A Mysterious Phishing Scam Is Roiling the Publishing Industry

Illustration for article titled A Mysterious Phishing Scam Is Roiling the Publishing Industry
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Friendship over with insane story about a journalist who fell in love with Martin Shkreli. Chilling piece about a mysterious hacker who is making authors’ manuscripts disappear for no apparent reason is my new best friend.

The publishing industry has become the target of an international phishing scam, according to the New York Times. What usually happens is this: The author of a book will receive an email that appears to have been sent by their agent or editor, requesting the most recent draft of their manuscript. Not suspecting anything out of the ordinary, the authors attach the document, and then...nothing. They later realize that the person to whom they replied was not their agent or editor, but never do they learn what has happened to their manuscript. The manuscripts don’t seem to end up anywhere on the internet, and no one ever gets in touch with the writer or publishing house to demand a ransom or anything of the sort.

Such incidents have been occurring for at least the last three years, the Times reports, though they’ve ramped up in the last year. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re a debut author or a household name: Targets of the hack have included Margaret Atwood, Ethan Hawke, and Kiley Reid, who published her first book, Such a Fun Age, last year.

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What is especially eerie—and effective—about the phishing attempts is how closely they resemble real human correspondence, and how convincingly they deploy publishing industry jargon to pull off their scam.

This sends a chill:

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. ...

“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.”

Of course everyone is very distressed that this has been going on for so long for a number of reasons; principle among them for writers is the idea that they’ve shared a pretty crappy first draft with a stranger. (Relatable to me.)

According to the Times, one theory is that the hacks come from within the literary scouting community, a part of the publishing industry that works with clients interested in buying foreign rights to a book, or film rights. To succeed at their jobs, scouts need to be able to read manuscripts as soon as possible so they can land the next big television or movie franchise for their client before their competitor does, for example.

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I suppose this is possible, but it seems to me that something more Pynchonian is afoot. A postmodern adventure might be just one phishing attempt away...

Night blogger at Jezebel with writing at The Baffler, The Nation, Vice, Gothamist, The Awl, and more.

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DISCUSSION

theghostofjimmadison
The Ghost of James Madison's Rage Boner

It just has to be someone in the media/book industry. You’re dealing with people whose tools are the written word and who are very sensitive to how things are phrased and labeled. In general, these are not people who are going to be easily phished by the usual suspects. Further, the contact lists that agents and editors maintain are held quite closely for obvious reasons, so even knowing who to contact and how to reach them is not easy.

I have a suspicion, however, that the purpose of this scheme is entirely banal. This person may just be a book lover who can’t wait to see the next book from their favorite authors. They tried it once to see if it would even work, and when it did, they couldn’t stop doing it. It will probably turn out to be some mid-level editor at a big publishing house who lives by herself with four cats and about 10,000 books.