Friday, August 28, 2009

Making your own poetry chapbooks: Everything you need to know

I'll try to keep the personal anecdotes to a minimum on this one and mention them only as they pertain to Chapbook making, with the hope that this post helps anyone out there who has never made a Chapbook. With easy to follow headings!

Why Should I Make a Chapbook?

If you're a poet, and you don't have a published book to sell, you need a chapbook. And if you already have a published book, it's not a bad idea to have one either. A chapbook is a poet's business card. But why not just actually print a business card? Because your 'business' is a strange one. After a reading, it is unlikely that the woman in the back who was so inspired by your words actually wants your business. What is she going to do, have you read at her kid's birthday party?

Of course, it might do well to have business cards as well, because maybe that woman is an English professor, or an agent. But the great majority of people in an audience aren't interested in hiring you, they're interested in your work, so it's a good idea to have a small book of some of your poems (preferably some of the ones you read) to take home with them. Maybe only as a souvenir, but maybe as something they really will go back and read sometimes.

And if you're already published, a chapbook is a good way of sharing some of your new work, as well as something for those people in the audience who can't shell out 20 books for a book. Or don't want to. If my brother and I were in the audience of a poetry reading 6 years ago, I might buy a chapbook because I was a poor student who wished he could afford the book, and my brother might buy it because he has no real interest in reading 60+ poems, but was actually moved enough to want to walk away with something.

So What are my Options?

You basically have three options, after you've decided that yes, you want a chapbook. There is the do-it-yourself option, the do-most-of-it-yourself option (hereafter called the Kinko’s option), and then there's the expensive option. More on that later.

I will, in each section, go over some of the same things over and over again. Not because I think you, the intrepid chapbook crafter is irretentive, but because I want those of you who are going to skip right to the option you want to not have to jump back and forth in this blog entry to figure out what I'm talking about.

1. The Do-It-Yourself Option

This is by far the most inexpensive way to go about making a chapbook, but don't let that stop you. This affords the greatest customization. Cheap is what it will cost you, it's not necessarily what it will look like. Although if you're not very crafty, it could end up looking that way too. But who knows. It may come across as endearing.

First, decide how many pages you want your book to be. Keep in mind that the number must be divisible by four. If you're not great with math, you're just going to have to trust me on this one, but basically, one 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper, folded in half, is going to yield 4 pages. You could of course use smaller, or larger paper, but your printer is going to keep to handle that.

Things to keep in mind. You're doing this yourself. That means that you have to fold these things. It means that your stapler has to go through that many pages. And lastly, unless you have professional equipment, at a certain point, the pages in the middle are going to stick out noticeably further than the ones on the outside edge (near the covers). I would say 5 pages, including the cover, is a good amount for this option, but in any case, you're going to want to take some paper before you've even started and have a test run.

Speaking of test runs, if you want an especially nice touch, you'll want to use card stock as the cover, which comes in a variety of colors at your local Staples or other office supply store. But don't make the mistake I made, and never think to test your printer with card stock until the week before you need a chapbook. My laser printer is incapable of printing to cardstock; it just will not go through the machine. This may be true of all laser printers. I don't know.

Another thing you're going to probably want to get is what seems to be called a long stapler, a long reach stapler or a long arm stapler. It seems that this contraption goes by many names. This is going to be one of the more expensive investments for this option; it costs about $30 for a fairly nice one. You can get it at any office supply store, I'd imagine, but I got mine at Office Depot, I believe. Here you can see it, being lorded over by my cat, Alice. Dusty, because, as I said, my printer can not print card stock. If you don't have or don't want one of these staplers, you can just staple very close to the edge with the book closed (that is, not directly in the center of the spine, with the book open, the way a book is normally threaded or glued). But you'll be stapling through even more paper this way.

Now, for the smoothest ride, you're going to want to print a test run, still without poetry, to see where your poems are going to go. Basically, you're going to open your publishing program of choice. I used word. Make a number of pages with the only writing on the page the corresponding page number. You can see what I mean on the right.

Now is the most frustrating part of this process. Figuring out how to print double sided, in landscape. It's going to be different for every printer. Perhaps your printer is physically capable of printing on two sides. But more than likely, it is not, and you'll just have to remember which way to put paper back in the printer, and what side up, to print double sided. REMEMBER THIS. Write it down. You're going to think you can remember it. But you can't. Just trust me.

Note: In Word, I believe you can achieve this by going to File>Print, and under the section Zoom, choosing 2 pages per sheet. I think choosing A4 scaling will ensure the pages fit just right, but you may have to fiddle with that.

Now that you have a bunch of double sided paper with every number on it once, fold it down the middle, and staple it. This is what your book will look like, more or less. Any troubles you've had doing this are not going to get much easier.

The rest of this process is a breeze. Now that you know where the numbers fall, you can paste your poems into the appropriate page numbers and know where they will go. Keep in mind that a couple of the 'pages' will be the back cover or inside covers, if you don't want to print on those. Also keep in mind that anything you write will be half the size that you're used to. That is, if you type something in 10 font, it will be cut in half on the paper. I am not sure if that literally translates to 5 or not. You'll probably want, at the end of this, to print one final test copy to see if everything looks good.

Here's a photo of two hand-made chapbooks. The one on the left shows a chapbook that doesn't follow the conventional size of a chapbook; an example of some of the freedom allowed. And it's very nice, it's called The Bones of Saints Under Glass, by Jeff Fleming. The one on the right is a chapbook by Bianca Spriggs, Constella and the 7-Layer Skin. Bianca hand-drew all the art on her covers, and each one was a little different. It made buying her book special. And of course, the possibilities are endless. Paint your covers, cut things out of them, glue things to them. And the list goes on.

2. The Kinko’s Option

I have done this a few times, and I must say, the Kinko’s option yields nice results, but man is it hell to get just the way you want. It depends entirely on who you're speaking to whether or not they seem to have any idea what you're talking about. And the odds never seem to be in your favor. If you're doing this option, make sure you're doing it well enough in advance that they can reprint the books for you if they mess up. Yes, it can happen. The first time I went, despite what I thought was very clear instructions that I wanted regular computer paper folded in half, I received chapbooks that were CD sized. It wasn't unreadable, but it was awkward and not what I wanted, at all. Kinko’s is supposed to print you a test copy that you okay, but this doesn't guarantee anything, it just raises the chances that your book will turn out okay.

The hardest part of this is going to be figuring out how Kinko’s orders its pages. What I finally did this last time (I went to Kinko’s 4 times in one day trying to explain what I wanted) was number a word document, each page a single number from 1-20 (I wanted a 20 page book) and have them print that as if it were a booklet I was making. That way, I could put the poems exactly where I wanted them. Note: You'll probably want to insert blank pages on the inside and back cover. But also keep in mind that you're paying for this, and each page adds quite a bit of cost to the final product, so you may actually want to consolidate your pages so that the inside back cover has your contact info, for instance.

Kinko’s can read most file formats, but they ultimately use .PDF (Adobe Acrobat's format), so if you have something that saves to that, you might want to save to that format as well as word and any other format you think they might read. You can of course call and ask, but I always bring several copies of the same file, on more than one media if possible, just in case.

Also keep in mind that at Kinko’s, much of the time you're using is being paid for. I think Kinko’s will charge you if you ask them to reorder your pages ($20, I believe it was), and if you want to do it yourself on one of their computers, you'll be paying per-minute charges. And if your Kinko’s is like mine, you'll be paying for 5 minutes worth of time just waiting for your file to load. Also, remember that since this book is a regular sized sheet of paper folded in half, all the fonts will appear smaller than normal. Try to remember what size half a piece of paper is, ignore the font number, and make your font a size relative to the page itself.

At the end, you'll be asking for a booklet, double sided. Ask them to see the final product, and make sure to sit there and make sure everything looks the way you want it. Page order, alignment, everything. They can wait.

All my trashing aside, in the end, you have a lot of options with Kinko’s. You have a number of really nice cardstock covers to choose from. They trim the edges of your books which means even a really thick chapbook will have smooth edges (no middle pages sticking out in a V). And if you want to go all out, you could even choose to print in color, or on glossy paper, although that can get very expensive.

An example: At my Kinko’s, I had 25 chapbooks made. Each was a total of 1 sheet of cardstock, and 4 sheets of paper (that's 20 pages, counting the inside and back covers, 16 not counting them). I printed my books on the cheapest paper, in black and white, and had them staple them twice. I don't believe they trimmed my chapbooks, because they were so small. My final cost plus tax was $37.37. Which isn't bad, but each addition of a page or any other frill would compound that, as well as any more copies I would want to get. Also, $30 is what it would cost to buy a long arm stapler, so you can see why making these yourself can save you a ton of money, since you'll never need to buy another one of those again after buying it.

3. The Expensive Option

I have never taken this option. But there are also sites like or where you can have professionally bound and produced books. The production is very professional, although dependent upon your own skill at designing. In fact, in this respect, it can be dangerous to use these services, because nothing stands out more than a well printed, and yet very ugly or poorly designed, book.

There are a ton of options, including hardcover books, and extremely nice glossy pages. There really is no better option if you want to sell something that looks outstanding. But keep in mind how many times you've walked past a book you thought looked really nice. Your poetry coming in a nice package won't make anyone buy something they wouldn't have bought in the first place, and let's face it, it's a feat to get someone to buy poetry in the first place. Keep in mind, also, that this does not count as being published, or even as publishing a chapbook, to any of the places that you are going to want to say this to (competitions, etc).

These sites have their own walkthroughs, so I won't walk you through a walkthrough. But be prepared. A set of 25 books comparable to the ones I got done at Kinko’s for $37.37 (about the same size, about the same page count) would cost me over $150 at And unless you want to eat that cost, you're going to have to try to sell them for that much more as well.

Final Word

Wow. That's some writing. I decided to go through all this because of how much trouble I had in doing it myself, and how hard it was for me to find any info anywhere online. I hope it was informative. If you have any questions, feel free to ask, and if you can link to this article, that'd be great, because it doesn't help for the information to now be out there, but floating just outside of everyone's vision.

Edit/Update: Brian Campbell has let me know about an easy to use chapbook template for anyone who has a copy of Microsoft Publisher. The file is hosted at The League of Canadian Poets.


  1. Thanks for this sensible take on the options and benefits.

  2. Soooo good to know all of this!! I am contemplating this right now, and I think this will vastly help with my decision (Kinko's, here I come).

  3. A good write-up. For Sky of Ink Press, I downloaded a chapbook program from the League of Canadian Poets website (you have to be a member, tho, to get access). We were able to alter its configuration to take legal sized pages folded in half, which is size I like for poetry, as it provides "breathing room" esp. for long lines. The nice thing about this program is that is that you paste the poems in sequentially and it automatically recto-versos them for you in the right order. Then we took the file to our local copy shop and presto! No need to staple oneself, etc.

    I'm sure one could probably download a chapbook program from somewhere -- maybe your state or national poetry association. It seems like a variation on Publisher.

  4. Eh voila! Here's the chapbook template! Seems anyone can download it.

  5. Thanks for the comments everyone!

    And Brian, thanks for the link! I will update this post shortly. It will definitely be of some use to those who have Publisher. Sadly, however, I do not.

  6. Thanks for the great info. I wasn't sure what to use for the covers and didn't know if there was a stapler long enough to reach the middle. I printed my test book on regular paper, but it will look so great now that I know how to perfect it.

  7. I'm glad I could help.

  8. Thank you. I appreciate that you took the time to educate the world about this. It is really helpful!

  9. this helped me out a lot!! maybe you can teach me how to set up my blog too haha thank you!

  10. This going to be very helpful in my poetry course. We have to make a chapbook as our final portfolio. Thanks.

    I'm with you Victoria, I also need to set up a decent blog ... mine looks ... I dunno, childish?

    Thanks again Keith.

    PS Brian Campbell's link from August 30, 2009 is not working. Is there an updated link?

  11. Some good advice here.
    one thing i can suggest is to use a regular stapler and a cork board.Open up the stapler so it is like an open penknife,lay the chapbook face up on the cork board and push a couple of staples into the spine of the book.They will go through the paper and into the cork board underneath.Slowly and carefully lift off the chapbook and turn it over.Now fold the ends of the staples together and you ahve saved yourself the price of a fancy stapler!

  12. The link you put up about chapbooks did not go there...says it no longer exists. Too many poets went there? The world needs more info on this!

  13. A really helpful outline of the process, thank you very much.

  14. Melody Sokolow (FB "Jesse Antonia Barish"January 13, 2017 at 10:29 PM

    I have a lot of material that I printed out one copy, each poem, using mostly a google/image print with each..........and want to at least have some kind of "calling card" but am not tech-savvy. Who do you suggest and do I copyright someplace before having someone create a chapbook for me?