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Concord Free Press gives away books for a donation to a charity of readers’ choice

Carolyn Kellogg
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

LOS ANGELES — In less than four years, the Concord Free Press has given away thousands of books. Its founder, Stona Fitch, admits that it’s not exactly a business model, but there’s more to it than just freebies. In exchange for receiving a free paperback, the Concord Free Press asks that a charitable donation be made to a worthy cause of the reader’s choosing.

Last week, it crossed a major benchmark: Concord Free Press readers have given away more than $250,000.

“Getting something beautiful in the mail for free makes people’s heads spin. Once they get over trying to figure out what the catch is, it inspires them to be generous. They really get it,” said Fitch in a phone interview from the publisher’s modest office in West Concord, Mass. The press is a registered nonprofit, staffed entirely by volunteers, with support from donors that include novelist Russell Banks.

As for the catch, there is none. The books are free. Readers are asked to make a donation, of whatever size they like, to whatever organization they like, and then log their gifts on the Concord Free Press website. It’s all done on the honor system.

“We cannot be the charity police,” Fitch acknowledges. “If anything, I think that number’s low. A lot of people do something, donate to a charity, and forget to go online and tell us about it.”

Concord Free Press does a limited run of each book — about 3,000 copies — and numbers them to aid the donation tracking. Because they encourage readers to pass the books along when they’ve finished, they can see when a book spawns five, six or seven donations. They travel all over the world, to readers in Argentina and Russia. Fitch notes that the books are particularly popular in Britain.

For a project like this to work, the books have to be good, works that people actually want to read. And they are. Its authors include Hugo and Nebula award-winning novelist Lucius Shepard, Fitch and a collection of writing about money with pieces by Mona Simpson, Michelle Huneven, Jonathan Ames, Mark Doty, Robert Pinsky and more.

The press’ highest-profile writer is Gregory Maguire, the author of “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West,” which was turned into the successful Broadway musical. Maguire’s book “The Next Queen of Heaven,” set outside of the world of Oz, was turned down by his regular publisher, so he gave it to the Concord Free Press.

All writers provide work to the Concord Free Press for free; its designers, donate their time. When he came up with the idea, Fitch’s wife sighed, “I think you’ve come up with another way for writers not to get paid.” And then she threw herself into the project. “It’s a labor of love,” Fitch says.

Earning a quarter-million dollars for charity was not what Fitch had expected. “When we first started it, we weren’t sure whether people would take the books and never write us back, or maybe they wouldn’t even bother to take the books and I’d be sitting here in our office on a big stack of them,” he says. “My agent told me not to do it, a lot of my friends told me not to do it. But a couple key people said ‘Why not?’ We took a big step to start it up, and three years later, we don’t want to stop. It’s just too much fun.”

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