Check out this recent article on Ice Cube Press owner, entrepreneur, publisher Steve Semken
Article below by Mike Kilen, Des Moines Register, State Edition
The subject is usually food when Iowans discuss buying local.
“My idea of local,” counters Steve Semken, “is reading a book by someone where you live.”
Semken, the genial North Liberty publisher of Ice Cube Press, (which is celebrating its 20th anniversary) rarely comes across as self-serving. After all, he scratches out a living by publishing about a half-dozen Midwest books a year. All this in an era when readers face a high-volume, low-quality assault of words in desperate pleas for eyeballs. If he doesn’t sell this year’s titles, he can’t publish next year’s. It’s simple. Somehow he makes it work.
By believing in books
Semken, 49, could have soured on literature. He wasn’t admitted to competitive university writing programs, so he worked as a fish packer and then as a customer service rep for a cable company. Eventually, he started his own small press — and continued to do other jobs for the first nine years as he got it up and running.
“I read for countless reasons,” he said. “To learn about other people and myself. To be entertained. To learn how to fix my bike. A society not passing along stories isn’t learning. Writers put a lot of effort into it. It’s not a random collection of tweets.
“I see publishing as a storytelling industry. That (industry) is not going anywhere. People are addicted to what other people do or think.”
OK, but can’t they Google it?
“When you see someone quoted, it’s usually an author of a new book. That’s what establishes experts. I still think people putting ideas together and collecting them into a book is essential, not so-and-so who did his 10,000th tweet.”
Believing in Iowa
There is a long tradition of writing here, he said, and most Iowans don’t know that it goes beyond the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It’s the Iowa undersell.
“People spend so much time wanting to live somewhere else and to do great things somewhere else,” he said. “Real things happen in New York or Europe, parents tell their kids. The kids then look at their parents as if they haven’t done something amazing because they are still in Iowa. It’s sort of embarrassing to hear people talk like that.
“So it’s what I like to find — people who have made perfectly fantastic lives here. The Midwest is rich with history, with coming-of-age stories, with food.”
He has published books on Iowa’s great river borders (“River East, River West,” 2006), on finding rural love (“What Cheer: A Love Story,” 2010) and about horrible current events, such as the story of 11 migrants who were trapped and died inside a locked train car, left there by smugglers (“Train To Nowhere,” 2011), all by Iowa authors.
He was astonished when he found that one of his books led to emotional discussions at book readings. Scott Cawelti’s 2011 “Brother’s Blood,” about a 1975 execution-style murder in Cedar Falls, has been Semken’s best-seller with four printings and several thousand copies sold, good for a small press.
He was also heartened that readers reached beyond sensational events and championed literary fiction, such as the collection of short stories set in rural Iowa by Grinnell’s Harley McIlrath, which became Semken’s second-best-selling book (“Possum Trot”).
He hears his daughter and her friends talking about leaving Iowa to make a difference or to make more money.
“I like proving you can do what you want right here in Iowa,” he said. “Granted, I’m not a millionaire. But sharing books and meeting people who write them is way more interesting to me.”
Believing in the value of an editor
We’re awash in mediocrity. Watch reality TV and better dancers or singers can be voted off a show because viewers favored inferior talents with more “personality.” Tumbling YouTube cats are online heavy-hitters and hundreds of lame books are self-published each week, simply because they can be.
The democratization of content often feels like no one is minding the store.
“Just about everywhere I go people tell me, ‘I’ve always wanted to write a book.’ It seems like everyone does have a story. I tell them it’s worth doing, to tell your story, and to pass it along to your kids,” he said. “I do help people put it in book form so they can give it to their family.”
But his job as a publisher at Ice Cube Press is to help the readers.
He picks what they should spend their time reading, a quality that transcends self-published family keepsakes.
Content gatekeeping by traditional publishers is not dead, even if self-publishing has lost its stigma. In fact, three of six winners in last year’s National Book Critics Circle contest were from small presses like Semken’s.
With a small press, Semken can work closely with authors on everything from typeface to cover design and publicity.
“Steve makes us feel like we ‘own’ more of a book than just the words,” said Iowa City author Larry Baker, whose “Love and Other Delusions” and “A Good Man” were published by Ice Cube.
“I’m like a dream enabler,” Semken said. “I want what the writer wants to happen. I ask them, ‘Where do you want to do a reading? Alright, I’m going to make it happen.’ ”
He’s convinced that a younger generation has screen fatigue and still loves to hold a book. Although he does sell e-books, the value of years later discovering what you underlined or an old grocery list stuffed in a book is still priceless. Younger readers also understand that sometimes they need help in their quest to find what is local and good.
After publishing nearly 70 titles, Semken still recalls the words of Iowa singer/songwriter Greg Brown on how he made his small record company work: “I just trust what I like.”
“Publishing doesn’t have to do with money,” Semken said. “It’s meeting new people with good stories to tell.”