Ask the Lit Chick: Chapbooks
Q: A few of my writer friends and I (poets all) were having coffee the other day, and the subject of chapbooks came up. We were split on the question of whether in today’s world of e-books and readers there’s a place for something as old-fashioned as a chapbook. What do you think?
I think in an industry as much in transition as publishing, a chapbook looks like a pretty time-proven product. At the very least, it deserves a second look.
Let’s start with a little context. A chapbook is really a pamphlet as much as it is anything and more by modern custom than any strict definition, its literary form today is poetry. But make no mistake about it. The chapbook’s content has taken many forms over its lifetime. It easily dates back to the late 17th century, when restrictions on who was allowed to print were lifted, starting the spread of education and literacy. Books as we think of them – hard bound, with many pages and illustrations – were, of course, expensive to print and to peddle. Chapbooks could be cheaply printed and easily carried from town to town. In fact, the name “chapbook” is believed to have derived from the “chapmen” – another term for tinker or peddler in the day – who carried them as part of their traveling inventory. Their contents were varied, from political or religious tracts, to household guides and farmers’ almanacs – almost any information people might find interesting.
Of course, by the late 1800s, books were cheap enough to produce and market, meaning almost anyone could own them. The novel and other literary long forms grew more popular, and publishing became an industry where not all authors were marketable. The chapbook fell out of favor for a while, but by the mid 20th century, independent voices – particularly poets – from the 30s through the 60s made the chapbook a staple of counter culture expression. The chapbook started gaining a bit of a bad rep in the decades since, when it was mistakenly lumped in with lesser works in the “vanity press” category.
Self-publishing no longer has that taint, and neither does the chapbook. In fact, today it seems likely that most writers will venture into self-publishing at some point in their careers. Why not start out on a small scale with a chapbook? Because of the range of available print-on-demand services, the chapbook author can create a quality piece worthy of sale without breaking the bank. Plus, you’ll learn all the elements of publishing – selecting and editing content, layout and design, print production, and even marketing. Chapbooks are great marketing materials, both with your readers and within the industry. Search online for “chapbook publishers” and “chapbook competitions,” and you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see that the chapbook still has its champions, and its fans.
Gee, could the chapbook possibly be a better fit for today’s writer? If you’re still not sure, check out Poets & Writers on-line magazine (www.pw.org), and search the site for “chapbook.” You’ll find scads of articles - everything from lists of chapbook publishers to links to videos on production techniques.