The books are free; the grace is up to you

One way to adjust to the cramped profit margins of book publishing is to reconceive of the whole endeavor as an altruistic one. This weekend the Boston Globe reported on a new publishing imprint, the Concord Free Press, founded by Stona Fitch with the idea of giving away titles for free and asking the recipients to contribute something to charity in return.

Amidst so much negative news about the future of publishing, Fitch is trying to create a way for authors to get their books to readers, the guiding goal of any writer. At the same time, Fitch hopes to encourage generosity among readers.

The publishers' website carries a blurb that sums up my thoughts: "For a project like this to work, the books have to be good." (It comes from a writeup in the L.A. Times by Carolyn Kellogg, who added, "And they are.") Not having read any of them, I can't pass judgment, but literary excellence is certainly part of their aspirations. If you're curious, you can find the available titles on their site, and you can also buy an electronic book -- "the ebooks support the free books," they say.

The press's biggest "name" author so far is Gregory Maguire, well known for his novel Wicked (the inspiration for the Broadway hit). You may remember this interview with Maguire that Daria Donnelly published in Commonweal a decade ago.

He contributed a book called The Next Queen of Heaven to the Concord Free Press -- the writers are unpaid, like the designers and other volunteers -- which has since been published by HarperCollins. In the Globe article, Maguire talks about the Concord Free Press project in decidedly Catholic language:

Maguire fell in love with the idea of the Concord Free Press because it bestows upon readers, not publishers, the power to decide how much each book is worth. The donation system recognizes that the true value of a book is what a reader extracts from it, he said.

“Anyone who loves to read has always known that,” he said. “It’s as we used to say in Catholic school, an outward sign of an inward grace.”

A book as sacrament -- or maybe a sacramental? It depends on the book, I suppose, but I like the idea.


Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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