Bag It: Why the Publishing Industry Should Take Notes from Chipotle

While eating lunch this past winter, I had a literary epiphany. It was a frigid day amongst the blur of countless, unidentifiable frigid days within the haunted snow globe that is Minnesota. I was conducting my gluttonous, bi-monthly routine of wolfing down a Chipotle burrito in ravenous, too-large bites. After gnashing through the first quarter of the burrito, I groped for my cup to swill down some soda. It was then that I noticed the words on the cup. The words weren’t your typical marketing jargon—See you next time! Let us know how we treated you by filling out this survey! No, on my cup there were small-print words framed by an agrarian motif and a large-print name that I recognized: Malcolm Gladwell. What was the New York Times bestselling author doing on my cup? Was he going to recommend that I needed to ingest 10,000 Chipotle burritos in order to became a burrito-eating expert? Struck with curiosity, I read the first sentence.

“I grew up in Canada, in an area of Ontario where there is a large community of Old-Order Mennonites.”

Cup222A delightful, 359-word piece followed, recounting an experience in Gladwell’s youth when unfamiliar cultures joined to raise a barn after a local farmer lost his in a fire. Completely engrossed, I stepped away from my half-eaten lunch, journeyed up to the counter, and inquired from the wide-grinned teenaged employee at the register about the cup. She handed me a brown paper bag, which, like the cup, featured narrative writing and cartoonish sketches. One side depicted modern humans drinking coffee, walking kids to school, shopping; the other side featured litters of anthropomorphic astronauts, robots, and tech-savvy future humans frolicking on the brown paper bag. Like the cup, the bag’s writing also belonged to a literary giant, George Saunders. I took the bag back to my table and as I finished my lunch, I read the story. It was a sparse yet undeniably charming letter to a future-residing reader. These short blurbs scrawled on the sides of otherwise-ignored products were a beacon of literary promise. Cue my epiphany.

For today’s writer, preserving optimism in a largely non-paying, literary landscape is an arduous, though necessary, endeavor. Positivity—synthetic or otherwise—is an essential component for a writer to combat the bubbling neuroses that accompany the artistic medium. Whether inching away on a novel or constructing short stories, there isn’t much reassurance awaiting the writer on the other end of the submission structure, only long lulls of unresponsive silence intercut with manic periods of self-loathing and excessive refreshing of one’s email inbox. But what else is a writer to do?

When seeking to publish their work, most writers follow a step-by-step process that has been developed and passed down by writers before them. The process is a logical structure that has proven successful for predecessors, and for better or worse hasn’t been updated. In the first step, you, the writer, set yourself at a desk and you write. When you think you’re done writing, you brew another pot of coffee, or, if the time is appropriate, you mix up an alcoholic beverage, and keep writing. Then you step away from the desk, go for a walk or seek human communication, before returning to revise your work. Only then, when the words you have punched out are in their least-terrible state, you scroll through your Microsoft Excel file of literary publishers. You figure out which Review or Quarterly or Journal publishes the type of work you just wrote and then you draft a cover letter. You flatter the editors of the publication by name-dropping a writer or two that they have published that you “admire” and send the letter and its accompanying story off into the daunting literary ether. Then you wait. You prepare for a robotic rejection letter—While we enjoyed your writing, this piece isn’t for us at this time— though you quietly expect an acceptance letter. And maybe one will say yes and you will dance around your desk like a celebratory buffoon and when the piece is published you’ll adore seeing your name printed below your piece and you won’t mind that you weren’t paid and you will tell yourself that a few more non-paying publications might lead to one that, you know, actually pays. Or maybe all the journals say no, and you strap back into to revision mode and identify what is wrong with you piece.

But what if there is a road less traveled in the publishing world, a meander from the traditional structure? What if the today’s writer should be exploring non-traditional publishing avenues, like the Chipotle cup?

Saunders and Gladwell’s Chipotle contributions are part of their Cultivating Thought Author Series. Chipotle’s website states that the goal of the series is to:

“Allow people to connect with the musings of these writers with whom they may or may not be familiar and create a moment of analog pause in a digital world, provoking introspection or inspiration, and maybe a little laughter.” (1)

Though only a year into its infancy, the Cultivating Thought Author Series boasts an impressive fleet of writers. It includes literary juggernauts Sheri Fink, Michael Lewis, Amy Tan, Walter Isaacson, and well-known comedians such as Sarah Silverman, Bill Hader, Judd Apatow, and countless other talented folks. Such an impressive roster begs the question: Is it to the writers’ greater advantage to publish with Chipotle than to publish at a nationally-distributed magazine? Does it pay more? Would a story published on a cup at Chipotle be seen by more readers if it were published with the New Yorker?

Publishing an issue once a week, the New Yorker currently boasts a circulation of just over a million loyal readers. When you account for newsstand purchases, each issue is seen by about 1.1 million readers.(2) In contrast, in a 2011 article by Fortune (3), Chipotle reportedly serves 800,000 customers per day. That’s 5.6 million customers per week. Of course, not each customer is going to order a soda cup, or a to-go bag, and therefore not each of the 5.6 million will read the Cultivating Thought Author Series. However, unlike the New Yorker, a Cultivating Thought piece may stay in circulation for months, as opposed to a singular week. Increasing exposure, each Cultivating Thought Series piece is published online. I reached out to the Chipotle corporate offices to inquire into about the Series and its circulation to attempt and pin down precisely how many readers were observing the work of their contributors. Unfortunately, I received little response as their supply-chain data is proprietary. They did, however, confirm that all the contributors were compensated.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether more people read Gladwell’s piece on the paper confines of their soda cup than a bound New Yorker magazine. What is pertinent is that the Cultivating Thought Author Series should open the eyes of writers to far-reaching alternative destinations for publishing their work. Does that mean that writers should submit their next essay to Subway instead of McSweeney’s or the Georgia Review? Not necessarily. Chipotle’s groundbreaking series isn’t open to submission, publishing only solicited work. But it does afford a certain set of writers the chance to engage the same creativity they apply in their work in considering publishing venues. Hypothetically, they could approach a local sandwich shop about publishing blurbs on their napkins or they could pitch their flash fiction to minor-league sports teams in their area to feature narrative work on banner-scroll pen promotion nights.

The pursuit of non-traditional publishing avenues is not limited to writers. Imagine all the fantastic deviations independent publishers could implement by exploring outside-the-box publishing strategies. An independent publisher could partner with a coffee shop. Imagine the increase in submissions an online literary journal would receive for this call for submissions:

The Blank Blank Review is seeking work for an exciting new publishing                                  endeavor. In partnership with Fat Moose Gourmet Coffee, we are hosting a contest whose winner will see their work printed on Fat Moose’s signature eco-friendly cup sleeves! The theme for the contest is “Unquenchable Thirst.”

All work should be limited to 400 words. Compensation for the contest winner will be five contributor sleeves.

Writing conference attendees would surely stop and talk to the editors of the Blank Blank Review upon seeing their booth arrayed with beautiful cups emblazoned with narrative tales. The popularity of the cups would put in the motion the idea that the What What Quarterly should host their own contest. Maybe instead of cups, the What What Quarterly, in partnership with the Titus Tissue Company, will post on their website that they are seeking work to be printed on for a box of tissues, the theme being First World Problems. It’s mutually beneficial, providing unique attention for the literary journal—also potentially generating income—and it gives the partner advertising and a boost in public relations.

As book sales continue to dip and newspapers and magazines shutter their print operations, it’s natural for writers and independent publishers to become discouraged. But they shouldn’t allow themselves to sink beneath the pessimism into anguish. Instead they should seek encouragement in the opportunities embodied by Chipotle’s Cultivating Thought Author Series. The market is ripe for new-wave publishing exploration. After all, much like submitting work to a literary publication, the worse response a writer can receive from a non-traditional publisher is a harmless: ‘No, thank you for your submission.’

displaypicturePaul Thelen lives in Minneapolis, where he is an MFA candidate at Hamline University. He enjoys coffee and beer, but struggles to identify the appropriate timing for each. He tweets @ThePaulLen and his other work can be located through his website
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