Ten-year-old Black Lawrence Press, an imprint of Dzanc Books, had its editorial approach to publishing contemporary literature and creative nonfiction affirmed last month when the National Endowment of the Arts chose three of its authors to receive 2013 Literature Fellowships. Twenty-five fellowships were awarded in all. “It was very validating,” said executive director Diane Goettel. “It made us feel we are really doing the right thing, recognizing important writers.”
Each of the grant winners had previously won a Black River Chapbook Competition, which includes a $500 prize and publication by Black Lawrence, along with 25 free books. Although the three NEA recipients are poets, the chapbook contest, like all the competitions Black Lawrence sponsors, is open to both poets and short story writers. It hearkens back to the press’s roots in the online literary magazine The Adirondack Review, which publishes both fiction and poetry. (TAR and Black Lawrence are separate now.) NEA fellowship recipient David Rigsbee, who has written 18 books and chapbooks, won the chapbook competition in spring 2009 for The Pilot House. Lisa Fay Coutley, who published a previous chapbook, won for In the Carnival of Breathing in fall 2009. And Shane McRae, author of two books and three chapbooks, wrote this spring’s award-winner, Nonfiction, to be published in fall 2013.
From the very beginning, Black Lawrence—the name comes from the press’s upstate New York roots in the land between the Black River and St. Lawrence River—made no distinction between poetry and nonfiction. “We were very new and wanted to cast a wide net,” said Goettel, adding that part of the reason that the press was founded was to make it easier for poets and fiction writers published by TAR to get book contracts. In addition to its semiannual chapbook competitions, it holds three annual contests to award publishing contracts: the Big Moose Prize of $1,000 for an unpublished novel; the St. Lawrence Book Award of $1,000 for an unpublished collection of poems or short stories by an author who hasn’t published a full-length book of poetry or short stories; and the Hudson Prize for an unpublished collection of poems or short stories. All entries are screened by editors.
Although Black Lawrence finds many of its authors through contests, the press also has an open reading period during the month of November, and it encourages emerging writers, as well as those who have been previously published, to submit. To date, the press has published 100 writers, and several, according to Goettel, are working on their third or fourth books with Black Lawrence. Many more, like Dzanc founder and publisher Steven Gillis, have published two books with the press—in his case, Temporary People (2008) and The Consequence of Skating (2010).
Goettel, who oversees the list from her home in Hong Kong, joined Black Lawrence as an intern in 2004 and quickly rose to become the editor of TAR and then went on to head the press. In, 2008, the same year Black Lawrence published its first novel with Gillis, it also became an imprint of the publishing group he founded, Dzanc, which handles its distribution to the trade in conjunction with Consortium. As executive director Dan Wickett explained, Dzanc didn’t buy Black Lawrence. He prefers to think of Black Lawrence and Dzanc’s imprints as sharing a “working relationship. The reason this all started was because Steve and myself were really excited about the books they were putting out. But you couldn’t find them, except on their Web site.”
Wickett sees Dzanc’s biggest impact on Black Lawrence to date as ensuring that every book is profitable and that the press prints the right quantities. Dzanc is also working on making Black Lawrence’s titles available in paperback and e-book formats. For now, though, the line breaks make poetry problematic online.
As for any changes to Black Lawrence in the wake of the fellowships, Goettel said, “I don’t think it will change anything. Now we have this feather in our cap.” But it could bring her closer to her goal: to be like Copper Canyon.