Monday, June 30, 2014

Free Books

The publishing world continues to get stranger and stranger. On LinkedIn, one thread is devoted to writers arguing about whether or not they should give away their books for free, as a teaser for a series, to get readers interested in their work overall, or just as a way to get their name out there. This debate can get rather heated. On some days, as the emails come pouring into my computer, I wonder if the posters are getting any other writing done. Pricing e-books at $0.00 on Amazon as a sales gimmick is a hot topic, and will remain so for quite a while.

The debate on LinkedIn fades in comparison to the story of the Concord Free Press. Founded by Stona Fitch, the press has published perhaps a dozen books in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. The press is supported by donations and grants, and all books are given free to those who request them. Each requestor is asked to make a donation to the charity of his or her choice, and let the press know what that is. The website includes a page listing the donations. In total, the press has prompted charitable giving of over $409,250. Fitch has succeeded in his goal: “we’re publishing books that connect reading and giving like never before. And that’s enough for us.”

I decided to give this a try and placed an order for Zig Zag Wanderer, a story collection by Madison Smartt Bell. The order page came up and I was asked to check off three questions about whether or not I would make a donation to a charity I believed in or help a person in need, and then pass along the book. I checked off all three boxes. I have chosen the charity, The Gloucester Writers Center, and will also give them the book when I’ve finished reading it.

I have mixed feelings about the business plan of the Concord Free Press. As a reader and a socially conscious citizen, I love the idea of linking books, charity, and raising awareness or initiating discussion, but as a writer I cringe. Few of us in this world (and the numbers dwindle as I write) can afford to work for free. What does it mean for a professional writer, someone who takes the time to learn the craft, and work her or his way up the ladder of the profession of writer (small magazines, teaching, a first book, reviews and reviewing, and the rest of it) to give away a book that may have taken two or three years to write?

For decades, if not centuries, the lament of the writer has been that she is the last one to be paid. The publisher gets the money and divvies it out. The printer always gets paid, for obvious reasons, and so does the designer. The publisher gets paid because he controls the money, and the editors and proofreaders usually get paid. Anyone outside the office, and thus not in the publisher’s face every day, has a much diminished chance of seeing any money. I know because as a freelance editor I often had to make uncomfortable phone calls to a publisher insisting on payment. In the 1980s several small publishing houses in the Boston area went bankrupt, and the publisher walked away with what was left—the writers, freelancers, and staff got nothing. And now, it seems, we begin at that stage of nothingness. (I'm feeling very Buddhist today.)

I admit to deep ambivalence here. I admire what the Concord Free Press is doing, and I understand the passion behind the debate on LinkedIn. But I wonder what all this means for writers who have something to say, the skill to say it, and the determination to do so.

If someone else has insight into this new world, I hope you will share it.

To learn more about the Concord Free Press, go to

To learn more about the debate on LinkedIn go to LinkedIn, Books and Writers, For the sake of writers everywhere, please STOP this!

To learn more about the Gloucester Writers Center, go to


  1. Susan,

    I don't have much to say on this issue. I've given away books many times now, gifted them. However, I think writers should be paid for their efforts. Many people feel differently. They claim they write for "love" and "exposure." I think you can be paid for your work and love it as well. Would your plumber work for "love" or does he expect to be paid for his hard work? Why should authors be any different?

  2. Like other creative people, it’s in the nature of writers to crave recognition. And money certainly compliments other forms of recognition. Few of us write for money alone, but I'm of the school that believes the worker should be paid.

  3. I too think writers (also known as workers) should be paid. The Concord Free Press is indeed helping a lot of people, but in fact it is the writer who is making all this possible. And the writer gets nothing. If no one else was making anything, I might think differently, but the printer is getting paid, as well as others. That's obvious from the need for grants and donations to keep the CFP going.