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.
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