A new editor at Penn Press begins in unprecedented times

New leadership—plus the pandemic and protests—are fueling change at the venerable Penn Press.

The year 2020 was always going to be a time of transition for the 130-year-old University of Pennsylvania Press. It was just last September that a new director, Mary Francis, succeeded Eric Halpern, who’d held the job since 1995. Then, at the end of January, the appointment of a new editor in chief, Walter Biggins, was announced.

Illustration of an open book, on the left side is a profile drawing of Mary Francis, on the right is Walter Biggins.
Image: Rich Lillas

Biggins, who most recently was executive editor at the University of Georgia Press, arrived in Philadelphia two days before the coronavirus-prompted lockdown in March. He has yet to enter the press’s distinctive mid-Victorian building, and he’s been getting to know the editors and other staff from the confines of Zoom, BlueJeans, and Microsoft Teams.

But Francis and Biggins are forging ahead with their plans for the Press amidst the changes wrought by the novel coronavirus within scholarly publishing—from upending traditional work routines to accelerating shifts toward delivering content digitally and amplifying calls for making more of it available at low or no cost, known as Open Access. They are also assessing prospects for industry changes coming out of the wave of protests sparked by the death of George Floyd and other Black victims of police violence that began in late May. That movement has highlighted the Penn Press’s established strengths in publishing books related to the struggle for racial justice, which Biggins hopes to build upon.

“I’m the kind of person who is very attracted to dynamic environments, and I knew that just my arrival would create some dynamism,” Francis says of joining the Press. Add in the impact of recent events, and “without me having obviously planned any of this, people will probably look back at my first year at Penn, and [say], ‘Oh wow, a lot of things changed.’”

As director, Francis is responsible for the overall management of the Press, which includes a journals division as well as the books program, and publishes about 140 volumes annually in the social sciences and humanities. She also serves as the main point of contact with the University administration.

Biggins leads the acquisitions department, overseeing the Press’s slate of new books and crafting its overall creative vision. He’ll also continue to acquire books himself in fields including cultural studies, the intellectual and political history of the Americas, the Atlantic World, and postcolonial studies.

Getting used to that “bifurcated” framework has been challenging while working remotely, he says. “Learning the social environment of the Penn Press—how people operate, and who does well with what—has been a learning curve that I wasn’t expecting, because obviously we didn’t have COVID-19 when all of this was being formulated. But we’re in it now.”

Read more at The Pennsylvania Gazette.