The Importance of Chapbooks

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.

8 thoughts on “The Importance of Chapbooks”

  1. Wow this is more than I had expected.

    And I hadn’t make the connection between live events and chapbooks. That makes a lot of sense.

    How does the financing usually work? The chapbooks that I know of are usually paid for by nonprofits/foundations/publishers/awards, etc. A poet wins a specific contest and as part of it they get a chapbook.

  2. What Wm said, plus a big thank you. This information is valuable to me, something I needed to know but didn’t know I needed to know.

    Actually, you’ve put up quite a lot of valuable information on AMV in the last few days. Thanks for all of it!

  3. William:

    The cost of chapbooks depends a lot on how they are manufactured, but regardless of exactly how they are done, they are usually done in low quantities, so overall costs are fairly low. On the low end, using print-on-demand or digital printing usually means costs of less than $2 a copy.

    Those who are using more creative design or higher-end materials, may see much higher unit costs, depending on the materials used.

    If the author is paying for the production himself, then I’m sure the number of copies produced is based on what he or she can afford (again, print-on-demand makes this relatively cheap — a few hundred dollars is enough).

    When its a company or nonprofit, I’m sure that they have planned out how much they can afford and how they will produce the chapbook, so again they aren’t investing a lot — perhaps $1,000 for printing and binding at the most.

    Of course, these costs do not include the costs of editorial effort (and in the case of contests, the costs of judging submissions). Because of the relatively low quantites, these costs can raise the unit cost substantially.

    Does that answer your question?

  4. As a poet just starting my career, I’m very interested in chapbooks. It seems a good way to get my poetry to the people who keep asking for copies of things. But I’d like to hear more about the pros and cons of publishing that way. Here are just a few of my questions.

    Does the poet most often bear the expense? (You said your company was interested in publishing chapbooks, for example. Did you mean that you think you could possibly make money from them, or earn back costs?)

    What kind of distribution do they get, or could they be expected to get, especially within the LDS market? (I’m thinking “practically none.”)

    Once I publish a chapbook, I’m assuming that the poetry is considered “published,” and therefore ineligible to be published elsewhere–right?

  5. Darlene:

    I hope I haven’t held myself out to be too much of an expert.

    Your questions are important. First, unless you are self-publishing or in a co-publishing arrangement, I don’t believe an author should pay the publisher to get a book published! Publishers generally pay authors, not the other way around. I covered this issue last fall.

    So, no, the poet doesn’t bear the expense, unless the poet is trying to publish the work herself or is dealing with a ‘vanity’ publisher (which essentially means you accept that your work isn’t good enough to get published otherwise).

    As far as distribution, chapbooks don’t usually get much distribution. The publishers most interested in publishing them are often small, and can’t afford much promotion. They are short works, and often poetry, which doesn’t attract as much interest from reviewers or readers (I read one story about a chapbook that was reviewed favorably in the Washington Post. The publisher got more than 200 congratulatory emails — and just one order).

    As for whether or not the poetry is considered published, I think it depends on where you submit it. It isn’t unusual for a book publisher to republish a half-dozen chapbooks as a larger book. But I suspect that most poetry journals would consider the work already published.

    In that sense, I think the publication path might be 1st journals and magazines, then chapbooks and finally more traditional poetry books. Of course, these steps depend on a lot of factors — you might skip either of the earlier steps for reasons of theme or lack of interest by publishers. The point is that you probably can’t go backwards in the publication path.

    If I were you, I’d generally publish a chapbook when you have enough material that has either already been published in journals, or has been rejected everywhere (assuming that you think it is good enough despite the rejections).

    If you are looking for journals in which to publish, may I suggest that you look at the many lists of journals that accept creative writing submissions? Everyone knows Writers Digest’s directory, but there are less-known free alternatives on the Internet such as my favorite, Duotrope.

  6. Very interesting, Kent. I was particularly delighted to learn about the historical connection between the chapbooks I had read about in the Poet’s Market and the little poetry pamphlets (complete with great wood-cut art on the cover) that I purchased for ten cents a pop in the markets of Recife 10 years ago on my mission. The most memorable of these I recall was about the arrival of Lampiao (a northeastern Brazilian thug-hero) in hell.

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