116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Ice Cube Press’s 30th year kind of sneaked up on its proprietor, Steve Semken.
“It is really strange to think about,” Semken said one morning this past week. “Who’s going to give me my watch? Oh, yeah, I have to do it myself.”
Semken, 57, was just in his mid-20s with a degree in English and history from the University of Iowa when he became a publisher.
“I was really kind of jumping around,” he said. “I was working at a cable company in Lawrence, Kan., and I never really knew what I was going to do. I was kind of on something every couple of months.”
No matter the day job, when he came home from work, Semken wrote.
“I kept writing and writing, and I thought, ‘I really want to stay with writing,’” he said.
So in 1991, Semken published his own work as a chapbook, a small paperback of about 40 pages. About 18 months later, he launched a magazine, Sycamore Roots, that lasted about three years.
“I called that the MFA (master of fine arts degree) I never got,” he said. “I wanted to be a famous New York Times-bestselling writer, but I figured out that was never going to happen.
“But I found I loved laying out the newsletter. It was just learning how to meet real writers and learn about the reality of being a book publisher and an author, and that’s what I wanted to know.”
Semken pored over the Literary Marketplace, a directory for writers, publishers and book sellers, at the local library.
“It was kind of like the Yellow Pages,” he recalled. “I’d go home and I’d write those people.
“You’d figure out who were the writers you really liked, and how to get in touch with them. You really have to dig in, and I’m still doing that to this day.”
Ice Cube’s first book in 1995 was “River Tips and Tree Trunks,” a collection of Semken’s own essays and short stories. He listed the book on an online site he’d heard about — Amazon.com, then just a year old.
By 1999, Semken was working with Humanities Iowa and the Iowa Arts Council on an annual lecture tour covering the state’s natural environment and resources, with an accompanying book.
“I was really overwhelmed,” he said. “I started getting more submissions than I could take.”
The part-time pursuit became full-time in 2001-02 when Semken resigned his last day job as an office manager for Lutheran Campus Ministry.
“I’ve never really disliked any job I’ve had,” he said. “I think part of the reason is because I’ve always known I was going to do something like what I’m doing now.”
Ice Cube Press lists dozens of titles still in print, including some of its earliest. Changes in the printing industry enable shorter press runs, allowing Semken to keep older titles in circulation.
“There was no such thing as print-on-demand when I started,” he said. “About 2001, I had a book I thought was good but there’s no way I’m going to sell that many of them. That’s half of what I do now, at least — short runs and print on demand.
“The ability to control how many books you’re going to print at a time has just been amazing.”
Ice Cube’s titles include a range of styles and genres, but its focus remains regional.
“My mission is to use the literary arts to better understand how we can best live in the Midwest,” Semken said. “That can be poetry, biography, graphic novels — it’s the works.
“I do stray from that from time to time, but that’s the heart of what I do. There’s definitely and amazing amount of interest in it.”
Semken remains his sole full-time employee.
“I have some readers that help me with editing, and I have a sales guy who helps me in Chicago,” he said. “But everyone’s just commission.”
Owner: Steve Semken
With titles on his schedule through 2023, Semken doesn’t worry about finding new projects. He fields four or five “really good” submissions each week.
“More people trust you, and I’m getting better projects,” he said. “Lucky for me, at this point I can choose people whose books are pretty much ready to go, or close to it.”
Last year’s COVID-19 shutdown may be a factor in continued submissions.
“It’s one of those strange things about the pandemic,” he said. “Everyone kept saying, ‘It must be a great time to read.’ What was happening was, everyone finally got a chance to write. It hasn’t slowed down a lot.”
Semken’s never taken out a business loan, and he’s never had a strict business plan, although he’s taken some managerial courses at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business.
“I don’t have a state grant and I don’t have university funding, so it’s just been me, with a rudimentary understanding of business in some ways,” he said. “But in other ways, it’s not rudimentary at all.
“I’ve been amazed, watching other literary enterprises come along, and they’re just unwilling to ask people to buy things. What you have to do is, find out what they’re looking for.”
And there still are plenty of great books yet to be published.
“At first, I didn’t take people’s submissions as seriously as I should have,” Semken said. “Now that I realize how much time and energy goes into writing a book, after a person’s family or their health or their work, the thing that they send to me is usually the thing that they’ve put so much energy in. It’s their dream and their passion, and I started realizing that ... .
“I really do work with peoples’ passions and sincerity and dreams, and it does kind of keep me in my place.”
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