In 2013, an employee at Minneapolis’s Coffee House Press opened the day’s mail to find an unexpected delivery: 10,000 coffee sleeves promoting the television show Portlandia. The show’s network, IFC, had made the not uncommon mistake of assuming that the independent publishing company was actually a java joint, and was taking the opportunity to offer up some self-promotional freebies. But the mixup sparked an idea—using the guerrilla marketing tools beloved by bigger brands to promote literature.
Reading, one of the world’s most enduring pastimes, hasn’t historically needed clever ads or flashy marketing campaigns to convince people of its worth. But Coffee Sleeves Conversation, as the Coffee House Press project became known, is one of a number of growing efforts around the world to advertise literature as a whole—by taking the message that reading can be accessible, enjoyable, and life-improving to unexpected places, from vending machines and subway cars to fast-food chains.
“It’s a way of putting literature in a public space and giving people a literary experience that isn’t reading a book,” says Caroline Casey, Coffee House Press’s managing director. “You don’t know how people will experience what’s on the sleeve but you know that they will experience it.” The company decided to print excerpts of poetry and prose written by local writers of color on 10,000 coffee sleeves, which it will distribute around the St. Paul area. For Casey, the project is a way to create complexity and visibility, as well as to help break down preconceived notions about literature’s elitism.