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Cornerstone Press marks 40 years of student-staffed publishing

February 29, 2024
Associate Professor Ross Tangedal, English, with members of his first Editing and Publishing class at their fall 2016 Cornerstone Press book launch.
Associate Professor Ross Tangedal, English, with members of his first Editing and Publishing class at their fall 2016 Cornerstone Press book launch.

For the past 40 years, a small central Wisconsin publishing house has produced more than 100 titles in various genres, from short fiction to poetry collections, which have won awards and brought authors national and international recognition.

A collection of stories by Brett Beibel, to be published in April, 2024.
A collection of stories by Brett Biebel, to be published in April 2024.

But what really makes Cornerstone Press stand out is that it is one of five publishing houses in the United States staffed by undergraduate students. Located within the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point’s Department of English, with support from the School of Humanities and Global Studies and the College of Letters and Science, it was the first of its kind within the Universities of Wisconsin.

The press doesn’t just produce books – it also produces skilled, career-ready students with hands-on writing, editing, design, sales and marketing experience for jobs in the world of publishing and beyond.

“Cornerstone Press receives manuscripts from coast to coast,” said Ross Tangedal, associate professor of English and director and publisher of Cornerstone Press. “We do what we can to put out the best books possible, and we are proud of that. But my experiences with the students are number one.

“I’m most proud of the students who work with me and learn,” he said. “They build skills, such as how to collaborate with others. They learn how to work with authors from all different backgrounds and experiences. They do the work of editing, meeting deadlines, dealing with the variables that come up. Its real work experience.”

Cornerstone Press will celebrate 40 years with a gala from 6:30-9 p.m., Friday, April 5, at the Dreyfus University Center Alumni Room. The event will include remarks from past directors, press alumni (including those who now work in publishing), past authors and university administrators. There will be a book sale as well as food and a cash bar. The night before, the press will launch its most recent publications and they will be available for purchase.

Over the years, hundreds of students have served roles such as editorial, production, sales and media director, as well as jobs as editorial, production design and marketing and sales assistants.

Rothfuss' book, published in 2005.
Rothfuss’ book, published in 2005.

What began as one book every fall semester has turned into 35-40 books each academic year. The press has leaned into finding regional writers who do well from a small press perspective. The most famous is UWSP alum and New York Times best seller Patrick Rothfuss, author of the ongoing trilogy, The Kingkiller Chronicle. Rothfuss published Your Annotated, Illustrated College Survival Guide, Volume I through the press in 2005. It is now out of print.

“We build relationships with authors who bring their souls to their work, and we turn that into a book,” said Tangedal. “It never gets old to open a box of new books and know that we were the ones to publish it. It’s very gratifying.”

Chloe Cieszynski, Bentonville, Ark., co-managing editor and an English: writing, editing and publishing major, learned about Cornerstone Press in her independent writing course. She has enjoyed taking on the extra responsibility of her role, which allows her to mentor others and speak with the authors. She also plays varsity lacrosse at UWSP.

A book by Melissa Westemeier, published in 2011.
Fiction by Melissa Westemeier, published in 2011.

“The press has really given me a sense of responsibility and really helps me to understand how my career is going to look and gives me that extra start,” she said.

The press is a great recruitment tool for English majors and minors, said Tangedal. “Once students discover we have a publishing house, that it is a reputable program with nationwide reach and hands-on editing of manuscripts, designing book covers and going to conferences, they realize it’s a great opportunity for them as undergraduates.”

It also bolsters the English curriculum, as students take more courses in literature and creative writing. “You have to have a mind for literature in order to be a good publishing house staff member,” he said. “The press is a reflection of all the fields of English in one place, and it’s become a beacon for the department and the School of Humanities and Global Studies.”

In addition, Cornerstone Press earns its own money, with every dollar going back into the program. Books may be purchased at the press’ book website as well as on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other online booksellers.

The history of Cornerstone Press

English Professor Emeritus Dan Dieterich led Cornerstone Press from 1984 until 2010.
English Professor Emeritus Dan Dieterich led Cornerstone Press from 1984 until 2010.

What would become the press began at UW-Stevens Point in 1979 as fall semester English 349: Editing and Publishing. It was first taught by Professor Mary Croft, who had her students self-publish their work with a ditto machine. Professor Dan Dieterich took over the course in the early 1980s, continuing Croft’s model. Then he heard about a student-press at the University of Notre Dame, where over the course of a semester the students chose, planned and sold a full book. They gave him the approval to copy their model in 1984 and Cornerstone Press was born.

In the beginning, the course was offered in the fall semester to sell books at the holidays. “We published a book of cartoons, we published cookbooks, fiction, murder mysteries, all sorts of things,” said Dieterich. “It was all the work of students. They selected a book, designed it, laid it out, arranged for printing, publicized it.”

Sometimes the students would choose two books for the semester. There were times when there were delays, missed deadlines and copyright issues to work out, he said, and the class would come together, encourage each other and maintain the progress of the books.

“The credit goes to the students who were able to pull this off in a very short time as part of a complex enterprise puzzle,” Dieterich said.

A collection of essays on the outdoors by George Rogers, published in 2012.
A collection of essays on the outdoors by George Rogers, published in 2012.

Among his favorite Cornerstone books are Wisconsin River of Grace, by local essayist Kyle White, and Wildflowers of Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest, by Merel Black and Emmett Judziewicz. Both sold well and expressed the beauty of the local region.

Dieterich retired in 2010, then returned twice to lead the class as an interim professor during vacancies. Other English faculty members who led the press during that time were Per Henningsgaard for two years and Gail Folkins for one year.

Tangedal was hired in 2016, as he had a background in book history and publishing. He said Dieterich was valuable in encouraging him to take on Cornerstone Press and make it his own.

“He gave me his blessing to make it what I wanted it to be,” Tangedal said. “He’s always given us excitement, encouragement and appreciation.”

Associate Professor Ross Tangedal, Cornerstone director from 2016 to present, with past editor Jeremy Wolfe.
Associate Professor Ross Tangedal, Cornerstone director from 2016 to present, with past editor Jeremy Wolfe.

Tangedal also credits his first class from the fall of 2016 for helping him become the publisher he is today. “I was new, and they trusted and believed in me when they didn’t have to. That class allowed me to become confident in the process and find ways to make it bigger and better for students.”

In 2018, Cornerstone Press began producing three books a year in three different genres. The Legacy Series (short fiction), the Portage Poetry Series (poetry) and the Back Home Series (creative non-fiction, memoirs and essays).

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Cornerstone Press began to change its operation as it received more manuscripts and built its list of potential books. By 2021 they had 11 titles in the queue, and by 2022, there were 25.

Stories and a novella by Nikki Kallio, published in 2023.
Stories and a novella by Nikki Kallio, published in 2023.

Now the press is releasing 35 to 40 titles during the academic year, with year-round production. English 349: Editing and Publishing is offered in the fall; English 339: Book and Publication Design is offered in the spring, and English 369: Small Press Management, an independent study course, is offered in the summer. The courses may be taken in any order, with students working in the press during their classes as well as after.

Current editorial and production teams are now working on titles that will be released in the fall of 2024 and spring of 2025, Tangedal said. The press is modeled after a traditional publishing house environment, with a year to two-year lead time from acquisition to publication.

Ellie Atkinson, Eau Claire, the current editorial director of Cornerstone, is an English: writing, editing and publishing major. She recently attended the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Kansas City, a great networking and professional opportunity that features thousands of attendees from around the world.

“I really enjoy working with the authors and getting hands-on experiences for a career that I really like,” she said. “I feel very accomplished with all of the work I do with the press.”

What’s next for Cornerstone Press

Poems by Jenifer DeBellis, published in 2023.
Poems by Jenifer DeBellis, published in 2023.

With the expansion into multiple genres and more titles, Cornerstone Press is giving students the chance to work on dozens of books during their time at UWSP, Tangedal said. If the press can maintain that quality work, the next 40 years will yield a lot of very good books.

“Students get the experiential learning that they come here for,” he said. “We are growing and serving more students. I’ve tried to maintain that student focus in the classroom even as we grow into a larger operation. We cannot do this without engaged, intelligent and diverse students. I thank Dan for instilling that into the program and in me when I took over.”

Tangedal is still thrilled that he gets to come to work every day and run a publishing house, along with his teaching and scholarly work. “There is an ongoing feeling of energy and excitement, and while staff turns over due to graduation and new courses, we are consistently getting new people with a new influx of enthusiasm for the program.

“I think Cornerstone Press will continue to be something the university can be proud of,” he said. “We are an extension of UWSP, and I’d like us to continue to be recognized that way.”

Dieterich is also proud of Cornerstone’s growth.

“It was an honor to supervise the hard-working, responsible students as they published various worthwhile books in the early days of Cornerstone Press,” he said. “It’s also been wonderful to see how students have increased the number and variety of their publications in the 40 years since we started Cornerstone.

“One constant in 2024 as in 1984 is that the students learn by doing, as they help select, edit, design, publish and market Cornerstone Press publications. They continue to be amazing.”