Not so long ago -- about 15 years -- a "real" or "serious" poet wouldn't be caught DEAD issuing a chapbook. Only losers would try to preserve their work in little stapled, spineless booklets! Because desktop publishing as we know it did not exist, the booklets were either hand-set or photocopied. That was the extent of alternative publishing -- the only way for poets to take publishing into their own hands. A book reviewer back then, I swatted chapbooks away like flies. I saw them knee-deep at secondhand bookstores. Well, things have changed and chapbooks are important now.
Cherry Pie Press since 2005 has published a series of poetry chapbooks by Midwestern women. They are beautifully produced and the poetry is hot and it keeps coming: Three new books this year. A friend of mine, Pamela Garvey, won a chapbook contest last year; her chapbook is titled Fear (Finishing Line Press), and each copy is threaded through with a satin rattail ribbon, different colors: mine is wine-red. Poets with traditional publishers will issue chapbooks if they've got some work that's too edgy for the suits. Ted Hughes issued 110 copies (that's all!) of a chapbook titled Howls & Whispers (1998), 11 poems from the Birthday Letters series that he, or somebody, thought were too edgy to publish in the regular book. In a rare-book room I read copy #75. Online I found a deluxe edition for sale that costs USD $27,500. Mostly, though, chapbooks are a heck of a lot more affordable than normal books of poetry, and they're mostly meat, very little gristle. A book of 20 or 30 poems that are ALL good is positively intoxicating.
I'm even urging chapbook publication on poets who have lots of good poems but not enough for a full-length manuscript, or who have full-length manuscripts they can't publish. Chapbooks can be handsomely made, even at home, and circulated and sold, mainly at poetry readings, but also through flyers, local bookstores, and the Internet.
And as far as I can see, no poet today is ever sorry that he or she issued a chapbook. Poets, consider it. And maybe it's time for some fiction or nonfiction writers to do it too.