With digital technologies, readers have an abundance of options: novels, articles, novellas, short stories, long form journalism, and more. But what about lesser-known forms of literature? Chapbooks have been around since medieval times, when European salesmen, or chapmen, moved from town to town selling goods and eventually books.
Today chapbooks tend to be produced by small, independent presses, such as Rain Taxi and Red Bird Chapbooks. Most presses also publish chapbooks via contests. A few of the bigger contests include Sunken Garden Poetry, Slipstream, and DIAGRAM.
What are chapbooks?
According to Mimi Madden, Artistic Director of Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, chapbooks are usually between 20 and 40 pages in length. Most chapbooks are written by first-time or lesser known authors.
“It’s not a full publication,” Madden says. “It captures, in my mind, a collection of poems that are a manuscript. There’s a connection. It’s an overall tapestry of poems around one theme or some motivation that has pulled them together.”
Rain Taxi editor Eric Lorberer said his publication produces chapbooks once or twice per year.
Shelly Love, editor-in-chief of Red Bird Chapbooks, said their chapbooks have five distinct qualities: they are constructed with high quality paper products, they have hand-sewn bindings, they are shorter and more intimate than books, they do not use templates for cover design, and they have dedicated editors who work with the author to create the strongest publication possible.
“This creates an environment where manuscripts receive a great deal of time and attention from the editorial staff,” she said. “Our chapbooks are an extension of the book arts, and that is what makes them special.”
Ander Monson, founder and editor of DIAGRAM and New Michigan Press, said most of his press’s chapbooks are poetry, though about 20% of the chapbooks are either short fiction, non fiction, or something in between poetry and prose.
New Michigan Press chapbooks are published within three to six months, with most of the chapbooks coming from contest submissions. Readings are done in spring and summer and chapbooks come out in the fall and winter.
“The chapbook is a better form [for this] than other types of books,” Monson said. “It’s just more easily digestible and it allows you a smaller canvas on which to work.”
All of the design is done in-house, Monson said. He said he usually creates the covers, however authors have significant input and contribute to cover art ideas.
Monson also said he thinks chapbooks are great because they can be bought and sold at a lower price. New Michigan Press’s chapbooks are sold for $8–9 each. “That’s a lot easier to commit to buying than a more expensive title,” he said.
Depending on the publisher, chapbook authors can be previously published or unknown, and write poetry or prose. Most authors do not earn royalties from chapbooks, but they do often win prize money.
Most of Rain Taxi’s authors are established, and they solicit works from writers they know. “We do have the flexibility to work with less established writers if we think the project is a good fit,” Lorberer said.
Authors receive copies of their chapbooks, but, according to Lorberer, Rain Taxi generally does not make money from selling them.
Red Bird publishes both first-time authors and writers who have been published by both large and small presses, Love said. Red Bird Chapbooks receive a number of submissions, which they refer to as open possibilities, via their website. However, due to the high volume of manuscripts they receive, Red Bird can no longer keep their submissions window open year round, Love said.
“When a chapbook sells, the author receives 60% of the sale—Red Bird keeps enough to cover materials and postage—but authors do not receive advances for their work when a manuscript is accepted,” she said.
According to Monson, most of New Michigan Press’s chapbooks are by emerging writers who have published a book or two, or at least have published some poems or essays in literary magazines.
“More often than not, people will publish a chapbook before they publish a full-length book and after they have some success in magazines.”
New Michigan Press does not sell enough copies to pay authors royalties, but they do give authors a 40% discount so authors can sell copies at their readings and keep the earnings. Winners of the contest also receive $1,000 in prize money and the chapbooks stay in print for many years. The submission fee for the contest goes towards covering the cost of printing, judging, reading, and postage.
“We basically break even over the course of the press,” Monson said. “It doesn’t bother us if the writers are not self-promoting. It’s not always great for the art [to promote] but it can be useful for selling the chapbooks.”
An instructor at the MFA program at the University of Arizona, Monson said he generally doesn’t publish students, especially students he teaches. However, the contest submissions are read anonymously and this year’s winner, Deborah Bernhardt, was in the MFA program at U of A ten years ago.
When submissions are not anonymous, Monson said he sets the bar higher for students who submit work to his DIAGRAM magazine. He said he doesn’t want his personal connection with his students to influence his decisions to publish them.
Rain Taxi started as a literary review in 1996. By 1998 it became more of a literary organization, according to Lorberer, and started hosting events and publishing chapbooks.
Most of Rain Taxi’s chapbooks are poetry, though Lorberer said they have published a few prose works.
Rain Taxi publishes two different types of chapbooks: the Brainstorm Series and OHM Editions. Lorberer said, “The Brainstorm Series publishes new works by established authors, while OHM Editions focuses on works that are particularly singular in focus—projects that just call out to be published in chapbook form.”
Two main editors work at Rain Taxi: Loberer and Art Director Kelly Everding. Working on the chapbooks “is part of our overall mission to create publications such as these along with Rain Taxi Review of Books,” Lorberer said.
The chapbooks are marketed via Rain Taxi’s website, magazines, events, book fairs, and conferences, including AWP. All Rain Taxi’s chapbooks are only available in print. Readers can order them online.
Sunken Garden Poetry
The Sunken Garden contest presents a unique opportunity for poets to take their first big step in to publishing and get their work out to an audience, Madden said. In addition to being published and receiving 15 copies of the chapbook, winners read at the annual Sunken Garden Poetry Festival. Sunken Garden has been publishing chapbooks since 2003, and hosting poetry festivals at Hill-Stead Museum’s Sunken Garden.
Now in its 21st year, the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival is held on Wednesday nights on alternate weeks during the summer. Each evening of the festival has live music—jazz, folk, or classical—and an hour of poetry. The festival takes place on the grounds of Hill-Stead, a national historic landmark with a large sunken garden. Madden said there are geometric walkways surrounded by tall stone walls, and many festival goers bring lawn chairs and blankets, and enjoy poetry and music under the stars.
“It’s a magical experience,” she said.
Starting this year, Sunken Garden Poetry will begin publishing chapbooks via Tupelo Press, one of the top poetry publishers in the country.
“We’ve had some really wonderful winners, a few of who have gone on to be widely noticed,” Madden said.
For example, in 2006 they published a chapbook by Richard Blanco, the poet for the Obama Inauguration in 2013. And in July, Blanco returned to Sunken Garden to read his poetry. Madden said over 1200 people came to hear him.
Last year, Sunken Garden Poetry published an anthology through Wesleyan University Press to celebrate its 20th anniversary. They chose a poem from each year of the festival. Readers can purchase the anthology at the festival, along with chapbooks.
“We are one of the most important poetry festivals in the country and it is a real honor [to read here],” Madden said. “[Contest winners] get to read for 10 minutes before a major poet and have an incredible audience hear their work. So they’re all very excited about that opportunity and we’re thrilled to present them.”
The contest has winners from all over the country, all of who are anonymously chosen. Many of the winners use a portion of the contest prize money to travel to Farmington, CT, so they can read at the Festival, Madden said.
David Budries, sound designer at Yale University, has recorded all of the Festival’s readings, Madden said. Beginning this September, Sunken Garden will be partnering with the Academy of American Poets, which has the largest poetry website in the world at poets.org, with 20 million visitors per year, to make the Festival recordings available to a wider audience. Madden said Sunken Garden Poetry is the lead content provider for poets.org, as they have already digitized their content over the last two years. However, there are no current plans to turn Sunken Garden chapbooks into e-books, but that may change, she said.
Currently readers can learn about winners of the contest at sunkengardenspoetry.org and then contact someone on the website if they want to purchase a copy. Chapbooks sell for $10 each and are all mailed to readers.
Three graduates of Niagara University who had edited a college literary magazine founded Slipstream in 1980. Since 1987, Slipstream has held an annual chapbook contest, run by the three volunteer editors.
Slipstream tends to select winners of the chapbook contest in the spring and publish in the summer. Sicoli said they find writers by running classified ads in Poets & Writers Magazine, sending out e-newsletters, and posting on Facebook and other social media sites. According to Sicoli, the poets who participate in the contest are a mix of established and aspiring writers.
The covers are sometimes created in-house by the editors, and sometimes are created by professional artists or photographers.
“Readers may purchase our chapbooks through our site,” Sicoli said. “At this time they are only available in print. All entrants receive a copy of the winning chapbook. Chapbooks are also included with a subscription to the magazine.”
Red Bird Chapbooks
Publisher and founder Dana Hoeschen started Red Bird Chapbooks as part of a book arts class in 2007. In 2010, Love said Hoeschen solicited manuscripts from classmates in the MFA program at Hamline University in St. Paul, and over the past three years Red Bird has expanded and published manuscripts from all over the country.
‘”Red Bird began as a desire to make hand-made chapbooks that would place incredible writing in an equally incredible container,” Love said. “We are still dedicated to getting voices out in the world in the most beautiful way possible.”
Love said Red Bird publishes poetry, memoir, flash fiction, lyric essays, and fiction, and that they are working on a series of illustrated or illuminated chapbooks.
“We would love to publish a collection of essays, but we have yet to receive the right submission, and we are also interested in publishing a ‘graphic’ chapbook, or ‘graphic’ poetry,” she said.
All seven editors on staff at Red Bird work for free, and they either have or are in the process of completing MFA degrees, Love said.
“This is a passionate commitment,” she said.
Red Bird attends book festivals and uses social media to promote their publications, Love said. Print chapbooks are on sale at redbirdchapbooks.com and many of their titles are available as e-books on Smashwords.
New Michigan Press and DIAGRAM
New Michigan Press publishes chapbooks and DIAGRAM is a literary magazine that publishes reviews, schematics, and stories. There are also DIAGRAM anthologies—compilations of the work DIAGRAM publishes six times each year online. So far there are four anthologies, but they don’t include everything on the website, such as videos, Monson said.
About 10 people are on staff, all of them unpaid volunteers, Monson said. The press does not make much money, but everyone involved sees it as a labor of love, he said. There is an office in Arizona but most editors work remotely, and they live all over the country, including Illinois, Alabama, South Carolina, Texas, Missouri, and Michigan. Some of the editors are long time friends of Monson, others are former students, and others are authors the press has published.
Monson said he is a writer who became interested in chapbooks as a grad student. “At some point you start to think about the ways in which work gets published,” he said. “In the last decade there’s been a real devolving of publishing from the big publishing houses that are profit driven to the smaller presses.”
Monson said he learned how to use InDesign and realized he could make his own publications. “It just occurred to me I wasn’t seeing published the work I wanted to see,” he said. He said he writes hybrid genre works. “I thought, ‘well, why not just start a press?’”
Having limited funds, he started his press online. “I could do chapbooks. I could handle that. They were smaller, cheaper to produce, and I could do broadsides.”
Broadsides are single sided printed sheets of paper. Monson said they were used in the Revolutionary War era as political statements and advertisements. But they had also been used to celebrate book releases, by printing excerpts or poems. Monson said his press provided broadsides as a memento for people who attended literary readings, and authors signed them.
Most broadsides are printed in small quantities of 25 to 500, though New Michigan Press has not printed broadsides as often lately. Broadsides do allow for more creativity, however. Monson said they once produced a broadside for a poem about wine, and they splattered wine on the sheets.
For the chapbooks, Monson said he had worked at many literary magazines, presses, and organizations, and he knew a lot of contests led to publication, especially for poetry. So he started a contest the first year and received a couple hundred entries.
“There weren’t many places doing chapbooks at the time,” he said. And everyone who entered the contest automatically received a copy of the book.
New Michigan Press advertises its contest in Poets & Writers, as well as other websites. The press also regularly attends the AWP Conference. “We’re always there,” he said. “We get to meet our writers, our readers. We sell chapbooks and t-shirts and swag.”
This past year New Michigan Press received over 500 entries for its chapbook contest, and the press receives 20-30 queries each year. “It’s become a big project,” Monson said. “Bigger than we expected it to be.”
On average, the press sells 300 copies of a chapbook over the course of its life. Some authors do a lot of self-promotion, and are very active online. Those who do their own readings sell closer to 1,000 copies, Monson said.
“That’s sort of how the world of poetry works now,” he said. It helps to be active and do readings to get people to become aware of writers. “There’s so many small presses in America, it’s hard to get noticed.”
Many of the authors, such as Paul Guest, have gone on to publish bigger things.
About five to six years ago, Monson said they switched to print on demand, which has increased their distribution capabilities. Chapbooks can be bought via New Michigan Press’s website, Amazon, and other channels. Amazon currently only carries their perfect bound titles, which accounts for less than half of all their titles, Monson said. McNally Jackson and other book sellers also stock their chapbooks. However, these bookstores only carry one or two copies of each title, he said.
“Chapbooks are not a huge seller in the world of publishing,” Monson said. “We’re not in it for the money.”
For now, Monson said his press will stick to print only chapbooks. “We haven’t done e-book versions and we’ve thought about that,” Monson said. “The main reason why we haven’t is I don’t really like most of the e-book technologies out there. They don’t tend to handle poetry that well.” For example, line breaks and white space is hard to reproduce digitally.
Although publishing chapbooks is not particularly lucrative, Monson said he really enjoys his work. “It’s never going to be a huge thing but it can be a very satisfying experience,” he said. “And for me the chapbook form, I think, is the ideal form for literature.”