Bound to Please: Book Publishing in Wisconsin |
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Bound to Please: Book Publishing in Wisconsin

Photo by Rachel Claire

You settle into the couch with a cup of hot tea. In a beam of light at just the right angle, you stroke the cover of your book club’s latest selection, crack the spine, take a long, deep inhale of new-book smell, and start to read. Of course, you know the book’s title, and the author, but—no peeking—who is the publisher? Odds are it’s one of the Big Five companies that dominate the book publishing world. However, there is a chance your book was published right here in Wisconsin, which has a long history of small- and mid-sized presses focusing on regional writers as well as new micro- and hybrid-presses.

Since 1855, the Wisconsin Historical Society Press (WHSP) has been publishing books, magazines, and textbooks with the mission “to collect, preserve, and share stories about Wisconsin’s past.” Its current catalog, which boasts more than 400 titles, includes a rich variety ranging from children’s picture books to field guides to memoirs and histories of the various peoples who have called the state home. Many readers will recognize the names of two of the press’ best-known authors, Jerry Apps and John Gurda.

“We strive to share the stories of all Wisconsin people, many of them in their own voices,” says Press Director, Kate Thompson. “Since 2000, the press has published more than 135 books and magazine articles that share the stories and voices of African American, Native American, Hmong, Latino, and LGBTQ+ people, including more than a dozen biographies for elementary-age readers.”

The Wisconsin Act 31 Coalition, which develops resources for educators to provide instruction about the history, culture, and tribal sovereignty of the American Indian nations in the state, recommends many WHSP titles, including Native People of Wisconsin and Indian Nations of Wisconsin for young readers and adults respectively, along with Rebel Poet: More Stories from a 21st Century Indian by Louis V. Clark, III (Two Shoes). Other WHSP titles include Modern Jungles: A Hmong Refugee’s Childhood Story of Survival by Pao Lor; Self-Made Woman by transgender author, Denise Chanterelle DuBois, and Return to Wake Robin: One Cabin in the Heyday of Northwoods Resorts by Marnie O. Mamminga. All of these books feature the voices of people whose work might not be of interest for large publishers outside the Midwest.

WHS Press book Modern Jungles by Pao Lor featured by Wisconsin Center for the Book at the National Book Festival 2022.

During the pandemic shutdown, WHSP offered free access to its digital 4th-grade textbook for educators and parents, which was downloaded approximately 800 times. In response to the killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed, the press also provided free access to its Badger Biography e-book, Father Groppi: Marching for Civil Rights by Stuart Stotts.

The University of Wisconsin Press also boasts a long, respected history. Established in 1936, the press publishes 60-65 books in a typical year, with over 3,000 titles published and distributed since its inception and 1,500 titles currently in print. Its catalog includes books of general interest, scholarly books, and regional books about Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest. The press is not focused solely on Wisconsin, however. Its Fall 2022 catalog includes books on places and peoples from South Africa, Congo, Myanmar, and Thailand.

Though UW Press publishes the work of authors from across the country and, indeed, all over the world, it is especially friendly to writers with Wisconsin connections and works that reflect a Wisconsin sensibility. Authors who have worked with the press appreciate the individual attention and rigor that their books receive in the editing and production process.

As a university publisher, UW Press requires each manuscript to be peer reviewed by two readers before acceptance and publication. “I was surprised how rigorous and extensive the process was,” says Maggie Ginsberg, author of the novel Still True, noting that she welcomed this level of scrutiny.

Ted Rulseh, author of Ripple Effects: How We’re Loving Our Lakes to Death, a book that examines existential threats to our Great Lakes, agrees. “The editorial process made me more confident that what I was putting out there was as unassailable factually as possible.” The peer review requirement is important for academics like Rebecca Webster, author of In Defense of Sovereignty: Protecting the Oneida Nation’s Inherent Right to Self-Determination. Webster’s book discusses lawsuits in which she participated as an attorney for her tribe in Hobart, Wisconsin. “This is a Wisconsin issue. I am a graduate of the University of Wisconsin. It made sense that this book would be published at UW Press.”

These authors noted the individual attention they received in the publishing process. Ginsberg says, “They all know who I am there…anything I asked for, they were really responsive. Plus, they put out beautiful books.” Jameka Williams, whose debut poetry collection, American Sex Tape, won the Brittingham Poetry Prize, also appreciates the editorial professionalism of the press and the closeness with which she was able to work with the editors. “There is so much space for writers to shape their books with regional, independent publishers,” she says. “UW Press has cultivated a beautiful literary community for writers.”

According to Publicity Manager Alison Shay, the press’s mission embodies the Wisconsin Idea, the principle that education should influence all people’s lives beyond the boundaries of the university and throughout the state.

The Wisconsin Idea is also alive and well at Cornerstone Press at UW–Stevens Point. Since its founding in 1984, the press has given undergraduate students real-world experience as editors, cover designers, publicity and marketing managers, and event planners. Students carry out nearly every task in the process of turning a manuscript into a book and marketing it. The model started simply: publish one book of prose during the fall semester and a poetry collection in the spring. Because the press was staffed by undergraduate students earning credit from the English Department for their work, labor costs were basically nonexistent, and financial resources could be funneled toward big launch events held on campus. At times, this included hosting a daylong conference for high school writers, travel and lodging expenses for authors, and a launch party that included dinner, a reading, and celebration of the students’ hard work.

All that changed with the pandemic. Cornerstone’s publisher, Ross Tangedal, recognized an opportunity in the upheaval. “When everything shut down, and we could no longer do in-person events, we needed to figure out how to be successful in a very different environment.”

By shifting to smaller first-print runs and downsizing in-person events, the press was able to expand the number of titles published to seven in the first year and 30 the next. Each semester, students get broad, deep experience with all facets of the publishing process for 12-15 books at a time. Expanding students’ work experience in book publishing is one of the most important outcomes of the press’s pivot. After graduation, they go on to use their management and editorial skills in many different fields, whether they go into the publishing industry or not.

When asked about her experience with Cornerstone, poet Margaret Rozga first mentions her work with the students. “It was wonderful to have extended conversations with those involved with the editing and production of the book. They raised good questions and explored various answers.” Though the students were initially a bit intimidated—they were working with the Wisconsin Poet Laureate after all—once they found she was open to their suggestions and insights, they became more comfortable and confident, and thoughtful. “I have never been read so thoroughly,” Rozga says. Instead of reading poems piecemeal as often happens in general literature classes, the editorial staff needed to consider what a “book of poetry does that is different from a single poem. You can’t get that type of poetry education just anywhere,” she says.

She was impressed with the professionalism of the students, noting that they came to editorial meetings well-prepared. She credits Tangedal’s leadership and trust in the students. “They are given responsibility they probably didn’t expect, and they live up to that trust.” As a professor of English at UW–Milwaukee’s Waukesha campus, Rozga has insight into what working in this capacity can mean to students. She believes young people want to reach beyond pleasing an instructor or doing “artificial” assignments. They want a real audience—in this case, the audience that comes with a published book. “This model raises so many possibilities for how we do education,” she says.

The editorial team also provided a new audience for Rozga’s book, Holding My Selves Together: New and Selected Poems. Before working with the Cornerstone staff, she says, she hadn’t thought much about how her work was received by younger generations. Through the editing process, she came to have a better sense of what they are noticing and thinking about as they read poetry.

In addition to verse, Cornerstone publishes short story collections and memoirs. “Now we can accept many more titles,” says Tangedal, “and good stuff keeps coming in the door.” Currently, the press’ publishing calendar is filled until 2024.

Ross Tangedal, publisher at Cornerstone Press, with student editor.

Rescue Press, an independent publisher of poetry, prose, and hybrid texts, was founded in Milwaukee in 2009 by Danny Khalastchi and Caryl Pagel, when he was teaching at Marquette and she was at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD) and Carthage College. According to Pagel, Rescue Press “remains untethered to a single aesthetic and is governed by a desire to remain flexible, collaborative, and curious. We believe in publishing as a generative process.” Though the editors now live in Iowa City and Cleveland respectively, they return to Wisconsin often for readings and events. “We’re a Midwestern press through and through,” Pagel says, and she credits Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee as a huge influence over the years.

New American Press in Grafton is another small literary publisher with roots in the state. It publishes poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and translated works, as well as an annual New from the Midwest anthology series that aims “to bring more visibility to the flourishing crop of Midwestern writers who consistently produce work that is innovative, engaging, finely crafted, and strong in voice.” Alternating between short fiction and poetry, the anthologies have featured work by well-known writers such as Rebecca Makkai, Ted Kooser, Joyce Carol Oates, Roxanne Gay, and Stuart Dybek. The press publishes three to five books a year and annually awards the New American Fiction Prize and the New American Poetry Prize in alternate years for full-length books.

Other Wisconsin publishers, like Orange Hat/Ten16 in Waukesha and HenschelHAUS in Milwaukee, are hybrid presses, offering select writers a traditional publishing contract—in which the company takes on the financial responsibility of publication and pays the author royalties—while offering other writers a “hybrid contract”—in which the author pays for editing, book design, and production after which they keep 100% of book sale revenue.

It is easy to confuse hybrid publishing with self-publishing, but they aren’t the same. In self-publishing, there is no “bar” the work must clear, either for the quality of its writing and editing or for its aesthetic appeal. A writer can self-publish whatever they want. A hybrid press, however, reserves the right to decline manuscripts that aren’t up to its standards or which do not appeal to the press’s overall sensibility. Fortunately for writers, these companies often offer book coaching, editorial services, and other a la carte services to help bring manuscripts up to their requirements.

Many authors appreciate the fact that hybrid publishing gives them more input into decisions about their book than they might have with a traditional contract. The relationship between writer and publisher is more a creative partnership than the simple exchange of money for services in self-publishing.

Interest in hybrid publishing has expanded since the beginning of the pandemic, says Shannon Ishizaki of Orange Hat Publishing. “Authors realized how quickly life can turn upside down before having a chance to check off a major item on their bucket list: to write and publish a book.” Pre-pandemic, the press received between 2-4 submissions in a month. The number doubled during the pandemic and has since tripled. In response to growth in quality and quantity of submissions, the press added staff, created its second imprint, Ten16 Press, and found ways beyond the usual in-person book launch party to connect with readers.

Traditionally published books in the press’s catalog include picture books like Ari J.’s Kinky Curley Crown by Ain Heath Drew and The Binky Bandit by Milwaukee Brewers pitcher, Brent Suter, and award-winning novels like Truth and Other Lies by Maggie Smith and Behind the Lens and Double Exposure by Jeannée Sacken. Nonfiction titles include Tailspin, by John Armbruster, a personal narrative about WWII aviator Gene Moran, and Christy Wopat’s memoir about infant loss and grief, Almost a Mother.

Likewise, HenschelHAUS in Milwaukee publishes some books in the traditional model, recently releasing Nunzio’s Way by Madison-area author, Nick Chiarkas, whose award-winning debut novel, Weepers, came out with the press in 2015. And when she was looking for a publisher for her middle-grade books, The Stupendous Adventures of Mighty Marty Hayes and Aisha: Scientist, Spy, Superhero, author Lora Hyler connected with HenschelHAUS. Having a relationship with the publisher helped tremendously when the author subsequently decided to write a book for younger readers, Our Bodies Stay Home, Our Imaginations Run Free: A Coronavirus Covid-19 Story for Children. Because of the timeliness of the topic, it was vital that the manuscript not get tied up in a drawn-out publishing process. She began writing in mid-April and the book debuted in July 2020, an unlikely scenario with a larger press.

While hybrid presses have the capacity and resources to produce up to 15 traditionally published books a year, micro-presses focus on only a few titles, allowing them to concentrate on work that might be harder to place in the larger traditional publishing world. Bent Paddle Press in Middleton is one of these. Bent Paddle was founded as a traditional small poetry press in 2016 by Steve and Jeanie Tomasko, publishing full-length poetry collections (40-80 pages) and chapbooks (15-30 poems). The press emphasizes design, and its high standards have paid off. Says Steve Tomasko, “I’m proud to say that out of the first six books we published, two were chosen for first place and one for second place in the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets annual poetry chapbook contest.” Though it is open to publishing authors from other places, Bent Paddle has, so far, published only Wisconsin poets.

Another micro-press with a Wisconsin focus is the Wisconsin Writers’ Association’s WWA Press, which is among the state’s oldest—and newest—presses. In 1948, the Wisconsin Rural Writers Association was founded with the mission of supporting and connecting writers across rural Wisconsin through a newsletter that informally published writers’ work. Eventually, the organization dropped “rural” from its name to expand its reach to all writers across Wisconsin, while continuing to offer programs and connections to support their writing. Over the years, the organization published anthologies in book form and prize-winning stories, poems, and essays in a literary journal, but the WWA Press was dormant for a number of years.

On the eve of the organization’s 75th anniversary, however, WWA revived its book-publishing specifically for its members’ submissions. “We publish books that have a strong Wisconsin theme and are set in Wisconsin,” says publisher Lisa Lickel. The first two offerings in the new incarnation nod to the rural roots of the organization: Gravedigger’s Daughter: Growing Up Rural by Debra Raye King and Red Road Redemption: Country Tales from the Heart of Wisconsin by Pamela Fullerton.

Education and “literary citizenship” are the cornerstones of another micro-press, Hidden Timber Books, run by Christi Craig in Wauwatosa. “As a publisher,” says Craig, “I focus on publishing your next great read but also on fostering authors to and through the publishing process. In this way, we strengthen our literary community all around.” With so many in-person author events and book festivals moving online during the pandemic, the press capitalized on its already successful online webinars and workshops and added an author series, featuring writers from other small- and micro-presses reading from their published work.

Hidden Timber Books was founded by Lisa Rivero, and its first publication was a picture book, The Adventures of a Sparrow Named Stanley, written and illustrated by two octogenarians, Betty Sydow and Carolou Lennon Nelson, who were in a writing class taught by Craig. An anthology, a short story collection, and a collection of poems followed before Rivero passed the torch to Craig, who had been working at the press as a contract editor since its inception.

In 2021, the press published its first novel, Bone Broth by Lyndsey Ellis, which according to the website, “focuses on an African-American family navigating the Midwest’s convoluted history and social landscape.” The press’s latest offering is Bebikaan-ezhiwebiziwinan Nimkii: The Adventures of Nimkii by Stacie Sheldon. It is told in both English and Ojibwemowin, a language spoken by indigenous tribes in parts of Michigan, Ontario, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Alberta. Craig is an American sign language interpreter by day, so she does not rely on the press as her sole source of income, which allows Hidden Timber to take on passion projects that might not get attention at larger publishers. This openness to emerging authors and unique projects is a thread that runs throughout the publishing landscape in Wisconsin.

So next time it’s your turn to suggest a title for your book club, consider looking at books published right here in Wisconsin. The waiting list at the library will be shorter than for the latest bestseller. Or better yet, order them from your local independent bookstore or directly from the publisher. You will be supporting local voices, practicing good literary citizenship, keeping resources right here in Wisconsin, and introducing your friends to a new world of books and writing.


Kim Suhr is Director of Red Oak Writing and author of Nothing to Lose (Cornerstone Press, 2018). She leads critique groups, teaches craft & publishing workshops, and provides manuscript critiques and coaching for individual clients.

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