Fay Weldon called yesterday for a meeting of HarperCollins authors to protest at Proffitt's departure and said she was considering her position: "I suspect that in future if a book is likely to be politically tricky then the author will go to another publisher. I think writers will be a lot more wary of going to HarperCollins. This is certainly not going to make things easy for them or the people who work there."
She added: "What upsets me is that the idea that writers can be insulted as a way out for the bosses. I can understand the book being stopped for political reasons, and that happens, but when the reason given is that it's not of sufficient quality then that's insulting to the writer and upsetting. I think it is very upsetting to suggest that Chris Patten's work is not up to standard."
Weldon was joined by Doris Lessing who told The Independent: "These big robber barons who make empires out of publishing treat their editors like dirt. I've been so shocked by it. It's unheard of this happening in a serious publishing house of intellect and merit and now suddenly we find it happening. Mr Murdoch couldn't care less about his authors."
Historian Peter Hennessey has already written to Mr Proffitt to tell him that he will be moving to wherever he goes: "If he can take his authors with him, then I'll go. The relationship between an author and their editor is a most special one. It's the reason we go to publishers. I think that a lot of his authors will go with him if they can."
Meanwhile rival publishers have already started contacting the agents of disgruntled writers: "Of course we will take advantage of it," said Martin Neild, managing director of Hodder & Staughton. "We're not quite drawing up a hit list, but there are a number of writers we are interested in. What happens in a situation like this is a general climate of uncertainty."
HarperCollins refused to comment on the story, but insiders said they were feeling rattled: "There is stunned disbelief here. I cannot recall this type of interference before. I should imagine editors will have some interesting questions to field from authors."
"If an author doesn't want to remain with a publishing house there is not a lot a publisher can do about it," said the insider. "You cannot force them to write for you and imagine the publicity if they start claiming they are being held against their will."
To add to that uncertainty it emerged yesterday that Stuart Proffitt's deputy Toby Munday is also leaving the company.
"This is fantastically damaging," said one publishing source. "They do a lot of political biographies. Now agents and authors will feel unnerved in case staying with HarperCollins will taint your work."