Archive for the ‘philanthropy’ Category

Concord Free Press: literature of subversive altruism

Friday, December 4th, 2009

This is the second in a series of posts about Art and Philanthropy, looking at those projects that merge artistic with philanthropic vision. Interestingly, they often invent unconventional, innovative work models in the process.

In 2008, novelist, former rocker, and community activist Stona Fitch founded Concord Free Press, an outfit that blends his literary, DIY, and charitable inclinations. The press publishes two books a year using a ground-breaking, generosity-based model: authors (and the publishers, incidentally) donate their work, and the press gives away the books for free through its website and a network of independent bookstores. In lieu of payment, the press asks readers who receive the books to make a donation – in any amount – to a charitable organization. According to Stona, donations from Concord Free Press readers recently surpassed $100,000.

We asked Stona (recently named one of the 2010 Literary Lights by the Boston Public Library) about writers and giving, nontraditional publishing, and his revolutionary charitable model.

ArtSake: Your most recently published author was Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked and other bestsellers. Have you found a strong response among writers to your press’s philanthropic model?

Stona: At the Concord Free Press, we’re writers and artists first, publishers second. So our generosity-based publishing concept is designed for and by writers. They get to be part of an intriguing experiment that connects with readers in new ways, and that inspires incredible generosity. And their books can go on to second lives as commercial editions. We’ve been besieged by bad news about our industry. The Concord Free Press sends a new, positive message – one that definitely resonates with writers. And with readers. In our first year, we’ve been flooded with book requests, encouragement, and overwhelming interest from around the world.

ArtSake: The first book the press published, your novel Give + Take, was orphaned at a previous publisher after its editor departed. One could assume this kind of setback will arise more and more as the economic turmoil continues to affect publishers. Do you think more authors will seek alternate publishing routes?

Stona: It’s simple. Writers want their work to reach readers. For the first time in history, writers can publish their own work, quickly and inexpensively. While traditional publishing remains the best avenue to reach the most readers, alternative channels – small online presses, self-publishing, e-books, Twitter novels, and whatever’s next – serve as a vital complement to the mainstream. As traditional publishing continues to contract, more writers will pursue creative ways to reach readers. The inmates have the keys to the asylum now. Whether they choose to use them is another question.

ArtSake: Give + Take involves a Robin Hood-like figure who gives to the poor. Did your book’s plot inspire the press’s philanthropic model? Or was it more a matter of philanthropy as a core interest of yours to begin with?

Stona: Give + Take definitely inspired the press. My novels tend to wrestle with consumerism, and Give + Take is no exception. I’ve also been part of the leadership of a local farm, Gaining Ground, which grows organic produce and gives it away to people in need. So I’m definitely grounded in non-profit work, social philanthropy, the DIY approach, and rethinking traditional/accepted models. The Concord Free Press has been called a grand experiment in subversive altruism – a mouthful, but accurate.

No matter who published them or how good they are, most books go on a familiar trajectory—new, used, shelved permanently, dusty. Ours keep going from hand to hand, generating donations along the way.

- From the Concord Free Press website

ArtSake: I noticed that Give + Take will be published by Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press in 2010 – congratulations! Do you have any thoughts on the way nontraditional ways of presenting art – self-publishing, giving away selected work for free, Creative Commons licenses, etc. – can benefit an artist’s career?

Stona: Giving something singular and beautiful away has incredible power – particularly when you expect nothing in return. Whether you’re Banksy or a band on MySpace, giving away your art can revalue it and create new energy that comes back to the artist in one form or another, often in unexpected ways. But giving away work with the specific intent of furthering a career seems opportunistic and kind of venal.

With the Concord Free Press, we’ve created a gift economy for publishing. But it definitely connects to (and co-exists with) a more commercial world, as described so presciently in Lewis Hyde’s brilliant book, The Gift. A free work can go on to a second, commercial life. For example, Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s is publishing Give + Take and Harper Collins is publishing The Next Queen of Heaven – both in spring of 2010, coincidentally. We certainly didn’t go into the project with the intent of attracting commercial publishers, though we certainly appreciate their interest and enthusiasm.

Kevin C. of St. John’s, Nova Scotia gave $240 to United Way
Ying C. of Concord, MA gave $55 to Open Table/Concord
Mike D. of Monroe, GA gave $40 to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering
Robyn F. of San Francisco, CA gave $50 to Choose What You Read NY
Alia W. of North York, ON gave $90 to a friend for bus fare to see his daughter
- Donations inspired by Concord Free Press, from the press’s website

ArtSake: It’s interesting that you chose to include Concord in your press’s name. Does the press being in Concord, Massachusetts, with that town’s legacy of individualism, have a particular significance to you?

Stona: Concord has always nurtured and inspired renegades – from Minutemen to Transcendentalists. I’d like to think that Concord Free Press fits cleanly in that lineage. It’s also important for a project to be grounded in a place. So while we have supporters and readers around the world, Concord is our base – from our office over a local bakery to a great local bookstore and library to the hundreds of committed readers and diverse authors who live here.

ArtSake: What do writers interested in submitting work to Concord Free Press need to know?

Stona: We only publish two books a year, generally solicited directly from established authors. We’re not an ideal option for a first novel, since first novelists deserve the broadest audience possible and tend to require more editing than our all-volunteer staff can offer. And though our books are free, the quality of the work has to be exceptional.

Right now, we’re putting together a new book, IOU: New Writing on Money, a multi-genre collection of essays, short stories, and poems edited by renowned poet (and CFP Poetry Editor) Ron Slate. Writers interested in being part of this inherently more inclusive project can find details on our website, and on Facebook. And anyone with questions, comments, insights – or financial donations, we’re a non-profit foundation, after all – can feel free to email us at hello@concordfreepress.com.

Stona Fitch‘s novels, including Senseless, Printer’s Devil, and Give + Take have been widely praised by critics and readers or their originality, intensity, and prescience. Stona lives with his family in Concord, Massachusetts, where he is also a committed community activist. He and his family work with Gaining Ground, a non-profit farm that grows 30,000 pounds of organic produce each growing season and distributes it for free to Boston-area homeless shelters, food pantries, and meal programs. He founded Concord Free Press in 2008 and was recently named one of the 2010 Literary Lights by the Boston Public Library.

Image: Stona Fitch in New Town, Edinburgh, 2008, Photo by Laura Hynd;cover art for THE NEXT QUEEN OF HEAVEN by Gregory Maguire (Concord Free Press 2009).

Madras Press: giving fiction the perfect fit

Friday, November 13th, 2009

There are interesting unities between philanthropy and art-making, particularly when art is produced and presented in non-traditional ways. Both require out-of-the-box approach to commerce, an eschewing of financial norms. In Art and Philanthropy, we’ll look at those projects that merge artistic with philanthropic vision – creative, innovative, altruistic.

Sumanth Prabhaker, publisher of the Brookline-based Madras Press, has a demonstrated affection for novellas and long short stories (being himself a writer, and now a publisher, of them). Noting most such fiction is too long for most magazines and journals yet too short for trade publishers, he decided to celebrate and accentuate the form, publishing stories and novellas as stand-alone volumes.

They’re lovely books – slender paperbacks about the width of an open hand, with cover art, such as the above painting by Jenny Downing, selected by the writers. The first series of authors – lauded short story writer and novelist Aimee Bender, Trinie Dalton, Rebecca Lee, and Sumanth himself – comprise a range of sensibilities whose primary link is an elusiveness to quick categorization. How is it Madras can afford to publish such singular, idiosyncratic books?

The key is that Madras focuses on social, rather than financial, profit. All artists – including the published writers and the visual artists providing cover art – donate their work. All net proceeds generated by the sale of the books will go to a charitable nonprofit of the author’s choosing. To keep costs low, Sumanth is distributing books directly to independent bookstores, including Harvard Bookstore and Brookline Booksmith in the Boston area, and RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, NH, and selling them from the press’s website.

Madras is about to publish its first series of books (December 1), but you can get a sneak peak at a reading by Aimee Bender at Brookline Booksmith this Saturday, November 14, 7 PM. We asked Sumanth about his altruistic approach to publishing, and how interested writers can get involved.

ArtSake: In an interview for The Bostonist, you mentioned that the “not very marketable” length of your own novellas (too long for literary magazines, too short for trade publishers) got you thinking about a different model for publishing long stories. Have you found a strong response to your model in the writing community?

Sumanth: A lot of people have said some very nice things about us. At the same time, I’ve been interested to learn how many people see this as an obscure project – certainly not meant in a negative way, I don’t think, but it’s interesting to see how surprised people are at the abundance of these in-between stories. Agents discourage writers from pitching short stories, because they say that editors don’t buy them; editors don’t buy short stories because marketing people tell them they don’t sell; and all the market research shows that less-than-novel-length stories actually don’t sell very well. There are a number of different reasons why these stories don’t sell, but I don’t think any of them have to do with the actual stories. It’s equally frustrating to see writers who look at this trend as reason to avoid certain genres or forms, as it is exciting to see writers who don’t care about any of this stuff.

ArtSake: How did you decide to explore philanthropy as a central aspect to your publishing?

Sumanth: It makes sense to me, concerning my own stories; I didn’t write any of them with financial profit in mind, and I don’t like to think of them as commercial products. So we had to think of other ways to measure our success, outside of the marketplace. And without that burden of having to depend so much on sales for our survival, we were able to entertain some options that may not have otherwise been available to us, like giving the proceeds to charities. It seemed like a nice way to do things. Our authors get to choose the organizations to which the proceeds for each book are distributed, which I hope is a fun decision for them to make.

We still haven’t figured out the right model by which to assess our performance, however; there isn’t really a bottom line yet. Our authors contribute their stories at no profit, but our paper is heavy and costs a little more than average. Our production and editorial work is done on a volunteer basis, but our sticker prices are low. We’re saving money by distributing the books ourselves, but we’re spending more than most publishers on manufacturing by printing in smaller batches. It’s kind of confusing, at least to me, but I’m happy with the books, which is good enough for now.

ArtSake: I was impressed to see your initial list of authors, including Aimee Bender. Can you talk a little bit about how THE THIRD ELEVATOR and the other titles fit with your press?

Sumanth: For all three of the other titles in our first series (besides my own), we’ve just asked politely and hoped something would work out. There are so many reasons why Aimee Bender and Trinie Dalton and Rebecca Lee should have ignored us – we’re tiny, we don’t pay our authors, our books aren’t going to be in very many bookstores or on Amazon.com – but in each case I think they saw our project as an opportunity to publish these stories in a more appropriate format than they may have otherwise been given.

ArtSake: Do you see Massachusetts as a good place to be a writer? What about a publisher?

Sumanth: Probably yes to both, but I’m still new here, so I haven’t got any huge insights into the local culture. Most of the book production stuff could probably happen anywhere, as long as you have a computer and some free time. But what we’re working on now – publicity, reading events, etc. – is much easier here than I’d expected, having grown up in a suburb in the Midwest where Borders was our only bookstore. I remember planning a reading at that Borders when I was in college. They couldn’t figure out how to turn the volume on the overhead speakers down, because there was some kind of password protection, so we all had to yell our stories into the microphone or wait for the quiet parts of the songs.

ArtSake: What do writers interested in submitting work to Madras Press need to know?

Sumanth: We’re looking for singular stories, ones that function better when read on their own than as a part of something bigger. Our first series of titles is very representative of our taste, in terms of content, so that’s always a good place to start. We like images and textures and colors and interesting prose and lots of food. We like murder mysteries, too. 10,000 words is our minimum, just to fill out the paperback spine, and for now 25,000 words is our maximum, to keep manufacturing costs at a manageable level. Previously published stories could work, depending on the status of the previous publication – query before sending anything (sumanth@madraspress.com). And we prefer printed submissions; they can be mailed to:

P.O. Box 307
Brookline, MA 02446

Aimee Bender reads from The Third Elevator at Brookline Booksmith on Saturday, November 14, 7 PM. All net proceeds from sales of The Third Elevator will benefit InsideOUT Writers, an organization that teaches creative writing in juvenile detention centers.

Images: Cover art from Madras Press Series One titles (2009): BOBCAT by Rebecca Lee, from PRONGS courtesy of Jenny Downing; SWEET TOMB by Trinie Dalton, image courtesy of Matt Greene; A MERE PITTANCE by Sumanth Prabhaker, from SUN/SQUASH by Joan Snyder (2002), oil, acrylic, and herbs on wood panel, diptych, 18x36in; THE THIRD ELEVATOR by Aimee Bender, image courtesy of Aimee Bender.

Poetry pledge drive in the Pioneer Valley

Friday, October 30th, 2009

It’s like a walk-a-thon or telethon. But with poems instead of miles or Jerry Lewis.

The Valley Poetry blog recently featured Leslea Newman (left), Northampton Poet Laureate and launcher of an intriguing blend of artistry/philanthropy: She’s encouraging poets to write 30 poems in 30 days and sponsors to pledge donations per poem.

The 30 Poems in 30 Days Project raises money for a cause (proceeds go to the Family Literacy Project at the Center for New Americans, an educational resource for immigrants and refugees in Western Massachusetts) and it encourages the creation of new poems. At least 30 of them. What’s not to like? You can find a pledge form, along with instructions and writing prompts, on the Northampton Arts Council website.

Similar to the National Novel Writing Month project (which challenges authors to write a 50,000 word novel in November), the emphasis is on speed, quantity, and energy rather than flawless craft (though if you can write 30 flawless poems in 30 days, good on ya!). The poetry drive starts November 1 and ends November 30. Leslea, who is also actively participating and seeking sponsors, will host a reading at Forbes Library, where participants will read at an open mic.

Willie Alexander and Henry Ferrini

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

Listen up. Here’s a video interview by Chava Hudson of Gloucester’s very own punk-rocker/rock and roll extraordinaire Willie Loco Alexander and Henry Ferrini, the independent filmmaker with the poetic eye. It’s a wonderful conversation about about music, art, writing, and the work of Gloucester’s poet laureate Vincent Ferrini. Added bonus, at the end of the interview, Willie performs a few numbers from his new CD. For more on Willie, and what he’s up to, here’s an article from the Wicked Local Web site.

By the way, ArtsGloucester and seARTS are good places to see what’s doing by the sea. See? Si. I said see, see, see rider, Oh, see what you have done…