The Mysterious Figure Stealing Books Before Their Release

Illustration: by Madison Ketcham

On the morning of March 1, 2017, Catherine Mörk and Linda Altrov Berg have been within the places of work of Norstedts, a e-book writer in Sweden, once they obtained an uncommon e-mail. A colleague in Venice was asking for a top-secret doc: the unpublished manuscript of the forth-coming fifth e-book in Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” sequence. The books, which observe hacker detective Lisbeth Salander, have offered greater than 100 million copies. David Lagercrantz, one other Swedish author, had taken over the sequence after Larsson’s dying, and his newest — The Man Who Chased His Shadow — was anticipated to be one of many publishing occasions of the yr.

Norstedts was guarding the sequence carefully. Lagercrantz wrote his first “Millennium” e-book on a pc with no connection to the web and delivered the manuscript on paper, at which level Norstedts mailed a single copy to every of the e-book’s worldwide publishers. With the brand new title, Norstedts wished to streamline the method — Lisbeth Salander’s writer, they figured, ought to have the ability to defend itself from hackers and thieves. Mörk and Altrov Berg, who deal with international rights at Norstedts, consulted with different publishers of blockbuster books. The translators engaged on one in every of Dan Brown’s follow-ups to The Da Vinci Code, as an example, have been required to work in a basement with safety guards clocking journeys to the lavatory. Norstedts determined to attempt sharing the brand new “Millennium” e-book through Hushmail, an encrypted-email service, with passwords delivered individually by telephone. Everyone must signal an NDA.

The uncommon e-mail got here from Francesca Varotto, the e-book’s Italian-edition editor, and arrived shortly after Norstedts despatched out the manuscript:

Dear Linda and Catherine,

I hope you might be properly. Could you please re-send me the hyperlink to the manuscript of The Man Who Chased His Shadow?

Thank you!



Minutes later, and some blocks away from Norstedts headquarters in Stockholm, Magdalena Hedlund, the agent representing the e-book, obtained an identical e-mail from Varotto. It was unusual that Varotto had misplaced one thing so helpful, however she and Hedlund have been previous pals, and the e-mail struck a well-recognized tone. Plus everybody was scrambling: The e-book was set for launch in 27 nations concurrently, and the translators needed to get began. Hedlund despatched her pal the hyperlink to the manuscript.

Varotto replied immediately. “I’m sorry M,” she wrote. Varotto mentioned that her password was “disabled/expired.” Could Hedlund ship a brand new one?

Back at Norstedts, Mörk additionally obtained an e-mail from Varotto. “Sorry Catherine,” the message learn. “Could you please give me the Hushmail code?” Altrov Berg dashed off a separate message to Varotto, asking if the whole lot was okay.

Suddenly, her telephone rang. “Why are you sending me this?” Varotto requested. Altrov Berg defined what was occurring. Varotto was confused. She hadn’t despatched any emails to Norstedts all day.

With Varotto on the telephone, the 2 Norstedts workers scrolled by the messages. The emails appeared like ones Varotto would ship: The textual content used the identical font, and the signature on the finish was styled similar to hers. Then, with Varotto nonetheless on the road, Mörk obtained one more e-mail asking for the password.

They scanned the messages once more. Only now did Varotto discover that the signature listed her previous job title; she had been promoted two months earlier. The topic line additionally misspelled the title of her firm. Finally, they realized the e-mail tackle wasn’t hers in any respect: The area had been modified from to

Everyone deleted the emails. What different malicious methods have been lurking inside? The IT division at Marsilio Editori started investigating and located that the fraudulent area had been created the day earlier than by GoDaddy. It was registered to an tackle in Amsterdam and a Dutch telephone quantity. When an worker tried calling, it went straight to a recording: “Thank you for calling IBM.”

The “Millennium” group was in a panic. The thief didn’t but have the password, so far as they knew, however was clearly decided to get it. Publishers all over the world rely on a greatest vendor like this, and an internet leak of the manuscript might derail its launch.

But the e-book’s publication got here and went and not using a hitch. The manuscript by no means reappeared. What was Fake Francesca Varotto after? Much greater than Lisbeth Salander’s best-selling exploits, it turned out. On the identical day because the “Millennium” emails, Fake Francesca requested another person in publishing for an early have a look at Lot, Bryan Washington’s story assortment, in addition to a debut novel about an accountant who turns into a fortune teller. Even stranger, the thief had different identities. Later that day, a faux Swedish editor went to the Wylie Agency in London to request a replica of Louise Erdrich’s just-announced novel, and somebody pretending to be Peter van der Zwaag, a Dutch editor, requested a colleague in New York for a similar fortune-teller e-book. Fake Peter then launched his new assistant to request that she be added to a non-public mailing record stuffed with confidential publishing data. The assistant adopted up with a pleasant word: “It’s so busy and overwhelming now with the London Book Fair, isn’t it?” The assistant didn’t exist.

This was a setup Stieg Larsson would have admired: a intelligent thief adopting a number of aliases, focusing on victims all over the world, and appearing with no clear motive. The manuscripts weren’t being pirated, so far as anybody might inform. Fake Francesca wasn’t demanding a ransom. “We assumed it was the Russians,” Mörk mentioned. “But we’re the e-book trade. It’s not like we’re digging gold or researching vaccines.” Perhaps somebody in publishing, or a Hollywood producer, was determined for early entry to books they could purchase. Was the thief merely an impatient reader? A strung-out author in want of concepts? “In the hacker tradition that Stieg Larsson depicted, they do quite a lot of issues not for monetary profit,” Mörk identified this spring, “however simply to point out that they’ll do it.”

When I first heard in regards to the scheme in February, 4 years after the tried “Millennium” heist, the thief was nonetheless on the free, exhibiting habits that was even bolder and more odd as they chased after the whole lot from Sally Rooney’s latest to novels by obscure writers by no means revealed in English earlier than. This seemed like a enjoyable problem, a digital thriller to obsess over at a time when the actual world was shut down. I texted a pal in publishing to seek out out extra. She rapidly replied, “The wrongdoer has been recognized.” This was surprising. The New York Times had two reporters on the case final yr, and the FBI had been known as in to research, however no costs or accusations had been leveled publicly. One of my colleagues, Lila Shapiro, appeared into the rip-off in 2019 however dropped the story after concluding the case is perhaps too baffling to crack. Many in publishing have been too paranoid to debate it. One literary agent, who had change into obsessive about fixing the thriller, had declined to speak as a result of she feared Lila herself is perhaps the thief.

And but my contact was sure — or “like 85 p.c positive” — that the thief was a selected particular person, a person who had labored in New York publishing for a decade. He was an outsider within the trade with a status for turning into pushy when he didn’t get what he wished. He appeared to conduct his enterprise nearly fully over e-mail.

Even extra intriguing: Someone, I used to be advised, had proof.

Illustration: by Madison Ketcham

On the spectrum of cyberattacks, this one wasn’t very complicated. There was no malicious software program or precise hacking concerned. Some of the earliest victims used Gmail accounts for work, which have been straightforward and free to spoof. Registering an alternate area and establishing an e-mail server was solely barely extra concerned, and the probabilities have been infinite: t’s grew to become f’s (, q’s changed g’s (, r’s and n’s cornbined to make m’s ( The domains instructed somebody who appreciated to play with phrases as a lot as code. Books grew to become bocks, until the corporate was Dutch, through which case boek was Anglicized to e-book.

What did appear refined was the thief’s data of the enterprise. The wrongdoer wrote like somebody in publishing, abbreviating to “MS” for manuscript and “WEL” for world English-language rights, whereas exchanging insider chatter, telling one sufferer {that a} writer was pitching a e-book as a comp to Pachinko and expressing shock to a different {that a} novel had not too long ago offered for a stunning quantity. The thief despatched messages within the wake of bulletins on Publishers Marketplace, a subscription web site that tracks offers, however additionally they requested about books that the thief’s marks didn’t even know existed. The mimicry wasn’t at all times good — an assistant on the expertise company WME realized her boss was being impersonated as a result of she would by no means say “please” or “thanks” — however the impression was ok.

What’s extra, the thief appeared to have a robust grasp of the rarefied world of worldwide publishing. The first emails, within the fall of 2016, traveled nearly solely among the many small group of people that deal with the circulate of manuscripts between nations, together with a foreign-rights supervisor in Greece, an editor in Spain, and an agent promoting worldwide writers within the Chinese market. In the tried “Millennium” heist, only some dozen folks on the earth knew the e-book was being shared with international publishers and that Mörk and Altrov Berg managed entry to it.

Suspicion rapidly fell on literary scouts, whose work includes getting early entry to books as a way to advise international publishers and Hollywood studios whether or not to purchase the rights. “We’re the ghost within the publishing machine,” Jon Baker, who works as a scout, mentioned. “If anyone goes to be randomly asking you about one thing that’s popping out, it’s a scout.” The job requires discovering books that match a shopper’s style — a German writer that desires historic fiction, a streaming service on the lookout for sturdy feminine protagonists with a consuming downside — however scouts principally attempt to get the whole lot. Because brokers typically wish to management who sees a e-book and when, a scout’s final coup is a “slip,” or a manuscript obtained surreptitiously from a pleasant supply, cultivated over cocktails and coffees, giving the scout’s shopper just a few additional days, or hours, to think about a e-book earlier than the competitors will get ahold of it. The commonest shorthand is to say that scouts are the e-book world’s spies.

If the thief have been a scout utilizing digital espionage to get books that couldn’t in any other case be acquired, then that narrowed the record of suspects. “I at all times joke that scouting is like 40 folks on earth,” mentioned Kelly Farber, a New York–based mostly scout. “It’s in all probability extra like 60, but it surely’s not within the triple digits.” People eyed less-established gamers with suspicion. “I simply thought it was a really unhealthy scout who couldn’t get manuscripts,” Lucy Abrahams, a scout who lives in Tel Aviv, advised me.

The particular person I’d been urged to look into was additionally a scout. The costs in opposition to him have been obscure — unhealthy e-mail manners, unusually aloof amongst his friends — however a supply advised me they’d heard {that a} literary company in New York had “employed an investigator” to look into the case and located one thing damning. My supply was gentle on particulars, however the suspect had apparently been sloppy, attaching his actual title and e-mail to one of many faux domains registered early on within the scheme. Intrigued, my colleague Lila agreed to take up the case once more with me. If the proof was good, the thriller might be solved.

Actual proof was tougher to return by. No one I spoke to on the literary company appeared to know something about it. Other domains have been being registered with sufficient safety to guard the thief’s identification, and when folks reached out to GoDaddy about shutting them down, the corporate typically did so, however declined to share any data, citing its privateness coverage. It did appear curious that a number of the domains seemed to be registered within the Netherlands and that the thief wrote to at least one particular person in satisfactory Dutch. Several scouts seen {that a} former colleague had not too long ago began an e-book firm that might presumably want content material. He occurred to be from Holland.

But the registrations seemed to be a purple herring. Domains popped up with no clear sample, registered to the tackle for a homosexual males’s well being clinic in London, an H&M in Copenhagen, a housing improvement in Harlem, a bookstore in Melbourne. The scouting concept additionally had appreciable holes. Many of the books have been ones that any scout might get with out a lot bother. While brokers and publishers tightly guard huge titles just like the “Millennium” sequence, which prop up your entire enterprise, the problem with most books is getting anybody to learn them. One of the thief’s early targets — “a modestly promoting writer’s fifth novel,” because the e-book’s agent put it — offered fewer than 2,000 copies. The scheme appeared like quite a lot of work for little reward. And it got here with nice threat.

While using the TGV from Paris to Germany in October 2018, a scout I’ll name Natasha — she requested a pseudonym as a way to extra freely focus on trade spywork — despatched an excited e-mail to her shoppers. A number of days earlier, she had obtained a message from a scout named Jane Southern providing a commerce. Southern had Ian McEwan’s new novel, Machines Like Me, and mentioned she would slip it to Natasha, maybe in trade for an additional huge launch.

Scouts don’t typically swap manuscripts, which quantities to giving intelligence to the enemy, however this was an uncommon case. The international rights to a title by a big-name author like McEwan are spoken for properly prematurely, which made the e-book much less helpful to Southern’s shoppers all over the world. Natasha, nevertheless, was amongst a rising variety of scouts who work solely on behalf of Hollywood producers and studios, and the movie rights to a brand new McEwan might be snatched up recent every time. The e-book can be a trophy for Natasha to point out her shoppers as she arrived on the Frankfurt Book Fair, worldwide publishing’s Davos, and she or he was particularly grateful to Southern for the supply as a result of they’d by no means met in particular person. Natasha noticed Southern at a dinner and thanked her for the slip.

Southern had no concept what she was speaking about.

After a quiet summer time, the thief was again with a brand new tactic. They didn’t simply need the McEwan. The McEwan was bait. And if the thief have been buying and selling in books that have been of nice curiosity to Hollywood, the cash concerned may change the risk-reward calculus for a scout. Studios and manufacturing corporations rely on their movie scouts for early entry to books as a way to begin wooing a director and figuring out star-worthy roles that might make for an attractive package deal. Maria Campbell, the scouting world’s greatest participant, made her title partly by getting Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park in entrance of Steven Spielberg; at the moment, she scouts for Netflix. The thief’s earliest emails hit simply because the streaming wars started and the starvation for content material with a built-in viewers ramped up. A producer touchdown early entry from the thief would nonetheless want to purchase the rights by correct channels, however a head begin would make them able to pounce when the time got here.

The thief did possess a tenacity extra widespread in Hollywood than the e-book world. If a goal didn’t reply, the thief would typically observe up with an similar request a number of hours later. One particular person obtained 9 emails from the thief in a single day. Some insiders speculated the thief was servicing a number of Hollywood shoppers — scouts, producers, studios — none of whom knew, or wished to know, the place the fabric was coming from. “Maybe it’s one other degree down,” one literary agent whispered. “A subcontracted service.”

By the autumn of 2018, the thief had made off with dozens of books, though nobody knew what number of instances folks had fallen for the rip-off, so the overall haul was doubtless a lot greater. A literary agent in New York didn’t understand till this summer time, once I helped her look by her inbox, that for seven months she had been sending manuscripts to the thief, quite than a scout she thought was merely dying to learn her books.

Several folks determined it was time to ask for out of doors assist. A scout broke the information to The Bookseller, a British commerce publication, and Publishers Weekly spoke to Ziv Lewis, who works for an Israeli writer and mentioned that he had threatened the thief with “Mossad-style cyberwarfare.” Erin Edmison, a scout in New York, even approached somebody on the state lawyer common’s workplace, solely to be advised that the potential for felony quite than civil costs, to not point out the jurisdictional quagmire — how do you prosecute somebody impersonating a Romanian asking a Swede for an American novel? — meant she is perhaps higher off making an attempt the FBI.

To many within the trade, the case felt like one which e-book folks, having offered no scarcity of spy novels, might clear up on their very own. “There’s a bunch of us newbie Nancy Drews and Hardy Boys who’ve made our variations of the Claire Danes Homeland wall,” mentioned Baker, the scout. In the spring of 2019, Baker carried out a sting. After the thief emailed a European shopper asking for Of Women and Salt, one of many season’s hottest novels, Baker mocked up a PDF with the e-book’s cowl web page — adopted by the textual content of Pride and Prejudice. Baker advised his shopper to slide the Austen mash-up to the thief after which alerted others to their plan. If the thief was a scout, Baker hoped, they might unwittingly ship the faux e-book to their shoppers. But the PDF by no means turned up. Others tried comparable gambits to no avail.

Three years into the crime spree, an trade based mostly on belief and relationships confronted a rising paranoia. Agencies began password-protecting minor books. (“I obtained a 70-page Dutch novella with an NDA,” one scout mentioned. “An NDA for a 70-page Dutch novella!”) A scout and an agent developed a code phrase they included in emails to authenticate their conversations. People have been all of a sudden distrustful of colleagues they’d labored with for years.

The assaults felt private. It was violating to women and men of letters to have their phrases appropriated — particularly as soon as authors themselves grew to become targets. Many writers have been susceptible to the ruse, wanting to please somebody they thought was their agent or editor. Others skilled it as one more letdown. The thief reached out to an Icelandic writer, expressing curiosity in representing that particular person’s work overseas, solely to vanish with their manuscript.

In 2019, the thief came upon that Eka Kurniawan, an Indonesian novelist who was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize, had a deadline looming and determined to impersonate his agent. “You advised me the manuscript can be prepared earlier than the 18th of July and it’s now the 14th,” the thief wrote, making use of stress on Kurniawan at hand over the draft. Kurniawan is now two years late, and his agent, Maria Cardona, mentioned the stress was partly accountable. “He’s been fairly caught,” she mentioned.

Multiple folks advised me they have been satisfied the thief was somebody they knew pursuing a private vendetta. But the breadth of the scheme instructed a grudge in opposition to your entire trade — maybe an underling whose profession hadn’t panned out was spoiling a celebration they weren’t invited to A number of months after his foiled sting, Baker despatched a snarky reply to the thief through which he concocted one other faux e-book. “There’s a brand new submission over right here that’s the discuss of the city,” Baker wrote. The e-book, he mentioned, was known as Anatomy of a Fraud. Baker advised the thief it was “epistolary, a sequence of e-mail exchanges.” The thief’s response instructed they have been both oblivious to the innuendo or taking a sly delight within the chaos they have been creating. They requested, “Can you share the MS pls?”

Our investigation was transferring slowly. More leads have been coming in, every much less useful than the final. A brand new suspect would floor, just for the proof to collapse underneath minimal scrutiny. The smoking gun I’d been promised remained elusive. The closest I might get was a former assistant on the literary company in query who recalled the damning area registration, however solely partly. The area had been registered to an tackle in Manhattan, someplace above Central Park.

I turned to the emails themselves. Textual evaluation got here naturally to the trade’s sleuths, a few of whom claimed to detect a Germanic cadence within the thief’s writing or an idiomatic French syntax. But every sufferer had solely a tiny glimpse of the thief’s physique of labor. I began amassing dozens and ultimately a whole bunch of emails, from everywhere in the world, hopeful that patterns would emerge.

It was troublesome to seek out something significant. The thief largely emailed on weekdays, throughout New York working hours, however there have been exceptions. They requested for “favours” and unfold “rumours,” but in addition wished American victims a Happy Fourth of July. They wrote poorly in lots of languages: Hebrew, Icelandic, Korean, Swedish. (A Brazilian caught on when the thief wrote to him in European Portuguese.) The thief’s English, in the meantime, might be crisp and formal; clumsy and stilted; playful and intelligent; generally unreadable. They principally wished to get their palms on grownup fiction, with occasional forays into YA and simply sufficient nonfiction to make their style in books inscrutable. Their favourite emoticon was ;).

With no sample rising, we appeared to one of many thief’s greatest assaults for clues: an try in 2019 to steal The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. Over a number of months, emails have been despatched nearly every single day to just about anybody related to the e-book: Atwood’s agent, her publishers, their assistants, even judges for the Booker Prize — together with many others who had no connection to the e-book in any respect. “If it’s a scout, then they’re typically getting it spectacularly fallacious,” Karolina Sutton, Atwood’s agent, mentioned of the spray-and-pray method. “It’s nearly like they’ve employed another person to do it.”

The assault introduced new wrinkles. The thief started using a devious deception that concerned making a fictional trade between two folks — an editor and an agent, say, speaking about adjustments to a manuscript — then together with the imaginary back-and-forth on the backside of their e-mail as if the thief have been forwarding a dialog. The assaults involved Atwood’s company a lot that it determined to not share the ultimate model of the e-book with some publishers till after its home launch, disrupting the e-book’s world unveiling.

Atwood’s representatives assumed that piracy was the aim. Her international publishing rights have been spoken for, and Hulu was airing The Handmaid’s Tale, which means the streamer was doubtless first in line for the film-and-TV choice. An IT marketing consultant for Atwood’s company developed a associated concept, positing that snippets of the manuscript have been getting used as bait to trick readers to show over their credit-card data. But, but once more, no pirated manuscript appeared on-line. (The solely leak got here from the trade’s different disruptor: Amazon unintentionally shipped 800 copies early.)

Some in publishing have been starting to query whether or not manuscripts have been even the top aim. How else to elucidate why the thief would need pattern pages of Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite storyboards and a ten-page e-book proposal for Michael J. Fox’s memoir? After a rights supervisor in Germany obtained hit, she speculated {that a} safety firm was stress-testing publishers within the hopes of later promoting them protecting software program. Several pals I spoke to who take into account themselves the great sort of hackers mentioned this seemed like a cybergang’s coaching program: The stakes have been low, the targets weren’t particularly tech savvy, and there was a deliverable goal — the MS — {that a} new recruit might carry residence earlier than transferring on to stealing login credentials from workers at a nuclear reactor. In the wake of North Korea’s alleged leaking of emails from Sony Pictures, might this be one other try and destabilize western tradition? Dramatic, maybe — however then once more, I had discovered almost 200 corporations in additional than 30 nations that the thief had impersonated, and none of them was Russian.

If the thief have been actually a number of thieves working from a darkish warren someplace, how did they know a lot about e-book publishing? In early 2020, a proof introduced itself. Virginia Ascione, an Italian editor, despatched an e-mail to Mira Trenchard, her scout within the U.Ok. Minutes later, one other scout Ascione works with obtained an similar e-mail — solely this one was despatched by the thief impersonating Ascione. Somehow, the thief had immediately re-created a non-public message between two actual folks. Several months later, Trenchard was emailing with an editor pal when she realized her pal was being impersonated. Trenchard despatched a separate e-mail asking if she knew in regards to the rip-off. “I didn’t!” the pal wrote again. “How sinister.” The thief then replied to the message Trenchard had despatched to her pal with a gonzo model of the identical response. “NO, I didn’t!!!” the thief wrote. “How sinister!!”

The thief, it appeared, was in some way studying Trenchard’s emails. (Trenchard has modified her password and hasn’t had any such incidents of late.) Several folks advised me about comparable experiences with different publishing corporations. Perhaps the thief had appeared at residence within the publishing world not as a result of they have been part of it however as a result of they’d been lurking inside folks’s inboxes all alongside.

This instructed an operator that textual evaluation wasn’t going to unmask. We had no selection: Bring within the hackers. We consulted a number of cybersecurity consultants, who discovered that the thief had upgraded their safety beginning in 2019, albeit solely barely. They had registered greater than 300 faux domains — 13 for the Wylie Agency alone — utilizing digital safety certificates for an extra layer of privateness. This was sufficient to forestall our hackers from figuring out the thief, but it surely didn’t recommend a classy operation. For one factor, the certificates confirmed that the domains have been managed by a single entity, if not a single particular person. Many of my fellow sleuths requested me if there was credit-card data to seek out, to not point out how a lot the thief was spending on all this. But GoDaddy confirmed it had repossessed a lot of the domains, a lot of them doubtless owing to cost fraud — the thief appeared to be utilizing stolen bank cards.

Others determined it was time to herald the large weapons. Last summer time, a number of folks approached the FBI, sharing the thief’s emails with the bureau. But if this have been against the law of which the first consequence was annoyance, it wasn’t clear how excessive the case would rank on the FBI’s precedence record. (The bureau declined to remark.) The names of the 2 G-men publishing folks spoke to — Clay Chase and Boris Klyuchnikov — highlighted the absurdity of all of it, as if we have been residing out an affordable le Carré imitation through which not one of the clues added up.

The pandemic disrupted the e-book enterprise similar to the whole lot else. The solely fixed was e-mail, and the thief took benefit. After studying {that a} British agent had contracted the virus, the thief emailed the agent’s assistant — “[He] advised me he has caught COVID, jeez, that’s terrible!” — to ask if the assistant might need Joshua Ferris’s new novel. The thief started sending intra-office messages between colleagues who might not see one another face-to-face and buttered up targets by asking the troublesome questions going through publishing’s elite: “Are you staying within the metropolis now or have you ever gone upstate?” In one other message, the thief defined that talking on the telephone was out of the query as a result of they have been solely working European mornings earlier than taking on child-care obligation within the afternoon. To their victims all over the world, the thief expressed empathy:

“I hope the scenario is getting higher in Norway!”

“Are you in Italy now? I heard issues are actually opening up there which is nice!!”

“How’s working from residence for you? For me it’s getting a bit irritating …”

For many of the pandemic, the thief’s scheme appeared like a sport, a option to go the time. During the peak of lockdown restrictions in London, the thief impersonated a U.Ok. scout to ask for Kevin Kwan’s forthcoming sequel to Crazy Rich Asians. “I’d like to check out it over the weekend,” the thief wrote. “Getting bored right here.”

I used to be losing interest, too, and needed to admit the investigation had change into a welcome distraction from the state of the world. Every day introduced a brand new area to research, and I now had my very own model of the Homeland wall: a spreadsheet stuffed with 400 of the thief’s emails and counting, organized into dozens of classes I hoped would reveal one thing earlier than the scheme swallowed me entire.

I did discover one uncommon sequence of occasions. During the third week of final August, the thief appeared to snap. It was six months into the pandemic, and for the primary time I might see, they have been indignant. On a number of events that week, they emailed literary brokers threatening to leak unpublished manuscripts they claimed to have already got until the brokers handed over one other e-book the thief was after. In a number of instances, they pasted textual content from the manuscripts they’d as a way to make the menace actual. They signed one such e-mail “xxx.”

The most menacing message got here on August 17. Linda Altrov Berg, who had handled the “Millennium” assault again in 2017, obtained an e-mail impersonating an editor in Spain, asking for a e-book that Altrov Berg immediately knew that individual editor would by no means need. The thief, it appeared, didn’t truly know her world all that properly. Altrov Berg despatched a defiant reply: “Keep on dreaming!”

In the previous, the thief had retreated from confrontations, skulking again into the digital shadows as soon as the jig was up. This time, nevertheless, they shot again a reply: “Hoppas att du dör av coronaviruset.”

In English, the message translated to: “Hope you die of the coronavirus.”

COVID was bringing out a extra vicious aspect of the thief. They satisfied a number of translators to put in writing experiences on manuscripts in numerous languages, promising to pay $150 per e-book, then ghosting the translators as soon as the work was achieved, an assault on a number of the discipline’s lowest-paid folks. There was no telling who they could go after subsequent.

In late April of this yr, a scout named Liz Gately, whom I had not too long ago interviewed, obtained an e-mail from the thief impersonating one other scout named Bettina Schrewe:

Dear Liz,

Someone named Reeves Wiedeman contacted me to speak in regards to the publishing scammer and he mentioned you gave him my title. Who is he? Do you understand him? Is he somebody legit?



The e-mail wasn’t correct. Gately hadn’t given me Schrewe’s title. How did the thief know I used to be on the case? I had spoken to greater than 50 folks in publishing, a few of whom have been suspects themselves. And earlier that week, I had emailed with Mira Trenchard, the scout whose inbox had seemingly been compromised. However they knew, the thief was conscious of my efforts and reached out instantly a day later:

Hi Reeves,

We may know who the phisher is! Apparently just a few days in the past he despatched an e-mail asking for a manuscript however he forgot to signal with the agent/sufferer’s title and put his personal …



Even in my heightened state of alertness, I needed to scrutinize the phony e-mail tackle a number of instances to see that the “r” and “h” in Schrewe had been swapped. I known as Lila to workshop a response. Should we let the thief know we have been onto them? Or play alongside?

We selected the latter. “It positively makes me really feel anxious,” Fake Bettina wrote again once I requested in regards to the impact of the continued scheme. (She mentioned that she had not too long ago heard that “the phisher obtained maintain of an early draft of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s new novel from the manufacturing division at PRH right here in NY.”) Fake Bettina declined to say something over e-mail in regards to the title in query, aside from to notice that it was a typical one. She wished to print the damning e-mail and ship it through FedEx; once I instructed our firm mailroom, she mentioned the fabric was too delicate for that. Could we offer a house tackle? “I’ll pay the postage after all,” the thief wrote.

After a short silence — once I adopted up a number of days later, my e-mail bounced again — the thief returned carrying a brand new costume. Now impersonating a Dutch editor, they despatched 4 totally different emails: one every to my private and work accounts and to Lila’s. Each was a warped however almost similar model of the others. Three of the 4 lower off mid-sentence; one ended in the course of a phrase, studying in full:

Dear Reeves,

I heard you’re engaged on an article on the publishing scammer and I w

What on earth was occurring? I continued to play dumb, nonetheless hoping to glean one thing revelatory. But the thief rapidly dismissed all of this as pointless. “It’s silly and ridiculous,” the thief wrote. “Only a waste of time.”

Was the thief referring to our investigation, I requested, or the caper itself?

“The third choice,” they wrote. I requested what they meant. “It’s solely a publicity stunt arrange by the Publishers and Editors Association,” the thief mentioned, citing a company that doesn’t exist. “They’re fooling you.”

As the dialog stretched over a number of days, different unusual issues occurred. The thief impersonated my e-book agent for the primary time. Anonymous accounts tried to attach with me on LinkedIn. One morning, I woke as much as an in a single day alert on my telephone that somebody was making an attempt to log in to an internet courting profile that had not been energetic for years.

Lila, in the meantime, had begun her personal trade with the thief. Our approaches diverged. While I used to be pleased to methodically acquire emails, hoping the following trade would offer a case-breaking clue, Lila was eight months pregnant, and each time she returned from a physician’s appointment, she grew extra exasperated at my more and more chaotic Homeland wall.

She wished to be extra direct. “Would you be up for a telephone name?” she wrote to the thief. The thief instructed an in-person assembly as an alternative. When Lila mentioned she lived in Brooklyn, the thief mentioned they did, too. Lila then instructed assembly in Cobble Hill, at which level the dialog turned.

“How about Fuck You Hill?” the thief wrote again. “Or can I meet you at Silly Cunt Square?”


The thief wasn’t the one one who wished me to cease. Two of this journal’s editors sat me down and mentioned that I couldn’t spend all yr investigating against the law with no actual victims. The world was sick and on hearth with precise cyberattacks knocking hospitals and pipelines offline. It was time to put in writing the ending.

In the course of reporting this story, greater than a dozen folks in publishing advised us they believed a single suspect was behind the entire thing: the particular person I’d been advised about on the outset. Most folks couldn’t inform me a lot about him, however the particulars they shared match the thief’s profile. He was from one other nation, and his English wasn’t nice. His method, in particular person and in writing, might be brusque. His shopper record was small, and his scouting enterprise was generally a wrestle: One former shopper advised us that after parting methods with the scout, he despatched her so many texts she needed to block his quantity. He wasn’t on the literary social scene, which made folks presume he was resentful. Then once more, one scout admitted to me, “Do all of us simply suppose it’s him as a result of he’s bizarre?”

The smoking gun — the mistaken area registration teased by my pal — was meant to offer extra substantial proof. After a seemingly infinite sport of tag, we lastly obtained to the supply. In the summer time of 2017, Laila Lalami, the award-winning novelist, had been approached by the thief, who was impersonating somebody at her literary company. Lalami found out one thing was fallacious, and her husband, an IT engineer, appeared into the area and located that it was registered to a selected Gmail tackle. When Lalami shared the tackle along with her company, they noticed the e-mail appeared to belong to a scout — our unique suspect.

But upon nearer inspection, I discovered the proof was a mirage. The tackle wasn’t the suspect’s. It was one more faux e-mail, lacking a single letter, the identical one the thief had used to impersonate the suspect himself all the best way again in 2016.

Lila and I scrambled for a proof. Wasn’t it suspicious, at the very least, that the thief had used this explicit tackle? Maybe our suspect was being framed? What a twist! But once I confirmed the proof to Chad Anderson, a senior safety researcher at DoprincipalTools, he scanned a number of the thief’s different area registrations from the time and located that the majority of them have been registered with faux Gmail accounts loosely related to folks and firms in publishing. Our smoking gun had misfired.

I had come too far to not shut the loop. In early August, I spoke to the suspect on Zoom. He was sitting within the backyard of his residence carrying a blue polo shirt with the solar setting behind him, inflicting the display screen to flare round him. He was shocked to listen to that his colleagues within the trade suspected him and denied the accusation. Over the following 24 hours, he despatched me 64 emails frantically laying out his case: messages that confirmed he might get books legitimately from brokers everywhere in the world, an e-mail trade from when he was impersonated and thought of paying $2,000 to an nameless hacker-for-hire for assist, and a number of other notes he had despatched to the thief on the time: “I hope the brand new yr brings you the top of your profession and a giant lawsuit. In different phrases, all you deserve.”

The suspect mentioned he had a easy rationalization for why folks thought there was one thing odd about him. He was, by his personal admission, sort of an odd man. He was shy and had by no means absolutely assimilated into the New York scene he was presupposed to change into part of. He not often obtained invited to events and wasn’t the sort to crash them. His shoppers couldn’t spend huge cash, which meant generally brokers ignored him, and he admitted that his place within the trade was generally irritating. He had chosen a occupation he thought was for bookish folks like him, solely to appreciate that in publishing, as in the whole lot else, the extroverts nonetheless dominated. “Even if I’m an introvert,” he mentioned, “I’m not a hacker.”

This felt like the ultimate chapter. The suspect’s method had been unusual, however he had additionally introduced extra proof in his protection than anybody had mustered in his prosecution. I felt much less like Lisbeth Salander than one in every of M. C. Escher’s monks, wandering endlessly in circles. Maybe the thief was proper. This was pointless.

Or … was the pointlessness the purpose? The one factor that appeared to tie all these tiny acts of deception collectively was a way that the thief was in it for the pleasure of the act itself. Whoever they have been — a disgruntled scout, a basement filled with hackers laughing to themselves — they cared sufficient to maintain at it for years, devoting numerous hours to sending infinite emails — all seemingly for nothing. I imagined that some in publishing might really feel a sure empathy for an individual engaged in an effortful obsession that produced little revenue; after months of fruitless investigating, I actually did. “If you attempt to discover monetary and financial achieve, it’s after all exhausting to see,” mentioned Daniel Sandstrom, the literary director of a Swedish writer hit many instances by the thief. “But if the sport is psychological, a sort of mastery or feeling of superiority, it’s simpler to visualise. This is a enterprise filled with resentment as properly, and in that sense, it turns into a great story.”

Last week, in a single remaining try at cracking the case, Lila and I despatched an e-mail to 89 totally different addresses the thief has used. Did they care to remark?

The thief hasn’t written again. But just some minutes after the message went out, I obtained an uncommon textual content from somebody hoping to speak off the file — an individual in publishing equally obsessive about fixing the case. “It’s me!” they mentioned, jokingly admitting guilt, after I requested whether or not they had simply obtained my e-mail. “Wouldn’t that be the perfect twist of all?”

I wasn’t kidding. I had walked so deep into the darkish labyrinth of this thriller that rounding each bend appeared to disclose one other uncertainty. Just final month, the thief expanded their scheme but once more: For the primary time I knew of, they have been impersonating somebody in Hollywood quite than a e-book particular person.

And now, right here was this supply, beckoning me to affix them even deeper within the maze. They have been calling to inform me a narrative they hadn’t advised anybody else. For two years, they’d harbored a suspicion a couple of extensively revered determine within the trade. The suspicion was based mostly on one curious second that would solely make sense, they thought, if this new suspect have been the thief. It might imply the whole lot, my fellow obsessive mentioned. Or it would imply nothing in any respect.

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