New business models are at the forefront of the digital revolution in book publishing, but what happens when you just give books away? I caught up with Stona Fitch, author and founder of the “generosity-based” Concord Free Press, to talk about the future of CFP and its rather unusual way of doing business.
Tell us about Concord Free Press, what it does, and why?
The Concord Free Press publishes original trade paperback novels and gives them away via a network of 60+ independent bookstores and requests via our website. We ask only that readers make a voluntary donation to a charity they believe in or a person in need in their community. Then pass the book on. We call it generosity-based publishing, and it’s inspired a lot of debate by rethinking the core expectations of what publishing actually is.
The group of writers, editors, designers, and others behind the press run it without pay. We’re interested in challenging assumptions about publishing and in showing that there are radically new ways to connect writers and readers. And we have a lot of fun with it. When you’re free from the burden of profitability, publishing is fun. No really.
What inspired you to start the Concord Free Press?
A couple of years ago, my fourth novel, Give + Take, was slated to be published by a traditional New York publisher. The book is about a jazz pianist who steals diamonds and BMWs and gives the money away. In short, it’s a twisted retelling of the Robin Hood fable. Then my editor left, and the book was orphaned—a common dilemma for writers.
Against the advice of a lot of friends, I decided to print 1,500 copies of the book and give them away, since the book was already about the limits of generosity. Plus, I’ve always thought that readers were inherently more empathetic because they could believe in people made out of words. This experiment gave me a chance to see if it was true. Within days, requests for books poured in from around the world, readers started making generous donations, and the wonderful Ron Charles at the Washington Post wrote a glowing feature about us. Our “grand experiment in subversive altruism,” as one writer put it, was underway.
How does Concord Free Press keep its doors open? What kind of business model does CFP follow?
We’re a non-profit foundation, and we raise money just like any other non-profit. We ask people for donations. We get small contributions from people throughout the world every day, and the occasional larger wad of cash from people who really like what we’re doing. We also sell t-shirts. And since no one at the CFP gets paid, our overhead is really low. Our offices are over a bakery in Concord, Mass—not exactly the Flatiron Building. People always wonder how it all works, but all I can say is that it does. We’ve been in the black for more than two years, and we have thousands of supporters all over the world.
What kind of impact has the Press had on charitable giving?
To date, the five trade paperbacks we’ve published have raised more than $210,000 in charitable donations around the world—and these are only the donations people track via our website. The range is pretty incredible, from a couple of bucks to a guy at a subway stop in New York to donations to a local library in Russia to big donations to various disaster relief operations.
What about authors that have been published through the Press? What incentives draw writers to submit manuscripts to you?
We’ve published The Next Queen of Heaven by Gregory Maguire (Wicked), Rut by Scott Phillips (The Ice Harvest), Push Comes to Shove by Wesley Brown, and IOU, a collection of writings on money edited by poet Ron Slate. We do a couple of titles a year in trade paperback editions of 3,000. And we have a lot of name-brand authors asking to be part of the CFP, mostly because it’s an intriguing project that appeals to writers with a streak of activism. But also—and this is important—the writer retains all rights to the book after we do our limited edition. So our books can, and in fact almost always do, go on to second commercial lives that actually make money for their authors.
How have other publishers and writers reacted to CFP’s mission and business model?
There’s always a certain amount of confusion and skepticism, but generally they think it’s great. A couple of people called me the death of publishing, but so it goes. Writers are inherently cautious, but our Advisory Board includes Russell Banks, Tom Perrotta, Joyce Carol Oates, Francine Prose, Jess Walter, Stephen McCauley, and others. So it’s clear to everyone that we’re serious.
As for the business model, people seem to be hard-wired for commerce, so admittedly unusual approach makes their heads spin. Most appreciate that we’re applying an ancient idea (a gift economy) to modern publishing.
What does the future hold for Concord Free Press?
We’re launching the Concord ePress, our ebook project, on June 1 with a full slate of great novels, from debut fiction to ebooks of previously published works. We’ll sell these books via the usual channels, Amazon and beyond, as a 50-50 split between authors and the CFP. We’re about writers banding together to take advantage of the incredible new opportunities opened up by ebooks, while still holding on to the comradery and community that are so critical to publishing, which is, after all, a team sport. The Concord ePress lets us publish more books, support our mission, and reach more readers. It’s going to be really interesting. Be sure to check it out at www.concordepress.com.
Stona Fitch is a novelist (Senseless, Printer’s Devil, Give + Take) and founder of the Concord Free Press, which is launching the Concord ePress, its innovative ebook project, on June 1, 2011.