Staff Q&A/Eric Halpern

Eric Halpern, director, Penn Press Photo credit: Mark Stehle

A dozen years ago, Eric Halpern took the helm of a Penn Press that published a mere 50 books a year, with minimal attention to design and promotion. It was, as he says today, a press not held in particularly high esteem.

But that’s all changed.
The books published by the University of Pennsylvania Press regularly win awards, and are reviewed in some of the most prestigious magazines and newspapers across the country. The Press now publishes 120 books a year, as well as journals including The Jewish Quarterly Review and Dissent, a major voice in politics and social commentary. The Press has also hosted podcasts with authors (available at and plans to expand its portfolio to include books in business and economics, science and medicine.

All of these changes don’t suggest the Press’ mission is any different than it was when it was incorporated by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1890, however.

“We want to publish books written by and for scholars. That’s really the heart of our mission,” says Halpern, who came to Penn Press after working at Cornell and Johns Hopkins. “In the same way that Penn’s mission has both a research and educational component, we want to publish books that have a broader academic interest—books that interest scholars, interest students, that also reach serious readers.”

Q: You’ve been at Penn Press a little more than 12 years. How is it different today?
A: The mission hasn’t changed, but our approach to doing what we’re supposed to do has changed rather completely. When I first came, I think the feeling was that university press publishing existed in a declining universe and that all you could do was to contain costs, so there really was not a lot of ambition in the program.
And since then, we’ve developed a much more ambitious approach to publishing. Every book is published with as much energy as we can possibly manage. All of our books are well-designed, advertised, we’re widely reviewed, and we are, all the time, acquiring better and better books in the fields where we’ve historically had strengths, but also branching out into new areas.

Q: What are some examples of this?
A: One area that the Provost is really keen to highlight and emphasize is Penn’s contribution to public policy. One of the first initiatives was [“On Risk and Disaster”] the book about Hurricane Katrina that the Provost co-edited with Don Kettl and Howard Kunreuther that took place immediately after the hurricane hit New Orleans. We’ve developed a list of books in urban studies with the Penn Urban Research Institute and we’ve hired an editor who’s working heavily in public policy and international relations. In all these respects, we’re supporting programming initiatives of the Provost and also, for that matter, increasing our relevancy quotient.

Q: Traditionally, what are the strengths of Penn Press?
A: The traditional strengths have been in European history and culture from the medieval period, and in anthropology. In the medieval side, we’ve broadened out considerably so that we go into antiquity and we move forward through the Early Modern period. In anthropology, we’re concentrating on ethnographies of political violence and supporting our other long-term strength in human rights. Our human rights list is now really quite substantial and in reviews of our books, it’s been cited as having the world’s most distinguished list in the field.

Q: You have partnerships with several notable journals, including the political quarterly, Dissent. How do these partnerships work?
A: In book publishing, we control the editorial program—we choose which books to publish, which not to publish, we haggle with authors with revisions. In journal publishing, it’s quite different—you do vest editorial control with the editors and editorial board and we pick up the production, distribution, marketing and business functions of the journal.
The financial profile of books and journals are almost inverse of one another and they really do help, in many different ways, the Press’ publishing efforts. They allow us to make contact with authors earlier in the development of their projects. We can advertise our books in the journals. There are a lot of synergistic relationships that we can build up.

Q: In the age of declining book sales, how are you doing?
A: There was a recent Chronicle [of Higher Education] article about how university press sales have been declining and classrooms sales in particular have declined. That simply hasn’t been the case for us. Over the past three years, our sales have increased over 30 percent. All of our sales categories have been increasing and we have doubled sales in the last seven years and this year, so far, we’re showing significant increases over last year, which was a banner year for us. We’re booming and if there’s any problem now, it’s simply keeping up with our success.

Q: Typically, how does a book go from idea to manuscript?
A: Some books come to us as an idea; sometimes we suggest something to an author. The projects come to us either as a partial manuscript or even as a complete manuscript, which the individual acquiring editors take through a very elaborate evaluation process. The timespan can also vary immensely. Some books seem to take 10 years or more to develop from an original idea to complete final manuscript ready for editing and production. In that respect we differ pretty substantially from commercial houses that really need something quickly. However, we also do publish books that happen quickly—the Katrina book I mentioned wasn’t a manuscript really until mid-December of the year before publication and we published it in the January following.

Q: It seems as though there are more Penn professors published through the Press these days than in years past.
A: Oh, I think that’s absolutely the case and I think that’s a measure of the growth in our esteem. When I first arrived here, it was very rare we could persuade a Penn author to publish with us and now, both we and the Provost worry that perhaps we’re publishing too many Penn authors. It gives us the appearance of lack of independence—which is not the case, absolutely. We do evaluate Penn faculty authors just as rigorously as we do outside authors. We are, as I say, seeing really terrific book projects all the time and every list seems to be an improvement in quality and importance and significance over the previous book.

Originally published Oct. 16, 2008

Originally published on October 16, 2008