Michael McGandy holds books on the Horseshoe.

New USC Press director focuses on accessibility, impact of books

As the press’ new director, Michael J. McGandy will publish books that bridge the gap between scholarly and general audiences and impact diverse communities.

New University of South Carolina Press Director Michael J. McGandy has a strong editorial vision — one that builds on the press’ recent growth, reflects his own industry experience and is predicated on publishing books that matter. 

Case in point: Early in his career, while working as an acquisitions editor at Cornell University Press, McGandy was presented with an opportunity. An environmental journalist, Tom Wilber, had developed an expertise on the use of contentious hydraulic fracturing technology to exploit shale gas reserves while covering the economic beat in New York State’s southern tier. Wilber was willing to author a book on the topic — meaning that the press would potentially engage with a politically charged issue that was a little outside what the academic press typically published. 

Was it worth the resources of money and time for a scholarly press to develop a potentially controversial title written by a person without a doctorate?

“Authors, whether they are journalists or scholars, are the ones who are affording us this opportunity to think twice about our daily lives, our understanding of history and our culture. We need these authors, and they need our support.”

Michael McGandy, director of the USC Press

McGandy went ahead and commissioned the project and was greeted with significant payoff when the book’s author became an important voice in the fracking debate and the book, "Under the Surface," sold thousands of copies. The experience also taught McGandy something important: A university press can be a force of change in local communities. 

“It was a turning point for me,” McGandy explains. “I saw what a well-done book can contribute to public life. I thought: That’s what I want to be doing.”

McGandy begins his new role as director well equipped to turn that vision into reality. He earned a bachelor’s in philosophy and political science from Bucknell University and a doctorate in philosophy from Fordham University before entering the publishing industry in 2000 and working initially in New York City publishing houses, including W.W. Norton. 

“Over the past 20 years, Michael has developed a real passion for helping authors shine and readers access affordable books that cut across regional boundaries,” says Provost Donna Arnett. “He has a long history of publishing quality books that bridge the gap between scholarly and general audiences.”

At South Carolina, McGandy is happy to have found a press primed to publish the sorts of titles he admires. As an example, he points to Kevin Mitchell’s and David S. Shields’ "Taste the State," a deep dive into South Carolina history and foodways sponsored by acquiring editor Aurora Bell and published last year under then-director Richard Brown. The book appeals to general audiences but carries more gravitas than the standard leisure read — providing what McGandy considers a winning combination.

“If you’re going to write seriously about foodways and food history in South Carolina, you’re rewriting state history,” he explains. “The book is a celebration, and it is appropriately critical and means to challenge people’s assumptions.

Going forward, McGandy plans to prioritize books with popular appeal that also carry the authority of serious, scholarly literature. “For those books that are going to go out on a limb and say things that might provoke some people in the public sphere,” he explains, “having that weight behind them is really important.” The scholarship that is at the heart of the USC Press publishing program supports and complements the more popular books that engage directly with current affairs.

As he begins his tenure as director at South Carolina, he is particularly excited about the press’ upcoming book, Margaret Edds’ "What the Eyes Can’t See: Ralph Northam, Black Resolve, and a Racial Reckoning in Virginia." The title, acquired by editor Ehren Foley, offers a close look at the Virginia governor’s blackface scandal and how it helped shape national conversations about race, reconciliation and American electoral politics. 

McGandy believes the book will provide a compelling, deeply researched narrative that uses a regional story to shed light on present-day topics affecting readers nationwide. Its potential to shape conversations on pressing concerns demonstrates the importance of the press and its authors, inside and outside the academy.

“We need big ideas to change how we think about the world, to think more deeply,” McGandy says. “Authors, whether they are journalists or scholars, are the ones who are affording us this opportunity to think twice about our daily lives, our understanding of history and our culture. We need these authors, and they need our support.”

McGandy isn’t the only new face at the University of South Carolina Press. New marketing and sales director Cathy Esposito joined the team this May.

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