I’m sure many readers have seen Steve St. Clair’s comments on a previous blog post questioning my claim that the authors of Civilization One, Christopher Knight and Alan Butler, tried to sue me back in 2004 for reviewing the book without their permission. I routinely disclose this information when discussing either Knight or Butler, but I haven’t revisited the correspondence from that time since by and large it isn’t relevant to the crazy claims Knight and Butler make, most of which I had already criticized before the incident.
However, I have dug out the documentation from that time, and I thought you might like to see it. As it happens, my memory is somewhat faulty. While I described Knight and Butler as threatening to sue me, it was actually much worse. Knight and Butler actually accused me of a crime and threatened not just civil action but implied that they would seek to have relevant authorities open a criminal inquiry. I also implied that the authors apologized for their actions, but here again my memory unfairly attributed more grace to them than the documents warrant. In fact, the publisher’s publicist apologized on their behalf, and the two authors never apologized directly to me.
The story opens on July 22, 2004. Cook Public Relations, a firm hired by Watkins Publishing of London, an esoteric publisher, to promote the U.S. release of Civilization One, sent Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine an advance set of uncorrected, bound galley proofs of Civilization One along with publicity material for the book. “I have enclosed an advance copy of the book and press materials for review,” Sharon Cook wrote. This was typical for publishing, where advance copies are sent out for review to garner publicity for forthcoming titles. Occasionally, a publisher will “embargo” a title, meaning that a review cannot be published before a specific date, but this was not a condition of Civilization One.
The press materials were dated July 15, 2004 and promised “cast iron proofs, illustrated by the easiest of maths” that civilization had been founded by an advanced race utilizing a megalithic yard of the “very precise unit of 82.966656 cm.” It also contained Watkins’ list of suggested questions for an author interview. I will save everyone the embarrassment of repeating the sycophantic inquiries the publisher suggested reviewers ask.
Shermer passed the book on to me because he thought that I might be a good fit for reviewing it, given my interests in ancient astronauts and fringe history. I had just published “Charioteer of the Gods,” the article that would grow into The Cult of Alien Gods and a review of Anatoly Fomenko’s strange idea that the Middle Ages never happened. I was 23 years old, and I had never had the opportunity to publish a book review before.
I read the book and wrote my review. I sent it in to Skeptic, at which point I was no longer in control of the material. The review would be published in the first Skeptic of 2005 (11.3), after the publication date of the book. To be entirely honest, I don’t recall exactly what happened next. In those years I was an occasional participant in discussion boards on Graham Hancock’s website as well as The Hall of Ma’at. So far as I remember, at one of those websites, while working on the review, I indicated that Skeptic had asked me to review the book and that I had read galleys of the book. In so doing, I had asked for help in fact-checking a claim made in the book, which turned out to be false, that 730 million Egyptians had been mummified. (The authors confused all mummies—animal and human—with humans, in copying material from a website that was in turn copying from the Encarta encyclopedia, nearly verbatim.) This is what set off the authors. One or both of them saw the posting asking for help verifying facts and freaked out.
On August 17, 2004, Christopher Knight sent me an email on behalf of himself and Alan Butler demanding to know how I obtained “illegal” copies of his book
You claim to have been asked to read galley proofs of the, yet to be published, book called Civilization One by Christopher Knight and Alan Butler.
Knight concluded by stating that “steps will be taken” to use the legal process to “investigate” how I obtained their material, which was clearly meant to be read as a threat of legal action, either civil, criminal, or both—as, indeed, Skeptic publisher Michael Shermer and publicist Sharon Cook interpreted the message. The authors immediately contacted their publisher, unbeknownst to me, to tell them that I had published an “illegal” review of the book, when I had only asked for help fact-checking a claim.
Statistics cited from an outside source and not original to the author are not protected by copyright and cannot be embargoed or otherwise restricted.
I replied a few hours later:
Despite my lowly status, I was asked to review the manuscript by Skeptic magazine, which received your galleys from Sharon Cook of Cook Public Relations. Her letter of 22 July 2004 makes expressly clear that the advanced copy is for review and places no embargo on discussing the contents of said book. Please forward any inquiries about how Skeptic received your galleys to your publicist, Ms. Cook.
I copied the correspondence to Michael Shermer, who was outraged that Knight and Butler appeared to be making legal threats over a book review that in fact had not yet been published. He sent a message to the authors and their publicist outlining the seriousness of making threats of legal action. He then told Knight:
If you have a complaint you should take it up with your own publisher, as that is who sent me a copy of the bound galley, which is standard procedure for publishers seeking to have their books reviewed. As I do with such bound galleys, I arranged to have someone read the book and review it for Skeptic magazine. If you do not wish to have your book read and reviewed, then you should contact your publisher, not the magazines to whom they sent copies.
The next day Sharon Cook, the publicist, contacted me to apologize on behalf of the authors. Cook explained that the book was embargoed in Britain but not the United States and that the authors were not aware of this.
Sincere apologies for the correspondence you received from the author, Christopher Knight.
It is possible that Knight was simply being grandiloquent and that Butler never knew what Knight had sent in his name. The publicist, though, went on to say that Knight had reported to the publisher that I had published a “review” of his book and wanted access to that review. I replied that the review would be published in Skeptic 11.3 (Winter 2005), available sometime in late December 2004. All I did was ask for help fact-checking. Cook passed this information on to the publisher to help resolve the situation.
In my memory, I remembered this incident as a threat of civil action, but I guess I was wrong. Knight and Butler apparently wanted me criminally investigated. Funny how I remembered them as being less harsh and more gracious than they really were. So, there you go.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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