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What is a Chapbook?

A chapbook is a small collection of poetry or prose, typically focused on a single theme. These pocket-sized booklets have a storied history, often used to bring literature to the masses. They're a canvas for emerging writers and a niche for collectors. What tales might a chapbook hold for you? Uncover the unique charm of these literary treasures.
Sheri Cyprus
Sheri Cyprus

A chapbook is an inexpensively-produced thin booklet. It gets its name from the chapmen, or pedlars, that sold these booklets as early as the 16th century. Chapbooks are small in size and often fit into pockets. Chapbook is a catch-all term as the material in the booklet can be anything from religious tracts to nursery rhymes. Some chapbooks may contain political prose, while others hold poetry.

A basic 16 page chapbook can be made by taking eight sheets of standard sized paper, folding them lengthwise and then placing staples in the center fold. You would double the amount of pages to make 32 pages, the maximum of most chapbooks. Some booklets may be as thick as 64 pages, but this are rare for chapbooks.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

After the 19th century, chapbooks were mostly replaced by the appearance of inexpensive newspapers. However, before that they were very popular. Families read them out loud in their homes as did the patrons of alehouses. Many people that didn't have access to libraries bought them, especially those in rural areas. Since extra paper was scare, the chapbooks, once they were read, were often used for baking and other household uses such as toilet paper.

Chapmen went door-to-door selling the booklets and also sold them at fairs and other public events. They usually received each chapbook on credit from the publisher and then would go back and pay for the printing of each of the copies they had sold. The early chapbook was not only produced in Britain, but also the United States and some parts of South America.

Today the chapbook is mostly associated with poetry and can be inexpensively self-published. Some people self-publish recipes this way also. Cookbook covers in a modern chapbook format are often laminated. Today's computer software programs make it very easy to produce chapbooks. Chapbook author-publishers sometimes sell their books for a few dollars each on their websites, at poetry readings or perhaps even at an independent bookstore.

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    • Woman standing behind a stack of books
      Woman standing behind a stack of books