If you’ve been submitting your chapbook manuscript and watching your bank account shrink because of reading fees, this question may be on your mind. Here are some thoughts on the subject from my own experience and observation.
Over the past 10 years, the world of publishing has been inundated with MFA graduates, most with at least a chapbook-sized creative thesis presumed to be ready for publication. That was me in 2007. When my final mentor at Bennington told me, when asked, that about 50% of my creative thesis would make for a good manuscript, my first thought was “Oh, chapbook.” That was not meant in the most positive way at that time.
Like so many others of the pre-millenial generation, I was skeptical of the merit of chapbooks. Several friends had chapbooks published by very, very small presses and had tales of woe about doing their own marketing, chasing down reading venues, etc. However, over the past 15 years the chapbook has become a highly respectable means of publication, with more presses including chapbook titles in their catalogs. This trend encourages more poets to complete chapbook manuscripts rather than full-length collections, as did I after five years of struggling with the issue.
Then there is the cost of producing a printed chapbook. Most contest fees cover the cost, but for publishers that do not run contests, have no major outside funding, or require no reading fees, the number of chapbooks they can produce is smaller. Even those publishers that operate under the contest model are less likely to opt to publish additional manuscripts from the list of non-winning finalists than in times past. Thankfully for me, the judge of Bright Hill’s 2013 chapbook contest selected my chapbook and another as co-winners and Bright Hill was gracious enough to publish both.
Another element is the increasing popularity of publishing ebooks rather than print. It may be difficult for some poets (again, of certain generations) to consider ebooks equivalent to the printed page, despite the fact that an online presence has the potential to reach far more readers than a 200 book print run.
There is also a growing market for multi-media publishing to which some publishers are migrating, mostly in the digital realm, as more technologically savvy editors assume their roles as those decision-makers.
Another factor is timing. Poets & Writers runs an annual feature introducing new poets with first books. While these are not chapbooks, there is one similarity to be observed. Few of those chosen for this special section had their manuscripts picked up immediately. For many it was several years. I was thrilled that I had only submitted my chapbook to 15 publishers/contests over the course of seven months prior to it winning at Bright Hill.
Finally, it all comes down to the ultimate decision-maker, be that an editor or a judge. There is no way to predict how many wonderful manuscripts are read and dismissed or passed along for the decision-maker to select just one.
When I began submitting my chapbook, I knew I was competing against some of my friends with strong manuscripts in very different writing styles and I even shared being a finalist with one of them. I told myself to give it a year and then to consider other options. I would advise that you do the same, submitting to as many places as possible, both financially and aesthetically, for at least a full year.
I hope these thoughts help to ease your frustration.
What do you think about this Seth Abramson’s article on the MFA?
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/seth-abramson/creative-writing-master_b_772628.html?ref=fb&src=sp#sb=1221877,b=facebook. Are there too many poets for the world and do poets need advanced degrees?