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How to Start & Publish Your Own Chapbook or Chapbook Series

Originally, a chapbook referred to any inexpensive pamphlet or booklet sold by street salesmen called “chapmen.” Today it generally refers to inexpensively printed and stapled (saddle stitched) booklets of poems. Some fine poets have started their careers in chapbooks. Publisher-poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, at his City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, published a famous series of them, including the original edition of Alan Ginsburg’s Howl

Chapbooks rarely contain more than a few dozen pages. Richard Dey, in the December 1988 edition of Poets and Writers Magazine, has this to say:

“Today’s chapbook is typically between 8 and 32 pages (or two to eight sheets of paper), plus cover; it can be as few as 4 pages or as many as 64; the pages are not usually numbered. They can be miniature in size (4 x 3 inches) or quite large (12 x 9 inches). A slight chapbook can be beefed up by using heavy paper for its interior or adding blank pages at the front and back of the book. It is held together with staples along the fold line, one toward the top and one toward the bottom, or it may be sewn vertically, either by hand with needle and thread or by machine.

Often, but not always, the cover is slightly bigger than the book’s trim size, and sometimes it extends beyond the fore edge (the opening edge or edge opposite the binding), so that it is folded at either end into flaps; this makes a handsome item, and resembles a case bound (hardcover) book whose board covers act like borders for the interior pages when opened. A heavier weight paper of a different texture, often colored and coated with some kind of laminate, is used for covers. Uncoated covers tend to soil quickly and badly, but are economical and adequate if protected with acetate or mylar, or even a plastic bag. A high‑quality linen or similar cover stock also will withstand misuse, if not dirty hands. Some chapbooks are further enhanced by regular dust jackets (or “wrappers,” as they are known in the trade) so that you do not see the staples embedded in the spine.”

Since you’ve brought out your own chapbook and learned the basics of publishing and selling poetry, you can easily extend your activities to include publishing the work of other good poets. In so doing, you will be performing a real service to your fellow poets and doing yourself a favor, too. Your life will be enriched by the poems and poets you love so well. As the editor and publisher of your own poetry series, a great store of personal satisfaction lies ahead for you. And, of course, there will be work, too. Why should you do this? For many reasons, not the least of which is that being a publisher is a lot of fun for anyone who loves books.

• Your social and professional life will take a dramatic turn for the better. You will continually meet interesting people and read good poetry (and, alas, some very bad poetry).

• You will develop a very large circle of friends in the literary and arts communities.

• You will become a leader in the literary activities of your region.

Does publishing a chapbook series require years of training or a lengthy apprenticeship? It does not. Publishing is a little like raising a family. You don’t know anything at all about it when you start out, but you learn very quickly as you go. After all, your progress can be as slow or as quick as you wish. You don’t have to bring out any more titles each year than you are comfortable with. You will soon find that the work part of it becomes routine, and that you can easily handle the many details that will confront you. In addition, you need not have any money at all at risk. Remember that most books of verse can be published quite inexpensively. Since the writers themselves will participate in these costs, there will be virtually no financial pressure on you, as publisher, that you do not voluntarily assume. The poets themselves will be doing most of the hands-on marketing and selling, since that’s the only way that poetry ever sells.

Many poetry series are the work of a single individual, and that is what I recommend to you as you start out. However, at some point you may find it advantageous to have a volunteer “editorial board.” The board may have as many or as few duties as its members are willing to undertake and you are willing to delegate. The advantage of this board is that it takes the burden off any single individual when it comes time to accept or, especially, reject manuscripts. An editorial board should have as members established poets or other literary persons with as much public visibility as possible. Such board members can enhance your visibility and create some literary clout. They can also help attract submissions from the more serious and accomplished poets. However, you, as editor-in-chief, should retain the authority to make all final decisions. Should you decide to organize as a not-for-profit corporation then the editorial board of directors becomes a legal necessity.

The first few titles you bring out are very important to the success of your series. Work hard to get the most solid, well-wrought verse that you can. Don’t wait for manuscripts to come to you; solicit submissions from poets whose names you respect. These may well be by unknown or “emerging” poets. Limit your contacts to those whose work is almost sure to be good enough to appear in your series. Carry on this editorial prospecting quietly, and without publicity. Once you get first rate work out, others will see it and be able to measure their own efforts against it and know whether they are in or out of your league.

And here’s a bit of advice about dealing with writers. When you evaluate a manuscript and respond to the person who submitted it, say precisely what you mean. Most of us have had the experience—at writer’s groups and critique sessions, say—of hiding our real opinions about poems being read to avoid hurting the feelings of some especially sensitive person. As an editor and publisher you no longer have this luxury. You can be tactful, but you must speak the truth. When I was new in the business I often returned manuscripts in their SASE with some innocuous phrase like, “I like these, but they need more work. Better luck next time.” You need to understand that the hopeful writer will understand such words to mean “Polish these a bit and I’ll publish them. They’re great.”

As a literary publisher, your reputation is of prime importance and must be maintained at all costs. One of the things you must do is to watch over the quality of your list of published books with great vigilance. Books, like people, are judged by the company they keep. This is especially true of reviewers and critics. This is why the so-called “vanity presses” can’t even buy a review in any reputable publication. Even should they, through sheer luck, publish an occasional book of merit, it is buried under the avalanche of trash represented by the other titles on their list.

Be sure that the name you choose for your poetry series will reflect the nature of the poetry you intend to publish and also possess all the marketing and public relations strength possible. If you plan a series of regional poets, then link your series to the region through its title. This will help get you onto bookstore shelves devoted to local and regional authors, help you set up readings, and give focus and identity to your publishing effort. If your series will publish poems about a place or region, then let its name reflect that relationship. There are an endless number of specialties: new and emerging voices, feminist poems, new age and metaphysical poems, cowboy poems, and too many more to list. Whatever your slant, let it be reflected in the name of your series. Your covers should be immediately recognizable as belonging to your poetry series. I discussed some of the imperatives of successful covers in the entry of that name. That discussion is still relevant here. So you already know that your cover should be direct, simple, and affordable. Even the most cursory glance at the cover will identify one of you chapbooks as belonging to our series.

Develop a simple author-publisher contract. Contracts for a poetry series are simpler than for a non-fiction book or a novel. There are no book club rights, movie and television rights, or translation rights to contend with. Nevertheless, the agreement that you reach with your author will be formal, and it will be signed. It will specify all the things that you, as publisher, will do for the author and what your author will do for you

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