The term “chapbook” was only coined in the 19th century, though. It came from the term “chapman,” used to describe a salesman who spread these publications.
Before then, various terms were used around the world. For example, the French term “bibliothèque bleue” or “blue library” is due to the blue papers that were sometimes used to wrap the interior pages. Whereas in Spain, they were known as “pliegos sueltos,” which loosely translates to “loose sheets.”
The chapbook fell out of popular use during the 19th century as cheaper newspapers began to serve a similar purpose. A great number of them have also been lost to time, a result of their flimsy structure—the oldest surviving examples date to the mid-late 1600s.
Definition of a Chapbook
A chapbook is a short publication that features a few single pages, folded and bound. These books originated in early modern Europe.
They became popular due to the ease with which they were produced. They were also quite cheap and easy to distribute. The first chapbooks were produced in the 16th century but were at their peak during the 17th and 18th centuries. They contained everything from almanac-like information to folk tales, ballads, nursery rhymes, and more. Sometimes, they featured religious tracts or poetic verses as well.
These books were printed on single pages that were then folded and bound together with a simple stitch. Sometimes they were illustrated with woodcut prints meant to make the entire book more entertaining but sometimes had little relevance to what was actually on the page.
Chapbooks were most commonly read by the lower classes who couldn’t afford books. This didn’t mean that the upper classes never read or enjoyed these publications. There is a record of wealthier families buying higher-quality chapbooks or those bound with leather or another more structurally sound material.
Content of Chapbooks
Today, chapbooks are most commonly used to publish single essays, short collections of poems, or single short stories. But, throughout history, they’ve been used for a variety of purposes. Most commonly, they were used to share information about the popular culture of the day. They allowed gossip and news to travel throughout the country, even into the more rural areas. Chapbooks were meant to entertain with their less than sophisticated narratives. Most chapbooks dealt with one or more of the following:
- History (true and fake)
- Devotion/religious themes
- Farcical humor
- Marriage and sexual themes
Modern chapbooks are usually around the same length as historical chapbooks, but they can also take new, contemporary forms. Sometimes the pages are folded rather than bound. The writer might choose to publish their work on colored paper, with illustrations, and with interesting graphic design choices. Some are quite low-cost and create by individuals with access to small-scale print shops, while others are mass-produced. Some of the big-name publishers, like New York Review Books, have used chapbooks as a way of advertising and marketing.
Chapbooks are popular with amateur and professional poets as well. They can be used to distribute a small collection of poetry that may not, as of yet, attracted a big-name publisher. For some readers, chapbooks are the best possible way to encounter and understand new writer’s materials.
Examples of Chapbooks
William and the Ex-Prime Minister by Carol Ann Duffy
William and the Ex-Prime Minister is a contemporary example of a chapbook published by well-loved Scottish poet Carol Ann Duffy. It was released in 1992 and featured 16 pages of poetry. It was limited to 1,000 copies and can fetch fairly high prices to this day.
Discover Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry.
Memo for Spring by Liz Lochead
Memo for Spring was Lochead’s debut collection. It was published in 1972 and has since been read by a wide audience. It’s forty-eight pages long and can, like Duffy’s ‘William and the Ex-Prime Minister’ fetch high prices.
Explore Liz Lochead’s poetry.
Animal Poems by Ted Hughes
In Animal Poems, Hughes collects some of his best-loved poems. Today, he’s recognized as one of the greatest poets of his age. Often, it is his animal poems that are cited among his best works. Animal Poems was limited to 100 copies, some of which were signed by the poet. The first six included the thirteen poems in the chapbook written out in full.
Read Ted Hughes’ poetry.
Why Do Writers Create Chapbooks?
Writers create chapbooks today when they want to share something they’ve written but either don’t have access to or are unwilling to pay for the services of a large-scale publisher. These books are intimate in a way that mass-produced paperback or hardback books are not. For some writers, this is their preferred format. Even quite well-known authors, like Stephen King, have been known to distribute their work in this form. Chapbooks are the perfect format for new writers seeking to share their poetry or short stories as well. Their short length and easily distributed form allow them to be shared simply among friends, family members, and acquaintances.
Historically, chapbooks were written in order to share stories, news events, religious tracts, and more broadly, to entertain the everyday reader. They were affordable for the lower classes and still enjoyed by those who were more financially stable.
To write a chapbook, one needs to have a small selection of writing. This could be poetry, one or two stories, or an essay. No matter one’s content, it needs to be brief, no more than forty pages worth. Getting it printed or writing it oneself onto the individual pages is the next step.
The term “chapbook” was introduced into common use in the 19th century. It comes from the term “chapman,” which was used to describe a bookseller who distributed these publications.
A chapbook could have anywhere from a few poems to 10 or more. It depends on the length of the poem and the writer’s intention. If they just want to share a few poems on a theme, they might stick to 5-8 poems. Or, if they want to share everything they’ve written throughout a year, they might push it to 20 short poems, each on a single page.
Related Literary Terms
- Novel: a long, written, fictional narrative that includes some amount of realism.
- Short Story: a piece of writing with a narrative that’s shorter than a novel. These stories usually only take one sitting to read.
- Prose: a written and spoken language form that does not make use of a metrical pattern or rhyme scheme.
- Novella: a prose, fiction work that’s shorter than a novel and longer than a short story.
- Narration: the use of commentary, either written or spoken, to tell a story or “narrative.”
- Farce: a genre of comedic literature. It uses exaggerated and outrageous situations to create humor and make the audience laugh.