After my post a week ago on the launch of a poetry chapbook, William commented:
Considering what a large role chapbooks play in the larger poetry community, I’m a bit suprised that there haven’t been more published for the Mormon literary market (even as small as it is).[see comment]
In response, I promised this post on Chapbooks and what their role is and can be.
While relatively unknown today, Chapbooks have a long literary history, going back to perhaps the mid-1500s and lasting at least until the 19th century. During that period, chapbooks were cheap, popular literature, often sold by chapmen — itinerant salesmen who followed a regular route selling broadsides and other printed materials. Chapbooks were often fiction and included retellings of well-known stories and myths, ballads and poetry. They were also usually short — a single printed broadside folded made a book of 16 or 24 pages, usually bound as is (i.e., no hardcover binding). Chapbooks were also considered to be low quality, and like many cheap paper products, were used as hygenic paper, leading some to call chapbooks bum fodder. [see Wikipedia’s detailed article on Chapbooks for more information.]
Since chapbooks from before the past 20-50 years were very similar to pamphlets, its likely that many early LDS publications could be called chapbooks. (For example, Parley P. Pratt’s The Angel of the Praries: A Dream of the Future, 1880, 24 pages, and A Dialogue Between Joe Smith and the Devil, 1845, 12 pages, would probably be considered chapbooks).
In the 20th century, improving printing technology nearly killed chapbooks in the English-speaking world. Relative prices of books decreased steadily, and the introduction of the mass-market paperback (the size you see in supermarkets and drugstores today) in the 1940s made popular literature so inexpensive that the need for chapbooks virtually disappeared.
The past 20 or 30 years, however, has seen a ressurgence in chapbooks, with a completely different purpose — first as a support for emerging authors and poets and also as an objet d’art. I assume that much of this ressurgence came with the introduction of copy shops, mimeograph machines and the like, giving authors the ability to produce their own books in small quantities. More recent book printing technology has improved this ability, allowing authors access to digital printing to cheaply produce low quantities while maintaining high quality.
At the same time, the development of modern and post-modern graphic arts led artists to start looking at books as works of art. Artists working with books have generally assembled those books by hand in very small quantities (even in single-copies!) and often with innovative physical and graphic design. At least some of these artists are also poets and authors (or are poets or authors who are also artists), who use their writings in producing objets d’art.
The small press movement of the past 30 years or so has also taken advantage of these ideas, bringing authors and poets together with artists to produce chapbooks. Depending on the press, these can be beautify books that border on objets d’art in an attempt to accentuate the writing, or they can be a standard utilitarian design that forces the reader to concentrate on the writing.
Among Mormon authors of the past few decades, I think chapbooks are relatively unknown. I have a memory that Brian Evenson produced a chapbook some years ago, but I haven’t heard of much else. Of course, the nature of chapbooks and my own distance from Utah makes it less likely that I would know of many chapbooks.
Today, chapbooks are most often a way for a poet (most chapbooks are poetry) to get noticed and provide his or her audience with his poetry. With the emergence of poetry zines and slams, and the general movement toward more live poetry readings, chapbooks let the audience take something away from an event — like musicians selling tapes and CDs after a performance — and can even pay the costs of the event.
Chapbooks are also used by authors who have been published elsewhere and who have a solid reputation, usually when the material to be published is short, or of a nature that is significantly different from other published works. Depending on its quality and the reputation of the publisher (i.e., things like how selective the publisher is), chapbooks can even be used to support tenure applications
In general today, chapbooks are less than 50 pages and published in paperback. As the New Michigan Press puts it on their site, the material available in a chapbook is usually digestible in one sitting. Print runs are sometimes less than 100 copies and usually less than 500 copies (although some are now printed using print-on-demand). Purchasers are almost always those who have had personal contact with the author, either family or friends or those who have attended events.
I’m sure if you start looking around (google chapbook publishing, and you’ll be surprised at how many publishers there are! The Wick Poetry Program at Kent State University is an example.) you’ll find that chapbooks are quite common. But by their nature (relatively few pages, short print runs, rarely in bookstores, little promotion in mass media — or even opportunity for promotion in mass media) you aren’t likely to come across chapbooks, unless you attend readings and similar events.
FWIW, my own firm, Mormon Arts and Letters, is interested in publishing chapbooks.