What happens during the production of a chapbook?

I thought it might be nice to do a little blog about the process I’ve experienced while producing my first poetry chapbook! Before submitting, I used to Google this a lot, searching for advice, reassurance, and what to try. Even though everyone’s experiences are so different, they really did help me to get my head around the cover letter and waiting times, never mind the assembling of the collection!

It took a while to bring together the poems for ‘Bone Ovation’. I know a lot of poets decide to write a collection based on a theme and write ‘to spec’, or at lease write a few additional poems to add in once the theme was decided. I never intended to write a collection about bones at all. I had reached a point when I felt like I had quite a few poems which fit together in some way, but it took a little while to identify which would be included in my submission. Initially the collection was a study of the body during sleep and wakefulness, and the poems weaved through day dreams, night terrors, and everything in between. It was bones that united them all (something I wasn’t aware of at all when writing!), and the final poem ‘Bone Ovation’ acted like a standing ovation to the rest of the pieces. A showstopper, of sorts. It’s well worth looking through your poems for recurring words, ideas, or even moments of the day. You might be surprised by what your subconscious is pushing out to the world!

Writing a poetry chapbook

I hung on right to the end of Valley Press’ submission period to send my manuscript sample, choosing (I think it was) 6 poems that carried the fantasy element of the collection but varied in tone and length. My theory behind that was that I hoped at least one would suit the publisher’s taste, though I don’t know how reliable that theory is! Waiting until near the end of the submission period meant I had longer to work on the manuscript and less time to grip my face in angst. In the past I’ve submitted poems to journals really promptly and did a major face-palm when I noticed a typo that I’d have had plenty of time to fix if I hadn’t already submitted. Major d’oh moment.

It was about three months before hearing back from Valley Press, but since then their submissions process has changed and they have an open-ended application process, so you might potentially hear sooner. They’d also had hundreds and hundreds of submissions, and my experience of editing the White Noise & Ouija Boards anthology for Three Drops Press has taught me how time consuming it is to select even single poems! I sent the whole manuscript and clenched.

A couple of weeks later I received an email from Jamie McGarry, VP’s head honcho, saying that the Valley Press reading group had been enjoying my chapbook and that we should meet up. I instantly felt inflated with glee and yet still didn’t quite believe it. I read the email lots of times first in case I’d somehow interpreted a ‘thank you but no’ as a ‘yes’. Eventually I responded to the email with an incredibly over-excited response – littered with nonsensical wording and typos – I was so excited!

A few weeks later we met up in person to talk through what would happen next, which poems to include (I’d sent a few too many to be eligible for some pamphlet focussed awards), and then did the official VP handshake to seal the deal. I bounced off into York and spent quite a lot of money in my joyous state. I’d done it! Valley Press had been the only publisher I’d submitted ‘Bone Ovation’ to, and I’d never imagined that I’d get this far. I truly didn’t. In truth, I’d normally submit to multiple publishers as long as they accepted simultaneous submissions. I don’t put all my eggs in one basket as a rule. I know how many submissions places receive and the chances are extraordinarily slim of being accepted, so why not increase your chances?

I travelled back home and on the train, and immediately started amending the manuscript according to our discussion notes. We also set a date for publication – the 5th of October, around 7 months after our meeting. Jamie was also really on the ball with cover designs, and sent me the first incarnation around a month after our meeting. It was a magical feeling, knowing that he was delving deep into what it all meant and trying to interpret it visually. The cover isn’t quite set yet as of today but we’ve a pretty strong idea of how it will look. This is partly due to the wonderful fact that VP is keen for the author to be involved in the cover too.

Four months after our first meeting we met in York again! This time Jamie, me, VP’s intern (the lovely Harriet), and Char Marsh sat around the table. Char had experienced interest in the pamphlet when it was being considered (she’s part of VP’s reading group), and so she’d been officially hired to pull it to bits and help me piece it back together. I was a bit nervous before the get-together, but Char made the process so interesting. We told each other a little bit about ourselves and then we headed straight into the considered and sometimes brutal feedback. She was incredibly honest and professional, and the time with her was invaluable in terms of me seeing it all from a completely different perspective. I came away feeling uplifted and inspired, with quite a lot to do in the next two weeks.

Editing a poetry pamphlet
Me and Char – deep in an editorial moment!

This final edit was difficult, in the sense that I had to kill a few darlings with little mercy. I went through each poem in turn, trying to be as objective as I could. Some poems I changed a lot, some I removed or swapped, and some I kept exactly as they are. In the end I decided that whatever changes I made or didn’t make were ok as long as I had a justification for it. Char was pleased with the amended copy, which for me meant a huge loud ‘whoop!’

And that’s pretty much all my stuff done! As of today, we’re yet to confirm the cover (though we’re nearly there), format and typeset, and then to print! What comes next is going to be a different sort of adventure. A launch party, seeking reviews, promos, events. Valley Press have their own PR guru, but many pamphlet publishers don’t, and instead integrate it into what the publishers themselves do. Some publishers ask that the author be willing to seek some PR too, which seems only fair to me in lots of ways, but that’s another post for the future I think. I’ll write about that when I get there!

But what is a poetry pamphlet or chapbook exactly? And do all the various poetry pamphlets out there differ? Find out here!



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