TBook theft occupies a complex place in our moral judgment, depending on the motive. In Markus Zusak’s 2005 novel The Book Thief, the actions of the main character are heroic – she steals books to save them from destruction. During the London Riots of 2011 it was frequently observed, with a hint of rebuke, that looters ostensibly left bookstores untouched and this deliberate disregard was seen as yet another indictment of the character of the mob, as if we would have thought better to the rioters if they’d hoisted a milestone through the Waterstones window and fled with the last Jeanette Winterson.
As the publication of the last Harry Potter novel approached in 2007, the publisher put in additional security at the printing press after it was claimed tabloid reporters were considering offering bribes. cash wine to any worker willing to give them a taste. In this case, the stigma was not because such theft could have deprived the publisher and author of income, but because only a sociopath would deliberately ruin the end of millions of children.
But the motive is the only unknown amount in last week’s story of book theft, in which a five-year mystery appeared to be solved when the FBI arrested Filippo Bernardini, an employee of the Simon & Schuster rights department. UK, on ââsuspicion of stealing hundreds of unpublished digital manuscripts.
The scam supported appears to have been relatively sophisticated on one level; his knowledge of the industry allowed him to pose as personalities in online publishing, his familiarity with names and jargon meant that his phishing emails did not sound the alarm to their recipients and he has registered more than 160 domain names from which to send his messages. But on another level, the operation was comically crass: His fake email addresses contained deliberate misspellings such as “@penguinrandornhouse” instead of “randomhouse”, yet for five years the editors, agents and authors have been duped into sending digital copies of new books into the ether.
Bernardini’s alleged crimes are all the more intriguing precisely because so far he does not appear to have profited from them. None of the stolen books, which included big hitters such as Margaret Atwood, Stieg Larsson and Sally Rooney as well as unknown early authors, have been disclosed online and no ransom or blackmail demands have been made. It seemed that the thief wasn’t stealing the books either to release the texts or to cash in. Why then ?
Prior to Bernardini’s arrest, it was widely suspected that the culprit was a literary scout, engaging in industrial espionage. A scout’s motto is advance notice: warning about the next big deal can give their clients an edge in preemption and foreign or screen rights bidding wars. My first job after college 25 years ago was working for a literary scout, the famous Anne-Louise Fisher, and I quickly learned that scouting is a very fine art, built on powers of persuasion, mutual respect and trust established over the years, an instinct for the market and the ability to read quickly. It also involved a huge number of lunches, but never anything as devious as deception.
In those analog times, of course, robberies like Bernardini’s would have been impossible, unless you were prepared to mug a courier. Unofficial drafts of hot new books have passed through London in the form of typists, large A4 paper cinder blocks bound with elastic bands in unmarked Jiffy bags, passed under tables at meetings, sender and receiver having sworn to secrecy.
Often times, especially before the London or Frankfurt book fairs, I would carry home a 400-page manuscript in my backpack to prepare a reader’s report the next morning, living in mortal terror of leaving it in. the metro or at the pub. If details of a closely guarded novel had escaped at the time, it would have been easy to trace the leak to its source. But I still vividly remember the thrill of turning that first sheet, knowing that I was one of the first people in the world to dive into a book that was going to get huge.
Perhaps the thief’s initial motive was no more sinister than this: he was hungry for a new story. But the longer the scam lasted, the more it seems to have become a power game, with the con artist taking obvious pleasure in manipulating some of the most prominent figures in publishing and later becoming abusive when his efforts raised suspicion. This is the interpretation offered by Daniel SandstrÃ¶m, a Swedish publisher who has been repeatedly targeted by the book thief. “[I]If the game is psychological, some sort of mastery or superiority, it’s easier to visualize, âhe told Vulture last year. “It’s also a resentful business, and in that sense it becomes a good story.”
It’s a good story, and perhaps we’re fascinated by literary fraud cases precisely because publishing is still widely regarded as an old-fashioned trust, relationship, and courtesy business. I think about Can you ever forgive me? or the curious case of author AJ Finn, the pen name of former editor Dan Mallory, who is said to have spent years creating a fictional biography for himself in the publishing world. The idea that someone is abusing this presumption of decency for their own benefit seems more shocking in this context than it might, for example, in the world of finance or arms trafficking.
I find myself hoping that Bernardini’s mobile won’t be as commonplace as money. Ideally, he will turn out to be a rejected author looking for revenge or looking for a novel that he can paste and pass off as his own, like the protagonist of Jean Hanff Korelitz The parcel. That’s what I would choose if I wrote the inevitable film adaptation. In fact, I could suggest that my agent pitch the idea to a few production companies. I’ll remind him to spell check their emails very, very carefully, though.