Self-Publishing Chapbooks – Personal & Precious

by | Nov 25, 2009

self-publishing chapbooks can be fun
Chapbooks can be a lot of fun.Photo courtesy Betty Ming Liu

I recently came across a blog by Betty Ming Liu, an award-winning teacher of writing and journalism at NYU, The New School, Media Bistro, and Sarah Lawrence College’s Writing Institute. She recently learned a lot about self-publishing chapbooks at a panel discussion devoted to the topic.

My father, Roy Friedlander, was a printer who apprenticed in the Compositor’s union in 1933, and I grew up around books. Later, he would bring home chapbooks like these and other ephemeral printed pieces.

He worked his entire life in commercial printing, business forms printing, briefly at the New York Times and later as a teacher at the New York School of Printing. I think these books, almost exclusively by poets, short story writers and graphic artists, really appealed to him because they were so different than what printing usually meant for him.

Now that the holiday season is here, I started thinking how wonderful a gift a chapbook can be for a writer who wants to share her work with friends and family. It’s a way of bringing publication into your own hands, and of seeing at least some of your work in print. A well-designed chapbook, neatly produced and sewn up, would be valued by whoever received it.

What Is A Chapbook?

17th Century Chapbook Peddler

17th Century Chapbook Peddler

According to The Chapbook Review, they are “slim, soft-cover books, usually inexpensively produced and independently published.” In fact, the form of a chapbook is largely undefined. Today, many poets use chapbooks to issue poems, assembling them by hand from pages they’ve printed themselves.

Although small presses may issue chapbooks that have been printed with engravings, lino cuts, or letterpress printing, none of these are required. In its simplest form, a chapbook might be a cover printed on slightly heavier, or colored, paper, with several folded sheets sewn inside the cover.

This simple and easy to produce “booklet” can easily become a vehicle for your creative prowess. Adding an illustration to the cover will make it more attractive. Look at line drawings, where there are no gray tones, for the best and most traditional match for your content.

What will you put inside your chapbook? The choices are pretty unlimited. I’ve seen lovely chapbooks with poem sequences, a single short story or essay, or a combination of poems, stories, and drawings. Sometimes the chapbooks have limitation statements inside the back cover which add an exclusivity to the production. This is a good place to sign the chapbook, if you want to add another personal touch.

Yes, It’s a Business, But There’s More To It Than That

We are usually very focused on publishing as a business, how to make good decisions about publishing, controlling costs, meeting schedules, and all the other necessities that enter into self-publishing as a business. Sometimes it’s refreshing to remind ourselves of the beauty and power of writing in its most unadorned form; the essence of writing as communication.

I particularly like the artisanal quality of these chapbooks. A writer becomes something of a self-publisher, and also a craftsman, as she chooses her work, arranges the pieces, prints her sheets and assembles the chapbooks. Many parts of her being come together to create these very personal creations, and the results speak of the individual attention that goes into them.

There is no more personal expression of the desire of a writer to self-publish than a chapbook, and no more direct way for the writer to bring their work to a small circle of intimates.


You can explore the intriguing and personal world of chapbooks, both those from small presses and ones created by individuals, as well as learn some of the history of chapbooks, and see another set of step-by-step instructions. Here are some links:

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. betty ming liu

    I looked at all your links on chapbooks and man, are you thorough! Great resources. Thanks, Joel! And P.S. — it was a balmy Thanksgiving Day in NYC. We had a great time serving meals. I’m working on my post about it right now….

  2. admin

    @Ross, thanks for the kind words, and what a great link—I’m looking forward to exploring Hamish MacDonald’s world, thanks for that!

  3. Ross Slater

    Hi Joel – great post. Always like reading your thoughts. You might want to check out a friend of mine who has been self-publishing/printing his own full books for a few years now. They are works of art and he has been offering free online lessons on how he does it. Check out

  4. admin

    @Mike, we met a few times at the BAIPA meetings, and you also generously gave me one of your nifty and very funny books at the recent NCIBA show where you were signing. Thanks for your kinds words, too. Happy Thanksgiving.

  5. admin

    @Betty, and thanks to you for reawakening an old interest in chapbooks, and for helping with people less fortunate today. And yes, I remember all those construction paper things, I have a pile of them from my son’s primary school days still out in the garage. Happy Thanksgiving to you too, hope it’s not too cold in NYC, and please feel free to jump in here any time you want!

  6. betty ming liu

    Thanks for hosting this Thanksgiving Day chapbook feast. I’m so glad you’ve invited me to the table! Heading out to feed the homeless right now but will def return later to check out all your additional links on this topic. Btw, after reading my post, a friend reminded me that most of us actually are familiar with chapbooks from our elementary school days…think of all those little things we made out of construction paper or that our kids bring home from school now. Those count as chapbooks too, don’t they? Happy T-Day to you in Cali and thanks again for including my blog!

  7. Mike Lipsey

    Terrific website! Lots of useful info. I found you following something on twitter, but I’m in Marin. We might even have met somewhere.

  8. admin

    @BookWhirl, it’s a pleasure. These chapbooks are such personal creations they have a special place in the scope of self-publishing. And anyone can make one!


    Great post. Thank for the informative post about chap books. Now i know where to redirect friends when they ask me about publishing. Thanks again.

  10. admin

    I hope readers will be tempted to go look at Betty’s blog, which is delightful and unique.



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