More gleanings from Wikipedia...
The centre of chapbook production was London and, until the Great Fire of London, the printers were based around London Bridge. The numbers are astonishing: in the 1660s as many as 400,000 almanacs were printed annually, enough for one family in three in England. One publisher had in stock one book for every 15 families in the country. Inventory of Charles Tias, of The Sign of the Three Bibles on London Bridge, included books and printed sheets to make c.90,000 chapbooks and 37,500 ballad sheets. This was not regarded as outstanding in the trade!
In the 1520s the Oxford bookseller John Dorne noted sales up to 190 ballads a day at a halfpenny each.
In 1707, Josiah Blare of The Sign of the Looking Glass on London Bridge, listed 31,000 books in inventory, plus 257 reams of printed sheets. A conservative estimate of their sales in Scotland alone later in the century was over 200,000 per year.
This is a lot of reading material floating around the UK!!! Nothing like the onslaught we’re swimming in during this age of internet, but who was reading all this material?
Chapbooks were priced for sales to the worker bees of the Kingdom, and contributed to the development of literacy—which in England in the 17th C. was around 30 percent for males and rose to 60 percent in the 18th C. Many working people were readers, and pre-industrial working patterns provided periods during which they could read. Chapbooks were undoubtedly used for reading to family groups or groups in alehouses.
One chapbook collector wrote: "The printing in many cases was execrable, the paper even worse, and the woodcut illustrations, some of which did duty for various tales regardless of their fitness, were sometimes worse than the paper and presswork combined." However, some chapbooks were long, well produced, and some even historically accurate.
Chapbooks spread popular culture to the common people, especially in rural areas. They provided entertainment, information and (generally unreliable) history. They are now valued as a record of popular culture, preserving cultural artifacts that may not survive in any other form.
Then came the mimeograph machine (remember its purple ink, and that wonderful inky smell?), followed by low-cost copy centers, digital printing, and the cultural revolutions spurred by the internet. The punkification of poetry: everybody gets to play and self-publish. Zines, blogs, poetry slams, followed.
And the chapbook lives again, the darling of indie publishers, romancing artists, poets and postmoderns alike. Hope you will get to like them as much, when Poems from the Boatyard arrives in your mailbox! (I know, when?!?)