Black Lawrence Press Celebrates 20 Years in Mount Vernon

The Mount Vernon-based small publishing house marks a major milestone as it continues to look ahead with meaningful initiatives.

Diane Goettel, Black Lawrence Press’s executive editor, houses up to 10,000 of the press’s books in her Westchester home. Within the house’s brick facade is Goettel’s office, the very heart of Black Lawrence Press. Walls are lined with shelves of its books, relics of the publishing house’s triumphant journey. Black Lawrence Press, founded in 2004, celebrates 20 years this year as Westchester’s most prominent independent publishing house.

In 2005, after only a year in business, Black Lawrence Press published its first book. And has been continuing to grow ever since. It started small; two or three books a year at first, then three to five, and slowly Black Lawrence Press began to make a name for itself—not just in New York but nationally—as a distinguished independent publishing house. It now publishes 24-30 books a year, placing it in some of the highest numbers of books published for a small publishing house of its size.

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Of course, that does not mean that Black Lawrence Press is exempt from the issues that plague all small publishing houses in America when it comes to competing with the big five publishing houses: Penguin/Random House, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, and Macmillan. But it is in the tradition of successful small businesses that owner Goettel and her staff persevere against the threat of larger companies and work hard to make themselves known as a notable publishing house to support and submit to.

The existence of small publishing houses not only benefits a reader who aims to expand their literary horizons, but also supports writers whose dreams are to get published without compromising their creative autonomy.

There are over 400 small presses operating in the United States and, oftentimes, Goettel believes, they act as creative incubators for writers. Because of the greater creative control and liberties given to writers at smaller presses, they are able to publish more experimental or less marketable books and then move on to the big five with other, more popular work. Their fans will be able to discover not only the authors’ best-sellers, but also their lesser-known, equally compelling stories published under smaller presses.

Goettel believes that people are becoming more aware that being a vibrant reader means expanding beyond the big five publishing houses; not eschewing them altogether, but incorporating books from smaller publishing houses and diversifying their reading list.

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Photo by Tina Nouri-Mahdavi

“If you spend your entire reading life exclusively reading books from the big five presses, it’s like only eating at chain restaurants your whole life. There are some great chain restaurants, some are even Michelin starred, but don’t you also want to get to know the people in your community, the amazing food at mom-and-pop shops that make any food they want to make?” Gottel says.

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Black Lawrence Press began as a collaboration with The Adirondack Review, a now defunct literary magazine based in upstate New York that published work from all over the states as well as abroad. While the founder of Black Lawrence Press, Colleen Ryor, was working at The Adirondack Review prior to founding the press, she established relationships with the poets and writers she worked with and observed the need for a publishing house that could give their works a home.

Goettel began as an intern for The Adirondack Review, and her involvement in the publishing house grew as the organization did. As Black Lawrence Press was just a fledgling company, she started to help out as an intern on top of her duties at the Review. But only a few years later, Black Lawrence Press was set to close for good.

Goettel decided to take a risk and attempted to salvage it, taking on the immense labor and responsibilities that come with the survival of a small publishing house. Not only was she successful in saving it, she was able to grow it exponentially and make it a publishing house that is well-known and respected 20 years later.

It has only exceeded expectations ever since.

Even with the test of time, distance, and immense growth, Black Lawrence Press’s origins with The Adirondack Review are not forgotten. The company’s location in New York is vital to its essence. Its name derives from two rivers in upstate New York: the Black River and the St. Lawrence River. All of its prizes and contests are named based on waterways as well, including the Hudson Prize, the Rhine Translation Prize, and the Big Moose Prize.

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The move to Mount Vernon was especially important for Black Lawrence Press’s executive editor. Goettel sought a place to settle down with her family, and she was quite familiar with Westchester after attending and graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville. The vast space she required to run the publishing house from home—as is most common for small publishing houses—as well as give her family the room to grow made Westchester the perfect place. Plus, as New York City is the hub of publishing, accessibility was vital for Goettel.

“We can take part in the vast and vibrant literary scene that is the five boroughs and retire back to our home,” she notes. Like many small business owners, Goettel handles both the larger- and smaller-scale aspects of the business. She personally ships out orders but also makes the crucial decisions which dictate the publishing house’s future.

Black Lawrence Press is also home to the Immigrant Writing Series, a recent initiative spearheaded by Nigerian poet Abayomi Animashaun. Animashaun came to Goettel and noticed the nationwide gap in the literary community of a home dedicated to immigrant writing, something that is so vital to America’s existence as a whole. In doing so, Black Lawrence Press is a pioneer in establishing a dedicated spot for immigrant writing and is uplifting American immigrant writers with this recent addition.

Submissions for the Immigrant Writing Series are accepted year-round, but Black Lawrence Press also holds four annual contests: a Black River Chapbook Competition twice a year and two Open Reading periods in November and June for writers in Westchester and beyond. Though Black Lawrence Press is small, it is mighty, and it is making Westchester history every day just by existing.

Related: These Book Clubs Discuss Fascinating Reads in Westchester

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