Wrightgate: the Resolution

Okay, The Wrightgate saga about the mysterious origins of the book Breaking Beautiful book has been explained.

N.T. Wright did some videos for a group called The House Studios. Then, as far as I can tell, the lectures were turned into a transcript and were augmented with commentary by Tim Suttle. Suttle was brought into the project to do the work and was not its initiator or manager.  The House Studios also had legal permission from Wright authorizing use of the videos and production of the materials associated with them. The problem is that they produced the stuff without telling him about it.

Tom has emailed me and Suttle also has a post about it here explaining the story. This exonerates Suttle since it seems that he was the middle man in some bad project management. As such I’ve deleted my earlier blog post. Suttle writes:

I want to clarify that I have had no control over how this project was marketed. I think “N.T. Wright with Tim Suttle” does not reflect what really happened. In fact the moment I saw the cover I said so publicly. Two months ago I made sure to post something to mitigate any sense that I was somehow collaborating with N.T. Wright – you can see it here. I’m terribly embarrassed by all of this and I feel like a complete idiot.

Mystery resolved.

I said earlier that new information might come to light and now it has. I had wondered if it was some kind of thing that someone did with Tom but was then developed into materials that Tom did not authorize. I confess that my conjectures towards “forgery” were unfounded and have been injurious to Tim Suttle. Given what I was told by Amazon.com and by Tom himself, it seemed like a reasonable inference to explain how someone’s name can appear on a book that he did not know about or authorize. Now that further information has come to light I am genuinely sorry for putting Suttle in that light.

However, a few things need be said.

This project looks like a real stuff up for Wright and for Suttle.

First, you cannot take someone’s material, adapt it and augment it without the persons knowledge (even if you technically have legal permission). Tom never saw the final product and had no opportunity to comment on its development or marketing. I am co-authoring a book with Tom and one important thing about the project is that he knows that he’s involved in it!

Second, Tom was not happy with the content, especially some of the language in the blurb as representative of his views.

Third, the blurb was quite deceptive in saying that Tom “partnered” with Suttle to produce the work. You cannot partner with someone you don’t know. Suttle has stated that he himself was unhappy with that language.

Fourth, given that Tom has contract arrangements with other publishers, to produce such a work like this without his knowledge or authorization, put him in a very awkward legal  position.

As you can imagine, the project has now been pulled, and hopefully lessons learned.

 

  • Tim Keel

    With all due respect, Michael, I also think that this is a genuine stuff up for you, too. For the amount of accusation, insinuation and snark that you leveled at Suttle, a single line saying, “Now that further information has come to light I am genuinely sorry for putting Suttle in that light” is insufficient in my opinion. Especially when the apology is followed by “However…,” then four more paragraphs of lecturing. I was hoping you would show as much integrity as Suttle has (and that you have accused him of lacking).

    • http://radixthinking.wordpress.com/ A.O. GREEN

      I really do not know what’s the big deal, no one is getting paid but the publishers, Wright and Suttle at the end of the day. There is no point for anyone that does not have a dog in this fight to get so worked up.

    • Kyle

      I couldn’t agree more with Tim Keel. As much as I’ve enjoyed and promoted your work in the past, future endorsement will come with some reserve.

      Honestly, you might want to contact as many people as possible who shared your post and recommended on it, because after the resolution, whether right or wrong, it still doesn’t look good on your part.

    • Scott Savage

      I agree with Tim. Anything written after “however” negates your apology. You got to do better than that, man, especially when you’re talking about a pastor you don’t know who you slandered publicly without the whole story. He’s got a church with real people and real issues who need the support of theologians to help him do good work. This is actually a perfect example of how social media goes wrong for the church, when we jump to unfounded conclusions. You really should have disclosed your thoughts to Suttle directly. And it’s Suttle, not Sutton, unless truthfulness stops at getting the person’s name right. It’s unacceptable and inaccurate, as are Jim West’s comments below. Seriously. You need to call him personally and apologize because he deserves better than this.

    • Joshua38

      I don’t see how those “four more paragraphs” lessen the significance of Dr. Bird’s public apology to Tim. He begins them by saying that, “….it’s a stuff up for Wright AND FOR SUTTLE”, rightly declaring that both of them have been wronged here – not just Wright. While he does go on to make several more points about Wright’s dissatisfaction with this book, that doesn’t heap more blame onto Suttle – it heaps more blame onto the publisher, and it illustrates that Wright clearly has more “at risk” in negotiating with questionable publishing houses than does a lesser-known author like Tim.

      The book publisher was overly confident (perhaps even foolish) in attempting this project without Wright’s approval, and have now both publicly slandered their own name (at least among those who frequent this blog site) and – I am sure – forever lost N. T. Wright as an author with their company. If they don’t commit to making wiser decisions in the immediate future, their future as a publishing house / production company could be significantly affected. Pulling this book from slated publication, however, was probably a good first step for them to make.

  • Rhett

    I had never heard of Sutton, but reading his take I feel quite sorry for him. His response made me think well of him.

    I had heard of you though Michael, and read this blog regularly. Sadly I come away with a bad taste in my mouth after what reads as a fairly self-righteous “apology.”

    I wonder who really needs to take on board the “lessons learned?”

  • http://www.faith-theology.com Ben Myers

    Stick to your guns, Mike: this is still fraudulent behaviour, no matter how nice or naive anyone’s intentions might have been. I don’t see how “feeling sorry for Sutton” has anything to do with the moral status of this sorry debacle. It’s good that you exposed it, it’s good that the people involved feel ashamed, and it’s good that the book was cancelled. Bravo, I say!

    • Jim West

      Ben is right Mike. Deception in scholarship is far more reprehensible than various commentators would seem to imply. If scholars are deceivers then scholarship itself becomes worthless. Fraud is fraud, lying is lying, and feeling badly for it only after one has been caught at it is no true repentance.

    • Ros

      How is it fraudulent to produce a book largely composed of transcripts of Wright’s talks and put his name on the front of it? How is it fraudulent to exercise the rights given in a contract which Wright has signed?

    • Clarke Smith

      So he’s supposed to “stick to his guns” by making unfounded and specious accusations against people who have a legal right to do exactly what they did. If Wright gave someone permission to use his talks and they did just that, how is that fraudulent in the least?

      The only thing that has been exposed here is the fact that Mike flew off the handle and leveled false allegations in a situation where he didn’t have any inkling about what had happened.

  • Ros

    Mike, your concluding points are quite wrong. If Tom Wright signed that contract giving permission for the material to be used in this way, there is no obligation for them to inform him that they are exercising their rights to do so. Courtesy, perhaps, but no obligation. If Wright wanted to have a say over the way in which the project was done, then it was up to him or his agent to amend the original contract before he signed it. It seems to me that it is mostly his negligence in signing a contract which he either did not read or comprehend the significance of which has led to this situation. If this project puts him in an awkward position with regard to his other contractual obligations (your fourth point) he should never have signed this contract. That is not the fault of The House Project. Either he needed to refuse the contract or ask for amendments. He is not a novice author. He should know this by now.

  • Elizabeth Perry

    Hi Michael,

    Elizabeth Perry here from The House Studio. We understand that you are a theologian and not a journalist, and we want you to know we get that. However, a small amount of research (going to the source) would go a long way in getting you some answers.

    There was no attempt to steal N. T. Wright’s name and likeness. The House Studio has a reputation of impeccable integrity; that’s not the way we operate. We have been in correspondence with Dr. Wright, apart from a legal contract, regarding the terms of this project. The details of that correspondence and contract are proprietary.

    I can tell you this much: The centerpiece of this project are video segments by Dr. Wright. We enlisted trusted, local parish pastor, Tim Suttle, to write a curriculum around Wright’s words. The reader would at no time confuse the chapter material for Wright’s. Video transcripts are Wright, but the commentary is uniquely and clearly Suttle in the first person.

    As an aside, I agree with Tim Keel; your apology to Tim Suttle was insufficient.

    • M. Moffitt

      While the reader may not have been confused, that might not be the case with the buyer. If I wasn’t a Luddite, I would have pre-ordered the book straight away yesterday based only on judging the book by its cover – which for all intents and purposes on Amazon looks like a stand alone production from NTW.

      While it sounds like what has transpired is all within the law and fine by publishing standards, from the perspective of academia it is questionable. As the phrase that we have here in ‘Down Under’ goes, “it’s not cricket”.

    • Also in publishing

      I, too, work in publishing, though I’d prefer to leave my name and company off this post. Elizabeth has the right of it — shooting video with a leading author/figure and then having someone else write the accompanying study guide is very normal. The leading author/figure’s name would still be on the participant’s guide so that readers know it is derived from his material. Also, a “with” authorship often signifies that the second author, Tim Suttle in this case, actually wrote the book with some of the first author’s material, so The House Studio appears to have followed industry protocol in how they listed authorship.

      I don’t know all the ins and outs, of course, but as someone who works in publishing this situation appears to me to be a communications breakdown (between the publisher and NT Wright, primarily) rather than anything illegal or underhanded.

  • KyleS

    If NT Wright has a problem with what looks exactly similar to the type of contracts The House Studio had with scholars like Brueggemann and Hauerwas, maybe he should speak for himself. Right now it seems like he is using the court of public opinion to win a battle legally he would lose. Right now it seems like at least one real person go hurt in this mess between two corporations (NT Wright Inc. Spokesperson Mike Bird, The House Studio, Spokeperson Elizabeth.)

  • mwkruse

    Michael, I suspect your reason for the original post was your outrage at what appeared to you to be someone taking advantage of a colleague you admire. I get that. But with Tim Keel, I’m disappointed.

    “Given what I was told by Amazon.com and by Tom himself, it seemed like a reasonable inference to explain how someone’s name can appear on a book that he did not know about or authorize.”

    The combination of Wright not knowing of the project and the presence of the book at Amazon as a legitimate publication led me to believe that either this was a complete hoax or that Beacon Hill had rights to material of which Wright was not aware. In either case, the next step was to seek out Suttle and ask what was going on. His email address is at his blog. Had that happened, this issue might have been quietly resolved.

    And that raises a big question for me: What is the point of such a public attack on the book, the author, and the publisher? Should we not first assume positive intent? Should we not begin by holding out the possibility that if something is afoul that those who have erred might act responsibly when confronted? Should we not see if we can privately deal with the matter, saving face for everyone? Then, if all that fails, maybe we need to resort to public action. But as it is, a very public shotgun blast was leveled without the facts and with considerable collateral damage. Everything you say about how the publisher may have blown it seems plausible but why did it need to be aired in public at this time?

    You are not judge. Tim does not need your “exoneration” and you do not possess all the relevant information to assess culpability of the various parties. I’m a little put off by this episode. Again, I can get a sense of the emotions that drove the original post but with others above, this reads more like justification for a public tirade than an apology.

  • BobS

    N.T. Wright did some videos for a group called The House Studios. Then, as far as I can tell, the lectures were turned into a transcript and were augmented with commentary by Tim Suttle.

    Did you have proofs of the book? Because they weren’t lectures, they were informal commentary, and owning several of the books in the series they do not augment the manuscripts.

  • Joshua38

    People LOVE drama – and they love to waste far too much time condemning things that others have done. This conversation, I think, illustrates that fact. The bottom line is that there was confusion for all involved – Tom Wright, Tim Suttle, Michael Bird, and all of us – and the only one truly deserving of blame for all of this is the publisher, who failed miserably at simple communication.

    Was Dr. Bird wrong to “jump to conclusions” when he was first learning about all of this? Perhaps, but it’s only human to assume that SOMETHING is fishy when books mysteriously appear on sites like Amazon.com without any foreknowledge of the person who’s listed as the primary author. Also, Dr. Bird has already established himself as a reputable scholar and a prolific author (hence, he has lots of experience negotiating contracts with book publishers), so his assumptions were partially justified, since he knew beyond doubt that something wasn’t legitimate about this book project.

    As it turns out, it really wasn’t Tim’s fault at all – and had Dr. Bird corresponded with him and this book publisher privately first, it might have saved a bit of heartache. However, Dr. Bird had already publicly announced the book’s release because he was excited to learn about it, so he apparently felt obligated to consider the possibilities publicly here on the blog. I never actually saw him ACCUSE Tim of forgery (though perhaps I missed a post along the way?), I only saw him question what was going on.

    Regardless of whether Dr. Bird handled everything perfectly, though, he’s really not deserving of such strong criticism from so many people simply because he was confused (as were we) regarding the true source of this book. After all, he did publicly apologize for misjudging Tim, and while he offers some additional reflections on this situation in the post above, I don’t see how he’s said anything else dishonoring to Tim, or to bring the sincerity of his apology into question.

    Not that I have ANY desire to defend the publisher’s actions in all of this, but – based on my fairly significant knowledge of “the book market” (as a long-time Christian bookstore employee, a former manager of a theological bookstore, and co-author of one published book), it seems fairly common for the work of a reputable theologian to be edited down or commented on by some much lesser known author, and then published in a more accessible format for the less academic readers. After all, those little small group Bible study guides (published by IVP and others) are all done this way. Rather than waiting for someone like J. I. Packer to take time to prepare “small group study questions” based on his classic book, “Knowing God”, they simply assigned it to a lesser known author / editor – but the book was still published with Packer’s name on the cover. So, for whatever it’s worth, this is certainly not the first time this sort of confusing / misleading situation has been caused by a publisher. To be honest, it happens all the time.

    Regardless, the book has been pulled by the publisher, Dr. Bird has publicly apologized, and both Dr. Wright and Tim have been somewhat embarrassed – not as a result of anything that either of them have knowingly done – but as a result of the poor management of the publisher. It’s a sad situation all around (especially because we lost what might have otherwise been a very exciting and edifying book), but it’s over with now. As far as I can tell, there’s no lasting harm done, since this was caught before the book was even published. Apologies have been declared (sincerely, I think), so now everybody should be able to “be friends” again. My suggestion is that we all move on to other, more worthwhile, matters.

    • TifG

      There is a lot of maybe if Dr. Bird had….. in this post without mentioning, Maybe if Dr. Bird didn’t see it as his job to do a poor job exploring the issues at play for involved and merely listening to NT Wright and not others (or even contacting TIm or the publisher) particularly that Wright might have signed this contract, and not blog about it all, this drama would be under the table. So the thing you got right is that people love drama but the one cranking up his page views and fanning the controversy is Dr. Bird. No one else.

      • Joshua38

        But the controversy is over and settled. The only people who keep talking about it are those of us who are writing these comments. How is Dr. Bird perpetuating that?

        Also, Dr. Bird had nothing to do with N. T. Wright’s disappointment in the book. The disappointment was due to the fact that the publisher did this project without even mentioning it to Dr. Wright. So, even if this drama were “under the table”, as you say, it still would have been public news – much MORE public, in fact – once the book was actually released. So, in some ways, this discussion brought an end to the controversy before the book was even published. It sounds like it prevented more embarrassment than it caused.

        To me, it sounds like this is a closed case. The truth has come out, the apologies have been said, and the book has been pulled. What else remains to be done? It is now on those who feel they’ve been wronged to grant proper forgiveness (as Scripture commands us to do), but beyond that, it’s time to move on to better things.


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