Realmslore10/29/2003


Small Presses of Waterdeep, Part One
I: Endless Chapbooks



The boom in broadsheets that has befallen the City of Splendors over the last thirty years was spurred by the tireless efforts of Emberstone Haumbroad, but made possible in the first place by the large number of independent "backroom" frame presses, calligraphers, and woodcut artists available in Waterdeep. They were there because of an industry that had already been flourishing in the city for centuries: chapbook publishing.

Chapbooks are parchment pamphlets, often having only a dozen pages, but sometimes as many as thirty-six. Most are two human-handwidths across by three handwidths high in exterior dimensions, and about as thick as the edge of a large man's hand (smaller examples retain the same rough proportions). Chapbooks always have covers of dyed and sewn hide (usually of rothé or other livestock), which are sometimes stiffened with metal plates or thin (and often faulty in looks) ceramic tiles. The covers and pages are sewn to thick leather "spines." Although most chapbooks look quite trim when new, damp causes many to bulge and swell into curved "bundles."

Recently, the publishers of broadsheets have discovered an increasing hunger among Waterdhavians for swift, accurate reporting of "the real news" -- even if mysteries remain unsolved and tales untidily unresolved. Fancies of talking fish in the harbor and lost princesses from other realms discovered among nobles' servants just don't have the allure they once did. Waterdhavians still love their trashy serials, but they want sober facts in the front pages.

This trend is by no means so strong among chapbooks, which from year to year display a "stable" mix of publications: religious tracts; oft-scary "feel the wonder" books about magic, for the uninitiated; political rants; smart-mouthed adventurer yarns; lurid romantic tales for hungry male readers; tear-reaping romances for female readers; a small number of useful "hard information" books on spells, herbs, and how-to-do tasks; an even smaller number of histories that almost no one seems to buy; and a very large number of quirky, opinionated "the True Secrets of" tomes on a bewildering variety of topics.

"True secrets" books have yielded most of Waterdeep's bestsellers thus far, in a busy, bustling mercantile city. Most long-term citizens read voraciously for pleasure and "don't want to miss" anything important that could be an opportunity to make money (and so try to keep abreast of any topic that strikes the popular fancy). Like the broadsheets, almost all Waterdhavian chapbooks are printed in Common, and so travel well, and are often found in unexpectedly distant places in Faerûn.

Examples of past "foreseeable" bestsellers include Whisper-Secrets of the Lords and Ladies of Waterdeep; Skullport: the Lurking Evil Below; Lashes of Loviatar: Beloved Pain and Those Who Seek It; and The Exploits of Roral Readysword, Knight-Adventurer.

A few of the useful steady sellers among chapbooks, decade after decade include Engelvaer's Poison and Sickness Remedies; Herbs of the North and How to Recognize Them; and Trade-Roads and Tavern-Notes: A Wayfarer's Guide to Inns, Wells, Taverns, and Perils in the North.

Here follows a sampling of the more unexpected "highcoin" titles:

  • Beyond the Dark Door: Sewers, Cellars, and Secret Passages of Castle Ward
  • Broad Beneath My Back: Sixty Summers of Mattress-Making in Snail Street
  • Feuds of the Founders: Old Quarrels and Disputes of Early Waterdeep
  • Hunting Haurauthadoar: The Slaying of a Great Green Dragon
  • Jossra's Sayings: Mind-Governing Advice for All Social Occasions
  • Lady Naga, and Why I Loved Her
  • Lord Malavar's Moustache: A Mirthful Mystery of Old Waterdeep
  • Malpurth's Catalogue of Lances, Pendants, and Banners of Fallen Houses
  • Moonfall: The Tragic Tale of a Dancer of Waterdeep
  • Songs on the Wind: Ghosts of the Old City, and What They Whisper to Me
  • That Old Cask: A Drinker's Tales

On any given day in Waterdeep, battered, well-used copies of all these titles can be found by someone who visits a mere handcount of printers or "old tome" shops.

Anyone can copy any book without legal penalty in Waterdeep, and printers amass libraries of chapbooks printed by their rivals so that they can plunder for ornaments and illustrations when a "new" book must be swiftly assembled. Many woodcut artists and apprentices can't craft a new illustration to save their lives, but they can readily and speedily accomplish what they've been trained to do: exactly copy something set in front of them.

Bookshops in Waterdeep tend to be crowded with dusty histories and volume after volume of adventure, romance, or bawdy sagas that are twenty to forty titles long.

Read more about chapbooks in the second part of this feature!

About the Author

Ed Greenwood is the man who unleashed the Forgotten Realms on an unsuspecting world. He works in libraries, writes fantasy, sf, horror, mystery, and even romance stories (sometimes all in the same novel), but he is still happiest churning out Realmslore, Realmslore, and more Realmslore. There are still a few rooms in his house with space left to pile up papers in . . .

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