Thursday, July 27, 2006

Poetry Chapbook Binding Options

Lots of poets these days are looking to self-publish their chapbooks—often since no-one else will. This is not always because of merit, or ego, although it can be, but because the market is already flooded with printed tomes, published books, and small presses. It's hard to get published, and hard to get someone's attention. The upshot is that sometimes poets choose to self-publish simply because they need to. In these days of expanding publishing routes—including online small magazines, small presses, self-typeset PDFs for download publishing, and many other options, both print and virtual—the choice to self-publish is becoming somewhat more acceptable to the book publishing and literary-critical mainstreams. The primary thing to watch out for, however, is vanity presses that don't provide the services they say they will. In other words, there are many scam artists that prey on the ignorant or experienced beginner. (Just for fun, you might pop over to for a list of some known rip-offs.)

Still, many reputable and established printing houses turn up their collective noses at anything that has been published as a vanity publication. Submissions guidelines, in some cases, go so far as to say that poetry books published by vanity presses do not count, literarily, on one's resume as an author. So, if you submit a chapbook to an established press, you might not be able to include on your publications list anything that you self-published.

My opinion is that, while I agree with that position to a certain extent, as it does weed out some literary chaff, I am also aware that very beautiful hand-made books with excellent writing in them have been generated by so-called vanity presses. Furthermore, a hand-made book is a work of art in itself, so is nothing to be dismissed out of hand—whatever the merits of the poems inside. So, don't hesitate to self-publish by going the art-book route. There are plenty of community centers in many cities now, plus book arts seminars, hand-made paper and binding classes, and other learning resources, all readily available to the interested poet who wants to learn how to make their own art-book presentation featuring their poems.

So, with all that in mind, a few pieces of advice, based on experience:

I hate comb binders. Nothing looks less professional. Comb-binding is practical and useful primarily for cookbooks and musical scores (I've done both, even comb-binding Ozlid blueprint press scores of my own compositions back in music school), hardware and software manuals, and other productions of that ilk. The main reason to use comb bindings is that you need to leave the book open to a full spread to consult it for an extended period of time. For poetry, unless you're reading the book on a lectern, I don't see why comb-binding would ever offer any advantage. Using comb binding on your poetry chapbook is much more likely to make your book look amateurish and cheap.

I prefer hand-sewn books. If you have the fortitude, you can learn to do perfect binding and/or glue-based techniques. But there are also many styles of hand-sewn bindings that are not too diificult or strenuous to do, and that look quite lovely.

I have often hand-sewn chapbooks, both just spine-stitch and Japanese-style spine loop binding (a short history of the art can be read here). I like hand-sewing, although it's tedious, because it looks so good when finished; the arts-and-crafts appeal is considerable here: each hand-made book is a work of art. I've also got a special-length stapler that I use to spine-staple folded-paper books I've made. I also like laser-printing on really good papers; sometimes I also hand-illustrate, or print a Photoshop piece I've made, and hand-color, or whatever. I've made several different chapbooks this way.

My sister has been doing hand-made books for around ten years now, and they're all beautiful. I often design end-papers and print my photos as cover-papers, and send them to her; sometimes I get a beautiful blank book back, with my own artwork on it, which I use for my journals. I also am currently using one for a Zen calligraphy book, which I paint and write in, Paul Reps or Frederick Franck style, with a calligraphy brush pen. I'm also doing some cyanotype sunprints of recent photos of the Southwest, and incorporating those into handmade books with my poems about the Southwest. My sister and I also collaborated on a book of my haiku, some years ago; to illustrate my poems, she did monoprint art, and bound the books; an edition of 15 or so, all very beautiful. I suppose i could force myself to sell them or give them away, but they're so lovely, it's hard to part with them. And she used a dark blue and gold paper for the cover. As Sei Shonagon said in her Pillow Book, "Everything indigo is exquisite."

Some of my hand-made chapbooks are viewable on this page of my portfolio website, about half-way down the page.

Some of my paper designs, used for book covers and wrapping papers, are available for perusal here.

Perfect binding is a great idea. Velo and thermal are also good options. It's nice to know that there are now available all these small-run bindery options. There are also now companies, or so I've heard, that manufacture small binding machines for hand-made books. (The chief advantage of the scrapbooking craze that has swept the craft stores for the past decade or so, is that excellent tools, papers, and method books are far more available to the beginning hand-made book creator than ever before.) When I worked in a print shop, I sometimes ran the big stapler, folder, and binder machines. You could always go ro a local small printing press establishment that has a bindery and ask them what they would charge for a small bindery run; I daresay it might be reasonable, if you brought in everything already printed, for example.

If you're into book arts, and you find yourself developing a love for hand-made books, here is a great place to start reading about it.

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Blogger Jessica Schneider said...

Hi Art-

I didn't know you had a blog. (Momentary space out) I just registered with Technorati yesterday, and you should too if you haven't already. I hope you are well with your parents.


11:02 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks, Jess. It's fairly new, and at the moment mostly a collection zone for essays on poetics, music, etc. The Road Journal, which i've almost done reorganizing, is the real day to day blog. This one is pretty focused.

Technorati is something I'll do, though. Thanks!

1:52 PM  

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