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What Is a Poetry Chapbook?
A modern iteration of a 500-year-old publishing tradition, a poetry chapbook is a small poetry collection that is significantly shorter than a typical printed poetry collection. Typically running in the range of 20 to 40 pages, a chapbook can be affordably published by small presses and is therefore a more economical option for emerging writers who may be financing their own book of poems.
Although the modern era of self-publishing lets authors print works of any length, many poets find it more prudent to publish their own chapbook as a proof of concept. They can then send that small book to traditional publishers and literary agents in the hopes of receiving an offer to publish something more substantial.
The Origins of Poetry Chapbooks
Chapbooks date back to sixteenth century England. A written account from Cambridgeshire in 1553 describes “lytle books” sold by pedlars, likely containing lyrics to sung ballads. The price of these books was low—typically a penny or a halfpenny—and they provided cheap entertainment for the masses, although there’s little evidence that the books themselves were mass produced. The term “chapbook” dates to 1824, and it takes its name from “chapman,” an English word for an itinerant pedlar or tradesman. (The root word “chap” shares its origin with the word “cheap.”)
Chapbooks were not always synonymous with a collection of poetry; some chapbooks contained short stories, lyrics, flash fiction, creative nonfiction, illustrations, fairy tales, and liturgical text from religious tracts. Over time, though, poetry chapbooks have proven to be the most enduring form of the medium. Chapbooks enjoyed high popularity until the mid-nineteenth century, when they were somewhat supplanted by the availability of cheap daily and weekly newspapers.
How to Write Your Own Poetry Chapbook
Compiling your poems into a chapbook can result in a satisfying physical product that showcases your best writing. Here are some things to keep in mind as you embark on the process:
- Know your audience. The first thing to be aware of when writing a chapbook is that it is quite difficult to get poetry published in any medium. If your hope is that your poetry chapbook will directly lead to an offer for a full-length collection from an independent publisher or massive publishing house, you may be disappointed. The biggest reason to write a chapbook is to reach dedicated poetry fans, a tiny but devout slice of the general population.
- Focus on a theme. It’s common for a single chapbook to be organized around a single theme—for instance love, winter, death, New York City, or the twenty-four hours of a day. Nearly any theme is acceptable, since your poetry chapbook should ultimately reflect your personal taste and style as a poet and showcase your best work.
- Include cover art. A tasteful illustration or a print made from woodcuts can reflect the tone of the pages of poetry that lie beneath the chapbook’s cover. If DIY cover art seems beyond the scope of your ambition as a chapbook author, you may opt to seek out a partnership with chapbook publishers.
4 Tips for How to Get Your Poetry Chapbook Published
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Chapbook publishing is an extremely niche subset of the larger publishing industry, but the publishers who do it tend to be extremely dedicated to the poetry chapbook tradition. Chapbook publishers fit a niche that incorporates characteristics of literary journals, literary magazines, indie zines, and traditional publishers. Although almost never lucrative, a low print run chapbook involves far less risk for a publisher than a full-length book. Here are some tips for getting your poetry chapbook published:
- Seek out a publisher. In the United States, several chapbook publishers exist, including: Red Bird Chapbooks, New Michigan Press, DIAGRAM, Rain Taxi, Slipstream, Sunken Garden Poetry (now partnering with Tupelo Press).
- Enter a contest. Some chapbook publishers, most notably Sunken Garden Poetry and Slipstream, have been known to curate a chapbook contest in which a winning chapbook might receive a print run. Other chapbook competition entrants might win a trip to poetry festivals in New York or Los Angeles and have the opportunity to read aloud in front of renowned poets and publishing representatives.
- Self-publish your chapbook. If your work is not a fit with existing chapbook presses, investigate the robust world of self-publishing. Publishing your own chapbook in the DIY spirit is a particularly viable option for poets are comfortable making their own books.
- Expand your network. Make it a point to attend book fairs, poetry contests, and open mic nights to get to know your local poetry community. You may not meet literary agents, but you’ll be able to share your work with like-minded poets. This community alone may make self-financed chapbook publication worth every dime and every ounce of effort.
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