Brain Hacks For Authors (From a Publisher’s Perspective)- An Exclusive Interview with Publisher Steve Semken

by Dave Farrow
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Technology and online marketplaces like Amazon have made it easier than ever for writers to put their work out into the world. Although we are amidst the self-publishing revolution, traditional publishing still reigns supreme and is the ultimate goal for many authors. While there are certainly pros and cons to each style of publishing, the traditional route undoubtedly gives authors and their books greater visibility and reach. It offers legitimacy and credibility – not to mention, a team of professionals dedicated to making your book a success. It comes then as no surprise why getting a book deal with a publisher is so challenging. 

As the founder and CEO of Ice Cube Press, Steve Semken and his team receive hundreds of manuscripts from hopeful authors each year. Brainhackers sat down with Semken to understand exactly how he chooses which authors to work with and which manuscripts to publish. 

The following 5 tips offer insight into the process:

1: First Impressions are Important 

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It might sound obvious, but proofread your writing before submitting it to a publisher. Attention to detail is key. Many authors send manuscripts with easily fixable, careless mistakes like typos, errors in grammar and punctuation, poor formatting, or even misspelling the press name! Although these are minor issues, first impressions matter. Publishers receive and read through so many manuscripts each day, you don’t want anything to divert their attention from your writing. Poor editing can get your great story rejected before they can even see how great it actually is. Submitting a clean, well-formatted manuscript that is proofread and error-free will help you make a great first impression with a publisher.


2: Write with Passion

Publishers love to see signs of enthusiasm and excitement. When authors are passionate about their writing, it definitely shows. From a publisher’s perspective, passion is a huge factor because it often means that the author will have a better chance of gaining attention and attracting readers. Publishers often ask authors about their motivations for writing. How you answer and how much passion you carry with your answer will heavily influence whether or not publishers will be interested in you. Semken says, “If I can’t stop you from going on and on about your story and what you hope will happen after your book comes out, that is a great sign.”

3: Creativity & Originality is Key

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Semken likes to remind authors that the biggest compliment on their writing is where they fit in with a tradition. Most people aren’t reinventing the wheel, but moving a tradition along an inch. Still, publishers are drawn to writing that is original and unique. Most writers inherently have a knack for creativity but it is a talent that can be developed and refined. According to Semken, it’s harder to find good ideas than it is to find well-punctuated sentences. One takes passion and insight, the other is caring enough to make your brilliance shine. Sometimes, even if an author’s writing-quality is flawed, if the core story is substantial and interesting, he will spend time working on it. 

4: Be Bold, Put Yourself Out There, &  Go to Writing Events 

The process of writing does not require interpersonal interaction, but the process of sharing your work with the world does. You need to take risks and put yourself out there, without the fear of failure. Face-to-face interaction can help when building relationships with publishers. One of the most common places to build these relationships is at literary events (like writing conferences, writing clubs, book readings, etc.) In fact, most of the books Semken publishes today are from authors he meets in one way or another.  Semken encourages authors to get out and initiate conversations with publishers. “I don’t mind if people come up to me. My job is to look for good books. I’m open to almost anything because that’s how I discover new ideas,” says Semken who adds, “but remember, we already have lots of good books we’re working on and only so much time. Randomly showing up at the doorstep is a no-no. Calling to pitch a book over and over doesn’t work. Even if I say I’m interested it doesn’t mean I’ve said yes. I still need proof you can write.”

5: Enjoy the Process of Writing & Avoid Burnout 


It’s easy to lose yourself in the writing process and fall out of love with the very thing that once brought you so much joy. Many authors burnout by focusing too much on publishing instead of on creating content. Frustration is an inevitable part of the writing process but how you deal with it is important. Finding healthy ways to combat and avoid writing burnout will make you a more productive and creative writer and it is crucial for the longevity of your career. Semken tells authors not to focus on rejection, but on finding the one person that will accept you. If you imagine 1 of out 100 will say yes, don’t spend too much time focused on the 99. The goal of publishing is important but at the end of the day, writing should be an author’s primary objective. So many people will give you so many good ideas and things to try, you’ll never keep up. Enjoy the whole process. It’s like a run, pace yourself. You can only go as fast as you can keep going. Look for ways to hear the other side of things. Write on.


Steve Semken founded the Ice Cube Press in 1991 as a way to use the literary arts to better understand how we can best live in the Midwest. Since then he has published the work of hundreds of authors of both regional and national acclaim including Woman and the Land; Brother’s Blood; Clubfoot, and The Way of Nile C. Kinnick Jr. He speaks and teaches throughout the Midwest on issues of creativity, entrepreneurship, writing, and publishing. In addition, he is the author of six books, most recently The Great Blues/Soul External: Rediscovering the Great Blue Heron which won a Kansas Book Award, as well as a novella, Pick Up Stick City: Restoration Fiction which Publishers’ Weekly called “funny, poignant and more than a bit whimsical, this allegorical tale of small-town and environmental care is suffused with wonder.” He has also been a writer-in-residence at the Island Institute in Sitka, Alaska. He was awarded the 2018 eastern Iowa Larry Eckholt Award for arts advocacy in the Cultural Corridor.


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