January 10, 2022

Book burglar bagged; missing manuscripts mulled


A 1913 commercial illustration of a burglar. Courtesy New York Public Library.

Happy 2022 to everyone! We thought we’d start off the new year by taking a close look at the logistics behind the supply-chain issues that have bedeviled the industry in recent years. Ha, ha, just kidding! We aren’t going to try to make anyone read about that! At least not today!

Instead, let’s celebrate? I guess? the apprehension at last of the sinister thief who has been scamming publishers and writers out of unpublished manuscripts. As the New York Times reported Washington Post reported, last week the FBI arrested one Filippo Bernardini and is preparing to indict him—or maybe prosecute him? or “arraign” him, whatever that means? (We briefly considered getting our lawyer to help us with this, but maybe not … that guy is expensive!)  Instead we dug doggedly through court records clicked on the link provided by WaPo to take a quick look at the indictment.

Boy, was that a mistake! The indictment was a verbal and semiotic wonderland, a prime example of the practice of defamiliarization as defined by the Russian critic Viktor Shklovksy in 1917. Consider the first section of the indictment, helpfully titled “Background”:

Literary authors are frequently represented by literary agents. When an author has a manuscript draft that is ready to be considered for sale, a literary agent will generally distribute the manuscript to editors at various publishing houses. If the manuscript generates interest, an auction will generally take place, during which multiple editors can bid on a manuscript to obtain exclusive publication and distribution rights. Manuscripts will generally be acquired by the editor offering the highest advance amount, which can vary from a few thousand dollars to millions of dollars, depending on the author in question and the promise of the given manuscript.

Well, gee! When you put it that way … it actually sounds pretty cool, right?

We read on, fascinated by this outsider’s perspective of the things we take so for granted; could the experience also qualify as a detournement of sorts? The indictment went on to specify that the theft and leaking of a manuscript can  “also undermine an author’s reputation where an early draft of written material is distributed in a working form that is not in the state an author would wish when encountered by the public.” Well, sure! I mean, that’s one way (AS: eye on the ball please) and, yes, anyways, the book thief who has mystified the industry for four-plus years now has finally brought to heel.

Michael J. Driscoll, the assistant director-in-charge of the FBI’s New York office, said in a statement that Bernardini abused his “insider knowledge … to steal other people’s literary ideas for himself, but in the end he wasn’t creative enough to get away with it.” Wow! Ouch! Not being “creative enough to get away” with stuff! Put that on our tombstones!



Michael Lindgren is the Managing Editor at Melville House.