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Chapbooks Anyone?
Copyright©1993 by Nathan Harms

The street merchant adjusts the silver periwig which has slipped to the back of his head, tugs at his dusty knee breeches and steps into the road to present his latest merchandise to the pedestrians:

     "Chapbooks! Chapbooks!
     Fresh from the printer today.
     Salty jokes for you,
     a pretty new poem,
     a fairy tale for the children too!"

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, itinerant merchants and street vendors known as “chapmen” plied their trade at road sides and street corners throughout England and Europe. Interested shoppers might search the bottom of a chapman's wooden cart full of saucepans and tallow, twine and folk remedies, to find the chapbooks, so called because they were sold by chapman.

More than a thousand printing presses operated in Europe by the year 1500. But although many books were printed, most went to the clergy and other educated classes. Few books were available or affordable to the average citizen. Chapbooks put the printed word into the hands of ordinary people. The small booklets, often only 4 inches by 5 inches, became ever more popular in the following century.

By the mid 1600s, times were very hard. Poor crops caused frequent food shortages and starvation. The population faced a series of subsistence crises and epidemics. Plague was rampant, then relented, then returned again to take more than 100,000 lives in London during 1665. Average life expectancy hovered at age 30.

Though less than half of the English citizenry could read well enough to even sign their own names, chapbooks were purchased cheaply, shared, and read aloud. Some of these booklets were only 10 pages in length. The printing was smudged and the illustrations crude. The pages contained simple medieval folk tales or poems, jokes, riddles, and sometimes ribald tales obviously intended for adult reading.

Religion was also a popular topic of the chapbooks. Of a sample of 450 chapbooks from the period, 120 are religious. Many of these deal with the lives of saints. The inventory of a Paris printer who died in 1698 suggests that his best selling work was Pensez-y-bien, a chapbook about the art of dying well. When one considers the dire times, the subject seems appropriate.

In 1662, England's Act of Uniformity placed strict obligations upon the clergy and the public regarding the church. The powers of the Act gradually restricted and censured the content of chapbooks. Although chapbooks continued in popularity in France and Italy, advances in
printing methods eventually brought "legitimate" books into the hands of common people.

Today, the chapman may be a quirk of history, but his legacy, chapbooks, play a vital role in poetry publishing. Chapbooks put collections of fine poetry into the hands of readers at reasonable cost. Anyone disparaging of the legitimacy of present-day chapbooks ought to note a few of the respected poets whose work has appeared in chapbook form: Dorothy Livesay, Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman, to name only a few.

Are Chapbooks for You?

Today's chapbooks are distant cousins to the chapbooks of history. For one thing, the publishing of chapbooks is now reserved almost exclusively for poetry.

High quality chapbooks consist of elegantly printed parchment pages bound in glossy card covers. Such books may also be illustrated with line drawings. At the other end of the scale, simple chapbooks may be only a dozen sheets of plain white bond, folded and saddle-stapled with paper covers.

Publishing agreements for chapbooks are similar to book publishing agreements. You mail a collection of your poetry (20-40 poems is a good number) to a publisher who indicates an interest in chapbooks of poetry. (Use your market guide to research such publishers.) Simultaneous submissions are usually acceptable if you inform the publishers.

Some publishing agreements may require you to finance the costs. In such cases you should be able to take delivery of all the books to distribute and sell yourself. A publishing agreement with a commercial publisher will probably offer you only a few copies for yourself and designate the remainder for retail sales. Decide what the goal of your chapbook will be. Do you want to distribute your book to local bookstores and promote it enthusiastically in person? Or will you be happy just to have a few books to show to your family and friends?

Signing a chapbook agreement with a commercial publisher may be simpler than landing a book contract, but it is still no easy task. If your manuscript is accepted, you have good reason to be proud. Although chapbooks are rarely reviewed in the major press, they are a legitimate and respected way to put your poetry into print.

Make Your Own Poetry Chapbook!

Chapbooks can be made right in your home. Although you could make your chapbook by handwriting the pages, the process would be slow. It will be easier if you have:
            - a computer with a printer
            - a stapler
            - good quality white paper for the inside contents
            - heavy-weight paper for the cover

If you have access to a photocopier and a commercial quality stapler, you can probably produce high quality chapbooks right from your home, at a cost of only a few cents per book.

Start by collecting the poems you wish to include in your chapbook. Some "purists" think that all the poems in a chapbook should be related in some way, but I don't agree. Your book can be a collection of all your best work. You should have at least 8 poems for your book, but probably no more than 40. It's hard to hand-fold and staple the book if it's too thick.

Using your computer word processor, type up your poems with the layout of your page in "landscape" mode, so that the page is sideways instead of vertical. You can choose this option in almost any word processor. You want to type 2 poems on each page, with plenty of room in the center (gutter) where the staples will be.

When you print your poems, you'll need to flip the printed pages over, halfway through printing so that there are two poems on each side of the page. This is very easy to do, but sometimes you have to fiddle around with the paper a bit before it works out right.

When your poems are all printed correctly, each page of paper will have 4 poems, 2 on each side. For a small book like this, you really do not need to number the pages. Lay them in a stack and fold them together, "book-style." Crease the fold lightly to show where the staples should go.

If you're using a heavy paper cover you can print it separately and lay it beneath the stack of poem pages with the illustration facing away from you. Line the pages up carefully and staple 3 times along the crease at the center. Now you can fold the book and make the crease permanent by rubbing hard on it with a smooth object.

You've just created your first chapbook! Congratulations on continuing a book making process that has endured for almost 500 years.

Once you've finished the first book, you'll probably notice all sorts of things that can refine your process, and you can incorporate improvements into subsequent books. The great thing about making chapbooks this way is that you never invest more than a few cents at any time, and a book that doesn't turn out the way you want is not a big loss.

If you read this article, please let me know.