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Is Blogging “Dead” and Is That A Bad Thing?

John Scalzi over on his blog Whatever just posted his yearly summary of readership statistics for his blog for this half of 2017, and it brought up some very interesting questions and insights for me.

 

He mentions how his site views seem to have halved since 2012.  But then he points out how the way social media sites address linking to content obscures many views and distorts the picture from the viewpoint of his built-in WordPress analytics package.

 

Whereas in the early 2000s, blogging was a rather distributed and free-wheeling hobby, nowadays it has been corporatized and hedged in by so-called “walled garden” platforms such as Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr.  A walled garden is a platform that creates inward pressure on users and makes interfacing with outside platforms and media difficult.  Usually to preserve it’s userbase by requiring you to be a member/user of the platform in order to access or interact with its content.  This means that even though there may be links pointing outside, most of the discussion happens within the garden, and if the content creator wants to respond to comments on their content, they must have an account on the walled-garden platform.  And when a garden gets sufficiently large enough, like Facebook, the dilemma then arises: why go to all the extra work of maintaining an external platform such as a blog or website, when the audience all have say a Facebook and the content creator does, too–why not just post straight to Facebook?

 

And Mr. Scalzi is not the only blogger noting or struggling with the issue of how monetized platforms and walled gardens have altered blogging and the web in general.  In fact, many blogs, including many I used to follow closely, have closed their doors or switched formats to keep up with these changes.

 

And beyond the walled garden issue, part of this has to do with how we access the internet today.  Mobile devices make up a much larger share of web viewing now than they did when blogging and the internet first became popular.  And because these are mobile devices, they have many limitations: screen size, processing power, input methods.  A site or blog that looks great on a PC is going to look mighty odd on many mobile devices.  It would be almost impossible for me to type out this post on my phone’s touchscreen keypad.  Complex sites with lots of doodads load much slower on phones, though the gap has closed a bit these days.  Certainly, it’s nicer for me to read a long blog post on my laptop than my phone.  These things, too, have contributed to the decline of the blogosphere compared to its earlier days.

 

And I don’t like that.  For the things I use the blogosphere for, from my own posts to reading essays and such by people such as John Scalzi or Cory Doctorow, or others in various fields, I much prefer a good blog post to a Tweet, or a Facebook status.  I like long-form prose writing, and I don’t feel like I can get the same things out of a tweet or even a tumblr post in many cases.  That’s not to say those things don’t have they’re uses; they’re just different uses in my case.

 

I often wonder whether things might change back a little once we develop technology like laser keyboards and augmented reality or just mini-projectors that could let phones break out of the limitations of their size.  Is it merely that the medium is so different that forces these changes in media?  Does Twitter rely entirely on the artificial restrictions of mobile technology for its popularity?  If I could set my phone on a table or my lap, and have it mimic a keyboard and a computer screen, would I find that I wanted to use it like a more convenient laptop more often?  Or are the changes social changes.  Is it really that people don’t like reading 200-word blog posts anymore?  Or is it just that a 140 character Tweet is a lot less stressful when I’m on my tiny phone screen in the airport?

 

To get a bit more spec ficcy, do people just love Facebook and Twitter that much, or would we break out of the garden if we took down the walls a bit?  If there was an open-source freeware social media network that could access and display your Facebook data and your myspace data, and your Google posts and your tweets all in one platform/app–if it could convert a post/status so that your Google+ post would be accessible on your friend’s Facebook feed would people be more willing to step outside the single platform?  It takes a great deal of energy to manage even one active social media account.  I know I wouldn’t want to have to triple-post to Facebook, Google+, Ello, and then push a link to Twitter, just to reach all my possible audiences.  But what if there was a bridge between these castles that would do the work for me?  Because controlling every aspect of the garden is great for the companies behind Google+, Twitter, Facebook, etc.  But it’s not quite so great for the regular user, and it’s definitely not great for the community as a whole.  The democratization of the web is one of my favorite features, and Facebook and Co. work hard every day to kill that democracy and carve a monopoly from its bloody corpse.

 
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Posted by on July 5, 2017 in atsiko, Blogging, Rants, Sigh, Social Media

 

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The Myth of Publishers as Gatekeepers

I read a pair of posts over on Fantasy-Faction via Magical Words on the issue of self-publishing and its effect on the publishing industry in general.  The two authors took two very different approaches to the subject, and came from two different perspectives.

You should read the two posts if you really want to understand the full context for what I’m about to write.  But in summary, one called the explosion of new authors “the writer’s plague” and decried the damaging effect of much of self-publishing has had on publishing and English literature; the other expounded on how a self-publishing signal-boosting contest run by Mark Lawrence was “revitalizing” SFF.  The first comes across as very elitist even if it’s not meant that way, and the second is a massive exaggeration.  SFF is being revitalized by a large number of factors, of which one is certainly gems in the rough discovered from self-publishing.

But how does that relate to my post title?  Well, as often happens in self-publishing discussion, accusations of dreck-peddling by self-publishers and of elitist snobbery from fans of trade publishing came up several times in the comments to the two posts.  The existence of snobbery towards self-publishing and the justification for it are a mixed bag of truths that people rarely stop to examine.  But they should be examined.

Is and Why Is So Much Self-published Writing Crap?

Yes, a great deal of self-published SFF (and literature in general) is dreck.  So is s portion of trade published SFF.  There are several reasons for this:

  1. Publishers have an investment in their lists and therefore want to do as much as possible to be sure they pan out.  And so they engage in editing and proof-reading.  These costs come out of author profit for obvious reasons.  Many self-publishers do not to to the same lengths as trade-publishers to ensure the quality of the work.  This is for many reasons.  They are more likely to have a biased view of the quality of their work as studies have shown it is much harder to be objective about your own material and also because they may not have written enough or studied writing enough to know how badly they’ve misjudged their work.  Trade-published authors can suffer from the same issue, but that’s what editors and proof-readers are for.  Further, good editing costs money.  That’s why authors fork over s much of the profit to publishers and agents.  Which leads to the second issue.
  2. There’s nothing stopping you from publishing your trunk novels and high school angst poetry.  Self-publishing costs as much as you want to invest.  Stock covers and raw drafts and a few hours can get your book “published”.  This tends not to result in very good books.

 

People Misunderstand the Character of Publishers as a Business

Although publishers provide publishing services such as editing and cover design, publishers are not service companies.  Lulu, Lightning Source, and CreateSpace are examples of publishing  service companies.  You can pay them money for services.  There are many free-lance service providers.  But what they will not do is “buy your book”.  Which is itself a mis-characterization of what publishers do.  Publishers do usually buy the various copyrights associated with your intellectual property.  They don’t buy the intellectual property, though, only the license to produce a product from it.

But what publishers really are is venture capitalists.  Turning a manuscript into a quality book product is expensive.  Printing that book is expensive.  Just like a tech start-up tries to attract venture capital to start a business when they don’t have the money themselves, an author is something like a book start-up.  But they rarely have the money to take the risk on making, marketing, and selling their product themselves.  So the publisher comes in and looks at the product and if they think they can make money by fronting the author the money to produce and sell the book, they make an offer.

Now, the skills to produce a quality book from a manuscript are almost entirely unrelated to the skills required to produce a manuscript.  So not only does the publisher front the money, they provide the services in-house.  Their large reserves of capital allow them to take the risk of providing these services with no guaranteed ROI.  If the publisher publishers your book and it tanks, you don’t owe them the cost of production, nor do you owe them the advance on royalties for selling them the various license rights to the finished product.

It is the combination of these two aspects of a publisher that seem to cause people confusion.

Publishers Are Not Gatekeepers

Many people when self-publishing was just getting started were doing it because they couldn’t get accepted by a trade publisher.  Their product was not believed to be marketable enough for the publisher to risk an investment.  Publishers don’t give a shit about the quality of your manuscript.  They care about the commercial viability.

This is why you see so many books published by trade publishers that are total shit writing-wise, or you think are total shit.  Snookie’s memoir is going to sell a ton of copies and make a bundle regardless of the quality of her ghost-writer.  When you are a debut author of fantasy or SF or whatever, the publisher has no way to judge the risk involved in publishing your manuscript, except for their experience in publishing other manuscripts from debut authors.  And many books fail, or at least don’t succeed massively.  The publisher has to have a way to recoup these losses.  That’s why you get such harsh terms in your contract.  The few major sellers and many minor sellers have to not only pay for the non-sellers, they also have to pay the bills and then produce a profit.

No one is stopping your from publishing your book.  A publisher is not preventing you from being on bookstore shelves.  The bookstore is the gatekeeper, although honestly, would you go in and yell at Shark Tank or Walmart for not investing in or stocking your amateur product?  No, you wouldn’t.  Because that’s silly.  Publishers are investors with services-added, and they have no obligation to invest in your product/company/brand.

Agents Are Not Gatekeepers

Similarly, an agent is a company offering services.  Services on commission.  They are not a gatekeeper trying to screw over brilliant but misunderstood works of art.  If they think your manuscript will make them money, they take it.  On spec.  No charges.  For which you agree to pay them a percentage on future profits.  If no publisher takes on the book, you don’t owe any money.  In fact, the agent is out time and money on your book that they could have spent elsewhere.

Publishers Accepting Only Agented Manuscripts is not Gatekeeping

If you need an agent to get your work considered by a publisher, it’s not “gatekeeping”.  Well, it is, technically.  But gatekeeping is not a crime.  It takes me four or five hours to read a standard-length fantasy novel.  If a publisher would receive a reasonably-expected 10,000 manuscripts a year, that’s 40,000 hours.  If they pay minimum wage to their first readers–which would be stupid, because knowing whether a book is potentially commercial is a high-skill job–that’s $320,000 a year just on the first screening of a manuscript.  Let’s say 10% of those manuscripts are worth a second look by a more experienced reader, or even just a second read by another first reader.  $32,000 a year.  That’s equivalent to an entire employee position.  Why in the world would you expect someone to provide you that service for free?  Some entire businesses have net profits less than $352,000.

Publishers want agented manuscripts because then that process is already completed, and without them paying for it.  Shit, the agent doesn’t even get paid for it.  Do you as an author really want to be shelling out a minimum of $32 a manuscript submission?  If you submit to 10 publishers, that’s $320 out of pocket for a manuscript that is unlikely to be picked up.

Now imagine that, but you’re paying for all the costs associated with production of the final text and the printing.  You’d rather be paying for that?  Please.

 

The Pros and Cons of Trade Publication

 A trade publishing deal takes care of all the technical aspects of publication and getting space on bookstore shelves.  Publishers are respected brands.  You can expect to sell many copies on name recognition of the publisher alone.  I know that a book published by Orbit or Tor with an interesting cover blurb has a strong chance of being worth my time and money.  And you get thousands of dollars up front, which you will keep even if the books sells not a single copy.

But you do have to get accepted by a publisher, probably pay an agent, sign over your copyrights, and for a general average of 10% of the cover price in royalties, and you have to pay back your advance with sales before you get more money.

 

The Pros and Cons of Self-publication

You retain full creative control, keep all the copyrights, and get a far larger share of the profits.

In exchange, you front all the money for production and have to source and compensate your own talent.  If you are wasting your money on a bad book, tough luck.  And you might honestly not realize the low quality or commercial value of your manuscript.

 

Snobbery

So, you often hear complaints about snobbery from trade-published authors or trade publishers and readers towards self-published works.  There’s no inherent reason for this, of course.  Great books have been self-published and horrible books have been trade-published.

But!

There is practical reason for this snobbery, condescension, etc.  Readers get burned by self-published works all the time.  There are tons and tons of horribly written, edited, and produced self-published works.  The majority of them suffer from fatal flaws.  And there are hundreds of thousands of them.  Why in the world would a reader want to run those odds when the odds are much better (though far from perfect!) when going with a trade-published work?  That’s a silly expectation.

But!

There are many reasons an author might choose to self-publish besides they couldn’t hack it in the trade publishing world.  That creative control can be very handy.  There are many horror stories of publishers fucking over authors in contracts or with rights reversion.  There are horror stories of shitty or racist/sexist/etc covers an author has limited say in.  There are terrible stories about marketing from trade publishers for midlist books.  If you happen to have the necessary skill-set for publishing and marketing a book, it may be a much better choice to self-publish.  Hugh Howey got a trade publishing deal for print, but he kept e-book rights because is was financially sensible for him to do so given his success in that format.  He should be applauded for that decision rather than looked down on.

Maybe the writer knew they could make more money by ignoring the desires of the publisher.  If you can sell more shitty pulp novels at a higher royalty than you could a better quality novel through a publisher, who’s to say you shouldn’t, if profit is your goal?  (As long as you aren’t deceiving readers, in my opinion.)

Signal to Noise and Target Audience

The elitism in trade publishing is both misplaced and understandable.  The signal-to-noise ratio, or ratio of good books to bad, is drastically higher in self-publishing.  But it’s important to remember that even if an author is self-publishing because they couldn’t get a trade deal, it doesn’t automatically mean their books is terrible.  They may have a brilliant work that targets a niche market.  The publisher may have liked the book but felt they lacked the expertise to sell to its specific audience.  Perhaps it could have made profit but not enough.  Perhaps there was a glut in the market.  Maybe it was a little ahead of its time.  Maybe it didn’t fit the publisher’s brand.  Maybe it didn’t match any editor’s taste.

The sheer number of books being published today does make it a lot harder for even a brilliant story to stand out from the crowd.  Even though even more of the crowd of published books these days aren’t good.  It’s perfectly legitimate to complain about that.  Or to not read self-published authors because as a reader you’ve found it’s not worth your time.  There are more quality trade-published SFF books in the world than I could afford in terms or either time or money.  The review blog I participate in doesn’t review self-published books because we haven’t found it to provide us the same value as readers or reviewers.  There’s nothing snobby about that.  No one owes your book their time or money.  You may have a quality book that doesn’t succeed the way you want it to, and it doesn’t have to be malicious.

 

Conclusion

I am 100% against condemning other’s publishing decisions.  But I think it’s reasonable to discuss them.  If I think a writer might have done better to trade publish than self-publish, I’ll say so.  You shouldn’t call people stupid, or cast insults because they chose a different route than you.  You shouldn’t do that even if their book sucks, unless they are misrepresenting that for personal gain.  You’re perfectly welcome to say a book sucks, though.

The tone of the first article I linked to is distressing.  It’s metaphor is insulting.  It makes a few valid points, but there’s no reason why they had to be a jerk about them.  And it makes a few invalid points, as well.  Rather than just criticizing other’s “bad” decisions, we should first seek to understand them and the context in which they occur.  And then, with that understanding, we might consider critiquing them.  Maybe.

 

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I Am A Terrible Person

You are about to read a big long rant about how much I hate the world and all the people in it.  I will sound like a terrible person.  Because I am a terrible person.  I do not act how I really want to act, or do what I really want to do, or say what I really want to say.  Why?  Because I care what other people think about me.

Here’s a very incomplete list of why I am a terrible person:

1.  I am a hypocrite.  I do not stand up for what I believe in.  I let people say racist things, and sexist things, and just plain terrible things.  I laugh when people say these things.  I say these things.  I have told racist jokes, and sexist jokes, and Hellen Keller jokes.  Even though I knew they were wrong.  Because if I held to every principle I believe in, I would be very alone.  Most of my friends would not be friends with me anymore.  Most of my family would refuse to talk to me.  Many of the people I stood up for would blame me for making their lives harder.  And it is very easy to say that maybe I should find different friends.  Well, I have an excuse for that, too:

2.  I am pathetic.  I don’t make friends easily.  I am shy, I have severe social anxiety, and most of the time I can’t understand for the life of me why anyone would want to talk to me at all, much less be friends with me.  And so I am willing to bend my rules quite a bit to keep from losing a friend.

I once had a huge fight with a friend of mine.  It was one of many such fights.  He made a comment about me on Facebook in response to a status that had exactly zero to do with him.  It was rude, and irrelevant, and I still don’t really understand why he said it.  And he had been following me around facebook making similar comments in similar contexts for several days before.  That comment struck a nerve like a planet-killing asteroid, and so I called him on it.  But I didn’t want to ruffle feathers.  Not everything he says is like that.  Not everything he says makes me want to break his nose with a violin case.  So, I pretended like it wasn’t a huge deal.  I called him out with a joke.  And so of course he refused to listen.  So I called him out again, more strongly.  And he got mad.  We started trading shots back in forth and he ended up, in complete seriousness, threatening to beat the shit out of me the next time we met.  And he could.  He could drop me on the floor in three seconds flat.  He gets in lots of fights, and there’s usually broken bones involved.

I am never completely innocent.  I have done things I believe are wrong, I have trapped myself.  If I tell someone I think they have done something wrong, they can point to all of the times I have done that thing, and no matter what excuse I have, and I have many, it is never enough, and so I shut my mouth and agree that I am wrong and that I have no right to criticize, and I apologize for calling them out for their words and actions, and I tell them that what they have done is okay.

I’m still not sure I wouldn’t deserve it if he beat the shit out of me.  I said some pretty bad things to him in the course of that argument.  But, what I was sure of, was that I didn’t want to lose this person as a friend.  And so, even though I believed that he was at fault, and I still would have clocked him if we had been face-to-face and he said one more thing, I apologized, and I let him work me around until I ended up taking all the blame, and he had only responded as any sane person would.  And I felt it was completely worth it, and I would do it again in a second.  Because if our friendship got trashed, it would have caused major damage to several other relationships, which I also didn’t want to lose, even if he chose not to be vindictive about it.

3.  I am selfish.  The status quo sucks, but because I am a white, hetero-sexual, American male, I can look at all of the acts which violate my beliefs and say: “This does not affect me.  It does not make my life harder.  But opposing it would; and because I am selfish, and I like having friends, and not being treated like a freak, I will put up with and even participate in these things in order to maintain my current position.

4.  I am a coward.  My position is not perfect.  I have money problems, and I get bullied, and I have no idea what the fuck I am doing, and I feel like shit every day for giving in to peer pressure, and sometimes I wish I could just go to sleep and not wake up in the morning.  But things could be worse.  They could be a lot worse.  And one of the things that would make them worse is standing up for what I believe is right.  And so I will not do it.  Because I am afraid of what would happen if I did.

And all of those things make me hate myself.  But clearly not enough to do anything about it.  And that’s why I say I am a terrible person.

Now, this is a writing blog.  I said it was a writing blog.  You expect it to be a writing blog.  The obvious connection to writing here is flawed but symapthetic but realistic characters.  A realistic character will not have a good reason for everything they do.  They will do things that conflict with their beliefs.  They will do things that conflict their society’s beliefs.  And they must absolutely do something that conflicts with the readers’ beliefs–because otherwise their flaw is no flaw.  Their reasons for doing these things will range from righteous to deplorable.  People will disagree over whether their actions are justified.  But if you want the character to be sympathetic, these actions must be understandable.  And in much of the fiction I have read, whether speculative, or mainstream, or YA, I don’t see people doing these things, and it really takes the tension out of the story.  Your hero does some horrible thing and I am about to have a fascinating moral debate with myself–but wait!  A god revives all the people he killed, or it turns out that things were not as they seemed and the hero is completely justified, or maybe he got so far as picking the lesser of two objective evils.  And so I can’t possibly fault his decision, and all that angst you built up on the way to this climax falls flatter than a week-old glass of coke.  And all the sympathy for the character and the terrible choice they had to make vanishes, and I want to throw your book against the wall, or maybe smack you in the back of the head with it.  Bad Aurthor!  And then I will go leave a scathing review on Goodreads or Amazon, because the one thing I do have the guts to stick up for is protecting readers from a shitty book.

 
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Posted by on August 21, 2011 in atsiko, Rants

 

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Scalded by Steampunk

So I dropped into my blog reader today, and the number one topic of conversation seemed to be that steampunk sucks, is boring, is shallow, is revisionism(fictional revisionism, the horror!), is a commercial sell-out, is crap, is shit, is tiresome, is over-hyped, is racist, is colonialist, is adventurist, has not one really powerful story to its name, etc.

And then I saw that one of the people saying this was Charlie Stross, and I almost cried.  Because I love the books Charlie Stross writes.

And then I stopped and thought:  “People are getting worked up over a fucking sub-genre of fiction.”  Why?  What’s the point?  You don’t like steampunk?  Great.  Enjoy whatever it is you enjoy, but why attack a genre that’s never done anything to you?  Either write something better or move on.  Isn’t there some new Tolkien clone somewhere to bash?  Horrendous glorification of the middle ages and all that?

If speculative fiction was a house, steampunk would be the leaky boiler pipe in the basement.  Don’t stand in front of it and you won’t get burned.  Maybe you find it annoying.  Well, I find it annoying when people turn down the high while wearing a jacket indoors.  Tolkienesque fantasy could fit that metaphor very well.  But there are four other people in the house who agree, so I suck it up and move on with my day.  I don’t accuse them of oppressing the working class.

I’ve read some great steampunk, some good steampunk, and some shitty steampunk.  The latter category is much larger than I would prefer, but 90% of every genre is crap, so why the need to jump on one poor little sub-genre over having a few shity books, or books that disagreed with your politics by having a few noblemen protrayed in a positive light?  Nobody is making you read this, and I don’t know very many other readers or writers who would prefer to live in the 19th century because they loved the last steampunk story they read.

 
 

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Not Every Fairy Wears Leather

Urban fantasy has swallowed up a great number of mythical and paranormal creatures.  Some are well-digested, and any elf or fairy or vampire could be switched with the other and no one would care.  And some sit in UF’s stomach like a wad of flower stems and by Maab you’d better not call a fairy an elf or a gnome a dwarf.  But for the most part both are domesticated, tamed, adpated to ciy life.  Even the elves wear black leather.

I’m not trying to take potshots at UF, mind you.  It’s just that when the only difference between a were-jaguar and a were-rat is that one’s got wide, green eyes and the other beady, black ones, you have to wonder what’s the point?

Thankfully, as popular as UF is, and as many mythologies it has cut into pieces and devoured, the wild ones are still out there.  They don’t play by human rules, or reason by human logic, and they certainly don’t angst over hot little teens and twenty-somethings like there’s no one of their own species to lust after.

For example, here’s a lovely little fairy story, from Beneath Ceaseless Skies: More Full of Weeping than You Can Understand by Rosamund Hodge.  No black leathers or “tough” cookies here.  And no schmexy fairy lovin’, either.

Look out for my next post, where I bitch even more about how UF has homogenized fantasy literature, and turned it into a bland slurry of empty names and pasty skin.  And it doesn’t matter if you call them “elves”, “fae”, “faeries”, “fairies”, “changelings”, “fey”, “fay” “feyries”, “brownies”, “goblins”, “vampires”, “werewolves”, “lycanthropes”, “shapeshifters”, whatever, they’re still all the same.

 
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Posted by on October 7, 2010 in atsiko, Fantasy, Rants, Urban Fantasy

 

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Why Atsiko Hates Short Stories

Okay, let’s be honest:

Atsiko loves to read short stories.  Mostly spec fic short stories. *pauses for gasps of surprise*  And also other short stories.  *more gasps*

 But one thing about short stories that Atsiko does not like about short stories is writing them.  Because Atsiko is terrible at writing short stories.  They start out nice and short and stiff, and then they get long and squishy and…  well, you get the picture.  Obviously, this is not fun.

(I’m making an analogy about gum here.  I don’t need anyone else’s mind in the gutters, dirtying them up.)

But last night, I had a dream that I could turn wholesale into a perfect short story.  I had my first person character voice down pat.  (Normally, I usck at first person.)  I almost had the whole thing written in my head.  But then I had to go to class.  And when I sat down a few hours later to write, I had a hazy idea of what my story had been about, and not the first clue how to get it down on paper.  My poor brain was half boiled by all the mental cussing.

This happens to me every time.  Every single time.  Or something like it happens, anyway.

And that is why I will probably never finish a short story.  Darn it!  *goes to cry in the corner*

 
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Posted by on September 8, 2010 in atsiko, Writing

 

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