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How to Make a Brilliant Chapbook


For more than 450 years, chapbooks have been part of the literary world, delighting audiences everywhere. According to Middlebury College Special Collections, The roots of chapbooks go back to 16th century Europe, when printing technology began to democratize. Books had long been the preserve of the wealthy, who possessed both the education and means necessary to read them. This changed, however, when the increasing accessibility of paper and printing presses made it feasible for unbound books of eight or twelve pages to be sold for a penny or less: in those days, not as negligible a price as it might seem, but still within the reach of a laborer's wages.

What is a chapbook?

Before we can get into how to create a brilliant chapbook, let's first outline what a chapbook is. In its basic form, a chapbook is a small book or booklet containing poetry or short stories. There are no definitive size requirements for chapbooks, but they are generally smaller than an 8.5 inch by 11 inch letter-sized sheet of paper. Some are the size of an A4 letter page folded in half, while others are smaller and are made by making multiple folds in a sheet of paper. Either way, the key takeaway is that chapbooks are small and portable.

Early chapbooks used a single sheet of paper and folded into anywhere from eight to 24 pages. Whatever you choose, you're right! So don't be scared to make a simple small chapbook or a big chapbook.

Another key aspect of the best chapbooks is that they are centered around a theme. This could mean different places, people, ideas, or a specific rhythm. Whatever theme you choose should highlight your aesthetic as a writer – show off your skills and passions! The chapbook is your own tiny universe, and you are the creator.

How to make it brilliant

Chapbooks can be great personal collections of poetry, or they can be fun gifts for friends and family. Whatever the reason, make your chapbook brilliant and irresistibly timeless. From writing to binding, here are a few key tips for making your chapbook amazing.

Be consistent

When asked what makes a great chapbook, writer Scott Whitaker said, Consistency of vision: a motif [sic], a strong extended metaphor. Kinda like making a kick ass mix tape. When you choose your topic or theme for your chapbook, plan it out so that the theme is consistent all the way through. Chapbooks may be short, but having a consistent flow and narrative throughout can go a long way in keeping your reader engaged.

Asked that same question, writer Michael Dylan Welch responded, A chapbook is an opportunity to focus, and every good chapbook I've read had a clear theme or stance, typically with an arc of development. As a small press publisher, I find that thematic development and careful arrangement is what makes a manuscript submission rise above, as opposed to the seemingly random compilation of a selection of one's poems. Having good story or theme development throughout the chapbook is going to make your chapbook engaging, not just for you and your readers, but for a publisher to whom you are submitting your manuscript. Get your chapbook published by showing a bit of yourself with consistent growth and storytelling.

Keep it strong

We all have been through enough writing experiences to know that not every poem or story is going to be our absolute strongest. We put our ideas on paper (or, rather, the screen) and select the strongest writing and ideas to survive the cuts. The same should be said for your chapbook. If you are collecting poems to publish, write more than you need and choose the ones that you feel are the strongest expressions of your writing and your chapbook theme. Leave out the weaker texts, because your publisher will know if you were lazy about your selections as will your end readers.

When you make the decision on which poems to keep, choose the ones you feel most passionate about. Whether the poems are fun little stories or deep existential thoughts, get fully behind your choices and support them when negotiating with your publisher. Because chapbooks are so small and short, they require solid work to make them irresistible.

Know your audience

You may have experience writing books for a specific demographic, or maybe you have done work in marketing or advertising and understand the value in knowing your audience. A chapbook is no different! Especially because they are small and short, chapbooks need to be focused toward an audience. Is it meant to tell a children's story, like Little Red Riding Hood, or is it meant to touch the souls of deep-thinking adults? Use word choices that will appeal to your chosen audience and keep that consistent throughout your writing.

Don't rush through writing for your chosen audience either. Take your time to organize your chapbook for the biggest effect, and make sure to read through it cover to cover once you are finished. Look at it from the point of view your target audience will have. Will children understand the story or poems? Will those deep-thinking adults feel what you want them to feel? It's obvious that you can't know what someone else will feel when reading your work, but what is it you intend them to feel?

Map the Journey

As mentioned above, organizing your chapbook content can be key. Because you want to take your reader on a journey, map it out. If you were to take a road trip, you most likely would look at a map and plan ahead where you are going to stop for meals, breaks, sightseeing, etc., leading up to your final destination. Take your readers on that journey. Plan it out for them ahead of time so that when they reach that final destination, they feel like they have experienced an adventure of sorts. They may feel relieved or happy or sad or excited about what they experienced; the joy is in the journey.

End your chapbook with your most powerful piece that concludes the emotional road trip. Even if you are writing for children, leave them excited about what they read or happy that the main character got what they had wanted the whole time. Maybe the ending is literally a character ending their journey. Whatever it is, leave your reader with a solid conclusion they can identify with after reading your work.

Finishing touches

Publishers aren't the only option for getting your chapbook into the hands of those who will treasure it. There's always something brilliant about limited editions, and chapbooks are no exception. Once you have written the content for your chapbook, you can decide how you want it to look. Will there be a subtle drawing on the cover? Or do you have illustrations that match your chapbook theme? Maybe you want a classic, leather-covered chapbook that evokes chapbooks of yore. Whatever you choose, it's easy to make an exceptional hand-sewn chapbook.

You will need to choose the paper for the content, the cover material, the stitching material, and whatever cover art you want. You will also want to decide what size to make your chapbook. We recommend trying a few basic paper folds to see what fits your idea and your chapbook theme the best. It doesn't even have to be square or rectangular! Get creative to show off your chapbook in a unique way. For example, if you're making a Valentine's Day chapbook filled with poems about love, you could make a chapbook in the shape of a heart. Books in varying shapes are somewhat rare these days, so making a choice like that will really make your chapbook stand out.

To read about how to sew a basic chapbook, check out the Felt Magnet's illustrated, step-by-step guide.

Regardless of your topic, layout, audience, or final destination, chapbooks should have a piece of you in them. Select your favorite poems or short stories, decide what shows your personality, and put it together using the tips above. Why wait? Start joining poets and writers from the past and leave your mark with a brilliant chapbook that is all your own.

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