In March of this year, I published my first chapbook, the sky is black and blue like a battered child. I only submitted it to one press, and when they didn’t accept it I decided to self-publish it. I thought about shopping it around more, but I decided the effort would be better put into putting it out myself. Even though there is a stigma to self-publishing, I can’t say the experience has been negative.
When you self-publish a book, everything is in your own hands. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing. For example, I had no idea how to properly lay out a book. My first proof looked like absolute shit. Here’s my first tip, research book sizes. I made the mistake of throwing up the Open Office default size which resulted in the proof being way too big. The default format on Open Office is 8.5 x 11 in. The standard size for most trade books is between 5-6 x 8-9 in. Since this is a chapbook, it looked even more ridiculous.
Another thing you’ll need to do is your own editing. Of course, if you’re submitting to publishers, you should be copy editing anyway, but they’d still polish it up more if they accepted it. It may cost you some money, but I recommend hiring an editor. Not only will they catch your typos, they’ll make suggestions on things to cut, lines to change, and so forth. If it’s an editor you trust, take their word for it. My chapbook was originally a few poems longer, but I cut them at the suggestion of the editor. “Kill your darlings” as they say.
Even with the help of an editor, check and re-check the book. Most self-publishing platforms will give you a proof to check before you finalize the publication. I recommend getting a physical copy, unless you’re doing an eBook only, and going through it with a pen. Even when I did this, I still missed a typo. A person who reviewed the book was kind enough to point it out, so I was able to correct it.
This leads me to another tip. If the book you’re self-publishing is a physical book and not just an e-book, use a print-on-demand service like CreateSpace or Lulu. This will keep your upfront costs down as you don’t have to pay for printing them all at once. You can order the copies if you need them down the line, either in bundles or just one at time. It’s easier to make corrections as you don’t need to wait for a new print run as well.
To go on a brief tangent, I had chosen to publish my chapbook through CreateSpace, but many authors also make them by hand. I can’t go into much detail on the how, as it’s not the route I went, but it is an option. I’ve seen some chapbooks that have done this and many may find the DIY look appealing. Most of the time, even with the costs of printing and materials, it can be sold for even cheaper than print-on-demand books. It also gives you a bit more freedom with the design since you’re doing it by hand.
When the book is designed and ready to go, you’ll need to market it. You can do this by finding reviewers willing to look at self-published work and sending it to them. They’ll usually be bloggers or writers for small websites, but it’s good to have anything out there, even if it’s just on a site like LibraryThing or GoodReads.
Since my book was poetry, I take it to read at open mics and poetry slams around my city. I’ve actually sold more copies in person at these events than I have online. I’ve given copies of my book to my friends and family as well, they showed it to other people who went out and bought it after reading part of it. Word of mouth is still a useful tool.
If you’re writing poetry and publishing a chapbook, chances are you’re doing for the love of the form and not for money. I think it goes without saying you can’t expect to sell a lot, unless you’re already an established author. Even then, poetry is still going to sell less. Stick to writing long form fiction and non-fiction if you’re looking to make money.
None of this is too discourage anyone from going the route of traditional publishing. There are still presses out there who put out poetry chapbooks or just poetry in general that are worth submitting to. If you can get a press to accept your work, more power to you.
I’ll wrap this up with a shameless plug. My chapbook, the sky is black and blue like a battered child, is available at Amazon.com in paperback or Kindle. If you like surreal, humorous poetry, you’ll like this book. If you do read it, please let me know what you think.