Going Home Again Part 1: Reading the Opportunities

“You can’t go home again,” goes the old saying. I put it to the test this past week with my first real trip to my hometown in many years. The occasion occurred because I managed to secure a reading and presentation at my alma mater, St. Norbert College. When I was a student, I was a member of Sigma Tau Delta — the international English honors society. My last year I was even the secretary/treasurer. So I reached out to STD to see whether they would be interested in an author/alumnus discussing the publishing business, and to my delight, they were.

Today, I will blog about my experience presenting to SNC students and what I did right and wrong. But I discovered so much more in my brief adventure in Wisconsin than do’s and don’t’s for giving a reading at your alma mater. Next week, I’ll also discuss finding your hometown very different than when you left it and how a lengthy road trip can be reflective and beneficial for a creative person.

Big (Old) Man on Campus

Perhaps the most intoxicating thing about the entire experience of returning to St. Norbert was being treated as though I had some knowledge worth having. Of course, that was the whole premise of my going, but when I left in 1991, I was accustomed to being the person who was receiving the knowledge not giving it. It was weird having people assume I had something to teach them instead of the other way around.

I was struck by the fact that, while the students who attended were just like college students I know elsewhere, none of them were alive when I was at SNC as an English major. They had no knowledge of or attachment to anything I had done when I was sitting in the seats they were now.

Likewise, the faculty advisor with whom I coordinated the entire event was about my age, possibly a little younger. Someone in my generation had an office that was only two doors down from my old advisor’s office (and he’s still there). That reinforced the idea that I actually had the experience to be there teaching instead of learning.

Because neither the professor nor the students had been around when I was a student they had no connection to my career there. They had no idea what my reputation was — good or bad. I was just this middle-aged guy, who had once gone to school there, who had some information that might be useful.

Indeed, the only person from the English Department who knew me was my advisor, who flattered me by coming to the reading. Afterwards, he told me I hadn’t changed. It was intended as a compliment, but it was inaccurate. If nothing else, I am not nearly as arrogant as I was at the age of 23. Getting old has some benefit to it, I guess.

Regardless, being treated as someone worth giving up a couple hours in the evening for was very gratifying. I was treated very well, and I appreciate it.

Talk Isn’t Cheap

Pre-talk discussion with studentsIn addition to my presentation/reading, the school scheduled a dinner for me with the students before the event. It was simple — sandwiches in the classroom — but the casual environment was very productive. We talked a lot about writing, graduate school, career paths in English, and my books. We also discussed a lot of off-topic subjects, one of which I will not relate here but which has forever changed how I view Target.

I enjoyed the pre-presentation discussion a lot. I spent some time asking the students about what their interests were, what they were planning to do after graduation (since most of them were seniors), what they were studying, and other things related to their academic careers. It was a nice opportunity for inter-generational exchange. From an educational point of view, they got to hear their professor and I talk about life after college. From a business point of view, I got to form relationships with the people in the room.

A Good Read

The actual event was not terribly well attended, although I had no real expectations, so it was easy to not be disappointed. I was hoping people would show up, like my stuff, and maybe buy some books.

John Reading THE SWORD AND THE SORCERERAll of those things came to pass. I put together a PowerPoint outlining the changes in the publishing industry and how they favor authors. Then I read from three of my books — The Sword and the Sorcerer, Beauty & the Beast: A Modern Fairy Tale, and State of Grace. Everyone listened attentively, and then I sold a couple copies at the end. It wasn’t nearly enough to offset the cost of the trip, but again, I had no expectations, and college students are not renowned for having a lot of money.

I had planned a question-and-answer session, but since most of the attendees had been around for the dinner discussion, most of the questions had already been answered.  Overall, it was a very positive experience.

Doing it Better

Hindsight being as near-perfect as it is, I have some thoughts on what I should have done differently.

I made a huge mistake in my setup. When we got down to the classroom, most of the students were already there. As a result, I completely forgot about setting up any sort of display and went straight into schmoozing mode. I spent time talking to the students while the professor called up the PowerPoint. I had intended to put together a display of the books and to set out a notepad for people to sign up for my mailing list.

I knew which room we were going to be in. We should have taken the materials there beforehand. I met with the professor 45 minutes before in her office, and I got caught up talking. Consequently, I didn’t watch the clock well enough.

Failing that, I could have set things up while she was getting my PowerPoint up on the computer. But I didn’t. I talked instead.

If I had the books out for people to touch and examine, it might have encouraged a few more sales. Or maybe not, but by not having the books out there, I took away that opportunity. Likewise, I might not have gotten any more sales, but I surely would have gotten some people to sign up for the mailing list, if I’d pointed out a notepad where they could do it.

I also did a poor job of promoting this event. I had it set up over a month in advance, but I didn’t send notice to my friends in my hometown until just a few days before I would be there. In part, that was because I have highly engaged with trying to get my next book out. I’ve been in editing and layout mode pretty deeply for the past three to four weeks. So things like promoting the reading slipped off my radar.

But that’s not a very good excuse. If I’d given more lead-time, I might have had more people attend. Friends could have come. They could have told others to come. They might have asked questions that caused someone to want to buy. And, of course, they might have bought something themselves.

So unfortunately, I prevented myself from fully capitalizing on the opportunity St. Norbert provided me by graciously having me speak. However, it at least taught me how to go about similar events in the future.

And there you have it. There I was, back at my alma mater, learning again. How appropriate that the event was held in a room where I had previously taken classes.



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