F. I. Goldhaber on the Evolution of Chapbook Publishing from Cold Type to PageMaker to E-books

You are the author of multiple collections of creative work in several genres and have been publishing in a variety of venues since the 1970s. Talk about technology and the chapbook. What changes have you observed in the ways writers share their work? What is your sense of what the future brings for publishing? How has the evolution of production, distribution, and technology meant for you personally as a writer?

When I was in journalism school in the mid-seventies, a semi-tractor trailer toured campuses introducing students to the Newsroom of the Future. In the trailer, computer terminals hooked to a mainframe produced what we called “cold type,” which in reality was a slick, light-sensitive paper that when processed was trimmed down, waxed, and laid out on paper the same shape and size as the eventual newspaper. It was photographed, and the resulting film was used to expose the light-sensitive plates that were fitted to the offset printing press and transferred ink to paper.

Of course, this technology wasn’t available to chapbook publishers, or even most newspapers. In order to produce a chapbook then, the poet created pages on a typewriter and then photocopied them. While primitive, this was still much more readable and longer lasting than the mimeograph-produced chapbooks available to the beat generation of poets. In both cases, distribution options were limited to what they could sell at readings and a very few local bookstores that might carry a collection of chapbooks from area poets.

I decided when I first saw the Newsroom of the Future that that was where I wanted to work. A few years later near the end of the seventies I had two job offers, one as a news editor for a small weekly paper on the Oregon Coast and the other as  “lifestyle” (the new name for the “woman’s pages”) editor for a six-day a week newspaper in Ellensburg. I chose the latter, even though I feared being trapped in that section of the paper, both to break out of the weekly market and to work in a computerized newsroom. I’ve never regretted the decision because except for producing letters on typewriters connected to first paper tape and then magnetic cards, that was my first chance to work on a computer and I eventually parlayed the knowledge gained into a news editor/feature writer position in West Virginia.

In the mid-eighties, Aldus PageMaker and printers using the same technology as photocopiers changed the options available for self-published chapbooks in a huge way. PageMaker offered professional layout capabilities on a personal computer. Now chapbook publishers had access to multiple fonts (and some got carried away using them for a mishmashed, often unreadable look) and the ability to standardize outside margins, make inside margins larger to allow for binding, automate folios, easily produce printer spreads, etc.

Although most poets didn’t have access to even IBM-compatible computers (which generic PCs were then called), Kinko’s offered workstations they could rent by the hour to design their own book or they could hire someone like me to do it for them.

By then, I operated my own desktop publishing business using PageMaker to design and layout myriad types of publications, including chapbooks, for individuals and small businesses. I purchased PageMaker before I even owned a Windows computer, using it on a runtime version of Windows on what otherwise was a DOS operating system. I used PageMaker to produce newsletters, magazines, books, directories, brochures, flyers, etc. until I upgraded to Adobe (which had purchased PageMaker from Aldus in 1994) InDesign in 2011.

In anticipation of my debut poetry reading in the early eighties, I produced my first chapbook using PageMaker and printed it on a photocopier at an office supply store that offered saddle stitching. I used a friend’s black and white photographs on the cover and as illustrations.

When I worked for newspapers, my words rolled off printing presses in the wee hours of the early morning and were thrown onto doorsteps or sold at newsstands throughout the day. I never had to worry about distribution beyond the time part of my job for a very small weekly included wrapping papers that were sent to mail subscribers and filling the boxes on street corners. I had almost no options for distributing my first chapbook, so I printed very few copies and never reprinted. I hand sold it at readings and the bookstore that hosted my debut reading sold a few copies.

About that time, the landscape for publishing chapbooks changed drastically again when print on demand publishing became accessible to publishers of any size. Although the quality wasn’t quite yet the same as offset print books, it became more difficult to distinguish a chapbook from a “book” based on appearance. The definition of chapbook now relies on size and number of pages, but that number can vary widely.

Pairs of Poems, my second collection first published in 2008 by e-book-only publisher Uncials Press, at 50 pages is longer than what many consider a chapbook but shorter than what qualifies by most as a “full-length” book. I used print on demand to produce a physical book I could sell at events and when I got the rights back made both the e-book and print book available for sale via all major retailers.

That was the next major disruption for chapbook publishers — distribution. Up until the end of August 2018, a poet could produce a perfect-bound chapbook that physically resembled a book even if it was only five by eight inches in trim size and 24 pages long. If they knew what they were doing, they could make it available for sale on Barnes & Noble and other online retailers besides Amazon, and even for bookstores to order through Ingram’s and NACSCOR  and for libraries to acquire via Baker & Taylor. In addition to color covers, a poet could include full-color photographs or other artwork inside their chapbook as I did with the eclectic collection of poetry, photography, and prose I edited as a SMART fundraiser, Green Is The Color Of Winter, in 2011 and my fourth collection published in 2017, Food ♦ Family ♦ Friends.

For less than $15, a poet could purchase their own domain name and use free tools to build a basic website that would let potential readers know about their chapbooks, order them online, or even walk into a bookstore and order one.

Unfortunately, going forward it’s hard to predict how publishing and distribution of print chapbooks will change over the next months and years. When Amazon purchased BookSurge in 2005, the new entity, CreateSpace, operated somewhat independently offering outstanding services to authors, producing high-quality books, setting up systems that allowed those books the widest possible distribution. Now, Amazon has eliminated CreateSpace, forcing authors to use Kindle — notorious for poor author service, removing books from sales platforms for TOS violations that are never explained, and paying lower royalties to authors who choose not to exclusively sell on Amazon platforms. Other currently available options cost more by requiring title setup fees (IngramSpark) or severely limit size options (LuLu) which would require a redesign of any current books.

However, poets with technical skills interested in selling their work electronically can produce ebooks for no cost to sell internationally via Kobo, iBooks, Barnes & Noble Nook, W.H. Smith, Inktera, Yuzu, etc. Distribution options even include libraries and online bookstores. Because of the variety of e-reading options, formatting a book of poetry for electronic distribution can be more difficult than laying one out for print. And, of course, they don’t have a book in hand to sell and sign at readings. However, it is possible to autograph e-books electronically via Authorgraph, and they can buy thumb drives in bulk on which to copy their books for about what it would cost to purchase print copies of their books wholesale.

Given what you know about the changes in publishing chapbooks, has anything changed for authors when they give readings today? What is your sense of what makes a reading powerful? In your answer, talk about your current collections and what work you’re sharing now when you read.

In some ways, the ability to produce chapbooks that are indistinguishable from books works to an author’s disadvantage when giving readings. I could print copies of my first chapbook for less than $2, and sell them for $5 at a reading. Even with the bookstore getting $2 I still took home a bit more than a $1. The special edition of my latest collection, Food ♦ Family ♦ Friends (with color photographs), costs $6.45 to print plus I have to pay to have it shipped to me if I want to have it available to sell at readings. Even collections that don’t have color photographs can cost $3 to $5 apiece for printing, with shipping added to that.

Pricing a professionally produced book so that after paying the venue their cut an author recoups their expenses and makes a little money, often puts the cost higher than many people want to pay. If they are inclined to purchase, the author is expected to accept credit cards which increases the expense. (Although usually if you accept payment directly, you’re not required to give the venue a cut.)

What makes a reading powerful hasn’t changed. It starts with the audience. When you appear with other poets, for example, you have to figure that a proportionate share of those in attendance came to hear one of the other poets. They will politely sit through your portion of the reading — possibly drifting off or sneaking looks at their smartphone — unless you emotionally engage them.

I wrote many of my poems, especially my recent work, as spoken word. They actually read better aloud than on the page. (In fact, the tagline of Subversive Verse, my third collection, is “a collection of poems about corporate cruelty, gender grievances, supreme shambles, political perversion, and race relations best read aloud.”)

My spoken word intentions give me an edge at a reading, although it sometimes makes it more difficult to find publishers interested in my work. My words written to read aloud also tend to be political and drafted to trigger more powerful emotions such as anger and grief. It’s easier to get folks enraged than to emotionally engage them about flowers or scenery. (I have had poems published about both, many of which are in my second collection, Pairs of Poems, but those tend to not be the ones I choose for a reading these days.)

Even Food ♦ Family ♦ Friends, about how “what food you eat, whether your family nurtures or abuses you, and how friends fit into your life determine whether you live in despair or delight, cringing or cavorting through your days,” has its political moments. Eating can be a very militant act. Many people who are abused are related by blood or marriage to the perpetrator. Even if your friends don’t betray you, the tragedy they suffer impacts your life as well.

Most of the poems I choose for my recent and upcoming readings are from my next collection, What Color is Your Privilege? which “opens a window on the suffering many are privileged to ignore.” So far these get the most fervent response from audiences, but they also are the poems about subjects I’m most angry about — racism, misogyny, homomisia, transmisia, religious bigotry — and the readings can be exhausting.

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: A poet is a poet is a poet. Poets want to get their words read/heard by others who they hope will find meaning in them. Most poets I know use whatever medium is available: spoken word events, print journals, online ‘zines, anthologies, collections, etc. to get their words out. When I produce a collection of my poetry — either solo or in collaboration with a publisher — I let others define whether or not it’s a “book” or a “chapbook” because to me the definition is unclear and unimportant (unless entering a contest that e.g. is only open to those who have never published a full-length book).

Residence: Oregon

Job: Storyteller/Poet

Chapbook Bio: F.I. Goldhaber’s words capture people, places, and events with a photographer’s eye and a poet’s soul. As a reporter, editor, business writer, and marketing communications consultant, they produced news stories, feature articles, editorial columns, and reviews for newspapers, corporations, governments, and non-profits in five states. Now paper, electronic, and audio magazines, books, newspapers, calendars, and street signs display their poetry, fiction, and essays. More than 100 of their poems appear in fifty plus publications. Their fourth collection, Food ♦ Family ♦ Friends, explores how those three things send us feasting, flinching, and/or frolicking through life.

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