Some Questions about Chapbooks

So, a few things are pointing me toward the idea that how I ought to spend May is in putting together a chapbook. First, as great as it is to get individual poems published here and there, I feel a bit scattered and would like to gather together a few things all in one spot. Second, since I did both NaPoWriMo and PAD, I’m looking down the barrel of 61 poems that many will now consider to be “previously published.” Non, je ne regrette rien, but still … 

In the past, I’ve entered a couple-few chapbook contests but have never won — and then I put that potential chapbook aside and move on to something else. I’ve never seen one through to the finish line before, and maybe this is the time to do it.

There are a couple of ways I don’t want to do this: 1) I don’t want to self-publish (because, as you might recall, I’m someone who really needs the stamp of approval that comes from acceptance letters), and 2) I don’t want to enter a contest (because I’ve found that’s a very expensive way to get a rejection letter — and I already get plenty of those, just for the cost of a SASE).

If someone could point me toward favorite publishers who do more of an “open call” deal where they choose a small handful of people to publish, that would be much appreciated! Also, if you read a lot of chapbooks and/or have opinions about how they should be put together, how unified do you think they should be? Might I be able to pull something together from what I’ve written in the past month, if I gather the ones that seem to have similar themes? Or must I write a couple dozen poems all on the same general subject?

(If the latter, you know it will be evil garden vegetables.)

Again, many thanks to anyone who wishes to weigh in with big thoughts on tiny books …


5 thoughts on “Some Questions about Chapbooks

  1. Hi Marilyn,
    I found your blog via Jennifer Bullis. I have a few ideas about chapbooks and would love to share them —

    First, let me say that I self-published my chapbook in 2010. I did this because in Southern California where I live there is a thriving poetry scene, readings going on all over several counties every night of the week and as I entered the scene whenever I did a reading I was always asked if I had anything to sell. Essentially, people would hear my work and like it enough that they wanted to take it home and read more of it! Which was great. Many of my friends in the scene had chapbooks mostly for this purpose: to sell on tour or at shows in lieu of a full length book. And some poets I know who have books published still do their own chapbooks when their books is a few years “old” in order to bring new work to their fans….

    That said, I learned a lot putting together my own chapbook and my advice would be that whether or not you do it yourself you should have an editor. As you said, you want the confirmation of “yes, you’re good” from an acceptance letter, but more than that you need someone who can tell you baldly, but considerately, “put this in, take this out.” It can be very hard to choose which poems to use, which are ready, which aren’t. I believe that I cut many poems from my chapbook that I shouldn’t have, but I was being very hard on myself and I wanted it to be perfect.

    Overall, I enjoyed my experience and I still sell chapbooks every time I do a reading. The chapbook plus being published in several anthologies served as a way for me to get some poems I wrote for my thesis in school out from under my feet. These poems were good, and I felt I had to do my duty and attempt to share them with the world before I could move on from them (this was before I had a blog!). Seeing them in print, whether it was on my commission or a publishers, helped me close that chapter and start a new one. I am working on my first full length manuscript now and will definitely send it out to reputable publishers and attempt to win book prizes sure, but I don’t regret doing my chapbook myself, and you might not either.

    To be fair to your *real* question…I’d look into Autumn House Press — I know they do chapbooks. Also, Mud Luscious Press has a small imprint called Nephew and one called Blue Square Press. I don’t know of very many publishers that do chapbooks outside of the chapbook contest as you mentioned, but I’d look to smaller publishing houses with imprints, or local publishers in your area. Also, as with finding any publisher, or publishing in a magazine, look for a place that fits your work. Don’t change your work to fit them. As an editor yourself, I’m sure you already know this–but oftentimes we are rejected from a publication not because our work is lacking but because it just isn’t the specific thing that the editors or looking for.

    Very best to you, and good luck with your chapbook!

    • Thank you so much, Danielle! You’ve given me a lot to chew on here, and I really appreciate it. Good luck with your full-length collection! I can see why you self-published your chapbook. Interesting … Maybe I need to think again about why it is I want to do this — other than, “Oh, look, two dozen of my poems just got accepted all at once” or “Whose name is that on the cover? Oh, yeah, it’s mine.” 🙂

    • Marilyn, I’ve been pondering and researching your question since you posted it, and Danielle, I, too, am grateful for your generous response to it, since I’ve also been looking to broaden the scope of my search for chapbook publishers.

      I had been going to mention Autumn House to you, Marilyn. I had also been thinking about Finishing Line Press, until Google revealed that in recent years it’s been requiring its authors to pre-sell copies before printing begins, a move that’s led some other small-press editors to criticize it as a vanity press. Other than that, I don’t know of any chapbook publishers that don’t operate via contests–or that don’t charge reading fees that are equivalent to contest fees!

      Danielle, I also appreciate your plug for the self-published chapbook. I’ve seen gorgeous chapbooks–letterpress-printed and hand-bound–from some “micro” presses here in Washington State, that are truly art objects as well as publications. On the other end of the cost spectrum is the 4″ x 5″ saddle-stapled DIY job at Kinko’s. Whichever end of the budget spectrum you’re on for self-publishing, it IS great to have something to sell at readings, and the modest price of chapbooks relative to full-length collections is certainly a selling point for readers right now.

      One tip that a mentor of mine stresses is that whoever publishes your chapbook, make sure they provide the little darling with a *spine*, whether a perfect-bound one or a folded-cardstock book-jacket one, to print the title on. This is important for getting bookstores to stock it for you: they want “spine out” arrangement on shelves, because placing a book “face out” takes up so much room.

      As to selecting poems for a chapbook (or more than one), please let me say for the record that I am staunchly pro-vegetable, especially of the evil garden variety. But I imagine there are other threads and themes running through those 61 poems as well. Perhaps a certain poetic voice links some of them. I’d suggest printing out all of ’em (using paper from recycled beet pulp, of course) and allowing various trial stacks of them to take over your kitchen table for a few days–to see what connections and arrangements emerge among them.

      Now I’m going to trot over to Danielle’s blog to find out how I can get a copy of her chapbook!


      • Thank you so much, Jennifer! I really appreciate all the research and pondering you did. Wow — again, thank you. Now I’m wondering, do I really want to do a chapbook, or do I just feel like I should? I’m not currently doing readings (and why I’m not is a whole other can of worms — has to do with a kneejerk, allergic reaction-type aversion dating back to college days, and it applies to both slam/performance-type stuff, and to more straight-up readings, and both to participating and to merely attending … do I need exposure therapy for this?), and if you’re not putting together a chapbook for the purpose of selling it at those, then are there other good reasons to do one? Maybe I should get back on the hamster wheel of submitting individual poems (in part because the eagerness with which I check my mailboxes — e, and actual — for word on a couple of recent submissions gives the lie to my statement that this has lost its luster. Maybe I throw in a chapbook contest or two, though, when I find one that especially appeals. I think a massive print and sort would be a good exercise, anyway — and I think you’re right that this might be the best way to see any connections.

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