these manuscripts. I wanted to keep them close to my chest and be one of the few to cherish them before anyone else, before they end up in bookstores”, he justified.
To try to avoid prison, Bernardini’s lawyers handed the judge letters from relatives, friends and one from a victim, the writer Jesse Ball, who asked for leniency, considering the industry as something “increasingly corporate” and argued that “we must be grateful when something human enters the picture: when the publishing industry for once becomes something worth writing about”.
When weighing the arguments of the prosecution and defense, the judge dismissed the idea that the crime had no victims, but considered that a prison sentence would not help the victims.
Bernardini, an Italian citizen, asked to be deported to the United Kingdom, where he lives with his partner.
Following his guilty plea, Bernardini agreed to pay around €82,000 in compensation, which court documents show will go to Penguin Random House.
“The cruel irony is that every time I open a book,” Bernardini wrote of his passion, “it reminds me of my mistakes and what they led me to.”