By Cati Porter | Contributing Columnist
Last month, I published my 10th collection of poetry, titled “Novel” — as in novelty: new, unusual, unique, not to be confused with “a novel”, which I can assure, it is not.
To make matters even more confusing, not only is “Novel” not a novel, but it’s also not a full-length book; it’s what is known as a “chapbook”: short, economical, lightweight; writing to whet the appetite.
According to MIT, “chapbooks” were originally sold by “chapmen.” In its original context, “chap” meant “trade,” so these “chapmen” were traders of books. Along with broadsides (a single printed page), these were printed materials available to all. Not sure you want to commit to reading a full-length book? Prefer your poetry in smaller bites? On a budget? Want to test the waters of publishing while still finessing your manuscript? A chapbook may be the right size for you.
Of my 10 collections, seven have been chapbooks, the first published in 2008, but my experience with the chapbook begins even further back, when I was 13. I trace my love of poetry to California Poets in the Schools. At the program’s conclusion, we students were instructed to go to Tams, a little copy shop in Long Beach. Before the days of desktop publishing, I completed my rudimentary paste up using scissors, tape, and a glue stick, then made copies, folded them in half like a booklet, and applied staples along the fold.
Voila! I was a published author.
I still have a copy of it on my bookshelf. Later, when I discovered open mics, I published another DIY chapbook, which I would leave, guerrilla-style, in public places. It was a way for me to get my work out into the world without having to get past the gatekeepers of traditional publishing.
So, how exactly does a chapbook differ from a book? Some basic principles:
Chapbooks are short, usually no more than a couple dozen pages, usually printed on letter-sized (8 1/2” x 11”) paper with a heavier stock for the cover. I say usually because there are many variations, but the one common denominator is length. They’re light, cheap, and easy to distribute.
You can also use it, as I have, for specific, goal-oriented projects. For example, I’ve published chapbooks exploring a particular painter’s work, another on fruit-related terminology, and still another on food poems. The possibilities are endless.
A chapbook is a great marketing tool for a writer. In fact, there are publishers out there who specialize in chapbooks, which authors then sell at readings. Over the course of my career, I’ve been published by four chapbook publishers, from the now-defunct Pudding House Publications, an Ohio-based press run by Jennifer Bosveld, to the one-woman Chicago-based feminist Dancing Girl Press owned and operated by Kristy Bowen. Locally, there is Bamboo Dart Press, who published my “Novel.”
Here’s where that “usually” comes in.
Bamboo Dart Press’ chapbooks are square, not rectangular. They’re glued, not stapled. They all have a certain look to them. In short, they’re cute. You can’t help but want to collect them all, like baseball cards, or happy meal toys.
Most presses usually have a particular aesthetic, so if you’re considering a publisher, regardless of the genre or length, always be sure to look at samples. I remember drooling over the original style of Finishing Line Press chapbooks, tied with glossy ribbon like a satin sash, with a loose end that could be used to mark your page. With the advent of technology, they too have gone to “perfect bound” — glued spines; thick paperbacks. In some respects, I miss that DIY, homegrown aesthetic with the pretty ribbon, and am sorry to have missed out on it.
Chapbooks aren’t just for poets, either. It might be a stand-alone excerpt of a novel, a long short story, an essay, a one-act play. You get the picture.
Why differentiate between a chapbook and full-length book, you might be wondering. It’s all about industry policies. If you are a poet (or a novelist, or memoirist, etc.) and you have a full-length book you are shopping around to traditional publishers, most publishing houses (including Inlandia) preclude self-published books from consideration. But a chapbook? That’s only part of the book, so it doesn’t count. As long as the book in its entirety has not been previously published, then you can shop it around to your heart’s content.
I personally have a collection of chapbooks, and not just Bamboo Dart’s. Chapbooks from different publishers, different publishing models, different materials. I have one that was published as a box of index cards. There are electronic chapbooks that exist solely in the virtual realm (at least until you hit print). A chapbook is flexible. You can experiment with content, with presentation, with design. You can test the waters, use it to gauge interest in seeing more of your work, even if your test audience is just mom and grandma. (Pro tip: Chapbooks make great gifts!)
The chapbook is an art form in and of itself. So if you’ve been on the fence about publishing a selection of your work, do it! You have nothing to lose.
Cati Porter is a poet, essayist, and executive director of Inlandia Institute. Inlandia Books is currently open for submissions but sadly, they do not publish chapbooks — yet. Find her on the web at catiporter.com.