Are free books the future of publishing?

 

Giving away books for free may sound like the last thing a publisher would do, but one company in the States is doing just that – with surprising results, writes DECLAN BURKE

THE BEST things in life are free books. That’s the philosophy of the US-based Concord Free Press (CFP), which publishes books and gives them away.

Give + Take, my fourth novel, inspired the idea,” says Stona Fitch of CFP. “It’s about a jazz pianist who steals diamonds and BMWs and gives away the money – in short, a modern retelling of the Robin Hood fable. But it’s also about the limits of generosity and the slippery nature of value. When the book ran into classic delay at a major New York publishing house, I decided to start the Concord Free Press and give it away, asking only that readers give some money to a charity they believed in or someone in need.”

The CFP publishing model – dubbed “generosity-based publishing” – is overseen by an Advisory Board of writers that includes Joyce Carol Oates, Russell Banks, Megan Abbott and Gregory Maguire.

“It’s important to point out that we’re a group of writers that publishes books,” says Fitch, “not a publisher only. We’ve just seized control of the machinery of publishing and put it to work in a new way.”

It works like this: Concord Free Press decide to publish a novel, the latest offering being Scott Phillips’s Rut, a tale of sci-fi dystopia set 50 years in the future. The novel goes through all the editing, proofing and printing hoops a conventionally published novel does, and CFP makes it available through its website. A reader orders a copy, and then commits to a charitable donation of his or her choice whenever the book arrives in the post. It’s a model that’s heavily dependent on the kindness of strangers.

“It was an incredibly risky experiment,” Fitch agrees, “but pretty quickly, it wasn’t an experiment anymore. Give + Taketriggered more than $40,000 in donations to causes and people in need, from ‘£9 on the streets of Edinburgh’ to ‘$20 to a blind Aborigine on the streets of Alice Springs’.

“At this point, our first four books have inspired thousands of readers to donate more than $155,000 throughout the world. The idea of generosity-based publishing has clearly taken hold.

“We finance the project via tax-deductible donations from our advisory board, friends and family, and supporters around the world. When one of our books goes on to a commercial edition, a percentage of those earnings are donated back to the press. So one writer’s success helps support other writers. Since the manuscript and the editing and design services are donated, we keep the overall cost of the project low.”

Of the four CFP titles published to date, two have subsequently been published in commercial editions: Stona Fitch’s Give + Take, which was published by Thomas Dunne in April, and Gregory Maguire’s The Next Queen of Heaven, which was published by HarperCollins last month.

Scott Phillips, the newest CFP author, is a critically acclaimed American writer whose debut, The Ice Harvest,was adapted for a film staring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton. “I like the experimental nature of the Concord philosophy,” he says, “the challenge to the traditional model of publishing. Obviously I can’t afford to give everything I write away for free, but the notion of a book that enriches no one but people and causes in need was very attractive.”

IT’S NO COINCIDENCE that Concord’s generosity-based publishing has emerged at a time when conventional publishing is being stress-tested and found wanting.

A heavy dependence by the behemoth publishers on a relatively small number of guaranteed best-selling authors perpetuates a conservative caution, even as technological developments allow smaller presses and individual authors to champion diversity as they bypass the industry and go straight to potential readers via the internet.

If they had the power, what one element of the current publishing model would both authors change?

“The moronic focus of the giant publishing conglomerates and big bookselling chains on blockbuster novels and biographies of repellent politicians and celebrities,” says Phillips.

“I’d like to see more collaboration between authors, editors, publishing houses and communities of readers,” says Fitch. “We need to respect each other for the unique skills that we bring to the table, and figure out a way to do more than just quibble about money and contracts.

“We need to look beyond communication channels – traditional book, e-book, online – to re-envision, reboot, and revalue reading.”

The CFP motto reads “Free their books and their minds will follow”, but the concept of free books is anathema to an industry that is already haemorrhaging profit as a result of illegal downloads of digitised titles.

So how does the rest of the publishing industry regard CFP’s noble stance?

“I’m the Robin Hood of publishing,” Fitch laughs. “Or the Guy Fawkes of publishing. Or the death of publishing. The best phrase anyone has come up with to describe what we’re doing is ‘a grand experiment in subversive altruism’.

“Our approach is certainly unusual and against the grain. But noble? Let’s just say that I’d rather make trouble than money.”


Scott Phillips’s Rutis available at concordfreepress.com

New developments in publishing

Andrew Wylie’s Odyssey Editions

Earlier this year, agent Andrew Wylie, who represents Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Elmore Leonard, as well as the estates of Norman Mailer, John Updike and WH Auden, launched Odyssey Editions, an imprint specialising in e-books with an exclusive retailing deal with Amazon.

E-publishing

This describes the process of an author uploading his or her digitised manuscript to an online retailer such as Amazon for download to reading devices such as the Kindle, iPad or Sony Reader. In the past six years, novelist and e-pub pioneer JA Konrath has sold almost 110,000 copies of his book, earning more than $200,000 in the process.

POD technology

Print-on-demand technology provides authors with a means of publishing physical books, which side-steps the traditional costs (print-runs, storage) associated with mainstream publishing.

Espresso Publishing

The Espresso Book Machine, which was created by On Demand Books, is a machine roughly the size of an office photocopier that can print a requested book to industry paperback standard in three minutes. Expect to see your local coffee shop doubling as a bookstore within two years.