The usually slow summer publishing season has been given a jolt by an unusual corporate tug-of-war for Viking editor-in-chief Molly Stern. Matt Flamm, reporting in Crain’s last week, described the situation as a “publishing-industry smack-down” in which Stern, trying to defect to oversee Crown’s general interest imprints (Crown Publishers and Broadway Books), is being held not-so-ceremoniously to her contract with Viking.

While Penguin would only reiterate what it told Flamm—that it “takes its contracts very seriously”—and Random House declined to comment, many insiders, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, told PW they couldn’t remember the last time a major editor was stonewalled like this when trying to leave for a new job. According to various sources, Stern was offered the job at Crown—which has been open since the April reorganization—but has been held back by the fact that she has nearly eight months left on her deal with Penguin.

Things have gotten so bad that Stern is no longer going into the office and, instead, is editing from home. One source said he believes Crown is intending to hold the job for Stern but that the editor has been left in a “netherworld” by Penguin, unable to leave yet also unable to comfortably stay.

Some sources speculated that the issue is about authors, with Penguin concerned that Crown will poach Viking’s list, along with its top editor. Others say what’s happened is more personal, and point to the fact that Penguin publisher Susan Petersen Kennedy may be reeling from an unfortunate feeling of déjà vu, since this is not the first time Random House has hired away high-level Penguin editors.

In 2005, when Julie Grau and Cindy Spiegel left Riverhead to start their own eponymous imprint at Random House, some said Kennedy gave the editors an unusually hard time. And, like both Spiegel and Grau, Stern was perceived to be something of a star at Penguin. In a 2008 article in The New York Observer, about Pam Dorman’s return to Penguin, Leon Neyfakh quoted one insider saying that Stern was seen as “the future face of the company.”

Referring to editors’ relationships with Kennedy, one source said “the closer you are to her, the more keenly she feels a sense of betrayal if you leave.”

Of course the one question still circling, for some, is why Crown, which has long been a predominantly nonfiction publisher, would want to hire an editor known for fiction. Stern, who was highlighted as an up-and-coming editor in a 2005 article in PW has a reputation for being smart and having good taste. One former scout said people were “always obsessing about what she bought.” She was chosen by Danielle Trussoni to edit her debut, Angelology, which Penguin bought last year for six figures, and her list includes a heavy dose of literary authors who sell, among them Pulitzer winner Geraldine Brooks (People of the Book), David Benioff (City of Thieves), and Susan Choi (A Person of Interest).

Many presume Random House wants Stern at Crown because it’s looking to give the division a new direction as a fiction publisher. When Random House divided Crown into four distinct groups, the publisher said it was searching for an executive to oversee Crown Publishers and Broadway Books. Broadway does nonfiction exclusively and Crown, while it does release some fiction, is predominantly known for non-fiction. Some sources think Crown may even launch a new fiction imprint, replacing Shaye Areheart Books, the one imprint at Crown which published fiction and which was closed during the restructuring.