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I've resisted comment on the question of vanity presses this weekend, and broke my embargo only recently, on Jackie Kessler's informative and humorous post. I don't actually say much about the current situation because it's been said very well by so many people now I can't begin to link them all.

But... (you knew there was a 'but', right?) one of the things I keep seeing on-line, and perhaps I fail to understand what I'm reading clearly, is the open declaration of the Fall of the Evil Empire of Gatekeepers -- publishers and agents -- combined with a declaration of democracy, of readers deciding what is, and is not, to sell.

I'm not a publisher; I've never worked for a publisher. I have friends who have worked in various editorial positions. All of my interactions with the industry known as publishing have come through the bookstores I've worked in since I was sixteen years of age. I've worked in chains, and in independents, and anything I understand about the industry and its workings comes both from that, and my experience as the third side of the triangle -- as an author.

But I felt, in the end, that I had to comment, and I've cut and pasted my post from the above-linked blog beneath the cut, and then added more (I would have added more on her blog, but it was already way, way, too long).

The question is: Does iUniverse actually get your books on shelves in brick and mortar stores? I would agree that without a platform, it’s the most solid visibility around for print books.

But in my experience as a bookseller of many years (some in chains, the rest in an independent), iUniverse, AH, PA, etc. books are not carried.

It’s not just a matter of “non-returnable”. We’ve carried one self-publisher (and in this case he was entirely self-published; he took his stuff to a printer and had it printed) to success, but his first novel -was- traditionally published; he didn’t enjoy that process, and he had enough of a name that -readers- were willing to trust him.

We can’t carry every book that’s published traditionally, period. It’s not possible. We see thousands of titles from publishers’ catalogues and sales reps throughout the year. Yes, we can return any of these that we don’t sell - but having books on your shelf that -won’t- sell is a very, very poor use of linear shelf space, of which there’s too little to begin with.

The problem with the idea that visibility works on Shelves is that it -relies- on the traditional distribution models, and those models are traditional. I hear a lot of people talking about the wave of the future, and from the way they’re speaking, the wave of the future -won’t involve bookstores-.

I can understand this when talking about ebooks, whose distribution is -entirely- separate from the rigor of retail space (and from landlords and property tax passthroughs and shoplifting and etc). But if somehow there’s supposed to be a strong connect between waves and waves of vanity press published or self-published PRINT books and bookstores, I fail to see how, exactly, it’s going to evolve.

It is enough work to stay on top of the various books that will come through the publishers and the reps with whom we have accounts without also trying to wade through the 10,000 new self-published titles that will crop up — sans catalogue or grouping — in Ingrams.

Assume, in a perfect world, that we would treat all publications equally, regardless of publisher. We would require, what? Double the floor space (and growing)? Double the processing time (and growing), and therefore double the man-hours of the staff? It would, in fact, be much more than double, because the -returns- for these titles would be hideously expensive to pack up and ship, given that it would be what, 1 or 2 books per return? At the moment, distributors take returns for the publishers they distribute, so you’ll ship all of your returns in a cycle to a handful of locations.

For that expense, we would have to at least double the sales — and our experiments in the past with PoD/self-published titles has indicated that we would not increase -sales- at all. Only expenses.

I see this as siphoning money from writers; I don’t see this as impacting bookstores because, well, they won’t be there.

I suffer from familiarity with how bookstores, ordering, shelving, stocking and returning actually work, so I'm not sure how much of this is unclear, how much of it is opaque, to people who haven't the same decades working retail. And I kind of want it to be clear.

I honestly don't see how this explosion of self-published and vanity-published books is going to get on shelves. At the moment, we have more and more people walking into the store in person to ask us to carry their books. I know this is in part because the physical fact of a book in your hands implies the rest of the experience: the bookstores and the readers that come with them.

As I said in Jackie Kessler's blog, I do understand how this is supposed to work for ebooks, in which traditional retail exposure has never been important. But while I understand the theory that PoD self-published/vanity published Print Books are supposed to be an act of democracy in giving the widest range of people voices, I do not understand how that is supposed to work in this retail environment. It is expensive to rent retail space. It's expensive to pay staff, and all of the expenses that come with employees. It's expensive to do the initial laydown of stocking shelves and it is also expensive to handle the returns and the processing of things that haven't sold.

It is not expensive to host a file for download in comparison.

The people who are putting up the money to cover these expenses are also trying to make a living. They're used to their customer base, and they're trying to match that base with the stock they can afford to carry. Almost every person who has written a book they deem worthy of publishing -- and has gone to the expense of self-publishing it or paying a vanity press to publish it -- demonstrably believes that their book will be loved when it is read. All hundred thousand of them -- they just need to get it in front of readers. We can't actually begin to stock them all; we can't offer them the opportunity for the exposure that would begin this democratic process because we cannot afford to do so. Even if we were doing this as a charity, and not a business, we still couldn't afford to do so: we couldn't afford to rent the space it would take.

And I'm curious as to how the the loudest of voices about this incredible democratization of books think that's going to change with the fall of traditional publishing.

People who see no need for bookstores obviously don't have an answer for this because it's irrelevant to their position. I can understand that; it doesn't confuse me. I personally love bookstores, but I may be a dinosaur; I also love books; they're a physical geography, to me. But many of the people who decry traditional publishing and gatekeepers also seem to feel that bookstores are necessary to the furtherance of their careers, and it's causing a disconnect for me.
Anyone?

Comments

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starlady38
Nov. 22nd, 2009 02:50 am (UTC)
Nope, I don't get it either. Apparently iUniverse has a deal with Borders, here in the States, which gives authors the option of having their local Borders stock their books, but if the books don't sell the authors have to fork over cash to Borders, I think. So the self-published author is digging him or herself into an even larger financial hole.

I have bought self-published original fiction, once, after I had already read and commented on the full text as it was written and posted online, so I not only knew that the final product was good, but also felt a sense of community (and was correspondingly touched when I saw that the printed book was dedicated to those of use who had posted comments on the in-progress version). And I was only reading this author's original fiction because I knew and loved his fanfic. So that's one way of getting your writing in front of readers' eyeballs, but absent that sort of...exposure, yes, that's the word, self-publishing seems like the proverbial tree in the forest without humans.
mtlawson
Nov. 22nd, 2009 05:58 am (UTC)
Apparently iUniverse has a deal with Borders, here in the States, which gives authors the option of having their local Borders stock their books, but if the books don't sell the authors have to fork over cash to Borders, I think.

Considering the way our local Borders has been reducing the variety of books carried to a few big name authors, I don't see where this is going to work out, long term. Right now, I'd be pretty darned leery about anything Borders is signing on to.
(no subject) - msagara - Nov. 22nd, 2009 06:19 am (UTC) - Expand
blackletter
Nov. 22nd, 2009 03:27 am (UTC)
I confess, I don't see how self-publishing/vanity presses constitute a true "democratization." The prices I see on those vanity presses are steep. Democratic? Only if one's definition of democracy excludes the poor.

This is not to say that I don't think that there are flaws in the publishing industry as it is now, or that there isn't a place for self-publishing and vanity presses, but I *do* disagree with the claim to democritization.

/rant on classism

(I should add that I say this as someone who is totally outside the industry in every way except, perhaps, in that I write and would rather like to be published someday.)
mtlawson
Nov. 22nd, 2009 06:06 am (UTC)
It really isn't more democratic at all. The argument that the big bad New York publishing houses are the barrier to democratization of the publishing industry only works if there are no barriers should the houses disappear. That's not the case, as a new barrier -economics- will become the issue should self-publishing/vanity presses prevail.
(no subject) - msagara - Nov. 22nd, 2009 06:22 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mtlawson - Nov. 22nd, 2009 01:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
deire
Nov. 22nd, 2009 03:59 am (UTC)
I don't understand the disconnection myself. But allow me to say that you express the matter at hand clearly and with the grace that I have come to expect from your writing.
kchew
Nov. 22nd, 2009 04:44 am (UTC)
It may be that part of the problem is a failure to understand how books get from publishers to bookstores, and how they get attention. As in the old math equation, Step 2 cannot be "And then a miracle occurs"--one has to be a little more explicit. I've been wondering about this, and I think that people write their books, get their physical books, put them in the Ingram catalog, and then: sit. And wait to be discovered, along with the hundreds of others waiting in a kind of publishing oubliette.

There may be a few people who have the marketing savvy to get their self-published material to the attention of bookstore buyers, but I'm willing to bet that 98% of the people who take this route don't. Nor (frankly) do most of them have the energy necessary to pound pavement/virtual pavement in order boost their signals above everyone else's. It may be the best book in the world, but it won't sell itself.

As much as I malign marketing and sales departments (hey, I'm former editorial!), they perform an extremely valuable service. They know how to make books attractive enough in appearance to catch a fickle and time-stressed potential reader's eye, and how to get awareness of the book out where potential readers can make a decision as to whether they want to to pick it up or ignore it. When there are over 100,000 books (or more, now, I imagine) published a year, a publisher's marketing department, and their good will, can keep your book from falling between the cracks. This, either on the web or in a bookstore, vanity press publishing cannot provide.
msagara
Nov. 22nd, 2009 06:24 am (UTC)
I know that traditionally published authors often feel that they had no marketing budget at all -- and this is mostly true. BUT... I feel that appearance on bookstore shelves, even big box stores, is significant marketing in and of itself, compared to what a writer is likely to receive should they go a different route.
(no subject) - kchew - Nov. 22nd, 2009 02:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - green_knight - Nov. 22nd, 2009 10:41 am (UTC) - Expand
lyssabits
Nov. 22nd, 2009 06:06 am (UTC)
Heh, well I also fail to see how the people who talk about the democratization of the publishing process necessarily believe this will be a good thing *for them*. Just because you can get your book past the gatekeepers doesn't mean anyone will want to buy it. Then what will their excuse be? A lot of people talk about democracy as if it will solve everything but as it turns out.. it just means there will still always be *someone* who is unhappy.
amergina
Nov. 22nd, 2009 05:27 pm (UTC)
I've been thinking about this a lot because I hear all the time that publishing is changing and soon publishing companies will be a thing of the past, yada, yada.

Yes, the democratization of publishing.

And I did a thought experiment that went something like this:

Assuming that printed books go away (which would make me very sad) and everything went digital (no more reading in the bathtub for me!) and publishing companies went poof, so now, literally everyone with a word-processor and a dream could make a book...

How would readers find good books to read?

I'd assume out of the chaos would emerge some good review sites for different genres. So readers will flock those sites to find good books to read. Sure, there will be the sites that give 5 stars to every book for a fee, but those will sink to the bottom. Honest review sites with professional reviewers will be what people will look for.

Now, authors aren't dumb, so they'll also flock to those sites, to get the reviewers to read their books, in hope that the reviewers will post about it.

So the review sites will become swamped with... wait for it... a slush pile.

There will probably be an eventual consolidation of review sites under a few big umbrella sites. And you'll start seeing books endorsed by these review conglomerations. And perhaps certain cites becoming the "home" of certain popular authors.

Eventually, the slush will get too big, and the review sites won't read everything sent to them -- so authors will have to get marketing managers of sorts to help them be discovered by the review sites.

Does this sound vaguely familiar?

The real kicker will be if the fad turns back to paper copies, and the review sites start printing the books they endorse.
djonn
Nov. 22nd, 2009 09:59 am (UTC)
One of the things that skews the perception is that there are certain niches where self-publishing is not merely acceptable, but almost necessary -- I'm thinking specifically of local-to-regional history.

In those cases, "getting the book into bookstores" may in fact involve getting it into the gift shops at a couple of local museums or even libraries -- which can be a somewhat different ball game from the problem of cracking traditional wholesale book-distribution channels.

The trouble is that what works for self-published local history more or less can't be made to work for genre fiction. Nor, I think, is the problem entirely that traditional bookstores are harder to crack for a self-publisher. Rather, the self-publisher of local history has several built-in advantages from the start: his audience is highly concentrated, that audience tends to gravitate naturally toward sources of new material, and the demand for works of local history generally equals or exceeds the supply (or put another way, the self-publisher of a new work usually has few if any direct subject-matter competitors).

By contrast, the audience for genre fiction is very widely dispersed, comes together only intermittently, and has widely divergent reading interests. And the supply of new works -- counting in commercial print publications, professional e-publications, and fanfic -- is already very, very large.

This has a variety of implications, not least of which is that the definitions of commercial success are on different scales. A self-publisher of a local history book who moves 200 copies has probably done really well -- that may amount to a very high percentage of the book's probable audience. But a self-publisher of a fantasy novel who moves 200 copies has penetrated only a very small percentage of the general audience for fantasy novels. The pond in which fantasy readers live is large enough that self-promotion by itself pretty much cannot penetrate a significant portion of the audience.

Which is not to say that self-promotion can't be useful, because clearly it can, particularly on today's Internet. But for a writer of genre fiction, I think there's no way for self-promotion/self-publishing by itself to reliably yield commercial success.
la_marquise_de_
Nov. 22nd, 2009 01:31 pm (UTC)
I know precisely one person who managed it this way with a novel, and he devoted a huge amount of time and money to it, and persuaded stores into letting him hold events to which he brought copies and gave them a cut of sales. But 99.9% of people won't have his time and resources.
It can work for non-fiction, but only if you've written to a very specialist niche (say a book on trams which the shop in the tram museum agrees to take) and aren't expecting high sales (or even to recoup costs). There are a handful of well-respected books in my academic field that were produced this way, but they were done for love and because the author felt the material was important, but not commercial enough for a professional publisher.
green_knight
Nov. 22nd, 2009 06:49 pm (UTC)
99.9% of people won't have his time and resources

That's an often-overlooked aspect of self-publishing. Not only do you need to gather the expertise to produce a good product (and if you can't do it yourself, you need to trade/pay for people to do the copy editing and design etc), you also need to spend your time selling and marketing, which leaves less time for writing, which means fewer, and less polished books.
amber_fool
Nov. 22nd, 2009 03:16 pm (UTC)
Another side to it, as a reader - I recently bought a self-published novel that had made it to a small, independent bookstore near me. Honestly, I wish I hadn't. Since he hadn't gone through a publisher, it was up to him to edit/proof-read the book. And he didn't, at all. So now he's created a reader who will stick to mass-published books simply to ensure that a spell-check and at least basic grammar-check has been run.

Having never published something, I certainly don't know what the process is like from either side. But as a reader, a publisher is the way to go.
deire
Nov. 22nd, 2009 06:38 pm (UTC)
Hmm, I'd regard that as a failure on the part of the author rather than as a failure of self publishing altogether. Just because it's self published doesn't mean it should be sloppy beyond what Microsoft Word would do for even a first draft.
(no subject) - amber_fool - Nov. 22nd, 2009 07:09 pm (UTC) - Expand
forodwaith
Nov. 22nd, 2009 04:04 pm (UTC)
As a librarian, I see the same disconnect you do. We're still inundated with self-published authors (from around the world, not just locals) who want us to purchase their books -- so they must see the library as giving them *something* of value, whether it's validation or actual readers' eyeballs.

As someone who's been reading novel-length fanfic online for more than a decade, I'm not enthused about traditional publishing moving in that direction. That model may have the advantages of 24/7 availability and incredible niche marketing, but it can also take days of browsing/searching to find one story worth reading. A reader's odds of finding something good to read, quickly, continue to be astronomically higher in any bookstore or library.

The industry is in flux right now, with several contradictory market models at various stages of existence/maturity. Until things shake down (and who knows how long that will take?), it's probably only going to get more confusing.
burger_eater
Nov. 22nd, 2009 05:26 pm (UTC)
Another odd aspect of all this is that people seem to think publishers and agents are blocking readers from good books. They seem to think that, once the NY publishing industry is gone, readers will be finding great books on their own, and writers who deserve success will get it.

Except that readers already miss terrific books. Of the books publishers put out, some percentage of them are wonderful but never draw in the expected readership. I think we've all be disappointed to find out that an author will no longer write books in a beloved series because it wasn't beloved *enough* and bookstores don't want any more of them.

How much harder will it be for debut authors with amazing books if there are no more big publishers, and the market is flooded with raw slush?
mtlawson
Nov. 22nd, 2009 07:55 pm (UTC)
How much harder will it be for debut authors with amazing books if there are no more big publishers, and the market is flooded with raw slush?

That assumes that the market will be flooded at all, which I'm skeptical of. Each author would have to do their own legwork in getting the books into the stores, and the massive amount of work involved would seem to be more prohibitive than the anti-big publisher movement would anticipate.

One would hope that there's not a big Pollyana-esque viewpoint behind that movement, but sometimes it sure seems that way.
(no subject) - msagara - Nov. 22nd, 2009 08:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
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deire
Nov. 22nd, 2009 06:32 pm (UTC)
It's particularly interesting when you look at different genres. I recently read Making a Web Comic, by Brad Guigar et al. One section of the book talks very specifically about self publishing, but a comic collection is a different proposition from a novel, too. The book has tons of good self marketing and publishing advice for that particular market, though.
deire
Nov. 22nd, 2009 06:36 pm (UTC)
Also interestingly, if I recall correctly, they don't advocate for print on demand, as too much profit goes to the printer and not enough to the author, and the author already does all of the book set up and editing anyway. They go into detail right down to how to think about storing your book copies. :g: For instance, do not assume that storing them at home on anything but first level concrete and pallets will end well, unless you didn't really need that floor in one piece.
(no subject) - green_knight - Nov. 22nd, 2009 06:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - msagara - Nov. 22nd, 2009 08:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - msagara - Nov. 23rd, 2009 04:14 am (UTC) - Expand
mmegaera
Nov. 22nd, 2009 08:24 pm (UTC)
I think when the desperation level goes high enough, people will overlook disconnects the size of the Grand Canyon. Or possibly larger. Don't underestimate how badly many unpublished writers want their works to be read by someone other than their BFF or mother. It gets to a point where any potential money is almost beside the point.

Unless and until a viable alternative pops up, those desperate writers will keep touting the nonviable alternatives, because that's all they've got.

Speaking as someone for whom posts like this (and I've read dozens of 'em) are about the only thing keeping me from going the self-publishing route with my novels after ten years of trying unsuccessfully to get my foot into traditional publishing, getting beaten until morale improves is not a viable alternative.
msagara
Nov. 22nd, 2009 08:34 pm (UTC)
Speaking as someone for whom posts like this (and I've read dozens of 'em) are about the only thing keeping me from going the self-publishing route with my novels after ten years of trying unsuccessfully to get my foot into traditional publishing

Thank you :). I mean it -- I sometimes feel we're not reaching the people at whom so much of these businesses are targeted.

The thing is? We've all been there. Some of us were lucky enough to get a hit out of the ballpark on first submission; some of us didn't try to submit although we wrote and wrote and wrote for years. There is a curve. I think Charlie Stross said he sold his sixteenth novel in a post somewhere else in this LJ. But he certainly had to write the previous fifteen.

And you know? When you're struggling with rejection and the natural insecurity of any writer (I'm almost a poster child of neurosis in this LJ in general), it's really easy to be upset and to feel that so much of what's being published is inferior. It's an almost natural, human reaction, and I've seen it in so many now-published writers. But yes - it's not the whole of the way one feels; we feel it when we're low.
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meristem
Nov. 25th, 2009 09:10 pm (UTC)
I asked my significant other what he believed editors were after. He worked in pub for many years and his answer was "depends on imprint and editor, some go for quality, some pander to numbers." It did not come across as undemocratic, as much as I'd prefer pandering to quality, not numbers...

Reading your post, and noticing your love of bookstores, it occurred to me that if the PoD book is printable at the bookstore (independent of chain), it would short circuit some of the issues brought up in terms of distribution (and would create others I'm sure.)

Say Ingram distributed finished book files on demand, and the bookstores would have a specialty printer that would download the file, print and bind it as a book, independent of publishing house. Instead of 20 copies of the same title burning linear footage or warehouse space, there could be a couple of copies for perusal only. There would be no remainders for one, and the shelf space could be used for more, not less titles.

Such system does not exist today. This idea is a flight of imagination, an investigation of what may be possible. It does not make booksellers into printers as the expertise of suggesting, picking titles, helping steer customers to titles, instilling the love of books and of literature & knowledge remains intact. To a great extent, so does the tactile, visual experience.
avt_tor
Dec. 7th, 2009 06:43 pm (UTC)
If I worked in a bookstore, the third or fourth time someone came in the store and tried to sell me a book that they had written, I'd put a sign on the door saying "No solicitation of self-published books here." I mean, to me, "self-published" is still an oxymoron; the difference between "published" and "printed" is that "published" is something that has gone through a commercial editorial process, where someone has taken a financial risk to put money down printing what an author has written.

I can understand an author investing money in reprinting their backlist, but even there, the business of publishing is different from the business of writing. You need some sort of printing, sales, accounts receivable, marketing, and distribution system.

There are problems with the industry. Small press imprints have expanded to fill niches that the big publishers are leaving. And for people who have an urge to write, there are plenty of ways to give your writing away. But producing any product for sale should involve some sort of marketing and quality review to ensure that customer's needs are met.

There is the whole Long Tail issue; brick-and-mortar bookstores may not be the right marketing channel for non-traditional small-print-run publications. But seriously I wonder why anybody has the idea that "self-publishing" is a useful way to spend their time.
(Anonymous)
Jan. 7th, 2010 01:22 pm (UTC)
Backlistbooks, e-books and bookstores
Sorry I’m late commenting, but I only just discovered this blog: I’m not very active on the Internet.
I’ve loved your books for a long time, both the Hunters & Sun Sword world and the Chronicles of Elantra. Like probably everyone, I’m wondering what will happen with the Hunter’s daughter, and Cynthia & Steven/Bredan’s twins, as well as all the people we’ve had to leave behind at the end of the last Sun Sword book.
So, while I enjoy the Elantra books a lot, I’m very glad to hear that you haven’t stopped writing on the House Wars books, and intend to expand them into the new times as well.

I’ve been reading C.J. Cherryh’s blog for a long time, at www.cherryh.com/WaveWithoutAShore (and yes, it does need those 4 capital letters), and this last year there has been a lot of discussion over there about the developments in the book-publishing business.
So I was very interested to read your ideas about that here, from a different viewpoint: I found it an interesting addition to my new view of the whole bookpublishing and bookselling business.

C.J. Cherryh’s explained some of the difficulties with keeping backlist books available, and adding to an existing series (especially if it was running with a defunct publishing house), and suchlike.
She’s also gone into some of the troubles that can create for authors: backlist sales were a solid part of their income, and that has suddenly fallen off due to the effect of the tax-laws on publishers; and gaining new readers for a book that’s part of an existing world-line is more difficult if they can’t get the earlier books anymore.

As a result, she, Lynn Abbey and Jane S. Fancher have just started a small e-book store, at www.closed-circle.net, in which they aim to offer their own backlist-books as e-books. If the venture works, they may even be able to write the stories they’ve wanted to write but couldn’t sell, as they are part of an older series-world (for instance a new Chanur or Morgaine story: as far as I can gather, they as authors weren’t finished with some of their worlds when their publishers went out of business, and no new publisher will touch an existing series from another publishing house). As a reader, I’d both love to be able to buy some older books by favourite authors that just haven’t been available since I discovered this author; and to read some of the books such a good author really wants to write but hasn’t been able to sell for the abovementioned reason.
So I’m happy that they’re trying to get this off the ground.
They are mostly very experienced authors, and have been working for years as editors for each other’s books, so I’m not worried about the editing quality on their e-books. Jane Fancher is an artist as well, so the cover-art on their e-books is or will be of good quality too.
But they are primarily authors, and all this internet-work on the e-bookstore is costing them a lot of time and trouble, with very uncertain pay-offs.
If other authors want to try something similar, they’d need to form groups with all the necessary skills: writing, editing, art & layout, and the computer- and internet-skills necessary for setting up shop and converting files etc.. In order not to spend too much time on all the extras so there’s no time to write left over you need a small but not too small group, and even then it’s very time-consuming. And then all those small-but-reputable ‘e-book-stores’ need to be able to link to each other, so an F/SF reader who’s found a favourite author can be encouraged to browse a bit further … it seems a very complicated way to have to find a new book or author for me as a reader.
I thought that something like SFWA might play a coordinating role in this, but apparently that’s not likely to happen soon.
(Continued)
Hanneke
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