Radical Business Plan: Free Books

Chris Anderson has been generating buzz lately with a new sermon about the future of business: FREE! His book on the subject comes out in early July for $26.99. [Insert own joke here.]

But a small publisher in Massachusetts is already taking Anderson's advice to heart. Concord Free Press just released its second free book: Wesley Brown's novel about a '60s radical, "Push Comes to Shove."

And -- get this -- in October, Concord Free Press plans to release a new novel by mega-bestseller Gregory Maguire called "The Next Queen of Heaven." Again, for free. Nada. Zip. $0.00.

Turns out, there is no hidden agenda, at least no nefarious one. These paperbacks are handsomely designed. They don't contain any ads. They aren't given away just to build up a spam database. The only thing Concord Free Press asks in return is that you "make a voluntary donation to a charity or someone in need. And pass the book along so others can give." They publish two books a year; 2,000 copies each. About 35 independent bookstores sell them -- that is, give them away, but you can ask for a copy through the Web site, too. So far, they've been responsible for generating at least $44,000 in charitable giving -- and that's just the donations they know about.

Stumped by the whole enterprise of releasing books gratis, I called up publisher Stona Fitch yesterday and asked him how he does it.

"Nine books out of 10 don't make money anyhow," he says with a rueful laugh. "There's got to be some other channel for distributing books."

Yes, but giving them away?

"We thought we might print up a pile of books and they'd just be sitting around our office. But people have loved the idea. It's been an overwhelming response. Publishing books is fun, but making money is hard. We're blessedly removed from the burden of profitability."

How exactly, then, does Concord Free Press spin straw into gold?

"We live a very simple life. We're cautious," he says. When I ask what he's doing in one of America's toniest towns, he corrects me: "I live in West Concord. Near the prison. I can see it from here."

But where does the money come from to publish and mail out the books?

"We ask supporters and grant-givers for donations. We keep everything really simple. We're all aging punk rockers -- well versed in do-it-yourself. We have a space over a bakery in West Concord. We don't take any returns. The author gives us the manuscript. The designer did it for free. It's the most fun I've had in a long time. We keep the list limited because we want to keep focused on books we really love. Otherwise, it's not a labor of love, it's just labor."

Fitch has some big-name literary friends, too. Russell Banks, one of his teachers at Princeton, sits on the press's advisory board. Joyce Carol Oates is another former teacher who keeps in touch. And Gregory Maguire "has been incredibly supportive from the start."

"Most of the news you read about publishing isn't good," Fitch acknowledges. "But people are excited about this because it's positive news about thinking creatively about books. Almost any time a book is free, it's promotional. But we're not promoting anything except generosity. We send these books to anyone -- anywhere -- for free: Scotland, England, Mexico, Spain."

"If you can have empathy for a person made out of words, you can muster up empathy for your three-dimensional community. We're putting readers to the test. And so far, readers have passed."

-- Ron Charles

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By Ron Charles |  May 27, 2009; 5:00 AM ET Ron Charles
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