by Scott Woods
Is it worth publishing your chapbook yet?
If you simply want to have a record of what you’ve done artistically and you don’t care how much it costs to print versus how many you sell, feel free to skip this article altogether. It’s perfectly okay to create a chapbook as a testimony or a lark or an experiment and not a career starter or an investment or a hustle. If, however, you do care, I’ll boil it down to math:
How many books you think you can sell plus the number of books you’ll likely give away equals how many you’ll need to print. So let’s say you want to sell 30 books*, and you expect to give away to various people 10 copies on top of that. That means you need to print 40 books.
Now: What you’re charging per book minus what each book cost to print equals sales before cost. So let’s say you’re charging $8 per book.** Let’s also say that, once you get the job figured out or printed and divided up, Print Shop X is basically charging you $2 per book. So for every copy you sell, you make a profit of $6.
Mind you, you won’t be making a profit until you actually pay for all of your costs first. So if Kinkos charged you $80 for 40 books, you aren’t actually profiting until you sell 14 copies. Also mind that you just took 14 copies out of the 30 you thought you might sell. So now you have 16 copies left to make money off of. That means you will, at most, make $128 if you sell the remaining 16 copies at $8 a pop.
So the question ultimately becomes: Is the chance at $128 worth the effort? Is it worth the sweat equity to create it, the hustle equity to distribute and sell it, and the pride you take from having done it (minus the pride lumps you’ll take if you don’t sell what you thought you would)?
As I look at the chapbooks (and CDs! Let us not forget when those were going to supplant the printed word!) I’ve accumulated over the years, I see all kinds of publishing stories and paths to not-so-greatness. I remember the cheap ones, the free ones, the traded ones, the ones that weren’t worth what I paid for and the ones that were grossly undersold. Maybe it’s a “time served” level of realization that has me thinking more these days about all of the people whose books I have that no longer practice poetry, or at least practice it in any public or discernible way. How many people thought their chapbook was going to be the first of many? How many hustled hard to sell just one book per night for years, then just decided it was easier to just stop talking and go to work well rested from now on? It’s something to see, all of those chapbooks lined up, or better, laid out on the floor. It is a veritable circus of intentions and miscreants.
Here’s some good news: While we live in a world where poetry is being delivered to people’s phones on a daily basis and in which poets are releasing whole books of work for free on the internet almost every day, the market for your book is comprised of the people who want YOUR poetry, and that is a reality you can control. While I normally spend a great many words trumpeting the need for poets to get firmer grips on the realities of their value, I also maintain (quietly) that your audience and marketplace is a controllable reality. Facebook likes are not sales; sales are sales, and sales are made where you and your poetry make the best impression. That reality is one you construct through interacting with the larger world with your art, and most people who have actually released books – chaps or otherwise – will tell you that you will sell more of them when you interact with the world. Hell, a butcher would give you that advice. So understand that if you’re the poet who skips (or desecrates) open mics, doesn’t publish much and generally doesn’t make much of an impression as a poet in general, you’re going to sell a handful of books to your polite friends and almost no one else. Recognize your reality – your place in it, specifically – for what it is, and chap accordingly.
* 30 books is a fine number for a poet starting out who thinks or wants to know if they might have an actual audience. It tells you everything you need to know about where your reality aligns with your actual value. If you attend a weekly poetry show and can’t sell 30 books, you have no audience. If it takes you a month to sell 30 books that also gives you valuable information about what audience you actually have. And if you live somewhere where you can bounce between shows weekly with 30 books and you still can’t move them, you really know where you stand either with your art, your hustle or your general marketability. Please note that quality isn’t the issue here; audience is the issue. There are plenty of people who think bad poetry is great, and they are everywhere. If you can’t sell to even these souls, you need to reset your game plan…or your poems.
** I don’t care how bad a poet you are or how poorly constructed your book is: I do not believe in this day and age that any chapbook that isn’t printed on toilet paper or laid out in the ugliest possible way should sell for less than $8. I’d rather you tied it to a better book later for free than sell for the “traditional” price of $5. I know the market is glutted with poetry, but it ain’t glutted with good poetry. If you’re known for good poetry, or can convince enough people that what you write is worth their time, they’ll pay whatever you reasonably charge for it.