I'm so glad you're here. Because, as a poet and chapbook author, I get this question a lot. AND, since chapbooks are an important part of poetry publishing -- both in terms of what we consume as readers and what propels us forward as career poets -- any poet with publishing aspirations should know about them!
The Short Version:
A chapbook, sometimes referred to as a pamphlet, is like a mini collection of poetry. Usually between fifteen to thirty pages (though some folks say anything under 50 pages is a chapbook), these are like little samplers of a poet's work. Usually the chapbooks are pretty cheap, between $6 and $12, which also makes them super fun and easy to collect for readers.
A Bit of History:
Chapbooks were popularized in Europe in the 16th century, and were mostly produced for consumption by folks who might not otherwise be able to buy books. They were made on the cheap and weren't always pretty, but that worked out, since, back in the day, they were often discarded and repurposed after reading. We didn't see them for a while after the 19th century, but within the last hundred years, they've popped up again, primarily in poetry circles, but also as a venue for short prose.
How Chapbooks Come Together:
Often chapbooks work within a theme. Because they are short, there has to be a feeling that the poems are somehow interconnected, even moreso than in a full-length collection. Threads that connect poems in a chapbook could be anything from a specific topic (like current events, mythology, or pop culture) to a poetic method (using a fixed form for each poem, found poetry from a specific source text, or some other challenge) to personal poems that tell a story.
Why Do They Look Kinda Funky Sometimes?
Sticking to historical tradition, there's a DIY ethic (much like with modern zines) that's popular in the chapbook world. Many chapbooks you find in stores or at readings are still hand-made, often silkscreened or hand-bound with needle and thread. Sometimes you can see where the publisher has cut the paper just slightly off, and stapled the books together with love. Sometimes unique bookbinding and printing techniques are used that you couldn't use for mass-produced books. Of course, there are chapbooks that are perfect bound (where the spine is flat, rather than stapled or stitched, which is called saddle stitch) on "regular" paper, using contemporary methods. One style isn't necessarily better than the other, but they're both totally legit. It's also worth noting that the DIY nature of chapbooks makes them an easy and accessible way for poets to self-publish work, which they can then distribute and sell at readings.
PS, E-Chaps Exist!
Of course, we live in the digital age, and it's not hard to find e-book versions of chapbooks, often referred to as e-chaps. Some publishers even go so far as to only print e-chaps, and others make e-chaps available after limited edition print runs have sold out. It is not ucommon for e-chaps to be distributed for free. This, of course, has lead to some debate in the poetry community, as while some believe that art for art's sake does mean giving work away, others believe that art for art's sake and compensation for the value of art are not mutually exclusive. Either way, if you want a quick and easy way to get a chapbook onto your e-reader, look for publishers who publish electronically, either exclusively or alongside their paper books. (I recommend Sundress Publications, Bloof Books, and ELJ Publications as places to start reading!)
What's Up With Chapbook Publishers and Contests?
One tough thing about chapbook publication is that many presses that publish chapbooks only accept submissions through contests, and most of these contests have reading fees between $10 and $25. There are chapbook publishers that have regular open reading periods (some have reading fees, some don't) and there are contests with very minimal or no reading fee...but the hard truth is that if you want to publish a chapbook, you will probably have to make a bit of an investment. Chapbook presses are so small, that many use these reading fees to sustain their presses and pay their authors. All of this, of course, goes against everything you've ever learned about traditional publishing and money (money always flows TO the author, right?) -- but it's one of the weird and rare exceptions. Personally, I like when a reading fee includes (or gives the option to include) a chapbook from the press. So those might be contests you specifically want to look at.
I've Polished My Manuscript. How Do I Get Started
With Submitting My Chap?
When you think you're ready to publish a chapbook, I think that the reading fees involved make it even more important to do your research and submit selectively. Most chapbook publishers have a clear aesthetic, which you can find both by reading the guidelines and samples on their website and by buying a book or two from them (because of their size, niche, and production style, chapbooks are hard to find in libraries).
I Want to Read Some Chapbooks. Any Recommendations?
So, you're wondering where to start? Throughout this post are pictures of some of my fave chapbooks that I've read recently. Click them! I think these books are excellent, accessible, and mostly cheap. They are also put out by presses that I love and respect. I hope you'll take a peek and support these small presses and poets!
Any final questions on chapbooks? Put them below, and I'll do my best to answer them!