Take a free book, but pay it forward

Some of the most prestigious institutions in the country are taking efforts to create a new, permanent archive of scholarly work online.

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Kai Ryssdal: Amazon announced the other day that for the first time e-book sales have topped the number of actual books sold. Not promising news for a publishing industry that's already dealing with slowing print sales. They're down about a billion and a half dollars over the past two years. But a changing business model works both ways.

From Vermont Public Radio, Jane Lindholm reports on a small publishing house trying something completely different.


Jane Lindholm: A few years ago, writer Stona Fitch was getting ready to publish his fourth novel, "Give + Take," when his editor changed jobs. That left Fitch's book orphaned. So he decided to start his own publishing house -- with a bit of a twist. The Concord Free Press, based in Concord, Massachusetts, gives its books away for free.

Stona Fitch: Our books, on the back where you normally find the price, it says "zero." There's a sticker on the front that says "100 percent off."

Well-established writers donate their work to the Press for a limited run of about 2,500 copies. The designer does the work pro bono too. So the only costs the Press has to cover are printing and postage.

Fitch: Each book costs roughly the same amount as a very bad slice of pizza.

Lyn Cosby is one of those readers, in Birmingham, Alabama. She got her hands on the book "The Next Queen of Heaven" by "Wicked" author Gregory Maguire after seeing it on a book review website.

Lyn Cosby: I'm always up for a free book. And just a few days later, it was in my mailbox. You know, I didn't know what to expect, but it had this great cover design... I mean, it was a real publishing house book!

Cosby gave $110 to a local arts charity and passed the book on to her daughter. She's now waiting for her next Concord Free Press title to arrive in the mail.

Now, you might think booksellers would balk at giving books away.

Cashier: How are you today?

Customer: Good. How are you?

But independent store owners are enthusiastic. Like Chris Morrow, at the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont.

Chris Morrow: Something like this was low effort on our part, and it benefits our customers, which is something I'm always looking to do. And the whole notion of paying it forward is appealing on many levels. So it was really a no-brainer for us.

And publisher Stona Fitch says the concept is catching on. Readers find one another and trade copies via Facebook. And writers flood the Press office with manuscripts.

Fitch: I'm not suggesting that it is the answer to any of the woes that traditional publishing face. That would be stupid. But generosity-based publishing, as it's come to be known, provides an alternative -- and a viable alternative -- to the standard way of commercially producing a book.

And, in fact, Concord Free Press books can go on to commercial success after their initial limited run. That orphaned novel that inspired Fitch to start the publishing house in the first place -- "Give + Take" -- will be published by St. Martin's Press this summer for $23.99 a copy.

I'm Jane Lindholm, for Marketplace.

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