Free Books: Concord Free Press Creates New Nonprofit Publishing Model

The cover of Castle Freeman Jr.'s sixth book, a collection of 12 stories set in the rural North East, has a few eye-catching elements: The image is of brittle grass and a rickety, abandoned home, an aesthetic matched by the rough texture of the cover.

More unusual, though, is the price tag situated above the bar code. This book costs $0.00.

"Round Mountain" is one of seven novels published so far by Concord Free Press, which, as its name implies, is a nonprofit that creates free printed books that can be requested via their site. The only condition is that the reader donates to a charity of their choice and passes the book along when they're finished. The organization has so far raised over $260,000 for various charities including Planned Parenthood, local libraries and hurricane relief funds.

Its other titles include "The Next Queen Of Heaven" by "Wicked" author Gregory Maguire and "Give and Take," the fourth book by the press' founder, Stona Fitch.

"My book was about generosity. It's sort of a latter day Robin Hood story. This jazz player steals diamonds and BMWs then gives them away," Fitch told The Huffington Post on the telephone from the organization's headquarters.

Although "Give and Take" was bought by a major literary imprint in 2007, the book was "abandoned" when Fitch's editor left the industry. Faced with the choice of ditching or self-publishing his story, he instead decided to open his own company, employing the philosophy of a nonprofit farm he works with, which grows produce to donate to local shelters.

"My agent told me not to open the press. A lot of friends said I'd make a fool out of myself," Fitch says. "[But] writers have to be activists. I'm very much an activist. You can't wait for publishing to figure it out for you."

Nestled above a bakery in Concord, Mass., the company takes pride in their humble philosophy and alternative to mainstream publishing houses. Three-and-a-half years in, Concord Free Press has published just six books using its unusual model.

"We're exactly the opposite of 'real' publishing," Fitch says. "We try to distribute our books as slowly and carefully as possible. We're too small to fail."

The press is run by volunteers -- the editorial team, writers and designers aren't paid for their efforts, and all have other day jobs, according to Fitch.

Though it claims not to have a rigidly enforced editorial voice, Concord Free Press seeks previously published authors whose work focuses on what it describes as "edgy" themes. The press also places great emphasis on book design, which explains its unique typographic choices and quality, textured covers, made affordable thanks to a unique partnership with Kodak digital printing.

Once a manuscript is edited and a cover is designed, the next step is to print 3,000 copies and distribute many of them to over 50 independent bookstores across the country. These costs are covered by the company's status as a nonprofit.

In addition to sending out books to indie stores, the press also allows individual readers to order copies online, and will ship to any country, no matter how remote. It merely asks that readers promise to make a voluntary donation to a cause of their choice (though each book has a recommended charity), log that donation on a virtual GivingTracker and pass the book on, "so the giving can keep going."

Fitch is unsure of exact numbers -- "we aren't the charity police," he says with a laugh -- but has heard stories of readers in Scotland, Pakistan and Iraq receiving Concord Free Press books. He's even heard of a single book making it's way through Mexico, the United States and Europe, raising $400 in the process.

In the case of the press' latest book, Freeman's "Round Mountain," it is suggested that readers make donations to the Vermont Community Foundation or other organizations providing relief to victims of Hurricane Irene.

"My own neighborhood was hit pretty hard by Irene, and so I am well aware of the magnitude of the recovery and of the continuing need for support, both of rebuilding and of people who have lost homes, businesses, land, and more in this state," Freeman told The Huffington Post.

When Fitch began the business, he solicited seasoned authors including Russell Banks, Megan Abbott and Joyce Carol Oates to join its advisory board, which principally takes on the role of selecting and reaching out to writers who might be interested in joining this unusual literary experiment. All participating authors retain the rights to their work and have the ability to re-release their novels through traditional publishing houses.

This is how "Round Mountain" became Concord Free Press's sixth book to be published, entirely for free.

As Castle Freeman Jnr. puts it, "I am a writer and what a writer wants is readers. Very simple."