When the Concord Free Press was just a radical idea with a one-title book list, founder Stona Fitch nervously pitched Wesley Brown , hoping to persuade the acclaimed author to let him publish Brown’s latest novel.
“You want me to give you this novel I’ve been writing for years,” he recalls Brown saying. “You’re not going to pay me. And you’re going to give it away for free and hope that readers donate money to something else.”
“I said, ‘Wes, yeah, that’s pretty much it.’ There’s this long pause and I’m waiting for something bad to happen. And he said, ‘I’m in.’ ”
Six years later, the Concord Free Press is about to publish its 10th book. Each copy in the 3,000-print run will be marked $0.00. The back jacket will announce: “This book is free.”
In return, readers agree to give away money, in any amount: to a charity, a stranger on the street, or someone who needs it. Donations since 2008 total $409,250 — and that is just those reported back to the publisher. Readers are also asked to pass along the book once they are finished, so donations continue to multiply.
Amidst so much negative news about the future of publishing, Fitch is trying to create a way for authors to get their books to readers, the guiding goal of any writer. At the same time, Fitch hopes to encourage generosity among readers.
Why would any self-respecting writer agree to such a deal? Fitch’s formidable powers of persuasion and the chance to inspire good deeds help, but writers also sign up for reasons of their own. Brown figured he had never made much money on his books — titles like “Darktown Strutters” and “Tragic Magic” — so he might as well get his novel published and contribute to the cause. “Push Comes to Shove,” his novel with Fitch’s press, may have had a limited print run, but it got a strong review from The Washington Post.
Gregory Maguire , who wrote “Wicked,” the wildly popular novel that became a Broadway musical, saw a chance to free himself from his reputation as only a fantasy writer — the way he is promoted by his publisher, HarperCollins — and try a new kind of novel.
After the book, a tragic farce titled “The Next Queen of Heaven,” debuted with the Concord press, his publisher paid him a very welcome advance to issue a second — much larger — edition of the work.
Madison Smartt Bell, the author of 13 novels, including “All Souls’ Rising,” a finalist for the 1995 National Book Award, had had a collection of short stories — a genre not favored by New York trade publishers, since they often sell poorly — hanging around unpublished for years. “Zig Zag Wanderer” was published by the Concord Free Press earlier this year.
“In this stage of things in the 21st century, it’s not a bad way to publish a book of short stories even for, pardon the expression, an established writer like me,” he said.
On average, each Free Press book has raised about $45,000 in donations — more than many of the titles would have made in profits if they had been sold by traditional publishers.
Fitch, who lives in West Concord, a short walk from the room in a former leather processing plant where he and his wife, Ann, run their press, is part artist, part revolutionary. Amidst the profit-driven squabbles between hawkers of e-books and dead-tree books, between Amazon and publishers, Fitch has launched his experiment.
“Some people think he’s a Marxist,” said Ann. “But he’s not really a Marxist. He just really believes in generosity as a way of inspiring benefit in the world. When people are generous, good things happen.”
The press works because it is a nonprofit, supported by dozens of volunteers, grants, and contributions. Much of the work behind the press is donated: the words, book design, office space. A for-profit sister project, the Concord ePress, which publishes e-books and paperbacks,also contributes 10 percent to 15 percent of the cost.
The Concord Free Press’s biggest hit was “The Next Queen of Heaven” by Maguire, a friend and neighbor of the Fitches, who serves on the press’s advisory board. His publisher, HarperCollins, had seen a previous version, but was slow to commit to it.
“I had kind of floated the idea for the book some years earlier to them,” he said. “My fingers grew dusty on the handset of the phone as [I] waited for them to call and say, ‘Darling, we love it!’ ”
The press numbers each copy of its books, so it can track them as they pass from reader to reader.
The most industrious to date is copy number 811 of Maguire’s book, which has raised $925 for cancer research, a food pantry, a homeless person in Belgium, and the American Red Cross, among other groups.
The book has changed hands eight times (dozens have gone through 10 readers) and popped up around the world, including Ridley Park, Pa., Grand Rapids, Mich., Antwerp, Belgium, and Glasgow.
Fitch, the son of a Procter & Gamble executive from Cincinnati, has spent much of his adult life on ventures that earn little or no money: playing in a popular underground Boston band, Scruffy the Cat; running a volunteer farm; writing novels; and now, running the press.
His day job, the one that pays the bills and the tuition of two daughters in college — one a senior at Smith, the other a sophomore at Tulane — is writing for hire.
He just finished ghostwriting a book for a CEO and his company.
The inspiration for the free press hit him after his fourth novel, “Give + Take,” became stranded at Doubleday when his editor left the company.
This setback came at a time when Fitch was working as the volunteer director of Gaining Ground, an organic farm in Concord where volunteers grow produce and give it away to people who need food.
One night, he had the idea of creating the literary equivalent of the farm. No small press makes much money, he reasoned. “Why don’t we just try to inspire generosity instead?”
“And Ann said, ‘Stona, I think you found a new way for writers to not make money.’ And sure as hell, we did.”
The press’s first book was “Give + Take.” (Thomas Dunne Books at St. Martin’s Press later published a second edition.) Fitch felt he could not ask other authors to give away their work unless he had first done it himself.
Fitch grew up in a world of both privilege and generosity. His father, who had Oklahoma roots, founded the city’s Ronald McDonald house.
At Princeton, Fitch studied under author Russell Banks, now a member of the Concord Free Press’s advisory board. Banks has not contributed a book because he is under contract with his publisher, Ecco, and suspects editors there “would hit the ceiling” if he gave away his work. But that has not stopped Fitch from trying to persuade him.
“He’s persistent, no question about it,” Banks said. “He believes in what he’s doing. He’s not cynical either. That’s refreshing for a writer.”
When Fitch first told him about the idea of the press, “I wondered what drug he had been taking,” Banks said. But he has come to see the Free Press as essential, especially for well-regarded literary fiction writers whose books do not sell more than 5,000 or 10,000 copies.
“There are very few venues for writers of that ilk,” he said.
The Concord Free Press wants to create books that readers will love and be willing to pass along to others. It asks authors not to sign their books, since that tends to encourage readers to hang on to them.
Fitch grows annoyed when the books show up on eBay, as they occasionally do, and he sends e-mails to the sellers, asking them to pass the books along for free.
“He’s a very improbable Robin Hood-type character,” Maguire said. “There are certain people who radiate an oily philanthropic mission. Stona is not one of those types of people.”
The press’s unusual model has not been without problems. The website was overrun in 2009, when the press released Maguire’s book. Entertainment Weekly announced the event on its website with the headline: “‘Wicked’ author Gregory Maguire’s new novel is free — take that, Walmart!”
Not everyone who gets a book donates money — or at least they do not report back to the press about their giving.
“We can’t be the charity police,” Fitch says.
But the philosophy endures. Maguire fell in love with the idea of the Concord Free Press because it bestows upon readers, not publishers, the power to decide how much each book is worth. The donation system recognizes that the true value of a book is what a reader extracts from it, he said.
“Anyone who loves to read has always known that,” he said. “It’s as we used to say in Catholic school, an outward sign of an inward grace.”