In Praise of the Lowly Chapbook

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Editorial by Bryce Milligan

Bryce Milligan

Bryce Milligan

SAN ANTONIO: As a regional publisher whose books range from handmade chapbooks to 600-page works of fiction and history, I have been wondering what will become of the physical book in this brave new digital world. Already my paper-and-ink sales are declining as my ebook sales increase—except for, of all things, the lowly chapbook. I began to wonder why this might be, and what it portends.

I am an author, an editor, a publisher, a book designer. I’m married to a librarian. My century-old house doesn’t have insulation, it has books. I’m a poster child for a little bibliophilic introspection.

The debate between handcraft and more modern means of production in the book world has been going on since medieval scribes threw up their hands in horror at Gutenberg’s press. Over the past half millennium, the debate has resurfaced every single time there has been an improvement in the means of getting text before the eyes of a reader. Today, even the phrase “getting a book into a reader’s hands” seems somewhat archaic.

The future is writ upon the wall for all to see, and it spells doom for lovers of the physical book. It’s okay. We’re human. We’ll adapt. That much, at least, is in the DNA.

But I do not think that the average reader—no matter how happy he or she is with their voluminous digital libraries on their diminutive screens—will be satisfied to never have access to a true literary artifact, something tangible that connects them to a favorite author. It makes perfect sense that larger printed works violate both our economic and our evolving green sensibilities, but small artifacts of the author may remain a necessity, if only a psychological one.

Which brings me back to the chapbook. Gutenberg’s first production may have been a holy monster of a book, but it was less than a century before the most common form of literature available to the common man—aside from the broadside—was the cheap book, the chapbook. The latest poems, political tracts, learned monographs, all came out in this form. It never went away, but it did evolve into a plethora of forms that are still with us. The most enduring is the literary chapbook, often a limited edition signed by the author. In short, it is (generally) an inexpensive literary artifact.

The back pages of every issue of Poets & Writers Magazine are evidence of the enduring popularity of the chapbook as an entry vehicle for new authors. The Festival of the Chapbook, held in several locations across New York City last spring, showed the breadth of imaginative design concepts this small form continues to inspire. Its literary potential is well known. The chapbook’s 20th century highlights ranged from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock to Howl. The 21st century began with Frank Bidart’s chapbook, Music Like Dirt (Sarabande Books) making it to the final round for the Pulitzer in 2003.

As the editor of Wings Press, I run the Whitebird Chapbook Series, an annual poetry competition that draws a few hundred submissions. Wings also publishes periodic chapbooks when the right material comes along—a single essay, such as Robert Flynn’s Burying the Farm, a collection of related poems like Donald Hall’s Winter Poems from Eagle Pond, or a collection of flash fiction, like Ana Castillo’s new Bocaditos.

The books themselves run the gamut of printing and binding techniques: letterpress, offset, even laser printing; commissioned handmade paper, high-end linen paper, best-available-at-the-local-paper-store-on-Friday-afternoon paper; almost all have hand-sewn bindings—Coptic, Japanese, or plain saddle stitching. All are signed and numbered, with print runs no larger than 500 copies. Prices range from $14 to $75. What they all have in common is that they almost always sell out within the first year or two and, being “collectibles,” the last few available copies inevitably escalate in value, sometimes precipitously.

Inevitably, in the very near future, publishing a paper edition of a book, even of moderate size, will no longer be a viable economic option. At that point, the sole surviving physical publication of this press and many others may in fact be the chapbook, consciously (and shamelessly, I might add) created to be a literary artifact, designed in consultation with the author, sometimes using materials associated with the author, and actually handled by the author. You just can’t appreciate (or own) an illegible signature on screen the way you can one on paper. And besides, what are all those writers going to sell and sign at their readings, downloads?

Bryce Milligan is the author of several books for children and young adults, as well as several volumes of poetry and numerous essays and reviews. He is the publisher/editor of Wings Press in San Antonio, Texas.

CONTACT: Bryce Milligan directly.

BROWSE: The Wings Press Web site.

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