Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Risks and Rewards of Self-Googling

Thanksgiving break meant time to write, time to read, time for family and friends - and, alas, time to spend at the computer Googling myself and my books to see what I could find. In the days before the Internet, I would anxiously await each of the half dozen or so published reviews that would follow the publication of each book to see what Horn Book, Booklist, School Library Journal, Kirkus, the Bulletin from the the Center for Children's Books, and Publishers Weekly had to say. But now I can check the Internet any time day or night to find out what various bloggers have to say - in fact, I have a Google blog alert set so that I will get an email telling me whenever I am mentioned in a blog. (Well, whenever "Claudia Mills" is mentioned in a blog, which might be me, but also might be the marine biologist Claudia Mills, or the fabric artist Claudia Mills, or the young British singer Claudia Mills). And I can also go to the fascinating website Goodreads to find out what real people, actual readers, are saying about my books.

Oh, this is a perilous thing to do!

For How Oliver Olson Changed the World, Goodreads gives 54 ratings of my book, with an average rating of 3.89 on a five-point scale, and 31 actual reader reviews. Some are wonderful: "Better than gold. Better than diamonds and jewels," says Elizabeth, who is Elizabeth Bird of the ultra-mega-major-prominent blog Fuse 8. Yay! But somebody called "The Library Lady" said: "Pretty ordinary story from a writer who does nice ordinary books for kids. Nothing here to rock my world or theirs." Ooh! I hate the Library Lady! I hate her! And "Lana" said: "What a perfect book for young middle-graders. The characters, the tone, the voice, the not-too-complex plot--Claudia Mills nailed each one." I love Lana! And then some guy named Eric, who is apparently a teacher, said that he hated the teacher in the book (who in my opinion is a WONDERFUL teacher who lets her students' passion for the planetary status of Pluto drive how she teaches the entire unit on the solar system); he hates her because she assigns spelling homework and has her students make dioramas! "Yuck!" says Eric. Well, Eric, I say: Yuck to you!

What value, if any, is there to reading these reader comments? Part of me thinks that there has to be some value: why on earth wouldn't a writer care about what her readers think? What kind of insulated, isolated, narcissistic creature would I have to be NOT to care? Isn't the whole point of writing - or at least a pretty significant point - to connect with readers? So gathering reader responses to my work, so helpfully collated on Goodreads, can help me grow as a writer. But of course all these responses have to be taken with a grain - nay, an entire shaker - of salt. Because, as my little sampling above just revealed, readers differ: what one loves, another hates; what moves one leaves another lukewarm and indifferent (with her world unrocked - oh, Library Lady!). It's a helpful exercise in perspective to Google other people's books as well - even authors I adore, where I cannot imagine any human being anywhere not adoring their books, get rankings less than 4 on the 5-point scale. Anne Tyler's Ladder of Years, one of my most favorite books EVER, got an average ranking on Goodreads of 3.64 - lower than Oliver Olson! This could make me want to throw up my hands and abandon the whole enterprise of self-Googling altogether.

But it doesn't. It makes me want to continue to do it, but sparingly - not too often, so I don't drive myself crazy - and with some perspective, as well. I have to confess that it also makes me want to write some book someday that WILL rock the Library Lady's world. And maybe that's a good thing.


  1. I, for one, am really looking forward to the 7x9-Trouble sequel. I liked the book the first 3-4 times, but at this point, regardless of the fact that both of my children virtually learned the times-tables from reading (and re-reading) the book, I am really ready to retire it. They also want a hampster now. Thanks. This is my first attempt at an on-line review since we are generally too busy reading the books to bother writing about them. L.R.

  2. I hope you like the sequel when it comes! And yes, I had to get my own boys a hamster after writing it - well, a guinea pig, but the same idea!

  3. I think that your measured approach of accessing bloggers' reviews is a wise idea. Writers should remain open to what readers are thinking, but should not let those thoughts cripple their writing. Spending too much time checking backlinks to bloggers who have commented on your work or trolling the Internet on your own for responses is valuable but consuming. It can rob one of time to write. Trust your heart and your ear is what I say. It may well be that what Library Lady wants is not what you want to write. As to the teacher who dislikes dioramas, well I guess it takes all types! No matter what content area is being covered, a physical representation of information offers students a different and valuable way of displaying their understanding. For some it is agony; for others, joy. My final comment: I admire your honesty.