What’s the difference between a chapbook and a full-length collection?

If you’re newer to the poetry publishing world, you’ve probably heard the two different terms commonly used to describe books of poetry, but you might not know the real differences between them. It’s not just about size. Here’s a quick lesson about what makes chapbooks and full-length poetry collections distinct from each other, as well as the intricate rules that the publishing world has built around them.

What Makes a Chapbook?

Although the exact page ranges vary from publisher to publisher, the generally accepted length for chapbook manuscripts is between 15 and 30 pages of poems. There is also a subcategory here called micro-chapbooks that are usually 10 pages or less. But these slim booklets are more than just poetry collections in miniature. If a full-length collection is a house, a chapbook wouldn’t be a Barbie Dreamhouse version. It would be a single room within the life-size house, maybe even the doll room — a small space where the walls are lined with a single obsession, its glass eyes staring back at you from all sides. They don’t need to be explicitly linked or in a strict series, but the poems in a chapbook manuscript should all be poems on the same subject — a meditation that builds to an idea that is greater than any of the individual poems alone.

Many chapbooks (sometimes called pamphlets) are produced as traditional perfect-bound or saddle-stitched paperbacks, but there is also a vibrant subculture of the handmade and DIY zine-type production. Poets and publishers have embraced the smaller stature of chapbooks — both in terms of size and audience — by turning them into physical (and conceptual) art objects in limited editions. One of the best examples of this is the work done by Container Books, where they really do think outside the traditional book-shaped box. They re-imagine the chapbook in a way in which the object itself represents the contents: chapbooks as a View-Master reel and viewer toy, as a series of cross-stitch pillow kits, as tincture bottles on a beautiful wooden stand with the text on the bottle labels, as a mineral collection box with each poem printed on gemstone-shaped origami. Other publishers produce beautiful book-shaped chaps with letterpress-printed covers and hand-stitched bindings. But even for those that aren’t published in limited editions, distribution for most chapbooks is much smaller than for full-length collections because most don’t have ISBNs and aren’t carried by the larger distributors — which means it’s harder to get them on bookstore shelves. In so many ways, chapbooks are treated as not-quite-books, which has its advantages (see above: incredible art objects!) and its disadvantages (see above also: limited distribution & audience reach).

In addition to Container Books, here are a few of our favorite chapbook publishers who are out there doing the good work:

· Black Lawrence Press

· Bull City Press

· Burnside Review

· The Cupboard Pamphlet (Note: Their chapbooks are prose only, but I bet they’d consider a chapbook of prose poems!)

· Dancing Girl Press

· Glass Poetry Press

· Greying Ghost Press

· Porkbelly Press

· Sibling Rivalry Press

· Tupelo Press

· Ugly Duckling Presse

What Makes a Full-Length Poetry Collection?

As with chapbooks, exact page ranges for full-length poetry collections depend on the preferences of the publisher you end up working with. But the generally accepted length requirements are between 40 and 80 pages of poems. Obviously, this allows poetry collections to be a little more sprawling in their content. But even in a three-bedroom, two-bath house, there will be themes and threads that connect each of the rooms into a cohesive narrative. Like a chapbook, a collection should contain poems that are closely related to each other in subject and style. But unlike a chapbook, a collection can afford to explore tangential subjects and expand upon those ideas.

Although some get the case-bound, glossy-jacketed hardback treatment, nearly all full-length collections are produced as perfect-bound paperbacks. These are what the reading, reviewing, and publishing worlds consider to be true BOOK books in all the ways that help them to get into the hands of the most readers. Full-length poetry collections, in general, receive much wider distribution. They all have ISBNs, bigger print runs, and large distributors make sure they make it to the libraries, the independent booksellers, and even the Barnes-and-Nobles and Amazons of the world. They get the attention of more reviewers and are eligible for the full range of post-publication book prizes from regional best-book-of-the-year competitions to the Pulitzer and National Book Awards.

Publishers of full-length poetry collections range in size from tiny, volunteer-run micro-presses to large, prestigious publishers of national renown with deep pockets for book production and marketing. Here are just a few of our favorites publishing some of the best poetry collections in the world today:

· Alice James Books

· Birds LLC.

· BOA Editions

· Coffee House Press

· Copper Canyon Press

· Four Way Books

· Graywolf Press

· Kore Press

· Milkweed Editions

· Octopus Books

· Persea Books

· Perugia Press

· Pleiades Press

· Red Hen Press

· Sarabande Books

· Sundress Publications

· Tinderbox Editions

· Tupelo Press

· University of Akron Press

· YesYes Books

Further Publication Considerations

So what do you do with all of this information? How do you use it to your advantage? When assembling your manuscripts and preparing to send them out publishers, there are some frequent questions that arise about the rules and etiquette concerning the relationship between these two book formats. Having the answers to those questions can help you better plan out your manuscripts and your publishing ambitions for them.

On First Book Contests

You only get one first book and, in poetry, there’s a lot of importance placed on the “debut.” The debutante balls of the poetry world are the First Book Contests — publisher-run contests (usually with well-known guest judges) for which only poets who have not yet published a book are eligible to submit his/her/their manuscripts. But what if you have already published a chapbook or two? Many poets consider a chapbook a stepping-stone toward a full-length collection, so they will first assemble & publish the former before even attempting the latter. As we mentioned above, chapbooks are considered not-quite-books by the publishing world. So, if a poet has published a chapbook but still hasn’t published a full-length collection, he/she/they are still eligible for these more exclusive contests.

On Publishing Chapbooks After a Full-Length Collection

Although many poets publish a chapbook and then a full-length, this is not a rule or requirement regarding the order in which this is done. You don’t have to publish one before the other. You also don’t have to publish both! You can stick to just chapbooks or just full-length collections. And although it is absolutely a milestone to publish your first full-length, it’s not a graduation from chapbooks, by any means. You can publish chapbooks at any point in your poetic career. The most important thing is for you to choose unapologetically the format that best fits the work.

On Including the Same Poems in a Chapbook & a Full-Length Poetry Collection

This is where the territory gets a little trickier to navigate because the rules are even less clear. The general guide to follow here is order of publication. We know we can publish individual poems in literary magazines and then later publish them in a chapbook or full-length manuscript. But what about publishing poems from a chapbook in a full-length or vice versa? Hierarchically, chapbooks are lower on the publishing food chain than full-lengths, which means it is absolutely acceptable for the poems from a chap to be cannibalized into a full-length manuscript because that cardinal rule of “not previously published in this format” remains unbroken. However, when the roles are reversed, it’s a little more unclear. If poems have already been previously published in a full-length, they have already surpassed the previously published watermark and probably cannot be in a chapbook afterward. But this is a question best answered by the specific publisher(s) you’re working with as they will have their own internal sets of rules when it comes to rights and reprints. If your full-length and chapbook manuscripts sharing poems have found publishers and will be released concurrently then you’ll probably be fine, but you’ll need to monitor the production timelines closely and make sure that both publishers are aware of the situation and in agreement.

If you have any other questions about the wonderful world of chapbooks and full-length poetry collections, let us know and we’ll try to update this post with the answers (if we have them). And remember, if you have a manuscript of any size that you want editorial feedback on, come see us at Tell Tell Poetry Editing for a manuscript evaluation or overhaul.

Pssstt. This first appeared on Tell Tell Poetry!

Tell Tell Poetry is a poetry resource site for secret poets, wannabe poets, and Anti-MFA dreamers of the world.