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Concord Free Press' $250,000 experiment

February 2, 2012 |  4:17 pm

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In less than four years, the Concord Free Press has given away thousands of books, free of charge. Its founder, Stona Fitch, admits that it's not exactly a business model, but there's more to it than just freebies. In exchange for receiving a free paperback, the Concord Free Press asks that a charitable donation be made to a worthy cause of the reader's choosing.

Last week, it crossed a major benchmark: Concord Free Press readers have given away more than $250,000.

"Getting something beautiful in the mail for free makes people’s heads spin. Once they get over trying to figure out what the catch is, it inspires them to be generous. They really get it," said Fitch in a phone interview from the publisher's modest office in West Concord, Mass., which boasts a view of a prison. The press is a registered nonprofit, staffed entirely by volunteers, with support from donors that include the novelist Russell Banks.

As for the catch, there is none. Really! The books are free. Readers are asked to make a donation, of whatever size they like, to whatever organization they like, and then log their gifts on the Concord Free Press website. It's all done on the honor system.

"We cannot be the charity police," Fitch admits. "If anything, I think that number’s low. A lot of people do something, donate to a charity, and forget to go online and tell us about it."

Concord Free Press does a limited run of each book -- about 3,000 copies -- and numbers them to aid the donation tracking. Since they encourage readers to pass the books along when they've finished, they can see when a book spawns five, six or seven separate donations. They travel all over the world, to readers as far away as Argentina and Russia. Fitch notes that the books are particularly popular in Britain.

For a project like this to work, the books have to be good, things that people actually want to read. And they are. Its authors include Hugo and Nebula award-winning novelist Lucius Shepard, Fitch himself and a collection of writing about money with pieces by Mona Simpson, Michelle Huneven, Jonathan Ames, Mark Doty, Robert Pinsky and more.

The press' highest profile writer is Gregory Maguire, the author of "Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West," which was turned into the successful Broadway musical. Maguire's book "The Next Queen of Heaven," set outside of the world of Oz, was turned down by his regular publisher, so he gave it to the Concord Free Press.

He did, in fact, give it to the press. All writers provide work to the Concord Free Press for free; its designers, who are excellent, donate their time. When he came up with the idea, Fitch's wife sighed, "I think you've come up with another way for writers not to get paid." And then she threw herself into the project. "It's a labor of love," Fitch says.

It's not exactly intuitive, connecting free books to a plethora of charitable donations. Fitch, who was once the kind of musician who could be found playing "at VFW clubs and traveling around in crappy vans," has an old-school DIY ethic. He also spent years managing the Gaining Ground organic farm, located at Henry David Thoreau's birthplace; it's a nonprofit that donates its harvests to food banks and homeless shelters.

"I learned the value of giving away something beautiful for free to someone who would be incredibly appreciative," Fitch says. "It's an ancient idea, the gift economy."

Earning a quarter-million dollars for charity was not what Fitch had expected. "When we first started it, we weren’t sure whether people would take the books and never writes us back, or maybe they wouldn’t even bother to take the books and I’d be sitting here in our office on a big stack of them," he says. "My agent told me not to do it, a lot of my friends told me not to do it. But a couple key people said 'Why not?' We took a big step to start it up, and three years later, we don’t want to stop. It’s just too much fun."

RELATED:

An unusual publishing venture: Take the book, then give

Former Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown donates $30 million

First U.S. World Book Night giveaway announces book selections

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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