Since I first heard about chapbooks (probably my first year of graduate school, where I learned just how little I knew about publishing in general), I’ve loved the form: what better way to consume a text, be it poetry, nonfiction, or prose, than in small, carefully curated bites? Most chapbooks contain thematically or formally related work, which gives them a sense of cohesion that larger books often lack: there is, at least in my experience, a great deal of “filler” in many poetry, short story, or nonfiction collections. The chapbook makes a writer really consider what pieces work when pressed against each other, which usually results in a stronger, more potent little book.
The chapbook also provides an opportunity for taking chances with design in print publishing. Publishers such as Dancing Girl Press, Ugly Duckling Presse, and Tarpaulin Sky Press put a great deal of attention into design and the tactile quality of the book—some presses even hand-make each book, something that it is impossible to do with a more mass-produced full-length collection due to cost and time prohibitions. Buying a chapbook is one of the last ways to feel that a book has actually been lovingly assembled by a person. The downside is the limited nature of the books: once they are gone, they are often gone for good. But maybe that is part of the beauty of the form—it is limited, unlike many things in our very virtual world.
What to do, then, with online chapbooks? The form itself is perfect for the internet: it isn’t too long, which can be a problem for readers who get eye strain, and the way that we consume media online—often in not more than two or three page articles at a time—seems to fit the chapbook model. Many online chapbook publishers go with a very basic, easy-to-read and easy to access PDF model. Beard of Bees, for example, has been publishing PDF chapbooks with a clean, simple, and consistent design since 2001. Some newer publishers, though, are paying as much attention to the design of the chapbook in an online space as print publishers.
Blue Hour Press (who published my chapbook, Splice, in 2011), create beautifully designed chapbooks using Issu, which allows for a more easily navigable, two-page design. Blue Hour Press chapbooks often incorporate visual elements such as photography or drawing, which can be cumbersome in PDF form and economically difficult in print form. Floating Wolf Quarterly publishes chapbooks right from the website using an extremely easy paging format. Unlike more old-fashioned click-through poetry chapbooks, Floating Wolf Quarterly’s format makes paging through their chapbooks feel like reading a physical book.
Online chapbooks are unlikely to completely replace the traditional print chapbook (and for those who lament the death of the book, I can only roll my eyes—I buy both electronic and print books, and always will), but they do provide a kind of access to poetry that was not possible 20 years ago: a small print run of a chapbook would be unlikely to reach readers living in rural Oklahoma (where I grew up) in 1994, but a Google search of “online chapbooks” can easily get a reader in 2012 to one of these websites. Now that publishers are putting as much attention into the craft of creating a book as the author did into creating the work to go inside it, online chapbooks have become an art form of their own.
Letitia Trent’s first full-length collection, “One Perfect Bird,” is available from Sundress publications. Her work has appeared in the Denver Quarterly, The Black Warrior Review, Fence, Folio, The Journal, Mipoesias, Ootoliths, Blazevox, and many others. Her chapbooks are Splice (Blue Hour Press) and The Medical Diaries (Scantily Clad Press). She was the 2010 winner of the Alumni Flash Writing Award from the Ohio State University’s The Journal and has been awarded fellowships from The Vermont Studio Center and the MacDowell Colony.