I've heard whispers about the "Spine Collector," as he's come to be known, for years now. The New York Times published a story about it last December; Vulture did a long-form feature on it in August 2021 that is one of the most compulsively gripping long-read investigations of absurdly meaningless true crime journalism I've read in a while (though the ending is, admittedly, not very satisfying).
The basic gist of this publishing industry urban legend is that someone has been scamming agents and editors for the last five or so years. The Spine Collector demonstrated sort-of intimate insider knowledge of the publishing industry and would phish for unpublished manuscripts by posing as someone else — usually with a cleverly disguised email address such as "@randornhouse.com" instead of @randomhouse.com. Sometimes, the Spine Collector even succeeded in obtaining early drafts of these highly anticipated novels, which he would use to …
Okay well, see, that's the weirdest, dumbest, and most fascinating part of the story. What do you do once you've conned your way into getting a Word document with a draft of Dylan Farrow's upcoming book? The publisher still has the document, too, as well as the publishing rights. The Spine Collector wasn't even leaking the manuscripts; they just sort of disappeared, taking up space on a laptop somewhere. As Reeves Wiedeman wrote at Vulture:
This was a setup Stieg Larsson would have admired: a clever thief adopting multiple aliases, targeting victims around the world, and acting with no clear motive. The manuscripts weren't being pirated, as far as anyone could tell. Fake Francesca wasn't demanding a ransom. "We assumed it was the Russians," Mörk said. "But we are the book industry. It's not like we're digging gold or researching vaccines." Perhaps someone in publishing, or a Hollywood producer, was desperate for early access to books they might buy. Was the thief simply an impatient reader? A strung-out writer in need of ideas? "In the hacker culture that Stieg Larsson depicted, they do a lot of things not for financial benefit," Mörk pointed out this spring, "but just to show that they can do it."
But on January 5, 2022, the FBI announced that it arrested the alleged Spine Collector, who turned out to be a London-based publishing professional named Filippo Bernardini. He is being charged with wire fraud and aggravated identity theft.
This is a weirdly fascinating story for people in the publishing industry. But it also begs the question: why did the FBI waste their time going after a foreigner 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 con. The indictment says that he needs to return any and all property related to the offenses but … why? He didn't make any money, and all the books he conned were published without a hitch. Does he need to send back the Word documents over email?
McKinney concludes with what I find to be the most fascinating part of the whole story:
Everyone is grasping at straws, trying to find an explanation for why this 29-year-old Italian man would want all of these unpublished manuscripts. The New York Timesguessed that "knowing what's coming, who is buying what and how much they're paying could give companies an edge." The FBI press release alleges he did it, "to steal other people's literary ideas for himself, but in the end he wasn't creative enough to get away with it."
But this doesn't make any 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 a whole manuscript, sell it, and edit it before the original book came out. And it's not like Bernardini was rapidly working his way up the totem pole at Simon & Schuster UK because of his crimes. His LinkedIn shows that he's gotten a few promotions since he began stealing manuscripts in 2016 at the age of 24.
Maybe, after all this, his goal was drama, suspicion, intrigue. Maybe his goal was chaos! This, to me, is a noble goal.
Honestly the only way any of this makes sense is if it's all just a viral marketing scam for a book about a guy who collects unpublished manuscripts for the thrill of the chase.
The Spine Collector [Reeves Wiedeman / Vulture]
Why on Earth Is Someone Stealing Unpublished Book Manuscripts? [Elizabeth A. Harris and Nicole Perlroth / The New York Times]
F.B.I. Arrests Man Accused of Stealing Unpublished Book Manuscripts [Elizabeth A. Harris / The New York Times]
No Wonder Left In World Now That Mysterious Book Thief Has Been Arrested [Kelsey McKinney / Defector]
Image: Public Domain via PxHere