RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
Now we have a story about a publisher trying something truly radical. For the past couple of years, Concord Free Press has been living up to its name, and giving away its books for free. NPR's Anthony Brooks reports.
MONTAGNE: Welcome to the global headquarters of the Concord Free Press.
ANTHONY BROOKS: This is Stona Fitch, a writer from Concord, just west of Boston. The grand tour takes less than a minute.
MONTAGNE: These two tables are the Concord Free Press. Here's - shipping and receiving is about a foot to the right of that.
BROOKS: Fitch has a shock of reddish-brown hair and an impish smile. He's proud that one of his novels, "Senseless," was judged by a critic to be one of the most disturbing books ever written. His business plan isn't quite as disturbing, but it is radical. You can grab books from the Concord Free Press for free at several dozen independent bookstores across the country, or get them online. But if you do, you're asked for something in return.
MONTAGNE: We just ask people to one, make a voluntary donation to a charity or person in need, two; chart your donation at our website; and three, pass the book along to someone else so that this project keeps going.
BROOKS: In the last two years, Fitch says readers have donated more than $142,000 to charity.
MONTAGNE: So, why give books away for free?
MONTAGNE: You know, we're not saying all books should be free. We're just saying this is one way to put out a book.
BROOKS: Stona Fitch calls this generosity-based publishing. He says he got the idea when he was having trouble publishing his fourth novel, "Give and Take." He says like many writers, he was on the verge of giving up.
MONTAGNE: I had what writers know as an orphan book, an orphan novel. And I just considered, well, why don't we just print it and give it away and ask people to give money to something they care about, and see if it works?
MONTAGNE: Initially, I expressed outrage over Concord Free Press.
BROOKS: Hamilton Fish is the former publisher of The Nation magazine, who says the whole idea seemed at odds with his effort to get Americans to actually pay for books.
MONTAGNE: And he was waltzing around, inviting people to help themselves to the books that Concord Free Press was publishing free of charge.
MONTAGNE: I think the phrase he used is, this is the death of publishing.
BROOKS: But Fish came around - not because he says it's the future of publishing, but because he says it's a new approach in an industry that needs fresh ideas.
MONTAGNE: Obviously, the big publishing houses are facing tremendous challenges. Their financial viability is very much in question. We need as much innovation and independent spirit as possible.
BROOKS: And he says giving books away might be one way to kick-start sales for some writers. That's why author Wesley Brown published his latest book, "Push Comes to Shove," with the Concord Free Press. He's hoping it will ultimately get republished for money. But in the meantime, he's pleased that there is some 3,000 copies of his book in circulation.
MONTAGNE: Which is a writer's dream, to be read that widely. And the other thing is that the book generated over $40,000 in donations. So that was very heartening as well.
MONTAGNE: It's an important time to rethink what is the real value of a book.
BROOKS: Again, Stona Fitch.
MONTAGNE: In an industry where nine out of 10 books don't make money, anyway - in fact, they lose money - the real issue is: What does the reader think a book is worth?
BROOKS: Anthony Brooks, NPR News.