Free spirit: Stona Finch's bold scheme to give away books

Stona Fitch's powerful novels tackle themes such as globalisation, consumerism and the environment, and he's even putting his sales where his mouth is by giving books away. But don't be put off – as he tells Doug Johnstone, there's nothing more boring than a moralist

Here's a crazy idea for these financially straitened times. Why not set up a small book publishing business where everyone works for free, from writers and editors to designers and printers, then give the books away. Insane? Maybe, but that didn't stop American novelist Stona Fitch.

"I just woke up one morning and told my wife I'd come up with a new way for writers not to make money," he laughs. "The idea was to produce beautiful, interesting new books and give them away, then ask people to give money to charity instead of paying for them."

The result was the Concord Free Press, named after the small Massachusetts town where Fitch lives with his wife and two daughters, and it's a project that, it's suggested, could revolutionise the publishing industry. Its first publication, Fitch's novel Give and Take, came out late last year with a short print run of 1,500 copies, which were all quickly snapped up. Recipients were encouraged to read it, donate some money to a local charity, then pass the book on to someone else to do likewise. According to the publisher's website, the enterprise has notched up over $30,000 in donations in three months, from as far afield as Japan, Tunisia and Slovakia.

The plot of Give and Take ties in with the publisher's ethos; it features a touring jazz musician who steals diamonds and BMWs from the rich and gives the proceeds to the poor. The story brilliantly blends a page-turning plot with themes which make the reader consider their attitude to money, wealth and consumerism.

"I didn't know when we started whether people would go for it, but the response has been incredibly encouraging," says Fitch. "I believe firmly in the power of the book, not just to entertain, amuse and enlighten but to connect with the reader. By giving away these books, it encourages readers to take action. As for writers, they just want to get their work out to readers. We've already got our next novel lined up for publication in May, and we've got several more in the pipeline after that."

The response from the book industry has been less enthusiastic. "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."

Fitch comes across as a man very much at home with his place in the world, confident and enthusiastic. The 47-year-old writer of Scottish-Cherokee ancestry has had a varied career, and has lived through enough to take the rough with the smooth. Having graduated from Princeton, where he studied under Joyce Carol Oates and edited the university newspaper, he did stints as a journalist for the Anchorage Daily News and Miami Herald, before spending four years as banjo player in a country punk band. Then his novelist dreams came true when he was offered a huge advance on his first manuscript. "In retrospect it was probably the worst thing that ever happened to me," he says. "It was a quirky, dark, coming-of-age novel that came out with a major publisher. So because it didn't take off and become the next big thing, I got dropped. That's when a lot of writers pack it in, but I kept writing a book every couple of years and eventually they found homes, and continue to do so."

That process has not been quite as seamless as Fitch makes it sound. His second novel, Senseless, was a superb white-knuckle thriller which blended extreme violence with complex ideas about terrorism, globalisation and internet voyeurism. Unfortunately it was published in the US on 11 September 2001.

"The first edition in the US was delayed because the warehouse in New York was covered with Trade Center rubble," says Fitch. "In the end it barely got out in America. It got great reviews, but at that point people did not want to read a disturbing novel about terrorists; life was disturbing enough."

In Senseless, an American businessman is kidnapped on the streets of Belgium and tortured by extremists for the West's apparent sins, the whole thing broadcast over the internet. "Some of the stuff the main extremist said in that novel was remarkably Bin Laden-esque," says Fitch. "I'd been in Europe a lot, and it was clear something was afoot. I'd spent time in the back parts of Brussels and Antwerp, and anti-Americanism was palpable, so it wasn't prescient as much as just paying attention. As a writer that's your job, you've got to have your feelers out, the big antenna on your head picking up these signals."

Senseless was eventually published in Britain last year by the independent Scottish publisher Two Ravens Press, and has subsequently been made into an impressive feature film by the Scottish director Simon Hynd. Two Ravens is also publishing Fitch's new novel, Printer's Devil, a wonderfully dark, dystopian tale set in a world where excessive consumerism has led to an environmental apocalypse. In a ruined city plagued by deadly black winds, rival printers' guilds, kept alive by the totalitarian regime's propaganda machine, squabble over everything.

"The ridiculousness of these two tribes, who have very minor differences, being at each other's throats: obviously the metaphor there is religion," says Fitch. "It's about the ridiculousness of getting obsessed with those differences while meanwhile something much worse is going on around them."

All four of Fitch's published novels have dealt in different ways with the same themes – globalisation, commercialism and environmental impact – although they are subtle, not preaching or proselytising. "I've been working on Printer's Devil for years, and over that time people have become much more aware of the impact of their lives on the world," he says. "Twenty years from now we'll look back at this time as the high water mark for consumerism. Printer's Devil is about where we go from here. The hollow allure of consumerism has replaced so many other things, human interaction is devalued by the promise of all this stuff. On a personal level I'm very critical of it, and it's not the way I live my life. But you don't want to be a moralist in your fiction; there's nothing more boring than a moralist."

Giving away a novel is one small step in the fight against excessive commercialism, although Fitch is open about the advantages his raised profile have brought – there's been considerable interest in film and foreign rights for Give and Take, since its publication. As for the future of the Concord Free Press, Fitch is keen to keep expectations realistic. "We don't have big ambitions, except to continue to put out great books that we're proud of, generate as many donations as we can and encourage people to be enthusiastic about books," he says. "It's an ongoing experiment – it's never really done."

And if you ever find yourself in Concord, Massachusetts, look out for one final act of philanthropy courtesy of the Fitch family. "Our house is always overflowing with books," he says. "So a couple of times a year we just put hundreds of them on the street and let people take 'em."

If that's not putting your money where your mouth is, I don't know what is.

The extract

Printer's Devil, By Stona Fitch (Two Ravens Press £8.99)

"...'That's right,' Gerry says. 'Air is for all. Time to set it free.' He wraps his hand in his sleeve, reaches up, and opens each of the nozzles. A choir of hissing valves fills the room. Sean and I step forward and breathe deeply, breathing in the pure, delicious O2. Oxygen is hope and limitless choices and possibilities. Oxygen is life distilled. We crave it. We want to stand breathing in Sullivan's apartment for hours."

Printer's Devil is published by Two Ravens Press on 17 March

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
    Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

    Greens on the march

    ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

    Through the stories of his accusers
    Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

    The Meaning of Mongol

    Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible