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International Book Thief Targeted Icelandic Authors, Publishers

The mysterious book thief whose five-year stint stealing unpublished manuscripts has sowed mistrust and anxiety among authors, agents, editors, translators and literary professionals of all stripes also specifically targeted Icelanders and went to great lengths to acquire Icelandic language texts. Following the FBI’s recent arrest of the man suspected of being behind the thefts—Filippo Bernardini, a 29-year-old Italian national who works in the foreign-rights department of publisher Simon & Schuster’s UK office—RÚV reports that the thief’s interactions with Icelandic authors and agents had, in at least one instance, been menacing enough to warrant filing a police report.

‘There’s no apparent reason for it’

The book thief—dubbed ‘The Spine Collector’ by journalists Reeves Wiedeman and Lila Shapiro who spent six months investigating the case—used intricate means of acquiring, or attempting to acquire, unpublished of big-name novelists (Margaret Atwood, Jennifer Egan, Laila Lailami, and David Lagercrantz, the Swedish author who took over writing Stig Larsen’s Millennium series), celebrities (Ethan Hawke), and unknown first timers. The thief’s motives remain unknown and unclear—as pointed out in a 2020 New York Times article, the manuscripts never appeared on the black market and were never followed by any sort of ransom demand. To make things all the more confusing, the individual also targeted authors who write in a variety of languages other than English.

By early 2020, it was clear that the thief had set his sights on adding unpublished, Icelandic-language manuscripts to his collection, and although no one was entirely sure why the person would go to such trouble, it put everyone in the industry on edge. “It’s totally worthless material, in the sense that it was in a language that at most, 350,000 people speak,” remarked author Björn Halldórsson at the time. Björn had been contacted by the thief, who posed as an editor at a respected American publisher and asked for a copy of his as-yet unpublished first novel. “There’s no apparent reason for it,” Björn mused in an interview. “But after consulting with people who work for big publishers, I think that this is the first phase in some sort of scheme to build trust and relationships, so god only knows what could have happened if I’d sent the manuscript.”

‘I know where you live’

The thief also contacted Hólmfríður Matthíasdóttir, publishing director at Forlagið, Iceland’s largest publishing house. “He had created email addresses, we’ll call them impostor emails, that mimicked the names of actual people who work in the literary world,” she recalled in a recent interview. “Well-known translators, agents, and publishers, people we were in touch with.” (The thief would often employ tricks such as replacing an ‘m’ with ‘rn’ so that a fake email address—[email protected], for example—would look legitimate unless closely scrutinized.)

“He wrote to us using these fake email addresses and asked us to send manuscripts or files for books that we were about to publish,” Hólmfríður continued. “Because he was just so excited to read them and wanted to consider publication abroad.”

Hólmfríður saw through the ruse, however, and wrote back to the emailer, suggesting he get in touch with one of the other aliases he’d been using to solicit Icelandic manuscripts. “I say to him, ‘Now, be sure to talk to the other [impostor] because that person has just as much interest in Icelandic literature as you do.” The thief became threatening. “He explicitly said: ‘I know where you live and I’m going to show up there.’” After consulting with her colleagues, Hólmfríður decided to report the interaction to the police. “It’s really unsettling when you don’t know who is behind words like that.”

Thief wrote in Icelandic

The thief also impersonated a number of Icelanders in the literary world, Hólmfríður herself included. As she recalled in an interview with Morgunblaðið, he wrote to Icelandic author Sjón “in good Icelandic,” pretending to be her.

He also emailed Bjartur & Veröld publisher Pétur Már Ólafsson, pretending to be author Hallgrímur Helgason. In that exchange, fake Hallgrímur said he was in Denmark and asked for a pdf of a manuscript that he was interested in reviewing.

“I knew that the real Hallgrímur had been on a trip to Germany,” said Pétur Már, “and I found it a bit strange,” not least because Hallgrímur had written a post on Facebook about returning to Iceland.

Pétur Már responded to fake Hallgrímur, not letting on that he suspected that something was amiss. He said he’d seen that the author had come back to Iceland and invited him to come to the publisher’s office to pick up the book in person. He also suggested a phone call, but in both cases fake Hallgrímur demurred and repeated his request for a pdf. The impostor maintained his impersonation even after Pétur Már responded with well wishes about his sudden COVID infection—as it happens, the real author had posted on Facebook that very day, saying he’d caught COVID. Pétur Már included a screenshot of the Facebook post in his message to the impostor and said he’d send the book to the quarantine hotel in Reykjavík.

“I can’t receive any packages,” wrote fake Hallgrímur. “Only pdfs.”

But the real Hallgrímur had not only received the book, he’d called Pétur Már to thank him. Meanwhile, the impostor sent another email: “I haven’t received it…can you send me a pdf?”

“That’s strange,” responded Pétur Már, “you just called me before and thanked me for the package!”

That was the last that Pétur Már heard from fake Hallgrímur. Interestingly, however, when the FBI arrested Bernardini, the publisher recalled having corresponded with the man under his real name. In that instance, Bernardini addressed Pétur and his colleagues in broken Icelandic.

‘We know nothing about what he was doing’

While no material damage seems to have been done to any of the Icelandic authors and agents targeted by the thief, the person’s campaign of deception has made a real impact on the (Icelandic) publishing industry, which, Hólmfríður pointed out, is one that’s built on trust.

Even more unsettling is the fact that ostensibly knowing who was behind the thefts has done little to explain the thief’s motives. “The books, or the manuscripts haven’t appeared on illegal download sites, and we’ve never seen him take advantage of them in any visible way,” noted Hólmfríður. “In reality, we know nothing about what he was doing with these manuscripts.”

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