The Art of the Chapbook

Finance your own movie with credit cards and a loan from your parents and you’re hip and indie. Make a bunch of CDs yourself and sell them out of the trunk of your car and you’re passionate about sharing your music. Print out 100 copies of your book at Kinko’s and staple them together yourself and you’re… a hack who can’t get published the right way. Just as litbloggers aren’t as good as real critics, so self-published writers aren’t thought of as being as good as those with agents and book deals. Unless I’m missing the chapbook reviews that are sweeping the blogosphere.

But have no fear, chapbook poets, because we at LitKicks love you. Perhaps because we at LitKicks are chapbook poets ourselves. Levi has put out a collection of poetry, as has Caryn, and I’ve put out two (one poetry, one prose, neither available any longer, so I guess that makes them collector’s items). I made my own chapbooks because I wanted to present specific pieces together in a certain way, and not because I couldn’t get my work published in conventional venues. Each book is kind of like a concept album, with the writing meticulously ordered and each detail, from the fonts used to the type of stock used for the covers, carefully considered. I’m a creative type by nature and always have roughly a million different projects going on at any given time, ranging from photography to crochet to beading, so taking my words and presenting them exactly the way I wanted to was an enormously satisfying creative project, which I’d recommend any writer try at least once. (I have a shelf full of chapbooks at my house — each is amazingly creatively executed and I love them all.)

So if you haven’t already, why would you create a chapbook? Well, maybe like me, you want to challenge yourself to make something cool. Or perhaps you do live readings or other networking and want something more interesting than a business card. Could be you just have 20 poems that you’d like to print together. Or you could be out of ideas of what to give your mom for Christmas. Or perhaps something else entirely. The reasons for chapbook-making are as varied as the writers who create them, but no matter what inspires you to give it a try, making a chapbook is rewarding because it gives you a chance to jump into your writing and get your hands dirty making something that says to the world, “This is what I am as a writer.” You don’t need a publishing house’s marketing department or a cover designed by Chip Kidd to define that for you and, in fact, it’s valuable to be able to put your work together as a cohesive whole and present it to others.

Are you convinced? Good. So how do you make a chapbook? Well, it’s as easy or hard as you want it to be, but the first step, naturally, is to choose the writing you’d like to present. Opinions on this matter vary widely, but I believe that a chapbook is at its most effective when it’s like an EP, and not a Greatest Hits double album, if you get what I mean. Try to limit yourself to a 20-25 page maxiumum printing. If you just have to print something much longer than that, you should probably look into the perfect-bound-book category, handled by print-on-demand places like Lulu, for instance. Plus, it’s important to be able to curate your own work and pick the absolute best stuff. You probably will have to make some cuts, and it might hurt a little, but it’s worth it when you consider that this is going to help you make the best, most concise product you can.

After you’ve chosen the writing you want to present, it’s time for the really fun part. Once you figure out the order or your pieces (and layout can definitely be an adventure), you need to print and bind them somehow. Kinko’s is an indie writer’s friend, remember, and could definitely be a big help. But you also need to consider how you want to present your books. Do you want to use regular paper for a cover, or do you want to buy heavier card stock? Are you going to print your covers, or do something fancier with them? (I cut a design out of card stock for one of my books — a bad idea, because it was way too much work.) Are you going to staple them? Bind with thread or cord? Or will you go for the decidedly uncool spiral binding? It’s entirely up to you and really comes down to how much work you want to put into it and how fancy you want the books to be.

One of the things we talk about on LitKicks, especially when reviewing self-published work, is the presentation of the material. If you’re published by a major publishing house then you don’t have to worry about things like paper and printing and cover design, but when you’re doing it yourself, you’re entirely responsible for how your work looks to other people. This means that it’s in your best interest to make things as professional as possible — you don’t have to spend a fortune and you don’t have to be ultra-fancy, but you want to do a nice job. If done well, a chapbook can be like a calling card and can help you make an impression on others. The ultimate self-publishing labor of love, the chapbook is great because it’s always as individual as the writer who creates it, so when you’re working on your own, take your time, ask questions if you need to, and remember to have fun with it.

If you have a chapbook that you want to reach a wider audience, I’d love to receive a copy, and maybe I can give it a mention here on LitKicks. My contact information is in my profile or on the review info page. (If you want me to review your work, I recommend not sending it to the address listed there, but contacting me directly. Since I don’t live in New York, it always takes extra time for me to receive things sent to me there.)

18 Responses

  1. Chapbooks are funJamelah,
    Chapbooks are fun

    Jamelah, I’ve still got your two chapbooks as well as Caryn’s. As you can see here, one of yours is on the far right( Sketches of a Return Journey), under the gnome, and Caryn’s is the one with the black cover, bound by thread, beside my name.

  2. “Under the Gnome.”That’s the
    “Under the Gnome.”

    That’s the title of my next book. How fitting.

  3. Levi,(a) You supposedly gave

    (a) You supposedly gave me a copy of your Tiger’s Milk chapbook in D.C. but I have no record of said transaction. You later accused me of tossing it, a charge I denied. I have yet to see the video recording of said literary event in D.C. to analyze for evidence of chapbook tossing.

    (b) I did include a picture of your Summer of the Mets novel in lieu of said chapbook.

  4. latelylately i’ve been

    lately i’ve been working on a chapbook for a friend of mine.

    this one is a push. of course, i cant do anything easy. have to make it as hard and time consuming as possible.

    i have 40 poems by my friend edgar. some very short.

    i am doing an overall collage layout backgrounds. and placing the poems throughout. some on art directly and some on ye olde white paper.

    and size wise… my favorite copy shop on 13th st has 11 x 17 copies for the same prices as 8.5 x 11. so, like the zines i’ve made lately, i’ll be printing big size, folding it over and stapling it with my special longarm stapler.

    the cover will be a midweight card. i havent chosen it yet.

    and, for the cover art i’ll be doing a linoleum block print. so as to make each individualized.

    a few yrs back i made a chapbook of my own work. it ws much more traditional and graphically simple in style.

    this new book for edgar is time-consuming in most satisfying ways.

    i love to make books. i have made some sevral handmade one off books. typing it all by hand and finding elements to work in and sewing it all together is the art i love.

  5. Bill, you probably sold it on
    Bill, you probably sold it on EBay.

    Whenever I see you next, I’ll give you another copy …

  6. Aaron — would said Edgar be
    Aaron — would said Edgar be Edgar Oliver, who you did that play with a few years ago?

    Assuming so … cool. Please send me a review copy once it’s done!

  7. I like the ideaI like the
    I like the idea

    I like the idea of a chapbook as a literary “calling card”. Thanks for the info – I’m going to start a chapbook right now!

    I like the idea of poetry and art mixed together, like William Blake with his poems that he also illustrated.

    I also like author’s works that are brought out in an edition with artwork by another artist, although there are some poets and writers who are against this. But I think it enhances the literary work. I saw an exhibit on an edition of the Book of Revelations that was illustrated by, among others, Salvidor Dali. It was intense!

    And as for self-publishing – why not? Marcel Proust, one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century had to self-publish the first volume of “A la recherche du temps perdu”.

  8. Credit Cards?Who could
    Credit Cards?

    Who could squeeze a film from credit cards. No institution will even speak to you about financing a film unless you have a distributor and how do you get a distributor without a film to distribute. If you are insane enough to make a film with credit cards you are not the sort of person who is going to have credit cards.

    In the spirit of positive suggestions, I have one.

    Rob Chase Manhattan at gunpoint (an AK-47 will do) and take all their money.

    Tell them you are making a film and you need money.

    I have more bad news.

    There is no money.

    Not for poetry. Not for books. Not for films. Not for painting. Not for dreams. Not for anyone. Ever.

    There is no money. Get over it.

    The people with the money never leave the house.

    And they never speak to people who have no money.

    Which is everyone who is not them.

    There is no money. There is grief. There is warfare with Other People who have no money. There is sweat. There is a grindstone. There are graves. There are helpful suggestions from annoying people like me. There are dead bodies of starving artists in the road. There are People Who Teach But Never Do because they’re too smart to do. There are support groups of People Who Have No Money who will be glad to critique your film. There’s Charles Saatchi. He has no money. There’s Mapplethorpe and he’s dead. He never had money until Sugar discovered photography. There’s me but I’m just a whore. Who has no money. There’s MOMA. M-O-M-A. Your mama not. Maybe she has some money. Maybe she has credit cards.

    It never hurts to beg.

    I can’t make chap books because I limit myself (I am not kidding) to what fits into one small bag.

    Here’s a list of EVERYTHING I own.

    1. Three small cameras.

    2.) A small laptop.

    3. I do not own a phone. I do not have a phone. Do not call me.

    4. One pair of underwear which I never wear.

    5. One pair of jeans.

    6. Two shirts. One is a T-shirt with a picture of Che Gueverra on it. I bought it in Bolivia.

    7. Two pairs of socks.

    8. A belt. I need a new one.

    9. Not one book. I give them away or I burn them.

    10. A pair of motocycle boots. Harley-Davidson.

    11. One pen.

    12. A notebook with my notes for the film I’m making.

    13.) A wallet in which there are no credit cards nor money.

    14. A passport for when you need to get the fuck out of Dodge.

    You could always print your own money. The government would rather you print a chap book.

    Nothing subversive.

    The Secret Service reads everything.

  9. Yes — Walt Whitman’s first
    Yes — Walt Whitman’s first version of “Leaves of Grass” was also a self-published chapbook.

  10. Actually, there is a guy who
    Actually, there is a guy who has financed most of his work by borrowing on credit cards and from friends: Jon Jost. His most famous film – “All the Vermeers in New York”. That said, I like the AK-47 borrowing method better. “All right, all the cash in this bag. It’s going toward art. You, on your belly!”

  11. Do you burn books to stay
    Do you burn books to stay warm or just to hear ’em crackle?

    I can name at least 3 movies that were financed by maxing out credit cards.

  12. bill- nice gnome. yes levi,
    bill- nice gnome.

    yes levi, edgar oliver. i’ll send ye one.

    about his chapbook, i should add that i have contributions of some drawings by a couple friends. jeff has drawn some bugs. there are sevral poems about bugs. i gave jeff the poems. commented on his first sketches and he has produced a couple complete and a couple underway.

    and cat has given me some things she drew at edgar’s house some late night. they dont directly relate to the poems but they fit the mood and rhythm of his work.

    a couple things i’d add about the old chapbook:

    -photocopied a typewritten preface with an old ribbon style fax machine onto tracing paper. did a couple to a page and cut the preface poem out and tipped it into the chapbook. 8.5 x 11 folded in half. tipping in is gluing in by just one edge. like fancy plates in a n old book. (preface by edgar no less)

    -cut the covers out of large sheets of fancy paper. it was called elephant blue. put each cut cover sheet into ye olde inkjet printer and applied a simple border design for both the front and back.

    -spacer page of tracing paper bound in after the cover.

    in this vein, a page of a solid color as a post-cover spacer is always a strong aesthetic choice.

    -i typed the title onto sticker paper and stuck it on each book. the sticker i recommend but typing each one is crazy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What We're Up To ...

Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!