One-man shop publishes books from the Midwest

from the Gazette, January 18, 2012, Business 380, MyBiz by Rebecca Groff, correspondent


NORTH LIBERTY — It’s not unusual for Steve Semken to find rap songs recorded on his answering machine.

“I guess people find Ice Cube Press out on the Internet and think I’m the famous rapper,” laughed Semken, whose independent publishing company has been in existence since 1993.

The formula for becoming a publisher might look like something like this.

A young man with a love of literature and a dream to be a writer goes to college. He earns an English and a history degree, then adds a graduate degree in English education for junior high and high school levels.

But teaching doesn’t cut it for him, so he enters the work world and finds himself working in customer service — and one day he’s training people in sales.

“Telemarketing sales,” he says, “which I’m a little embarrassed to admit because I’m sure everyone hated me.”

Buy this photo

IceCube Press Publisher Steve Semken packs up books for shipping at his home office in North Liberty. (Brian Ray/ The Gazette)

But this somewhat unusual path was excellent training ground for entering the book business, which requires skilled sales.

“There is sort of a distance between writers and creativity and business,” he says, “but I guess I’ve been lucky to learn it all from the bottom.”

Ice Cube Press sells up to 20,000 books a year.

The name for the company came from a short fiction story he’d written.

“In the story there was a place called the Ice Cube Café,” Semken recalled.

He said the story came about at the same time he was getting ready to launch his writing newsletter, Sycamore Roots, in which he shared his writings, interests and book reviews. Subscriptions kept on, pages were added and the company’s first book came out in 1996 — Semken the writer became a working publisher.

He handles every facet of the business, from reading manuscript submissions, working through edits and cover creation, setting up book readings and arranging media events for Ice Cube Press’s authors.

Semken contacts bookstores around the country to set up markets for his finished products.

“We hand-wrap each order, write thank-you notes, drink coffee and talk about our book projects with our authors,” he added.

It was only last year that he started using someone to help him with his website and enlisted distributors to assist him with taking book orders — “so I don’t have to be on the phone 24 hours a day.”

In 2011 he published 9 books.

“That’s just ridiculous for one person. I’m planning to do 6 books for 2012,” he added, noting that he’ll be doing his first young-adult novel this year.

“It’s a story about the orphan trains in the late 1800s that carried children out from New York to the Midwest. The author has written a really entertaining, but historically accurate book.”