As giant retailers continue their price war over books (Target just joined Walmart and Amazon in offering pre-sales of top November titles for $9 or less), there’s one new book that seems to take the trend to its logical extreme. The Next Queen of Heaven, a new novel by Wicked author Gregory Maguire, is available starting today for the low, low price of $0.00. That’s not a typo. Queen is the third title from the year-old Concord Free Press, which is giving away 2,500 copies of the book (half through its website and half through select independent bookstores) to readers who agree to make a donation “to a local charity, someone who needs it, or a stranger on the street.” (Distribution of the book is strictly first come, first served.) As a box on the paperback’s back cover explains: “When you’re done, pass this novel on to someone else (for free, of course) so they can give. It adds up.” The press claims that its first two releases have generated more than $85,000 in charitable donations to various causes.
The Next Queen of Heaven is a farcical holiday yarn set in 1999 in a fictional upstate New York town where strange events occur after Leontina Scales gets clocked by a Catholic statuette and begins speaking in tongues. Why in the world would an author as prominent as Maguire publish for free? “I admire that the books as well as the publishing model raise questions about art’s inherent value and the commodification of content,” he said in a statement. “I like knowing that this book is out in the world, helping to generate donations for great causes.”
Neither the author (nor the book designer) is paid for their work; as Concord Free Press notes on its website: “Our unique agreement with our writers…is 100% lawyer-free.” That said, all authors who publish with the Concord, Mass.-based outfit retain the rights to their works and can republish them later with conventional publishers. The first book in the series, CFP founder Stona Fitch’s novel Give + Take, is due from St. Martin’s imprint Thomas Dunne Books next year. According to Fitch, “Authors donate (voluntarily) 20 percent of all earnings from the book’s life after CFP back to the press to support our subsequent books. So in this way, we’re semi-self-sustaining, with one writer helping the next.”
Fitch says the idea for the press came to him in the wake of his experience on Give + Take, which was orphaned when his editor left the publishing house that had acquired it. “The novel is about a jazz pianist who steals diamonds and BMWs, sells them, and gives the money away,” Fitch says via e-mail. “So it was thematically aligned with the idea of a press that publishes beautiful books for free and gives them away.” Instead of shopping his novel around when his first publisher dropped it, Fitch decided to make it the Concord Free Press’ inaugural title. He’s since recruited other writer friends, including fellow Concord, Mass., resident Gregory Maguire, to publish through CFP.
It’s an intriguing idea, the free book. But I suspect that there are more than 2,500 Maguire fans out there clamoring to read his newest novel — and willing to donate a pretty substantial sum to charity for the privilege. Given the paucity of the print run, though, some may be reluctant to pass the book along to others when they’re done. Perhaps I’m just being cynical. What do you think of free books to promote charitable causes?