I recently published a chapbook, Brocade Light, through Montreal’s new feminist small press, Tente, run by Angela Carr and Bronwyn Haslam. Haslam was able to arrange a launch of the chapbook in Calgary when she came to visit over Christmas. When I arrived at the reading I was surprised by how lovely the hand-stitched, hot-stamped books were, but dismayed that Haslam planned to charge $15 for them. Accustomed to readings where chapbooks are distributed for free or available for just a few dollars, nobody, I thought, is going to pay $15 for a chapbook. I was wrong. By the end of the evening, I had signed around eight copies.
So what is a chapbook worth? Is it better to quickly manufacture a big stack of photocopied books and distribute them for free, or is it better to produce more carefully made books to sell? What expectations do each of these types of books produce in their audience? Each method has its own advantages and drawbacks. The advantage of the free chapbook is obvious—lots of people leave the reading with a copy of your work. However, getting a person to take a chapbook home with them is only half the battle—you want that person to read your work. I suspect free chapbooks often end up stuffed in a drawer unread, since the owners have little motivation to take the work seriously when they did not invest any thought or cash in acquiring the book. Another important advantage of free chapbooks, however, is that they are highly democratic. It’s nice that the interested reader can take home a piece of the reading even when they’re broke.
The expensive chapbooks, on the other hand, inspire more seriousness. Having to invest a few dollars in a book means that the owner actually wants it. This does not guarantee that the owner will read the book once they get it home, but I think these books stand a better chance. The more expensive books are often better made and more likely not only to last, but also to be something that you’d like on your shelf instead of crammed in the back of your closet. There is, however, the risk that no one will want to buy an expensive chapbook. I know small press publishers who have sworn off producing books for this very reason—they would spend a lot of time making beautiful books that no one wanted to buy. These books may also create an odd tension—poetry circles can be drawn rather small, and if we were all regularly selling expensive chapbooks, we may find ourselves trading the same $20 bill back and forth.
Putting issues of community aside, this discussion leads to the question of whether or not writers should expect payment for their work. There is a consensus among the poets I know that the only way you can get people to read poetry is if you give it away for free. It is true that poetry no longer occupies the revered position it did in previous centuries. The precarious state of many small professional publishers and the recent closure of many independent bookstores across the country isn’t promising either. But there are still people who love poetry. English students, creative writing students, artists, and poets of all kinds enjoy the stuff, as do many others who don’t write, but love words. By not feeling like we can charge for readings and chapbooks, if even just enough to cover the cost of renting space or buying printer cartridges, we undermine our confidence in ourselves and in our own work. I was shocked that people would pay for my book—but should I be? If poets don’t believe in poetry, why should anyone else?
Helen Hajnoczky recently completed her BA Honours in English and creative writing from the University of Calgary, where her research focused on feminist avant-garde poetics. Her work has appeared in Nod, fillingStation, and Rampike magazines, as well as in a variety of chapbooks. She is the current poetry editor of fillingStation magazine.