Local publisher spotlight: Ice Cube Press

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Steve Semken founded Ice Cube Press in 1991, when he was living in Lawrence, Kansas.

“I’d been working a series of jobs I hadn’t anticipated, like most of us need to do,” Semken said in an email, “and it was during a break at work that I wandered into the nearby Indie bookstore, picked up a copy of a Wendell Berry book and, for whatever reason, my creative juices started to flow once again. I started writing, looking into what it might mean to publish, and began a small magazine, Sycamore Roots, which then led to publishing books.”

Over the nearly three decades since, the press has grown dramatically. And the way publishers interact with the world has changed, too.

“It’s hard to believe but when I started the press I didn’t even have an email address,” Semken said. “Now I’m trying to figure out what the next phase of social media will bring.”

There are more than 80 titles in the online store — the most recent is a collection of essays from Zachary Michael Jack called Country Views. Like many of the releases from Ice Cube Press, it touches on environmental themes.

“Sometimes when I do book festivals and have the chance to talk about the books to people I am amazed at how much I have to share,” Semken said. “They are parts of better understanding the Midwest, but also items unto themselves. I can hear the author talking, and feel proud knowing what has been brought to the world.”

A deep connection to the Midwest is one of the driving forces in Ice Cube Press’s mission. It took Semken a while to pin down just where his new press would fit into the publishing landscape, but he eventually landed on “figuring out how to give a voice to, and honoring, the literary arts as a way to better understand how we can best live in the Midwest.” He’s been highlighting books with that theme ever since.

There’s a quote from poet and essayist Jim Harrison that Semken points to as something he leaned on in the early days of Ice Cube that remains a driving force in his editorial philosophy: “It only gradually occurred to me that it’s not people’s problems that interest me, but their solutions to their problems.” To that end, he is continually seeking out new authors to represent and finding new ways to engage with the community. Semken has helped kick off two imprints of Ice Cube Press so far: Tall Corn Books and Maintenance Ends.

“People crave stories, and people want to write. The main thing to remember is to be a good member of the literary community,” Semken advises readers and writers alike. “That is: Do for other’s books what you’d like them to do for you. Go on over to your local indie bookstore and buy a locally published book about a topic of local interest and in doing so, expand your world.”

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 274.

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