What are Chapbooks? And why you should read them

Lyndsie Manusos describes this versatile, brief, storied literary form.

In a nutshell, chapbooks are teeny books. Merriam-Webster defines them as a small book containing ballads, poems, tales, or tracts. They are collections of poems, stories, or an experimental mix of both. Chapbooks usually hover in the range of 20–40 pages and are more affordable purchases to their novel counterparts. In a world where there’s a lot of talk of dwindling attention spans and having little time to read (sigh), chapbooks are a great way to soak up great writing—writing that may not quite fit anywhere else—and be able to finish in one sitting. But of course, there’s more to chapbooks than simply being short in length. Chapbooks are a way to make a point. They are an art form as much as a literary form, used for both revolution, protest, and exploration. Many presses take great care in the final presentation of this often-overlooked work.

FICTION AND HYBRID CHAPBOOKS

Rose Metal Press is an example of a press who champions short, hybrid works. I interned there for a short period a few years ago. There, I was able to see how a chapbook came together, and I saw the love its founders devoted toward this literary form. Kathleen Rooney and Abigail Beckel founded the press in 2006. Since then, they have published beautiful hybrid and experimental works of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Additionally, Rose Metal Press hosts an annual Short Short Chapbook Contest.

The Passion of Woo & Isolde by Jennifer Tseng was winner of the 11th annual contest, which was judged by Amelia Gray, and published in August 2017. Tseng’s chapbook consists of 24 pieces of flash fiction, ranging from a fairytale-like story of a mouse and a lion coming to an agreement, to a story of two newlyweds who make love without understanding one another, because they speak different languages. It’s a collection about immigration and exile, and despite its short length, it is absolutely haunting in its scope.

The Passion of Woo & Isolde went onto win numerous accolades, such as being a finalist for the Best Small Fictions of 2018, a finalist for the 2018 CLMP Firecracker Award in Fiction, and won the 2018 Eric Hoffer Award for Best Chapbook.

POETRY CHAPBOOKS

And let’s not forget poetry! Glass Poetry Press, Haymarket Books, Black Lawrence Press, are just a few examples of presses who publish chapbooks of both emerging and established poets.  In September 2018, Haymarket Books published the chapbook On My Way to Liberation by H. Melt. It is a chapbook that centers on a gender-nonconforming body walking through the streets of Chicago. I was in the same MFA program as H. Melt at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. They are a fierce, essential presence in both the trans and poetry communities. This is an example of a chapbook writing toward revolution, liberation, and building a better future.

FOR WRITERS

For you writers out there, chapbooks are a great way to collect pieces that may not fit into a longer work. They are especially great for emerging writers for introducing new work to the world. Many small presses and micro presses host contests for chapbooks, so if you’re on the prowl for a place to submit, The Masters Review has a small list on their blog.

THEN VS NOW

It’s also important to note that, viewing chapbooks as an art form, they can be self-published or made at home. Many artists and writers are publishing and selling their chapbooks on their personal sites and including on Etsy! It is an accessible literary form that can be available to anyone. Even history notes that chapbooks were originally made to be passed around. They were affordable pieces of literature, aimed at those who weren’t able to purchase more expensive books.

The same can be said of chapbooks today. They are way to support emerging writers and writers whose work might not fit in the commercial publishing world (and arguably, shouldn’t fit in the commercial world). Chapbooks are passed around for entertainment as well as admired for their artistry. They give voice to writers who need it, and are an outlet for readers who seek something off the beaten path. They can even start a revolution.

Should you publish your book during Covid?

Reading aloud helps you define your voice and market your book.

The good news is that during the pandemic, people are reading voraciously. Apocalyptic sci-fi and romance offering temporary escape are selling out, books about race and social justice have surged since summer, and children’s nonfiction and activity books are popular now while families are home, learning together. E-books have taken off while audio books have declined, because many of us aren’t commuting to work.

The hard news is that because there is very little room for anything but the virus in the media, it’s a tough time for a debut author to get attention. Even so, many writers are going for it, and IngramSpark Self-Publishing is running strong. Authors are getting their books to market via Amazon. The question is, what happens when they get there? How do you market your book during a pandemic?

The most important asset you have as an author, aside from talent, is your platform: your community of potential readers and your ability to influence that community to purchase and read your book, and to recommend it to others.

But before you broadcast your book, you must first define your brand as an author – and know your target readers. Who are you, and what are you trying to say with your book? What is your overarching goal? Do you want to entertain, or inform, or change something in our culture? It’s important to really think this through, and to know your voice.

Your voice is most effective and powerful when it is authentically who you are. Whether you are writing nonfiction, fiction, or creative nonfiction, your voice is what carries your story. An editor or reader can help you spot inconsistencies in your voice and style, and can be very motivating as an accountability partner, giving you deadlines.

Even before your book is finished, you can start reaching out to readers – start with your friends and family. Kelly Corrigan read aloud from her draft of The Middle Place to her friends and family. Her reading was so moving, it went viral and Kelly went on to become a best-selling author and speaker.

So, use this time to finish your book, and when you’re done, let us in on it. Your readers will amplify your voice.