To start, let me explain how my route here. I started with this post at the Written Nerd, which took me to this post at Books on the Nightstand.
So where did this all lead me? To the website of the Concord Free Press, based right here in Massachusetts, which is offering a whole new publishing model. Ya see, these kind folks are going to publish 2 books a year, with print runs of about 1,000 copies, and give them all away for free. In getting a book, though, you are promising to "make a voluntary donation to a local charity or someone in need in their community." They ask that you then log your donation at the website, with the number on your copy of the book, so they can track where the money is going.
Obviously, this is a non-profit organization, but I was of course still confused as to how they could sustain this model. This page partially answers that question by explaining that the design is free, due to the kind folks at Alphabetica Design, and the actual printing is discounted by the kind folks at Recycled Paper Printing. And then they get support from their board and whoever feels so inclined to throw them some change. Their advisory board includes writers Russell Banks, Stephan McCauley, and others.
I'm pretty fascinated by this model, and I've already requested a copy of Stona Fitch's Give and Take. (The perceptive among you might have noticed she's also the Editor-in-Chief of the press...) I'll donate somewhere and report it. I do worry, of course, about how this kind of model impacts writers and publishers who need to make money, not to mention bookstores. I love giving away my books and taking from others, I can't get enough of the library, and books prices can be out of control (Christopher was recently reporting the shocking list price of Nixonland - $37.50!). But there is something to be said for people willingly putting down money for a book, investing in it with their hard-earned cash. It makes the transaction more of a commitment for them. If they just have a book handed to them, even if they give $50 to Doctors Without Borders, they still may not feel that obligation to read the free book in their hand. They may have given the money to the org anyhow.
And if you're a fiction writer and you're hoping to do it at least a bit closer to full-time, you may not appreciate this throwaway line on the publisher's website: "Do writers get paid? Writers rarely get paid, ask one. In our case, we can definitely guarantee that they won’t get paid—can a traditional publisher promise that?" I don't know if this is the right answer to the question of how to get funding for innovative writers, not just commercial writers who know how to deliver a really sellable product. I appreciate the fact that it's a limited print run, but the idea that a bigger publisher could put out the book after Concord Free Press is tough as some publishers will not want a book that is out there in one edition already, especially when readers are being encouraged to actively share their copy of that one book.