Posts Tagged editorial services

Coming in from the cold

Once your book is out in the unforgiving world, it’s time to cross your fingers and pray that, firstly, readers leave ratings (hopefully good) on Amazon, Goodreads etc, and, secondly, that book bloggers say nice things too. This will help spread the word and should in turn lead to more people checking out the book.

The bad news, however, is that getting bloggers to do a review is not easy. So far I’ve had three, with a couple more in the pipeline, but I’m still hunting around for others. And I’ve sent out a LOT of requests. The thing is, they are inundated, to the extent that many of them don’t even respond. I don’t mind that particularly, because I’m aware that they have other lives. Reviewing books is something they do simply because they love to read, which is fantastic. So if I don’t hear back, I don’t take it personally.

Similarly, if I get a reply but it’s just to say that they are already swamped, that’s okay too. I appreciate being told. It’s polite.

But there is something that’s beginning to grate. And that’s when I spend time looking at a reviewer’s website only to come across the stern warning: ‘I do not review self-published books.’

Really? And why would that be?

At first I didn’t care. The stark words were met with a shrug of the shoulders. I moved on. Plenty of others don’t seem to harbour the same prejudice. But then I saw it again. And again. And, oh look, there it is again. Now it’s irritating.

My recent Goodreads Giveaway was entered by 1340 readers in two weeks. More than 600 people now have it on their ‘to read’ shelf. I was blown away by the reaction, but then it got me thinking…

Door2WPSo now I’m wondering, is there a disconnect between some book reviewers and a reading audience that is not put off by the fact that this is a self-published novel? I realise not every single one of those 600-plus readers is going to buy the book, but there had to have been something about it that piqued their interest. The cover perhaps; the positive comments from other readers that I put on the Giveaway blurb; or maybe they checked out my blog. Perhaps it was a combination of these factors, or others – either way, the reaction was good. Open-minded. Willing to see what I had to offer.

It would be so easy for reluctant book bloggers to do a quick check when a request comes in. Again, look at the cover, read a couple of sample pages – see if the plot has possibilities, if the style of writing appeals. After all, we’re spending time and effort finding you and checking whether you might be ‘the right fit’, and it would be such a breath of fresh air if you met us halfway. Obviously I’m not suggesting that these reviewers should be forced to accept novels by indie writers, I’m simply curious as to what’s stopping them.

The publishing world is in a state of flux. Yes, there are no doubt some very bad indie novels out there, but come on, who doesn’t read a traditionally published book every so often and think, ‘Are you kidding me?’. In fact, a few weeks back I was freelancing in an office where a young lady was giving voice to her very firm opinion about a novel that was published by a mainstream house this year. Let’s just say that her comments were, uh, not positive. I’ve read the book too, and although it didn’t quite arouse the same level of antipathy, I have to say that it didn’t do it for me either.

Good reviews are like gold, they really are. They are the foundation upon which an author can build, something to keep them going on those days (and nights) when it would be so much easier to do something else, to switch off and find a less taxing and time-consuming activity. So it’s not a great feeling when reviewers – and hopefully it’s a minority – point-blank refuse to contemplate a novel that might in fact be brilliant, life-changing even, but they’ll never know because it doesn’t tick the right boxes. It doesn’t have a publisher’s seal of approval, and isn’t backed up by the marketing machinery that can give anything a glossy sheen.

So, in this season of goodwill, I would like to say to those lovely reviewers who are keeping the door firmly bolted: let us in. Please. It’s cold out here.

And if some of the reviews turn out to be negative, so what? At least you’d be giving us a chance, letting us play with the big kids. And at least the playing field would be a fraction more level.

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Room temperature: what’s playing in the nest

In complete contrast with the last Room Temperature posting (the soft, textural work of Louigi Verona), for the past few days I’ve been having a blast. A Bob Mould blast.

For those who like a wall of driving post-punk/alternative rock guitar, but with some nifty tunes contained therein, Bob Mould is a legend. An icon. Without him and his seminal punk bad Hüsker Dü, the likes of Nirvana and The Pixies might never have existed. Their debt to him has been acknowledged many times over.

Hüsker Dü ploughed their punk furrow from 1979 to 1988, after which Bob embarked on a solo career, releasing (I think) more than a dozen albums. A few of these were with a band that went under the moniker Sugar, which is where my attention has been this week. Reliving my past. Nothing wrong with that… In fact, I had the pleasure of seeing Sugar perform in, er, [cough…] 199something, and the memory of that has never gone away. Like I say, a blast.

If you can create your art with loud guitar music playing in the background, or you simply want to give your ears some punishment while doing, well, other things, check out Sugar’s two albums, Copper Blue and File Under: Easy Listening, plus the EP Beaster.

Of course, there is a feast of other Bob Mould solo material to dine on as well (Workbook from 1989 is a gem, plus I’ve now started getting into 2012’s Silver Age), and, if you’re interested in finding out more about him, there’s a great interview on comedian Marc Maron’s podcast WTF here, episode 524.

And of course there’s the website at www.bobmould.com

What have you been listening to as you get creative? I’m always on the lookout for new sounds, which, as I’m sure you’re aware, doesn’t actually make grammatical sense.

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Q&A: Guido Henkel (part 2)

Last week I posted the first half of an interview with Guido Henkel, who did the interior formatting for my novel, The Ground Will Catch You. Here, as promised, is the second part.

Putting aside indie authors for a moment, do you think traditional publishers’ ebooks are up to standard, or is there more that could be done?

I am honestly shocked by the poor quality of some of the ebooks released by traditional publishers. I recently read a book from one of the Big Five publishers and they didn’t even have proper curly quotes or apostrophes. I mean, really? Can’t they afford to hire a formatter with the most basic understanding of digital typography?

It is a problem I see all too often, sadly. It may have something to do with the fact that these publishers would rather see ebooks go away, because the digital revolution has completely wiped out their modus operandi and business model. I would not be surprised to learn that they intentionally degrade ebooks to create the illusion that they are simply not up to par with print books – which is a lot of baloney, of course, particularly in the fiction genre.

I’ve also seen ebooks from traditional publishers that bleed over the edge. They use features that are not universally supported by devices, resulting in ebooks that look great on some but are absolutely broken on others. So, clearly, there is a lack of understanding about the technical side of ebook formatting.

Naturally, it could all be resolved if they took it a bit more seriously. Just like they spend money on professional book-layout specialists and book binders for print editions, they should begin to realise that it requires a certain set of skills to create quality ebooks, which comes at a price. As long as the illusion prevails that it is as simple as pressing a button, we will see shoddy ebook editions, even from major publishers.

GuidoHenkel_BW smallAre you finding that more authors want to put interactive elements into their books, to make use of the interconnectivity that is now at our fingertips?

Yes, it is clearly on the rise, and it gives me headaches. As I mentioned before, for one thing there are the technical problems, where every device manufacturer is brewing their own thing, not following specifications properly. The way to play video, for example, differs entirely from one device to another. The way to create fixed layout and comic books is altogether different on different devices. Even though standards for these implementations exist, they are all too often ignored by manufacturers, making it very hard to create any kind of interactive content.

In addition, interactive content often makes the assumption that all readers are automatically connected to the web, which I find is not the case. And even if it were true, I am not sure everyone is comfortable with having an ebook arbitrarily use up all the data bandwidth of their carrier plan. It quickly becomes as much an ethical question as one of feasibility. Interactivity for its own sake doesn’t do anyone any good.

To make matters worse, distributors like Amazon and Barnes & Noble are using business models that are still stuck with the ‘ebooks are mostly novels’ kind of thinking. As long as they charge authors high delivery fees for ebooks, a lot of the cool features they built into the latest devices are virtually useless. I’ve had clients approach me with book projects where the delivery fee alone [due to the amount of data] would have exceeded $25 per sale. It shows how ambitious projects are simply not possible yet.

What are your ambitions for the next five years?

Typically, I take things one step at a time and decide on the spur of the moment. I am not someone who carefully lays out plans for the future. I learnt a long time ago that plans are useless unless you can properly control the conditions. Since we are not masters of our own fate, I take the cards that life deals me and see what is the best hand I can build with them.

Finally, I always like to ask – what great books have you read recently?

I haven’t read nearly as much of late as I would have liked, but one of the better books I’ve read recently was The End of Enemies by Grant Blackwood. I’m also reading Dragon’s Ring by Dave Freer, which I’m enjoying.

A big thank you to Guido for answering my questions. You can find out more about his work at guidohenkel.com. And I’ll say it one more time: if you’re as fussy as I am about the content and functionality of your ebook, he’s your man.

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Q&A: Guido Henkel (part 1)

As I’ve mentioned before, on more than one occasion, when it came to the finished product (ie my novel) I dug my heels in, got real fussy. Not just the words themselves, but also the cover – my designer didn’t just lob over a PDF and say ‘Take it or leave it, pencil boy’. We had to think about what would work and what wouldn’t. It involved trial and error, until we arrived at something we could both be proud of.

Formatting the interior of your ebook requires the same care and attention. Most readers, I would say, will spot one or two spelling mistakes in a book (I know I do, but then again, that’s what I do for a living). They might even forgive this. However, if you present people with text that doesn’t flow properly, which has breaks in all the wrong places, the game is up. Technology is great when it works, when it behaves itself, but if it refuses there are few experiences more frustrating. And the last thing you want is to interrupt the flow of the reading experience, to remind people that they haven’t been transported to the lands of your imagination, but are in fact struggling with an ebook that thinks it’s okay to break lines everywhere and to have the occasional blank page for no particular reason.

When the time came I knew I couldn’t mess about – I had to think big. I did my research and quickly found someone whose CV speaks for itself – Guido Henkel. His website informed me that he had formatted more than 200 ebooks for a range of clients, which was a major box ticked. I checked out his prices (very reasonable) and dropped him an email, thinking that he would be either too busy or wouldn’t want to deal with little people like me. Wrong – busy he might be, but he was keen to help. Tick. And I couldn’t be happier with the finished product – the text flows perfectly, the pages behave exactly as they should, and Guido even corrected a few more typos that I spotted. Tick, tick and tick.

Now that my perfectly formatted novel is out in the world, I thought that fellow writers – especially those about to publish – might be interested to hear some of Guido’s thoughts on ebook preparation. And just so you know, he was very generous with his responses, so I’ve decided to split the post into two parts.

Everyone, I give you formatting expert and all-round good guy, Mr Guido Henkel.

GuidoHenkel_BW smallHi Guido, welcome. Can you start by telling me a bit about your background and what brought you to ebook formatting?

I am a game developer originally – a designer of computer games and a programmer who had his start in the earliest days of home computing on the Apple II. I’ve been a programmer ever since and have always enjoyed the technical aspects of game development.

A few years ago I wrote and published a series of supernatural mysteries taking place in Victorian England called Jason Dark: Ghost Hunter and began looking into publishing opportunities. It was at the time when ebooks were on the cusp of existence. Amazon had just released the Kindle and made it possible for authors to self-publish their books. I instantly jumped at the opportunity, of course, and fully embraced it, but as I mingled with other authors at the time I also realised that virtually none of them had the technical wherewithal necessary to actually create quality ebooks. Most used a word processor and exported the ebook from there, flooding the market with books that had no proper formatting, didn’t follow common typography and were brimming with technical errors and bugs.

Because of my technical background all of that was second nature to me. Also, in another life I was actually a trained typesetter. That made it easy for me to tackle the challenges and problems from a very different angle than most other authors, creating solutions that were more stable and cross-device compatible.

Eventually I turned that experience into a blog series, and subsequently into the book Zen of eBook Formatting, while also offering ebook formatting as a paid service to fellow authors and publishers.

What, in your opinion, are the main problems that cause ebooks to display poorly, and how can they be overcome?

The main problem is two-fold: not only do you have enormous fragmentation in the market, but, in addition, most authors/publishers do not know how to deal with the problems this creates. Many are not even aware that problems exist.

With ebooks going mainstream, suddenly people are reading books on a wide range of devices, from tiny cell phones to hyper-resolution tablets and desktop computers – and anything in between. Ebook formats were never created with this in mind, and have serious limitations that means it is hard to actually make books look good on such a wide variety of device capabilities and display sizes.

In addition, every device manufacturer uses a different approach to handle certain features. They support entirely different feature sets or code implementations and have firmware bugs in every device, many of which are never addressed.

It takes a lot of technical know-how to understand these differences and to write ebook code that handles all these circumstances and eventualities properly. It is not an easy task and it’s getting harder every day.

To make the problem even worse, distributors such as Amazon, Apple and Barnes & Noble do not allow you to target specific devices. Therefore it is imperative that you create ebooks that will display properly on every single Kindle implementation, from the very first Kindle to the latest Kindle Fire HD, to the Android cell phone implementation and all the way to the Mac OSX desktop version of the Kindle software reader. Things would be a lot easier if we could make specific builds for specific devices, so that features could be implemented in the best possible way for each device, but alas it’s not possible. So we constantly have to juggle smallest common denominators instead of actually pushing the technology forward.

Now, when you create an ebook you are expected to know and understand all of this, and have the means in your repertoire to safely handle all these differences. Simply hitting an ‘export’ button in a word processor or InDesign will not do the job. They will create an epub file for you, but only in theory, because the resulting file is going to be incompatible with half the devices on the market.

So, in the end, the biggest mistake people make is assuming that it is easy, that the ‘export’ function will do all the work for them. They think it’s straightforward. It is not, and the waters get murkier with every new device and firmware upgrade. For many, the subject quickly becomes too overwhelming and technical, which is fine. You’re a writer, not a tech expert. That’s where professionals like myself come into play, because we are actively working on solutions that we can then use in our client projects.

I think that publishing a book on formatting is a great idea because it puts more control in authors’ hands. It means that whenever they spot any errors or need to make other changes, this can be done quickly and with minimum fuss. What has the reaction to your book been like?

Zen of eBook Formatting has been an extension of the blog tutorial I wrote a number of years ago. I was surprised by the tremendous feedback the series received and how it quickly became the de-facto standard for countless self-published authors to format their books. However, technology had evolved, so it was time to cover the new aspects of ebook formatting and to dive into certain areas in more detail – ebooks have become a lot fancier than they first were, and I wanted to cater to that.

Just like with the blog series, the response to Zen has been tremendous and it always fills me with joy to hear that my instructions have empowered authors and enabled them to create their own ebooks. And not only create them, but fashion them in a professional manner to get a product they can be truly proud of, instead of having to apologise to readers for the countless issues and formatting errors.

Even if they read the book and feel it’s way over their head, it helps them understand some of the intricacies of ebook formatting, as well as the most common pitfalls.

(Part two to follow.)

You can find out more about Guido and his work at guidohenkel.com

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Room temperature: what’s playing in the nest

Some people like silence when they create. Others prefer music that stimulates them, perhaps forming an aural backdrop to the piece they’re working on. I’m somewhere in between: often I need the nest to be quiet; sometimes I need gentle caressing; at other times I will have cobwebs that need to be blown away – at volume. So, in the first of a new series, here’s what’s been filling my writing room this week.

Louigi Verona

Mr Verona (whose given name is Kirill Alferov, and, at the time of posting, is living in Moscow) does it for me in a big way. His tracks are mostly long, almost textural, and never fail to settle my often-tetchy writing temperament. They are perfect for those times when you need something going on in the background, but don’t want to be distracted. Something that helps you to focus.

Alternatively, if you’re in need of a break, stick on the headphones and lie down on the floor for a bit. Get inside it. This is relaxing, contemplative stuff, like a flotation tank for the brain.

As the man himself says of Life in the Troposphere (playing time 46:09), “The composition is a lot about hovering, visualizing sound and observation.” I’m not arguing with that.

I don’t have a great deal of info about the artist, which sort of adds to the appeal, but apparently he is also part of an organisation called the Skeptic Society in Russia that promotes science and critical thinking. He also has an interesting take on copyright, saying, “I do not believe I have any right to tell people what to do with my works, once they are published.” A fluid approach, it seems, to the creative process – which seems perfectly in line with this kind of music.

You can read about Louigi Verona and his work here

And free tracks to download and get you started can be found at LastFM

What have you been listening to as you get creative? I’m always on the lookout for new sounds, which, as I’m sure you’re aware, doesn’t actually make sense.

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Q&A: Steven Baird

I always check out the ‘likes’ on my blog and, recently, one of them led me to a first-time novelist from Canada, now living in Virginia – Steven Baird. I say first-time novelist, but that isn’t exactly true. In fact, it’s not even remotely true. Steven has been writing since the age of ten, and has so far written in the region of 12 novels. What I meant to say is that he’s tried the traditional route to publishing, and even came close once or twice, but is now trying his hand at self-publishing with the release of Ordinary Handsome, which he describes as a ghost story … sort of.

I was intrigued, and thought it would be great to hook up with Steven and ask him a few questions. The internet is awash with invaluable information from successful indie publishers, which is fantastic, but being a newbie myself, I wanted to hear what’s it like from someone else just starting out. So, make yourselves comfortable…

You started Ordinary Handsome 30 years ago, then revisited it three years ago. It must have been exciting when you realised that there was still a strong idea to work with.
I approached with a clean slate. It’s a completely different novel. I very much liked the idea of a man steeped in guilt and how he handles it. That was the core of the first version. In Handsome, Jimmy Wheat, who was the original protagonist, has become the catalyst. And he doesn’t handle the guilt so much as the guilt handles him. He’s not even the main character. And, now that I’m older, I approached the writing with a quieter voice. The younger me tended to shout.

Tell me a little about the book.
Fifty-seven years ago, a boy named Euart Monroe Wasson was killed in a hit-and-run. The driver – Jimmy Wheat – was a small-time thief shaking off pursuit. Except … fifty-seven years later, the boy shows up at the nursing home where Wheat resides, carrying a shotgun and hobo mattress and blows a hole in the old man’s guts. Did Euart survive? Is the old man dreaming, or hallucinating as his life wraps up? What really happened on the night of the accident?

The town of Handsome, Oklahoma is on the edge of becoming a ghost town, with desperate men who bury their mistakes. The story is told from the point of view of four different characters and their unrelated deeds, threading a tragic tapestry of loss and grief.

I’d call Ordinary Handsome a ghost story, but not in the traditional sense. There are a couple of lines near the end that really stood out for me: “Grief is the impetus of ghosts, not death. Death is silent; grief roars.” Each of the characters has lost something and is in the process of grieving, though they’re not aware of it.

SteveBairdIn the past you have found revising and editing your work a bit of a chore – what’s different about Ordinary Handsome that has kept you focused?
The story. It kept surprising me. I had four or five different ways to end it, but used none of them. It’s one of the greatest thrills of writing, when things connect in ways you weren’t even aware of, never mind planned. I let the characters do their thing. I knew them well enough to trust that I was on the right path. I really like the idea of using unreliable narrators, having them tell their side of the story, the story they want you to hear. The deeper you get into these characters, the more you start seeing their flaws and contradictions. For me, that’s the pure joy of writing.

How are you finding the self-publishing process?
It’s very new to me – I’m both excited and nervous as hell about it. Setting up a blog, a Twitter account etc. is an entirely new experience. Self-promotion is a necessity, and, to be honest, very stressful, but I’m slowly learning my way around. Once I get comfortable with it, I’m sure it will be fun. I guess. Right now, though, I’ve got a new novel in mind and it’s hard to find the time to put things to paper. I know things will settle down in time, but right now it’s hard to focus on anything other than seeing Ordinary Handsome finally published.

You say have a new novel that you want to get cracking with, but will you be going through any more of your previous efforts? There may be further treasure hidden away…
My wife keeps mentioning a book I wrote shortly after we were married. It’s pretty intense and violent, about a young serial killer. I listened to a lot of Springsteen while I wrote it – Nebraska, The River, The Ghost of Tom Joad – so it’s got a pretty desperate tone. I know I’ll pick it up again, but not just yet.

Will your next work be in the same genre?
I don’t think so. I really want to write something noir. It’s a very different direction, but I’ve always wanted to try it. It’s a genre that’s easy to parody, so it will be a real challenge. And I think I’ve got a different way to approach it. We’ll see. I think it’ll be fun.

What inspires you to write?
I really don’t know. A thought will come into my head and I’ll examine it for a while, see if it works. Most of the time, it doesn’t. A lot of my process is just thinking it through before I even start physically writing. It’s not planning, it’s just figuring it out.

Do you have a writing routine, or do you just grab the opportunity when you can?
I probably break all the rules for a writing routine. I know I should have one, but I write when I have the time and I’m completely focused. I take notes and think about a project. One of the first things I did when I started Ordinary Handsome was draw a map of the town. It was important. And very useful because I knew the geography was going to play a role. Sometimes I wish I did have a routine, but I’ve never found one that works for me. Or maybe I’m just lazy and undisciplined.

You’re a graphic designer by trade – will you be tempted to add interactive elements in future novels?
Probably not. My writing is a separate thing for me. I want it to stand on its own. I’m an amateur photographer, so I can see some of my photos sneaking in.

Finally, I always like to ask – read any good books lately?
I just finished The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. I love the tone, the language. Impeccable writing. Before that, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. Beautifully crafted and heartbreaking. Next, probably some Stephen King. Maybe Pet Sematary … I have a weakness for King.

Many thanks to Steven for answering my questions, and I wish him the very best with all his future writing endeavours. Ordinary Handsome is scheduled for release on 1 November.

Steven can be found blogging – and showing off some of his photography skills – at www.ordinaryhandsome.wordpress.com
 

 

 

 

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Train of thought

Last night we had the final of the Great British Bake Off. For those of you not of these shores, it’s another ‘reality’ show, in this case a baking competition. The clue is in the title. And I gather the franchise is going international, so be prepared. Anyway, the winner was a nice lady from Hull, the dark horse of the show, I guess, in the sense that most people seemed to think one of the other two finalists would win.

So, well done, Nancy. We love an underdog.

Now for the link to writing. On the packed commuter train into London this morning I was squeezed in next to a young couple who, I immediately found out, worked together in a sales centre. I know this because the girl’s face was so close to mine that I was effectively part of the conversation. And I can’t be sure, but we might even have started dating.

They seemed a pleasant enough couple, chit-chatting away, leaning in for some harmless early-morning intimacy that might have been a ruse on her part to make me jealous, because technically she was also my girlfriend now as well (this is how novels start). But then she said something that really, really got under my skin. And I’m British, remember – we tend to cut offensive behaviour quite a bit of slack.

“Nancy is so old,” she said. “What’s the point of giving her the title – what’s she going to do with it?”

Holy smoke. I dumped the girl on the spot. We are no longer an item.

SpongeBackground: Nancy is 60, a grandmother. Been baking all her life, a worthy competition winner. What’s she going to do with it? Damn well enjoy the moment, and whatever comes after, one would hope.

Now I’m not 60, but I ain’t 25 either. I left writing this novel late because I was busy doing other things – you know, life etc – but imagine if someone had tapped their watch on my thirtieth birthday and said, “Five more years, maybe ten, then we’re giving the chance to publish to someone else. Look lively.”

Amazon is getting plenty of flack at the moment for being a huge, publishing industry-gobbling monster that will destroy authors’ careers and decimate the cultural landscape. You may or may not agree with that statement. Personally, I don’t. Indie publishing has opened doors to so many people – young and old – who would never have had a chance to see their efforts in print. I’m one of them. Now I’m delighted that the reaction to my book has been really positive, but even if that were not the case, being able to get it out there is a source of immense pride. Not smugness, just simple, personal satisfaction. It took a lot of hard work and now I’ve started the whole process again. Because I can. Because we all can.

Hopefully the novel will be out before I’m collecting my pension. But if it were to take another two decades, so what? It might turn out to be a Tolstoyesque classic of deep worth and with a mind-boggling word count. Unlikely, but not impossible. Finding out along the way will be part of the pleasure. And when it comes out I’ll be older, probably not much wiser, but still in the game. Still being creative, and that’s the most important part.

So, my ex-girlfriend on the train, remember this: you will not be in your early twenties forever. Hopefully your life will blossom and you will find fulfilment in whatever it is that you choose to do. With any luck your achievements will make you and your loved ones proud. But let’s hope that if you finally decide a life in sales doesn’t make you complete and that you want to test yourself by creating something (a work of art, a business, a family), you don’t come up against someone tapping their watch and barring your way, saying, “Sorry, too late.”

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