Why on Earth Is Someone Stealing Unpublished Book Manuscripts?

From The New York Times:

Earlier this month, the book industry website Publishers Marketplace announced that Little, Brown would be publishing “Re-Entry,” a novel by James Hannaham about a transgender woman paroled from a men’s prison. The book would be edited by Ben George.

Two days later, Mr. Hannaham got an email from Mr. George, asking him to send the latest draft of his manuscript. The email came to an address on Mr. Hannaham’s website that he rarely uses, so he opened up his usual account, attached the document, typed in Mr. George’s email address and a little note, and hit send.

“Then Ben called me,” Mr. Hannaham said, “to say, ‘That wasn’t me.’”

Mr. Hannaham was just one of countless targets in a mysterious international phishing scam that has been tricking writers, editors, agents and anyone in their orbit into sharing unpublished book manuscripts. It isn’t clear who the thief or thieves are, or even how they might profit from the scheme. High-profile authors like Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan have been targeted, along with celebrities like Ethan Hawke. But short story collections and works by little-known debut writers have been attacked as well, even though they would have no obvious value on the black market.

In fact, the manuscripts do not appear to wind up on the black market at all, or anywhere on the dark web, and no ransoms have been demanded. When copies of the manuscripts get out, they just seem to vanish. So why is this happening?

“The real mystery is the endgame,” said Daniel Halpern, the founder of Ecco, who has been the recipient of these emails and has also been impersonated in them. “It seems like no one knows anything beyond the fact of it, and that, I guess you could say, is alarming.”

Whoever the thief is, he or she knows how publishing works, and has mapped out the connections between authors and the constellation of agents, publishers and editors who would have access to their material. This person understands the path a manuscript takes from submission to publication, and is at ease with insider lingo like “ms” instead of manuscript.

Emails are tailored so they appear to be sent by a particular agent writing to one of her authors, or an editor contacting a scout, with tiny changes made to the domain names — like penguinrandornhouse.com instead of penguinrandomhouse.com, an “rn” in place of an “m” — that are masked, and so only visible when the target hits reply.

“They know who our clients are, they know how we interact with our clients, where sub-agents fit in and where primary agents fit in,” said Catherine Eccles, owner of a literary scouting agency in London.

“They’re very, very good.”

. . . .

Often, these phishing emails make use of public information, like book deals announced online, including on social media. Ms. Sweeney’s second book, however, hadn’t yet been announced anywhere, but the phisher knew about it in detail, down to Ms. Sweeney’s deadline and the names of the novel’s main characters.

“Hi Cynthia,” the email began. “I loved the partial and I can’t wait to know what happens next to Flora, Julian and Margot. You told me you would have a draft around this time. Can you share it?”

It was signed, “Henry.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times

11 thoughts on “Why on Earth Is Someone Stealing Unpublished Book Manuscripts?”

  1. Whoever they are, they’re not “big league”. Their fake site randy penguin site is on BlueHost, a cheap shared-hosting server that any Joe Schmoe would use. Start there, cyber detectives.

    What they’re up to? Maybe some hackers are testing their social engineering skills. Or maybe they’re thrill seekers who belong to an exclusive club oriented around reading unpublished manuscripts of famous people. In fiction, this scenario would result in the thief getting a hold of a dangerous manuscript that someone else will kill for…

    Perhaps the thieves think the unedited manuscripts are future retirement money: Get the unedited edition now, and auction it off later when the published version appears. Start rumors that the published version isn’t “true to the author’s vision,” and the unedited version is. Spin up a bidding war in an underground auction? A crazed fan of the author might be the killer in this scenario.

    Anyway, the crime is so strange, the motive better be really interesting.

    Reply
    • 1- Secure a bunch of unpublished manuscripts.
      2- Retitle with generic genre covers from stock photos.
      3- Publish as ebooks.
      4- See how much (free) cash rolls in.

      It’s a volume business, stealing them by the hundreds. Minimal effort times minimal returns times a few hundred will render good results.

      Consider that the biggest ebook markets are in Asia, especially in China where piracy is all over.
      Unknown manuscripts that never get to western markets can easily pass as legit. Even best sellers get sold in legitimate bookstores (Google Play!) all over. With regional rights there’s nobody to know who has legitimate rights in Upper Elbonia.

      From 2015:
      https://the-digital-reader.com/2015/05/04/google-play-books-is-a-safe-haven-for-commercial-ebook-piracy/

      Reply
      • Ah! And truly insidious, the pirate could possibly turn around and sue the true author for plagiarizing or pirating. After all, the pirate published first. Says so on the metadata and everything.

        Reply
  2. I’m surprised this wasn’t more obvious.

    First, you need hackers. (the means)
    Second, you need experts (publishers)
    and third and finally, you need motive (???)

    The motive is easy. Who currently is the world’s biggest abuser of copyright and technology theft?

    China, of course. In this case, why wait for the publisher to jerk around for months to get it out to the public.

    1. Steal the manuscripts. 2. Publish them in China. 3. Profit.

    Another option could be…I wouldn’t be surprised if these manuscripts aren’t sold on the Darkweb like credit card numbers or username and password combos that can be had for a few bucks in Bitcoin. They then could be republished in all kinds of different languages unbeknownst to English speakers for (potentially) years.

    Even if you did find out about someone publishing your book in a foreign language, you’d have to haggle with the native country’s copyright laws (internationally, no less!) and more than likely, at the end of it, the would-be fake author could just disappear into the ether.

    Reply
    • Yup.
      Just because tbey’re stealing American IP doesn’t mean they’ll be exploiting it in the US. Most actual losses to American businesses from IP theft is large scale, internationally, and government shielded (software, video, cars, etc).

      A few years ago there was a report about *pbook* piracy in Peru. Just like on China, open air markets were shown with stacks of locally printed pirate editions selling for say less than the legal editions. Everybody knew it (just like with the internet archive piracy) but nobody in tradpub wanted to do anything about it.

      Reply
      • The key word isn’t “manuscript” but rather “unpublished”.
        The earlier the better, like the one cited in the OP.
        Tradpub takes one to two years to go from acceptance to release. The thieves are more efficient. And published book is harder to get into even a careless store, like Google’s used to be.

        Besides, don’t assume they intend to invest in translation.
        Global english is a thing and the objective is making a quick buck.

        Reply
      • If you had connections you probably could. I would reverse the process and get a book from China translated, edit it, then submit it.

        Reply
  3. Didn’t read all of the comments before I posted. If someone takes a manuscript, changes parts of it (especially if it is being translated), submits it as their own they could make a lot of money. Especially if they have a consistent supply. There are so many different languages and I am not aware of any software that could detect it. In college we had to turn our papers in to Turnitin.com. That was the most elaborate plagiarism detection software that I have seen. But that also means it has to be in ebook format. If the author only sold paper copies he has very little risk. Who would check each country/language for each new book?

    Reply

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