GENEROSITY: A Novel Concept

By Lynn Farquhar

When my copy of Madison Smartt Bell’s haunting short story collection, Zig Zag Wanderer, arrived in the mail, it was marked FREE just as I was told it would be. At the time, Zig Zag was the latest of nine books published by Concord Free Press in West Concord, Mass. I’d gone to the CFP website, curious to see how this publishing phenomenon dreamed up by author Stona Fitch actually worked.  

It’s like this: writers donate a book for a print run of between 2,500–3,000 copies. Readers can request whatever book is on offer at the time on the press’s website, concordfreepress.com, up until that print run’s copies have run out. Readers agree to pass along the book rather than keep it, and to “pay it forward” in some manner. 

Each individual book is given a number and recipients are asked to report back to CFP what acts of generosity they performed after receiving their books. A glance at the many donations tracked reveals a range of causes readers have been inspired to commit to, from helping out someone with overwhelming medical bills or a homeless person with some needed cash to making donations to various nonprofits. The book inspiring the most donations so far has been copy #811 of Gregory (of Wicked fame) Maguire’s book, The Next Queen of Heaven, which has raised approximately $2,000 for various causes. Copy #811 has changed hands that dutifully reported back from far-flung readers from Michigan to Belgium to Scotland.  

The very first book published by the press was penned by Fitch himself, when he was volunteering as director of an organic farm growing produce for people in need. Frustrated that his novel Give + Take wasn’t moving when his Doubleday editor left the company, Fitch decided to start CFP and make generosity central to its mission too. The nonprofit press is run by Fitch, his wife, Ann, and a team of volunteers, and is funded by grants and donations, plus proceeds from a sister project, the for-profit Concord ePress.  

 Each book eventually raises $45,000–$55,000, which is more than many of the titles might have earned, had they been sold conventionally. Plus, even though the books are donated by their authors, that doesn’t prevent them from being picked up by a traditional publisher down the road, as happened with Fitch’s Give + Take and Maguire’s The Next Queen of Heaven. The press’s tenth book, Five Things I Know, is a limited edition chapbook originally given as a commencement address at Concord Academy (up the street from the Concord Free Press) by the Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie. Most of the titles have been fiction, but there have been other non-fiction works as well. One, The Rockaways, is a photography book on the aftermath of hurricane Sandy.  

Occasionally Concord Free Press titles will show up on eBay, and, though Fitch says he “can’t be the charity police,” he does send emails requesting that the sellers honor the spirit of CFP by allowing the books to continue being passed along for free. Despite sometimes being besieged by requests for free stuff, Fitch says “given a choice, I’d rather work on the CFP than anything else.” Indeed, when I asked Fitch what has surprised him most about his publishing experiment, he said, “the enthusiasm of readers around the world, who requested books, made donations, then took the extra step to tell us where they gave—and to pass the book on.” He finds that publishing can be really fun “when the burden of profitability is removed” and that it’s “a chance to collaborate with some fantastic people—writers, photographers, designers, and beyond.” ■

 

Lynn Farquhar is a local bibliophile who can’t keep mum about the latest books she considers brilliant. These can range from novels to books on a range of topics, like biography, agriculture, the oil industry, economics, and history.

Lynn writes reviews for and works at the Tattered Cover, so you can see her recommendations at the Colfax store or check them out at tatteredcoverbookstore.blogspot.com.