Like Water to Ice, Iowa’s Ice Cube Press Transforms Books and Authors’ Lives
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Steve Semken never earned a degree in writing, business, or computer design. But 30 years after the Iowa City native started Ice Cube Press, the 57-year-old is busier than ever.
He loves making people’s dreams come true by publishing their books (including several from the Quad-Cities) but regrets the fact that he can only produce about a half-dozen volumes a year, and receives 25-plus submissions every week.
“I’ve had the good fortune of letting people trust me with their deepest thoughts and interests,” Semken said recently. “I am a publisher, but I also believe I bring people’s dream alive. Having a book published remains a vital, rewarding and meaningful moment for authors. The literary community has given me so much and I am so honored to give back. If small publishers like me can’t survive, I do think it would be a poor indication of our society. It’s not easy, but it is rewarding. There’s nothing quite like finding a new author with an idea that seems remarkable and worth sharing.”
The man with a passion for writing graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in English and history. He first moved out to Idaho, and met the woman who would become his wife for 29 years (they later divorced), and she was from Kansas.
In 1991, then 27, Semken started Ice Cube Press while living along the banks of the Kaw River in Lawrence, Kansas. He decided, why not? “In many ways it was a silly enterprise,” he recalled. “I’d tried being an organic gardener, a timber frame carpenter, a VW Bug mechanic, an old home restorer, a free-lance writer, but nothing stuck. When I’d come home from my many day jobs over the years — customer service rep at a cable company, telemarketer, sales trainer, fish packer, ad sales rep, office manager—I kept falling back to the idea of being involved in writing,” Semken said.
“One of the things that I inspired me was, I wanted to be a writer,” he said. “It seemed like a reasonable goal, back in the back in my 20s, to be a famous New York Times bestselling author.”
One chilly autumn day, pen and paper in hand, figuring out half tones and page layout, he copy and pasted (literally) together a small chapbook entitled Fillmore Grin, and soon after began a tiny magazine called Sycamore Roots, which eventually had a circulation of 500 customers, and which was really the impetus to push him on.
“I actually consider Sycamore Roots to have been the MFA I never had,” Semken said. “It was my networking ticket to authors, stores, and sharing my own writing.” A couple years later, his first glossy, trade paperback was created, River Tips and Tree Trunks, which he authored.
He called the press Ice Cube in part because water’s shape is transformed by freezing, and Semken helps transform stories and people’s lives through publishing.
In the beginning, Ice Cube Press was going to simply examine the environment and nature. From 1997-2010, Semken worked with the Iowa Arts Council and Humanities Iowa, leading the Harvest Lecture series, with a companion book series on issues of spirituality and the environment.
“I’m into fly fishing and wandering outside,” he said. “I think it’s worth pointing out to people. Like, I don’t have a writing degree. I just read a lot of Old English books. When I was in college, you learn anything about writing. I never met any real writers and I don’t have a degree in business, or computer design. And so, I’ve also never thought that I needed that. I just don’t consider myself someone that needed a business plan. I was just working and fitting it in along the way.”
Semken – who is based in North Liberty, Iowa (north of Iowa City) — originally started Ice Cube Press to focus on how to live with the natural world and to better understand how people can best live together in the communities they share.
The mission is “Using the literary arts to better understand how we can best live in the Midwestern heartland.” It’s not just about Iowa, although lots of people think that, he said, closing in on having published nearly 200 books – on a wide variety of subjects, poetry, fiction, nonfiction and graphic novels. “It’s crazy to think I started without the internet, without email, Facebook, or a webpage,” Semken said. “I would go to the local library and take notes about bookstores from a hardback copy of Literary Market Place.”
“I have this base of being interested in environment and the natural world, and how we can sort of use that to our advantage. And if someone randomly sends me, something like that. I’m more inclined to explore that more,” he said. “What people submit to you as their writing is really important to them,” Semken said. “They go to work to feed their family or kids or whatever it is they have going on, then they write these books that consume their life and then they share them with me, hoping that all will accept them. And then, of course, I have to say no to literally 25 to 50 a week. But on the other hand, I finally pick someone, and I do try and pick people that I enjoy, and I work with and do things that I think they seem inspired by as well.”
In 2001, Ice Cube Press became his full-time job, and by 2006, Semken increased the production of numbers of books created from 2-3 to 5-6 a year. Among authors he’s published are Mary Swander, Jim Heynen, Mary Pipher, Bill Holm, Connie Mutel, John T. Price, Carol Bly, Marvin Bell, Debra Marquart, Ted Kooser, Stephanie Mills, and Bill McKibben.
“I want the author to be proud of the book I publish — after all, their name is on the cover,” he said. “I’ve watched publishers, bookstores, distributors, and media members come and go. I remember using the Bookman out of the Twin Cities, and listing a book for sale on this odd website I discovered in 1995 called Amazon. There have been so many book fairs, readings, and authors I’ve admired and cherish. I’ve been both lucky and hard at work.”
One writer he really likes is Port Byron poet Salvatore Marici, and Ice Cube has published all four of his books, including his latest collection, “Sneezing Coyotes.”
“I just feel like poetry deserves more of their personality than other genres. I don’t know what it is. But he’s one of those people. I’ll do every book he ever sent,” Semken said. “It’s irrelevant, whether someone thinks he’s talented or not. I don’t think that’s really the point. And the point is he found something and I am able to make that happen. I met him, and I just thought he really, really seems to put his heart and soul into this and I don’t know what else you can ask for.”
Two popular Kinnick-related books
Mark Wilson is the Iowa City author of 2018’s “The Way of Nile C. Kinnick, Jr.,” about the legendary University of Iowa Heisman Trophy winner (1918-1943), for whom the football stadium is named.
After 10 years of research, writing, and editing the book, Wilson shared a draft with a friend, a vice president for the U of I Center for Advancement, explaining he wanted to give royalties from the book to help fund six Nile Kinnick scholarships. Another friend told Wilson about Semken, who might be interested in publishing the book.
“I couldn’t have been more pleased when Ice Cube Press came on board,” Wilson said recently. “It was very easy and comfortable to work with Steve. We shared ideas and were able to compromise on decisions that had to be made. The process was great, and he offered creative and thoughtful ideas.
“He even challenged me to write four stories to supplement the 366 memorable quotes from Kinnick’s letters, diaries, journals, essays and speeches. Nile’s insights were about the topics and issues from that era, so connecting my experiences to Nile’s insights was a brilliant idea on Steve’s part. The chapters were meant to inform the reader about the fascination and admiration I have for Kinnick.
The best part about the process was Wilson and Semken’s back-and-forth communication and attention to the book’s timeline.
“We kept each other on track and produced a quality book which was selected as a top three finalist for book of the year in 2019 by the Midwest Independent Publishing Association,” Wilson said with pride.
“Steve is a true professional, intuitive, and a hard worker,” he said. “His philosophy is to focus on how to live with the natural world and to better understand how people can best live together in the communities they share and inhabit.”
“Reflecting back, I wouldn’t change a thing,” Wilson said. “I especially am proud of the thought and time Steve and I gave to making the cover appealing and true to Hawkeye colors. When ‘The Way of Nile Kinnick, Jr.’ was released on Nile Kinnick Day at Kinnick Stadium in 2018, my daughter, Alissa Hansel said, ‘Dad, this is a book that you can put on the coffee table and it will never collect dust.’
“It’s a book that you don’t have to read from the beginning to the end. You can open it to any section, read a page or two, enjoy several of Nile’s insights and learn something about him that you never knew,” he said. “Most thrilling were the endorsements written on the back cover of the book,” including from the late Iowa Coach Hayden Fry. Kirk Ferentz, Willard “Sandy” Boyd, former UI president, C.W. “Bump” Elliot, athletic director for Iowa, Christine Grant, women’s athletic director, Gary Dolphin, Ed Podolak, Chuck Long, and Colonel Robert Stein “had wonderful comments about the book as well as many who have reached out to me with positive reactions,” Wilson said.
Jeff Hoskins of Rock Island had a very personal story to tell about his family, with a strong connection to University of Iowa and Kinnick Stadium. When he and his wife Renae adopted their adorable little girl from China in early 2008, they had no idea that eight years later, Ava and her family would be plunged into an unimaginable bout with a rare, advanced childhood cancer.
Now 14 in her freshman year at Jeff’s alma mater, Alleman High School in Rock Island, Ava is in remission and wrote an introduction to Hoskins’ memoir of their extraordinary experiences – “From Cancer to Kinnick: Love Finds a Wave,” released Sept. 3, 2021 by Ice Cube Press. Proceeds from its sales go back to support the UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital, next to Kinnick Stadium.
“I don’t know why I actually read more of the submission than I normally would. And I thought this guy is doing everything right somehow,” Semken recalled about first seeing that book. “Like, he really cares about his daughter and he really cares about the world. He’s trying to do a great thing. I mean, he’s trying to improve the world.
“He’s not striving to be an author like something most of the people I guess,” he said of Hoskins. “He just wanted to tell this one particular story about his daughter and for some reason I just thought, okay. I’m going to do that. My stepdaughter is really into Dance Marathon, and I kind of mentioned it to her. Like, oh man, I just got this really amazing book.”
“I just felt like people kept saying, I should share this story,” Semken said, noting the author didn’t care how many copies it sold. “He’s just like, I’m glad anybody bought it. So that’s very even-keeled about. That’s one of those where I just feel like I did something that I am happy that I made that decision. And in fact, that’s what I mean by trusting what I pick and I just felt like that was the right book to do for the right person. And I just emailed him. I said, yeah, I’d love to do it. It’s not going to
be going to sell 15,000 copies but it is going to be worth having that story out in the world.”
Hoskins said recently that since his book was heavily about Iowa Hawkeyes, he initially submitted it to the University of Iowa Press. “They informed me their books are more academic focused, but recommended I contact Ice Cube Press and give them a try,” he recalled.
“Steve is a pleasure to work with. He made the process manageable and always sought my input which, as a new author, was surprising to me,” Hoskins said. “Steve is very down-to-earth and has a great sense of humor. He is also passionate about helping authors. ICP fills a much needed niche in the writing industry and I thank Steve for dedicating himself to filling that need.”
“Thanks to Steve’s help, it turned out better than I imagined,” he said. “He provided great feedback that really made a difference. So far I’ve heard nothing but great things about the book and it has a 5-star rating on Amazon. I received a letter just this week from a man who is a Vietnam veteran and retired firefighter. He said the book helped him better understand the suffering he has seen throughout his life.”
How to best promote books
Just getting books in stores and having them online will not automatically result in sales, Semken said. It takes hard work marketing, through social media, word of mouth and in-person promotion.
“I’ve talked to so many authors and writers, and publishers. Well, you have to ask people to buy your books,” he said. “They’re not just going to actually show up and get them.”
“I’m not embarrassed to ask people to buy products. But, you know, if you go to any concert or any reading, authors are always so embarrassed to be like, Oh, I’m going to do some shameless marketing,” Semken said. “Now I’m going to have books for sale afterwards and like of course, I have a books for sale afterwards. That’s the whole point of it.”
“I don’t think I’m pushy, but I think that there’s a certain persistence that you have to have to make,” he said. “It’s not just about publishing. It’s about anything that people really want to have happen for them. And apparently it’s always been important enough to me to not sort of look back and wished I tried some other things.”
“You’re never going to be satisfied with your sales. It’s never going to happen,” Semken said. “If there are people at your readings, you’re never going to feel like you’ve got enough coverage and respect because I don’t know where that comes from. It must come from movies or something.”
Even if there are just a handful of people at a book signing or reading, that’s OK, since one time in Des Moines he recalled three people showed up, but one was a member of a book club with over 50 people, and another was friends with a Register reporter, who got the author valuable coverage. That resulted in at least 66 copies sold, Semken said.
“It’s a non-stop game of sales and that’s why I’ve always known that bookstores are kind of the worst place to sell books,” he said. “You’re competing with hundreds and thousands of books. And so, I’ve always recommended authors do house parties, or they go to Rotary clubs, where they go to anything other than a bookstore reading, ‘cause that’s the least profitable way to do it.”
What the future holds
As he enters his 31st year of publishing, Semken is excited about some new ideas. One is something an Ice Cube Press author, Zachary Jack (from Oxford Junction, Iowa), suggested during a breakfast they had together a few years ago — a CSL, to start a Community Supported Literature program similar to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in farming.
“I see a need to add this to the press in the next year,” Semken said. “It would be a really cool way to offer some unique benefits to members of the press community—one-of-a-kind essays, poems, alternative covers, early release of books, author talks, YouTube videos, Zoom consultations, and more.”
When pressed for other big ideas, Semken didn’t balk at a GoFundMe, perhaps to fund a part-time employee, allow some funds for more advanced design ideas, a little updated equipment. He has had interns in the past, and pays a distributor and sales rep that work with many publishers, but he has no employees. Like other global supply-chain challenges, everything now in printing “is so far behind because there’s honest-to-god paper shortages,” Semken said.
“I love all parts of publishing, but what I didn’t take into consideration was that the longer and more successful you become, the more work there is. It’s a compliment or course, the better you get at something the more people want to be part of what you do,” he said, noting he also consults with authors on an hourly basis.
“I’m getting more and more over time because more and more people know about me” Semken said. “And I will say that the quality of writers is better than it used to be. I’m not going to worry about the sales on some people. I’m just going to keep them going because it seems like they really changes their lives and then on the other hand, some of them come in and I think I can’t believe they trusted me with this.
“I only do like five or six books a year and sometimes seven. But I really can’t do many,” he said. “I am overworked. Now I was counting what I’ve already accepted 20 books. I’ve already accepted through 2024 right now, which is means I’m going to be kicking some ass.”
Semken is a little surprised that in recent years, his authors are better known and their writings more polished. “I’m getting a luxury of getting books that are not requiring nearly as much editing as they used to,” he said. “And I think it’s just an issue, t a longevity thing and word-of-mouth. Really, I’m kind of the only option.” “I feel strange because I feel like a dinosaur. People must point out that guy, he’s been around forever,” he said. “But I don’t feel like that at all. I feel like I’m just getting started.”
“When I compare 1991 with 2021, honestly, there are now so many submissions, so many good authors and ideas and not enough time,” Semken said. He knows books will survive—people love stories and stories aren’t going anywhere.
“I’ve learned that besides family, work, and health, what authors trust me with are their sincerest hopes and dreams. It’s an honor,” he said. “I still feel young, but I guess I’ve become one of the old-timers I used to look at admiringly so many years ago. Which is weird because although new is flashy, it’s harder to achieve longevity. Many people consider the ‘arts’ an alternative field. Well, I can think of nothing more alternative than still going after 30 years, that’s unique and rare.”
“I’m an example of what passion and hard work can achieve,” Semken said. “I’m so excited to see what the next years bring. I’m looking forward to trying out my CSL-Patreon idea, finding new authors, and continuing to improve our book designs. And, it almost goes without saying, I’m incredibly grateful for the support the literary community has shown me all these years. No one does this alone.”
For more information, visit icecubepress.com.