I didn't expect to give away my fourth novel. Back in 2007, Give + Take was on track to come out with a major U.S. publisher. Then my editor left, and my book entered the queasy limbo of the orphaned book. Give + Take is about a jazz pianist on the road, stealing diamonds and BMWs and giving the money away. It retells the Robin Hood myth, though the giving turns as complicated as the stealing. The book's plot inspired its next life.
Why not start a publishing house that would give books away, asking only that readers make a voluntary donation to a cause, someone in need, or a stranger? Then they would pass the book on. I would call it the Concord Free Press after the Massachusetts town where I live, long known for embracing the unconventional. True to its name, everyone at the CFP would work for free. Our only expenses would be printing and stamps, which we would pay for via lots of small donations from local friends and online strangers—and by selling T-shirts, the old punk rock standby. Our first title would be Give + Take.
Reviews were mixed. My wife congratulated me for finding “a new way for writers to not make money.” My agent was worried I was about to embarrass myself. But in short order, we had a genius design director, fiction and poetry editors, a publicist, a distribution network of 50 independent bookstores, official IRS nonprofit status, a Web site, and an office that always smells like bread (it's over a bakery).
The Concord Free Press published Give + Take in October 2008 in a sleek, hand-numbered trade paperback edition of 1,500. We sent a handful of copies to newspapers and friends. The Washington Post, L.A. Times, book bloggers, and readers quickly weighed in. They called it variously generosity-based publishing, a grand experiment in subversive altruism, and the Robin Hood publishing model.
Our bookstores gave away their books in a few days. Word got around and requests poured in from the U.S., U.K., India, Israel, Iran, and beyond. Every copy was quickly snapped up. And why not? The books were free. But would readers actually give away money? Slowly at first, then in a flood, donations showed up on our site:
Verena W. of Concord, Mass., gave $35 to Weave a Real Peace.David K. of Ullapool, Scotland, gave away £9 on the streets of Edinburgh.Mehdi L. of Tunisia gave $10 to a homeless person in Tunis.Ron K. of West Roxbury, Mass., gave $100 to Oxfam.
Ultimately, Give + Take generated more than $40,000 in donations worldwide.
Our second novel, Push Comes to Shove by the legendary but woefully underpublished Wesley Brown, got rave reviews and inspired another $40,000 in donations. And our third novel, The Next Queen of Heaven by bestseller Gregory Maguire (Wicked), sent us completely over the top. After mentions by CNN and Entertainment Weekly, we were getting thousands of book requests an hour.
As of early 2010, the Concord Free Press has inspired more than $130,000 in donations by thousands of readers—with three trade paperbacks. Our advisory board includes Megan Abbott, Russell Banks, Hamilton Fish, Tod Goldberg, Stephen McCauley, Joyce Carol Oates, Francine Prose, Jess Walter, and other literary luminaries. In May, we'll publish IOU, a multigenre book about money that features top-shelf writers and poets, plus a bank robber or two. Moving ahead, we'll put out a couple of books a year and have a good time doing it.
Publishing is a lot more fun when you're freed from the burden of profitability. We're not proposing our unconventional approach to publishing as a model. But the Concord Free Press hits a nerve with readers and writers who want to be part of an intriguing experiment. And also readers who believe in the intrinsic value and power of books, even when they're free.
Now that its turn as a free book is over, Give + Take will have a second, commercial life when St. Martin's Press/Thomas Dunne Books publishes it in hardcover in May, along with foreign editions in the U.K., Greece, Taiwan, and beyond. Like any author, I want to see my latest novel do well. But I'd like to think that in some way, one not measured by BookScan, Give + Take is already a success.