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Reflecting on 20 years of books

Local publisher Semken celebrates landmark year in business
Steve Semken, publisher of Ice Cube Press. (submitted photo)

NORTH LIBERTY– Twenty years ago, if you had asked North Liberty publisher Steve Semken, founder of the Ice Cube Press, what he thought of the idea to start a publishing company one cold, rainy, evening in November 1993, along the Kaw River in North Lawrence, Kan., he would have told you, straight-faced and without pause, “Nothing.”
Ask him this same question today and he will still start out by saying, “nothing.” But after this he will laugh a bit and add, “Seriously, I would have said, ‘nothing.’ I had a track record of trying things and starting things, but not being able to finish anything. There was no reason to believe this Ice Cube writing thing would be any different.”
What was different for Semken this time?
“It latched on I think because deep down, I cared about writing,” Semken said. “I had been trying my hand at writing modern day myths, poetry collections, and short stories for a few years. It became clear to me I wasn’t going to enroll in an MFA writing program, I wasn’t going to be able to craft an instant best-selling novel, couldn’t just quit my job, but I still wanted to do something. I guess you could say I got started because I was at a loss for what else to do.”
At the time, Semken was 28 years old, working in a cubicle and didn’t know what else to try, he said.
“I told myself I wanted to start a small journal with my writing in it and see what might happen. I can’t say that my life was so bad; I wasn’t desperate, or terribly unhappy, it’s just that for whatever reason I had always envisioned myself being an author when I grew up. However, instead of writing, I was involved in sales, doing a little bit of business training and customer service. I wanted to be involved in what I really cared about in some way.”
Spending most of his worktime breaks at a local bookstore, dreaming of writing and working with words, Semken took the plunge into the literary unknown.
“I read about newsletters, about ISSN numbers, about how to attract subscribers. I went to the print shops and talked with them about half tones and page layout, took paper to the post office and had it weighed to see how much you could send with a single stamp,” he said. One of his rules for business is still to go slow, to send ripples out.
While the publishing industry has dramatically changed during the past 20 years, with the increased popularity of ebooks, print-on-demand, and self-publishing, Semken thinks the traditional route will always have a role in the publishing industry. As a publisher, his number one focus is to find the best stories by inspired authors.
“To me, publishing is a story telling business, and the human race will always be addicted to stories.”
Learn more about Ice Cube Press at www.icecubepress.com.