Feeling GenerousBy Nik Korpon
December 28, 2010
It’s not very often anymore that you can flip through literary sites without someone bitching and moaning about declining book sales, dwindling readership and the End of Publishing. The whole issue has almost reached the point where I’d say pull the plug and let the damn thing die.
Then I found Concord Free Press, and my whole outlook lightened. Still in their professional infancy, they operate on a subversive idea that seems only common sense in hindsight: books are meant to be read and shared, and people are meant to help each other. In support of this mission, they give away free copies of their titles with the understanding that the reader will make a charitable donation to an organization, a shelter, or even a person on the street who is in need. Readers are encouraged to track their donation on the press’ website, and frequently the amount of donation greatly exceeds the cost of a book. They’re an exciting press, and an especially telling one, as they remain successful despite all of the gloom and doom mentioned above.
In a nice coincidence, their fourth novel, Rut, was written by a novelist whose work is as progressive and unique as the press itself. Scott Phillips is best known for his debut, The Ice Harvest, which was adapted into a film starring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton. But he’s written two other excellent noir novels, The Walkaway and Cottonwood. Endlessly inventive, his novels drift between genres, whether black comedy, thriller, western or crime. He is a writer’s writer, though, and there is always a very intense sense of craftsmanship in his books.
Isolated high in the Colorado Rockies, the town of Gower is perpetually this side of becoming a mid-21st-Century ghost-town. What was once a cozy resort town stuffed with celebrities and ski bunnies and streams of money is now a festering pot of humanity, a stew of mutant tadpoles, bipolar weather, promiscuous old women, international conspiracy and a handful of townspeople so crazy they can’t help but be pulled from real life. All of which is to say that it’s another machination of Scott Phillips’ unique, demented imagination.
Rut is too satirically accurate to be sci-fi, too funny to be horror, too well-written to be pulp, but somehow it’s all of these. What might be the most apt description is terrifyingly real. All of the characters, threats and conditions are definitely exaggerated, but with a pointed perspective to make me think that if we—in the real world—keep doing like we’re doing, this might be a nice neighborhood compared to what we’ll soon have. This might be the real genius of Phillips’ work with Rut, in that he denudes us of our collective façade of being a civilized society. And of course, there are a lot of funny parts, which serve to relax our solar plexus for the gut-shot on the next page.
After meeting Scott at NoirCon this past November and hearing about the Press for the first time, I became near-obsessed with this idea of combining gripping stories and philanthropy into a perfect amalgamation of what literature means to me: Community. As I said above, it seems like a common sense idea, one I’m pissed I didn’t think of first (though they do a way better job than I could ever imagine.) It’s an inspiring venture I thought everyone should hear about, and the people responsible were generous enough to give me some time and the inside info.
Stona Fitch is founder of Concord Free Press and the author of four novels, including SENSELESS, which some have called the most disturbing novel ever.
How did Concord Free Press come about?
My fourth novel, Give + Take, hit a snag at a major New York publisher and seemed to be on long-term hold. I decided to create a renegade publishing house that would give away books in exchange for voluntary donations to a cause or a person in need—an approach now called generosity-based publishing. The plot of Give + Take, which deals with the limits of generosity, inspired the Concord Free Press—as did my work running Gaining Ground, a non-profit farm here in Concord, MA, for years. We grow 30,000 lbs. of organic produce each season and give it away to people in need. So I knew that creating something of value and giving it away generates incredible goodwill.
Two years later, the Concord Free Press is going strong. We just published our fifth book, Rut, by Scott Phillips. Our books have inspired more than $180,000 in generous donations throughout the world. And we’ve gathered together a committed group of thousands of readers and supporters who love our grand experiment in subversive altruism, as one reviewer called it.
You’re obviously operating on a sort of honor system. Do you think most readers are contributing to charities?
You’re right, we can’t be the charity police. But we’re careful to get our books to people who seem predisposed to follow through. Half of our books go through a network of 60+ independent bookstores, which tend to hand deliver them to likely readers. And the rest are distributed via requests on our website, which makes it very clear what we ask of people. It’s voluntary, of course. And some people just get the book and read it. But thousands of people have donated and charted their donation on our site. And we suspect many more made donations but didn’t bother telling us.
At this point, there are more than 10,000 copies of our books cycling through the world now, and each one has our message (the manifreesto, we call it) on the back cover. Some end up on bookshelves or on eBay. But some just keep going from reader to reader, generating donations along the way. Readers are generous. And ultimately, we have to trust them.
Most of the books that CFP publishes end up on a ‘traditional’ press. Does the CFP publication help the book gain attention prior to the second edition?
Yes, our books get attention because they’re different. We’re not just another small press. We’re a group of writers that has taken over the machinery of publishing and put it to our own uses. We’re not united by a literary aesthetic—our books are wildly diverse. But they’re all unusual and slightly off-center. When traditional publishers see that our books generate an enthusiastic response from readers (and reviewers), it definitely makes the books more attractive to editors, even to those editors who saw the work previously in manuscript. Plus, our books are beautifully designed and packaged, so they help inspire editors to see how an unusual story might have broader appeal.
Since we only produce a small run of approximately 3,000 copies, we help create demand for the book that only a larger-scale traditional publisher with broad distribution can fulfill.
I love that you ask readers to contribute to an organized charity or a dude on the corner. Was this a conscious choice? By that I mean, were you making any kind of social statement, that no charity is more charitable than another?
Exactly. We leave it up to the individual reader to decide if they give and where they give. The range of charities and individuals who receive donations, all listed on our website, is pretty remarkable. And we stay out of the middle – readers just give the money away and tell us about it.
That the books are free and only ‘require’ some amount of donation, it makes an easy sell. Have any of your books been exchanged for a really long time?
Sure. We just heard about one the other day, a copy (book #811) of The Next Queen of Heaven by Gregory Maguire, our third novel. Our mailing lists show that it went to a Rebecca C. of Ridley Park, PA. After receiving the book, Rebecca C. did what we asked of our readers and made a $25 contribution to the Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry, a hunger-relief organization in her community. She charted her donation on our site and passed the book along.
Book #811 shows up a few months later when Ashley C (a relative?) makes a $20 donation to the Red Cross and charts it. Then passes the book along.
It shows up a third time, having crossed the Atlantic, when a G. Duys of the Borgerhout district of Antwerp, Belgium, gives €60 to “a homeless person and a family member in need.”
Then this week, a year after publication, Book #811 shows up on our donation sheet a fourth time. The book is in Glasgow, Scotland now, where a Fiona G. gave £5 to The Anthony Nolan Trust, an organization that finds matches for leukemia patients who need transplants.
One year. Three countries. More than $140 in generosity. And the book is still circling, still entertaining, still inspiring. Book #811 reminds all of us at the CFP that our books are not just novels. They’re subversive, beautiful, under-the-radar ambassadors of generosity. May they all go on such long journeys.
Scott Phillips is author of four novels, including THE ICE HARVEST, which was a NYT Notable Book of the Year. His novels have been nominated for a boatload of awards.
How did you become involved with CFP?
My friend Megan Abbott is on their board and thought I might have a suitable manuscript. I sent it to Stona Fitch, the man behind the whole enterprise, and he dug it and we were off to the races.
This book slays. You could’ve easily gone the traditional—and probably more prosperous—route and sold it to a larger house. Why did you choose to release it with CFP?
I started the book during the second George W. Bush administration and finished it very close to the time Obama was elected, and at that particular moment in history I felt like it was a period piece, since clearly our problems were all over. Now, two years into the thing, things haven’t improved much, so when they asked if I had anything that might be suitable, there it sat on my hard drive, ready to go. And I’d pretty much burned out on traditional publishing. There’s not much money in it for writers like me any more, though there used to be. I thought this might be an interesting way to get the book out there into the world, and Stona Fitch is probably the best editor I’ve ever worked with.
Have you noticed any difference in reception between Rut and your other novels because this one was on a more unique press?
I’ve certainly had a lot of people who were baffled at the whole concept. One person tried to give me money for it, and I told her I really couldn’t take it, that it had to be a charity or a person in need. As for the book itself, the results have been a bit slower rolling in, because the shelf life of a commercial novel is about a month, whereas this book is still getting attention a couple of months down the line with no slowdown in sight.
Rut is very different from your other books, yet it still reads like one of your books. What was the impetus for writing this? Did you see some odd tractor caterwauling across a field, stumble across a giant amphibian, wage biological war with boner pills?
It started out being a story about a boy and a pony. And as I said above, I started writing it in a very bitter and pessimistic state during the worst of the Bush years.
On a more craft-focused tip, when reading this I never had any idea what would happen next, but I felt confident that everything would pan out in the end. Sort of that ‘in safe hands’ concept they talk about in MFA classes. Did you do any outlining with Rut, or just throw a bunch of characters together and see who would crawl away intact?
Very much the latter. I just came up with a bunch of characters that I found interesting, with different sorts of blinders on, and I had some idea that the toxic swamp was going to have an important role in the end of the story. As to who was going to live or die, that was a surprise to me, as I hope it is to the reader.
Wow, Nik…I didn’t know about this press or either of these authors, but you’ve certainly got me all excited about several things now. Excellent job, and welcome to TNB. Great to have you here, brother. And best of luck with Stay God.
Thanks for the kind words, Nik…I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the other Best Editor I Ever Worked with, Dan Smetanka of Counterpoint. He will certainly crack something over my head for not mentioning in the interview that I have a forthcoming book with Counterpoint, The Adjustment, coming in August. (Sorry for being a publicity whore in the comments section.)
I’m trying to wrap my head around the whole “paper and shipping costs money” thing, as it relates to this.
Not to be a wet rag on the whole concept, which is endearing and I like it…but when you say the Concord Free Press “remains successful”, what do you actually mean?
It’s got to involve some minor, minuscule revenue and cash flow? Printing presses need electricity, and so do website servers. Is it supported on pure angel philanthropy? Is the House open for business after the publisher and authors get home from day jobs? paper scavenged from somewhere?
Can it be defined as a self-sustaining proposition? Again, I am not trying to disparage or slag the concept, but help me out here…does the press contribute to the physical maintenance of the body of the writer, or of the publisher for that matter? From the read, it appears that there is absolutely no monetary inflow whatsoever, beyond the angel money that primes the pump, out of pocket? How, as a business model, does that diverge from the age-old vanity press?
As treasurer of the Concord Free Press, I guess I have to respond. We’re an IRS-approved non-profit foundation, so we survive via donations from people who believe in us. Defining success is subjective, of course. But in two years, we’ve published five great books, created a new category of publishing, and gathered thousands of enthusiastic supporters from around the world. Plus, we’re in the black. So that sounds like success to us. Particularly when so many books actually lose money.
As for what’s in it for writers, think of it this way. Musicians play benefit concerts. Publishing a book with us is like a chance for writers to inspire generosity among their readers. That said, our books go on to second commercial lives that benefit our writers in a more traditional way. With actual money. Per our model, a portion of those earnings come back to the CFP, providing yet another way to be sustainable.
As for the comparison to a vanity press, we publish books by well-known writers, who do not fund the production of their books (e.g., out of pocket). The Concord Free Press is a labor of love, a strange concept in a commercial context. All I can say is that our Board, editors, store network, and supporters all like being part of a project this positive and fun. Like almost all writers/artists in the modern world, we do other things for money. Hope this note clarifies our admittedly unusual and unconventional approach to publishing.
[…] Also got a review/interview thing with Scott Phillips (Ice Harvest) and Stona Fitch (Founder of Concord Free Press) over at The Nervous Breakdown. […]