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When Gunter Grass speaks ...

January 7, 2009 |  4:17 pm

GuntergrassIt appears that authors still have some pull with their publishers. Legendary editor Drenka Willen was fired from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt last month (forget Black Wednesday -- it was black December in the publishing world). Willen, 79, who edited Gunter Grass, left, Umberto Eco, Amos Oz, Wislawa Szymborska, Jose Saramago and many others (did she have some hotline to the Nobel Prize Committee?), was laid off after close to a half-century at Harcourt. According to the New York Observer, Grass, Saramago, Eco, Syzmborska and others wrote a letter to Harcourt CEO Tony Lucki demanding an explanation. A few weeks later, Lucki asked Willen to come back. Willen, according to the Observer article, will spend the next few months working from home to tie up loose ends in preparation for a proper retirement.

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has been in a downward spiral since it was purchased by the Education Media and Publishing Group in 2006 and 2007, a company that brought $7 billion in debt to the table. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced that it would be “open to the sale of its consumer publishing arm.")

The tone of the Observer story about Willen -- and several related blog items -- is, shall we say, that of restrained gleefulness, just short of chortling. The author-editor relationship is the molten core of book publishing. Authors often show their loyalty by switching publishing houses when their editors move. In an age where the bottom line is so often the almighty dollar, it’s good to hear that some writers have a trump card to play.

---Susan Salter Reynolds

Photo: Gunter Grass. Credit: Michael Probst / Associated Press