What If We Give It Away?

The London Independent has a feature on Stona Fitch, novelist, Scruffy the Cat multi-instrumentalist, and founder of the Concord, Massachusetts-based Concord Free Press, which gives away copies of limited-edition novels under the condition that you give money to a charity of your choosing, and then pass the book along. It’s no way to make a living, but at least it’s a more noble method of free distribution than that of Wild Animus.

Fitch, who’s published his 2001 novel, Senseless, with Soho Press, says he’s gotten some pushback about the enterprise from some in the publishing industry:

“It’s a threatening idea to publishers. A couple have said it’s the death of the business and I should stop immediately,” Fitch laughs. A tiny not-for-profit organisation is not about to topple the bestseller list or reduce J K Rowling to begging on the streets. But it is trying to effect a change in attitude, something reflected in the website’s strapline: “Free their books and their minds will follow”.

“I’m not saying every book should be free, but the inmates have the keys to the asylum now,” he says. “Publishing books is not hard, it’s making money from publishing that’s really hard. We’re blessedly relieved of the burden of profitability.”

Interesting phrase, “burden of profitability.” To be more precise, the burden is to be profitable to a degree that the corporate owners of the mainstream publishing industry demand. Much like the newspaper industry, book publishers have shifted from a model that was long comfortable with grocery-store profit margins to one that was demanding double-digit profit percentages year over year, as Gideon Lewis-Kraus points out in one of the few useful details in what is an overall silly piece in Harper’s about the Frankfurt Book Fair. (The piece is chiefly concerned with skewering the vanity of agents and publishing honchos—as if such vanity were unique to the publishing industry, as if Morgan Entrekin would be a better publisher if he were a better dancer, dancing to better music at a better party.) So if Fitch wants to make some of his efforts available for free, that may be a better value proposition for him in the long run—he’s building more goodwill with an audience than he could with a large publisher. Everybody in the publishing industry is now facing an era of creative destruction, so clearly some new models are in order.

But Fitch’s efforts, however noble and potentially valuable, don’t address how publishers and authors make money right now, while everybody’s getting vigorously Schumpetered. I’ll be curious to hear how successful indie publisher Two Dollar Radio will be with its subscription model, where $50 gets you at least five of the books it’ll put out this year. I don’t pay very close attention to the publishing industry—watching the sausage-making processes ruined me as a music fan—but it seems that whatever efficiencies a publisher gains from such a model (a better sense of number of readers and anticipated income) is lashed to a stronger need to better brand your company (“Why do I want every book you publish?”) and retooling a list to be more subscriber-friendly could come at the expense of worthy writers who suddenly don’t “fit” the brand. In the effort to avoid the burden of profitability, such systems can become as corporate as the ones indies are trying to avoid.