The strange case of Tom Ripley of book publishing

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I’ve heard rumors about the “Thorn Collector” as it’s called, for years now. The New York Times published a story about it last December; Vulture made a feature film on it in August 2021 which is one of the most gripping long-running investigations into absurdly meaningless real criminal journalism that I’ve read in a while (although the ending is, admittedly, not very satisfactory).

The gist of this urban legend of the publishing industry is that someone has scammed agents and publishers for the past five years or so. The Spine Collector demonstrated some sort of intimate knowledge of the publishing industry and hooked up unpublished manuscripts masquerading as someone else – usually with a cleverly disguised email address such as “@randornhouse.com “instead of @randomhouse.com. Sometimes the Spine Collector would even manage to get the first drafts of these highly anticipated novels, which he would use to …

Okay, you see, that’s the weirdest, dumbest, most fascinating part of the story. What do you do after you manage to get a Word document with a draft of Dylan Farrow’s next book? The publisher also retains the document, as well as the publication rights. The spine collector wasn’t even leak manuscripts; they kind of disappeared, taking up space on a laptop somewhere. As Reeves Wiedeman wrote to Vulture:

It was a setup Stieg Larsson would have admired: a clever thief adopting multiple pseudonyms, targeting victims around the world, and acting without a clear motive. The manuscripts were not pirated, as far as we can tell. The fake Francesca was not asking for a ransom. “We assumed it was the Russians,” Mörk said. “But we’re the book industry. It’s not like we’re looking for gold or looking for vaccines.” Maybe someone in publishing, or a Hollywood producer, was desperate for quick access to books they could buy. Was the thief just an impatient reader? An angry writer in need of ideas? “In the hacker culture that Stieg Larsson described, they do a lot of things not for financial gain,” Mörk pointed out this spring, “but just to show they can do it.”

But on January 5, 2022, the FBI announced that it had arrested the alleged Spine Collector, who turned out to be a London-based publishing professional named Filippo Bernardini. He is charged with electronic fraud and aggravated identity theft.

It’s a strangely fascinating story for people in the publishing industry. But it also raises the question: why did the FBI waste their time going after a stranger who was collecting unpublished manuscripts for no discernible reason? As Kelsey McKinney points out in Defector, even the Grand Jury indictment acknowledged that no one knows what the hell Bernardini gained from this long scam. The indictment says he must return all property related to the offenses, but… why? He didn’t make any money, and all the books he cheated were published without a hitch. Does he need to resend Word documents by email?

McKinney concludes with what I find to be the most fascinating part of the whole story:

Everyone is hanging on to the straw, trying to find an explanation why this 29-year-old Italian would want all these unpublished manuscripts. The New York Timesguessed that “knowing what’s coming, who’s buying what and how much they’re paying could give companies an edge.” The FBI press release alleges that he did so, “to steal other people’s literary ideas for himself, but in the end he was not creative enough to get away with it.”

But that doesn’t make sense to me. By the time a manuscript has been sold to a publisher, there would be no way for an unpublished author to steal an idea, write an entire manuscript, sell it, and edit it before the original book comes out. . And it’s not as if Bernardini is quickly climbing the totem pole at Simon & Schuster UK because of his crimes. His LinkedIn shows he’s gotten a few promotions since he started stealing manuscripts in 2016 at the age of 24.

Maybe after all this his focus was drama, suspicion, intrigue. Maybe his goal was chaos! It is, for me, a noble objective.

Honestly, this all only makes sense if it’s just a viral marketing scam for a book about a guy who collects unreleased manuscripts for the sake of the hunt.

The spine collector [Reeves Wiedeman / Vulture]

Why the hell is someone stealing manuscripts from unpublished books? [Elizabeth A. Harris and Nicole Perlroth / The New York Times]

FBI Arrests Man Charged With Stealing Unpublished Book Manuscripts [Elizabeth A. Harris / The New York Times]

No more wonders in the world now that the mysterious book thief has been arrested [Kelsey McKinney / Defector]

Image: public domain via PxHere

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