Edited by Naomi Rosenblatt of Heliotrope Books, our second indie press interview features Ice Cube Press of the Midwest. Thanks to publisher Steven Semken for his thoughtful responses to our questions.
What motivated you to start an indie press?
At some point in my life it became clear I wasn’t going to be someone who attended college to get a writing degree, which for a year or two I thought you needed to in order to be a “real” writer. Someday, during some random break during work I decided no matter what the obstacles I would become a writer and part of the “writing” world. Within months I’d started a newsletter and within a year I’d shared lots of my writing and embarked my life as a book publisher. I’d started many a “whim”, and I suspect like most indie press publishers I was not really confident that I’d still be doing this 25 years later, but as I like to say sometimes: “Without an MFA in writing, without a degree in marketing, business, websites, adobe software, computers, social media, etc etc I have managed to create a full-fledged publishing company.” It turns out I like writing and all that being an entrepreneur involves.
How would you describe your mission and has it changed over your years of operation?
I am dedicated to using the literary arts to better understand how we can best live in the Midwest. My understanding of how and what the Midwest is has developed over time, of course, which definitely makes my original mission seem to change from the outside. At first I believed I would be mostly an environmental publisher because that’s what I first believed (or wanted) the heart of the heartland to be, you know seasons, snows, weather and the like. However, the beauty of being an entrepreneur is you learn to trust what you like, so sometimes I publish a book that seems outside my mission, but the press is a reflection of who I am and my interests vary, but in the end, I rarely stray much from my Midwest passions.
What kinds of books are your specialties, which, of your titles, might be the “quintessence” of your offerings?
That’s a hard question, I am especially happy with Fracture and Schoolhouse recently. They each explore a combination of place and nature: examining the heart and soul of what caring about the environment can mean. I’ve always believed in a saying I read once, “The environmental crisis is a crisis of the soul.” I appreciate humor and social issues, I have a terrific poetry book coming out entitled The Swagger of Dorothy and Other Filthy Ways to Strut. I mean, new takes on the Wizard of Oz is something I’m always going to embrace.
Other than marketing, the great hurdle for any publisher today, what are your greatest challenges?
One of the biggest challenges is the irony of being an independent business, of being an entrepreneur, a solopreneur. So many people claim they value independent entrepreneurs, and cherish the whole “local” thing, but then they seem to lose sight of what this really means. I am an independent, small publisher, my goal isn’t to be a mini-big business. Indie stores like to use “national” warehouses, to deal with a type of larger system they claim to deplore. Or local media: they seem to want to cover national news when the very advantage they have is the “local.” Finally, people simply need to buy books (shop local, etc.), this is the single most valuable thing you can do to support an indie press. You can’t be an author and expect other authors to buy your book if you haven’t purchased theirs. Little things help: sure, liking our posts on social media is nice, but it REALLY helps to share. Somewhere, at the root all this publishing remains the fact we each do this in hopes we will make money. Enough money that we can continue to publish more books.
What brings you the most delight and satisfaction?
I really love to find a new author and to work with them to bring their dream to book form. I understand that a person’s book is important to them, that they are trusting their ideas to me as publisher and I take satisfaction in this. As well, just figuring out how to straddle all the skills it takes to be a one-person operation: book design, editing, marketing, websites, social media, getting book endorsements, finding places for reviews, so many intriguing ways to engage in the world truly make each day exciting.
Marc Nieson, author Schoolhouse: Lessons on Love and Landscape
I’d always envisioned a small, indie IOWA press for my memoir Schoolhouse, since
that’s where the book is primarily set. My answer would’ve been the same if you asked
why a small, indie press rather than a large commercial press, too. In short, Ice Cube Press
was a perfect match — in terms of geography, intimacy, and integrity.
What are the strengths and shortcomings of working with a small press?
I can only respond to half this question, because thus far I’ve seen no shortcomings to working with
Steven Semken at Ice Cube Press. I was looking for a publisher with whom I could collaborate on the process, and Steve has proven open to all suggestions and ideas, from design through marketing. We send emails to one another almost daily. Above all, I feel like I’m not only in caring professional hands, but sharing in an ideal. Ice Cube Press’ specific mission, and Steve’s tireless optimism and personalized efforts aren’t something you’d find with a large press.
Taylor Brorby, author/editor Fracture, Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking In American
In the line of work I do ,teaching; self-publishing isn’t an option. As a writer and educator, there are a series of steps one must go through to prove that their work can stand up in the writing market–is it a valuable contribution to the reading public? Does it highlight social concerns? Does it find its niche amongst a sea of books? Choosing an independent press helps create a relationship between writer, publisher, reader, and editor that can’t be replicated by large presses or self-publishing.
Q: What are the strengths and shortcomings of working with a small press?
Small presses allow the writer greater involvement in each stage of the book’s development process–cover design, publicity, book award nominations, travel. This can also be a shortcoming as, if a writer does not have any of these skills, she might find herself frustrated by the amount of self-promotion needed to help make the book succeed.