The last straw, if there was one, might have come a few months ago, when a nationally known literary critic was in conversation on stage with a noted publisher, and nobody came.

Well, a few people came, but when you're in a theater that holds more than 100 people, a few can feel like none.

This wasn't the first time this had happened. It's demoralizing how "we'll have an event that was terrific and people don't show up," said Ethan Rutherford of Milkweed Editions.

The Twin Cities is awash in literary events almost every day of every week of every month -- readings, signings, book clubs, launch parties. So the folks from Milkweed, Graywolf Press, Coffee House Press, Rain Taxi Review of Books and the Loft Literary Center got together to figure out how to attract larger crowds.

What they came up with was a simple reward that coffee shops have known about for decades: the punch card. Attend a literary event, get a punch. Buy a book at an event, get a second punch. Fill your card -- 12 punches -- get a prize, a $15 gift card to use at any participating bookstore.

The Literary Punch Card, as they're calling it, will be available next month after being launched at a party Sept. 14 at Club Jäger in Minneapolis.

Bookstores on board

So far, three bookstores have agreed to take part -- Magers & Quinn in Uptown Minneapolis, and Common Good Books and Micawber's in St. Paul.

Magers & Quinn hosts more literary events than any other Twin Cities spot, perhaps more than all the others put together, said manager Jay Peterson.

"We're doing four to five a week pretty consistently, and co-sponsoring other ones in other parts of the city -- at the Loft, the library, Westminster," he said. "I'm always surprised at some of the attendance we get. We bring in some cutting-edge young authors, but for whatever reason, attendance at some of those events is less than I'd expect. I'm hoping more than anything that [the punch card] helps our exposure."

Exposure will come, primarily, through a website -- -- which will include a monthly calendar of punch-worthy events. It is important to note that not every literary event will earn you a punch on the card: Events must be free, must include a visit from an author, and must be hosted by one of the sponsoring organizations or bookstores.

"This isn't to draw crowds away from other events," Rutherford said. "But we were seeing some of these smaller, independent events without a whole lot of marketing money behind them. An author coming through on tour who doesn't have a lot of friends here or marketing oomph behind him might read to, say, four people. So we're just trying to help spotlight events that might be sort of overlooked."

The reward-the-customer scheme is the direct opposite of the new East Coast trend of charging for literary events, said Chris Jones of the Loft. "Just trying to cut through the clutter and get the word out," he said, "is probably more beneficial than charging everybody $5 at the door."

A growing collaboration

Milkweed Editions, Coffee House Press and Graywolf Press have been around for more than 25 years. Each nonprofit literary press has a fine national reputation. Each has always operated independently; this kind of collaboration is something new.

But with the last of the founders stepping down -- Allan Kornblum, who started Coffee House, relinquished the top post in July -- the new generation seems a little more interested in pooling ideas and energy.

Two years ago, they worked together to host a Twin Cities-wide, three-month-long literary scavenger hunt to celebrate significant anniversaries of the Loft and the presses.

The punch card "is sort of a different idea, but it's got some of the same impulses," Jones said. "I think this one has even more potential in terms of our collaborative efforts -- getting the whole literary community involved in giving a higher profile to things that are going on."

A third collaboration is planned for the fall, when the three presses and the Library Foundation of Hennepin County team up for three events.

In September, Coffee House will present two poets in conversation. In November, Graywolf writers, publisher and editor will present the entire 2011-12 list of books. And in December, Milkweed author Christopher Merrill will discuss his new book.

Each event will be held at the Minneapolis Central Library. Each event will be free, with wine, desserts and book sales. And each event will be punch-worthy!

Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune books editor.