Authors have responded with anger and dismay at Penguin laying off its legendary fiction editor Harriet Allan.

Word spread late last week that Penguin Random House had made Allan redundant, as well as two other staff in senior positions in sales and publishing. The shock dismissals come just two months after reports that Penguin paid Jacinda Ardern an astonishing $1m (an industry source unconnected with Penguin told ReadingRoom it was closer to $1.5m) to write a book on “leadership”.

ReadingRoom understands that Claire Murdoch, head of publishing at Penguin, will take over the fiction list. She did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Messages were also sent to numerous authors. They were quick to respond. They are gutted at Allan’s departure; as a publisher and as an editor, Allan has worked with many of the biggest names in New Zealand writing in her 35 years at Penguin Random House.

“Harriet has been my editor since 2005,” emailed Charlotte Grimshaw. “She has published a lot of my fiction, and most recently my memoir, The Mirror Book. All of my books have benefited from Harriet’s editing skills, her broad general knowledge, her calm advice and her encouragement.

“She’s always had a clear eye, brilliant talents as an editor, and has been extremely supportive of her authors. She’s been willing to take risks with new writers, and to take time and care with new projects. She has good ideas, and has always been willing to give writers room to experiment.

“Harriet has gone out of her way to promote publishing and local writers, and has made a huge difference to literature in this country. She has gone on, year after year, showing up for writers, assisting, advocating, providing advice when needed, and pushing for local authors to be recognised.”

Lloyd Jones wrote, “I was very surprised and then sad to learn about Harriet’s ‘redundancy’. What an ugly word. We might as well speak of a body bag. At times it does feel like NZ publishing is in a losing battle to retain relevance in a changing NZ cultural landscape. Perhaps more than anything this has determined Harriet’s fate. New Zealanders read when I was growing up. They don’t anymore. They stare at their fucking phones. We need to think about what has just been shown the door. In Harriet, years and years of experience, years, decades of fruitful and productive relationships with a range of NZ writers that has been to the betterment of their work. It is a significant loss. Her writers will miss her enthusiasm and her insight.”

Stephanie Johnson contributed a tribute to a friend who has one of the sharpest minds in New Zealand writing.

“Writers around Aotearoa are shocked and saddened by the departure of Harriet Allan from Penguin Random House New Zealand. Over her 35 years as publisher for that entity, Harriet built a robust and enduring stable of authors. Among them are, not in any particular order, Patricia Grace, Owen Marshall, Dame Fiona Kidman, Fiona Farrell, Witi Ihimaera, Charlotte Grimshaw, Paula Morris, Jenny Pattrick, Laurence Fearnley, Carl Nixon, David Hill, Paula Green, Joanna Drayton, Rosetta Allan, James Norcliffe, Fiona Sussman and many others, some new and emerging, some established. Among those writers who have passed away are James McNeish, Janet Frame and Peter Wells. Harriet has a keen eye for recognising literary talent and for stories that New Zealanders want to read.

“I am one of the lucky writers who enjoy a long and fruitful association with Harriet, beginning in 1995 ahead of the publication of my second novel, The Heart’s Wild Surf (1996). In those pre-internet days, manuscripts were posted to publishers. The fastest method of written communication was the fax machine, which really only suited short documents. So off to the post office a writer would hive, a weighty A4 envelope to be despatched with covering letter. Some of us had odd little rituals to wish the book the best – I used to give mine a kiss just before pushing it into the post box. Others had to make their journey home a certain way, for example, or say a prayer to whatever misguided deity it is that looks after writers.

“When word came from Harriet B. Allan that she would like to publish this novel, a story set in Fiji in 1918, a meeting was arranged, possibly by fax. Random House had premises in Poland Road, Glenfield, and Harriet had an upstairs office. I remember an early meeting where we managed not only to attend to literary matters but to our accompanying beautiful babies Willa and Matt, who are only a few months apart, and were rolling around on the carpet together doing their best to distract us. Clever, quietly spoken and gentle, Harriet seemed to me an answer from heaven. Who could want for anything more in a publisher?

“In the intervening years Harriet has gone on to publish over a dozen more of my books. Many of them were edited by Harriet herself. Writers will remember her insightful and erudite contributions; her determination that each book should be as good as it possibly could be. Not only was she a rock and inspiration during this process, she remained so once the book was published – offering solace for a stinging review or perceived critical neglect, gently discouraging of those writers’ scourges jealousy and hypersensitivity, and genuinely interested and encouraging of the development of the next book to come. Harriet was a friend to many of us, putting air in our tyres if we were heading off as the sole Kiwi to festivals overseas, dealing with difficult foreign literary agents who couldn’t comprehend the remote and small New Zealand market, and joining us in celebrations of success, personal and professional.

“Cultural knowledge of the depth and complexity that Harriet possesses may not be easily replaced. She is a popular guest speaker at creative writing courses and festivals, casting light on the mysteriously arcane world of publishing. Optimistic in the face of sometimes frightening technological advances, loyal to both book and author, Harriet’s influence is of great magnitude. I’m sure that those in the book trade, readers, writers and book lovers generally, join me in wishing her well for her next exciting chapter.”

One writer is upset that she never got the chance to work with her. Kelly Ana Morey emailed, “I’m so pissed off that Harriet had quietly courted me for 20 years and I was finally gearing myself up to deliver my epic to her like a cat with a murdered bird. Timing is everything. Harriet’s wisdom and belief in our literature will be sorely missed. Auē.”

Final word to Barbara Else. She emailed, “I doubt that Harriet Allan has ever sung her own praises. Her authors, friends and colleagues must do it for her and it could be a long, loud song indeed. She has played a vast part in developing NZ writing. She created an arena where new authors had their first chance, then supported them through subsequent books until they were established.  This hasn’t been only with ‘literary’ fiction.  If not for Harriet’s persistence there might be very little variety in the current publishing of NZ novels. Even in her earliest days at Random House she began to foster local popular historical and contemporary novels,  no-go genres for other still-existing publishers until far more recently.  She’s also an astute editor of non-fiction, memoir and biography. Her super skill is an eagle’s view of a manuscript to see exactly what ought to be sacrificed or set free. She’s terrifying, and gloriously right. It is exciting to work with her.

“An editor with Harriet’s instinct and experience is rare. She’s been so wise, insightful and encouraging that I’m finding difficult to imagine our publishing landscape without her.  Her work has been groundbreaking but also stabilising, to the extent that her leaving Penguin Random House feels like an emotional equivalent of an earth tremor.”

Earthquake, at Penguin Random House, a company built on books; it remains to be seen whether its fiction list has gone to pieces.

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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