Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Which way the wind blows

Introduction

Yesterday we looked at various pontifications about change -- change in the book world, and change as determined by the advent of the internet and all things digital.

We discovered, not surprisingly, that some people in the book world are deeply afraid of digital, and that some people think it's going to create a wonderful new environment in which everything will be lovely, and all writers will earn £100,000 a year (or the equivalent) for very little work.

If I have one self-criticism of this blog, it is that I spend too much time linking to other people's thoughts and not enough time thinking for myself. So here I am going to offer a few speculations about possible developments in the field of fiction. In doing so, I may thereby expose, even to myself, the poverty of my own ideas, and thus precipitate an immediate and permanent return to linking. But who knows.

Anyone who has read this blog regularly, over the last couple of years, will find here some ideas which have been floated before: but perhaps they may be somewhat refined, and in any case I think they are worth repeating. The argument will be based largely, but not entirely on UK experience; but the world is flat these days, and getting flatter by the minute.

Background

I have already argued, particularly in my discussion of the value of a novel compared with that of false teeth, that a novel is not a big deal. And I repeat that assertion now.

A novel, as we all know, is essentially a story. It is the extended version of an anecdote, told over the camp fire, or in the gentleman's club, or the women's institute. Its purpose is to create emotion in the listener/reader.

For all practical purposes, the novel came into existence 250 years ago. At first confined to the educated classes, the novel gradually became more popular with the advent of compulsory education, towards the end of the nineteenth century. In the early twentieth century the novel continued to grow in readership, and superficially it appears to be a common choice of entertainment today.

However, as the decades passed, the novel faced ever-increasing competition. In the nineteenth century there were theatres; then, in the twentieth century, there were films; radio; television (a real killer blow, potentially); and now every sort and kind of iPod, DVD, CD, video on demand, computer games, interactive this and that, and a dozen other media.

The novel still has things going for it. It's easily portable (usually); you can dip into it at odd moments; it's cheap (especially if you buy secondhand). And from the entertainment consumer's point of view, therefore, it has much to recommend it.

On the other hand, there are plenty of consumers for whom the novel is not attractive. It is intimidating: all those pages of solid prose. It requires of the reader intelligence, concentration, a large vocabulary, and a wide frame of reference. There are plenty of entertainment media today which call for none of these; and many of them are free. So the novel's future may not be as rosy as its past.

When we look at the novel from the author's point of view, we see that, over the past 200 years or so, it has been possible, at least in principle, for a novelist to make a living from the craft. But in practice this has been possible for only a small proportion of those who write novels. The rest have made little or nothing, in financial terms. Often they have not even achieved publication.

I do not subscribe to the view that those novelists who have 'succeeded' -- succeeded in getting published, and in achieving fame and fortune -- have been the 'best' novelists in terms of any reasonable set of criteria. This point has been dealt with at some length in my (free) ebook, On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile, and I won't go into it again here. Let's just say that chance plays a large part.

The position today

So -- where do we stand today?

The position is that novels are sold and read reasonably widely, but in commercial and industrial terms the book market is a small one. It is demonstrably difficult for publishers to make fiction pay, and even harder for novelists to make a steady income. As was originally said about writing for the theatre: You can make a killing, but you can't make a living. To make a killing in publishing/writing, you have to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right book. And it may be a one-hit wonder.

Suppose the internet had never come along in the 1990s -- what would have been the prospects for the novel and for novelists then?

All the signs are that publishers would have had an increasingly difficult time, and writers a worse one.

More and more novels are being published, especially in the UK, but the retail trade is interested in only a tiny handful of them. These are pushed upon the book-reading public by every means at the trade's disposal, and the rest are soon forgotten.

Of course the reading public is by no means stupid, and not every book that is hyped sells in large numbers. Only recently Robert McCrum lamented the tale of Londonstani, a novel for which, he says, Fourth Estate paid £300,000. 'Alas,' says McCrum, 'everything about its short life has been a disaster.... Londonstani is already being airbrushed from history.' And the damn thing was only published in May; in the US it isn't even due out until 22 June.

So the pattern is clear, and has been remarked upon here, and elsewhere, many times. A novelist has to show promise of hitting the big time, first time out, to stand any chance of serious publication. You need a big-time agent (preferably Geller) to interest an editor; you need a huge advance to persuade the publisher to make meaningful efforts to sell your book; and if your book fails your career is effectively over.

One of the great mysteries of life is where the publishers think these first-time smash hits are going to come from. True, once in a while you get a Susanna Clarke, who emerges fully formed; but most even halfway normal writers need four or five books to develop their talents fully.

Fortunately for the orthodox book trade, as presently constituted, the internet does exist. I say that because, for all the frightening threat that it represents, the internet also offers a means whereby young, or new, writers can develop their skills, gain some exposure, find readers, and develop a fan base. Hence it provides a training ground for the publishers' great hopes of the future.

Publishers have done nothing whatever to encourage this training ground; rather the reverse. They have done nothing to deserve it; but there it is, none the less. A gift from whatever gods may be.

It is already perfectly possible for new writers to offer their books to internet users, for minimal cost (to the author), in any one of a dozen different formats, from free PDF to print-on-demand hardbacks in collector's editions, signed by the author. Whereas once you might have been published by a mainstream publisher and described as 'promising' by the Northamptonshire Echo, now you can publish your early and promising books yourself, until, with the third, or fifth, or tenth, you succeed in interesting an agent and a major publisher and go on from there.

It's worth noticing, in passing, that if you have a burning ambition to write a series of novels about something really obscure and of definitely minority interest, such as life in a Bedouin caravan in the fifteenth century, or some bizarre sexual peccadillo, then the internet and its search engines mean that the 15, or 150, or 1,500 people in the world who are actually interested in your own peculiar area of enthusiasm, can find your book and buy it.

However, it is an established fact, and one which I personally find somewhat distressing, that even those who do write books which are clearly going to be of minority interest are almost invariably consumed by wild ambition. No matter how limited their abilities, no matter how obscure their subject matter, most of them are convinced that they have a number-one bestseller on their hands. If only those deadbeat agents and publishers...

We are still dealing, at this point, with the impact of the internet, and digital technology, on the traditional book trade today. And having considered the situation for publishers we now need to think about retailers.

Last week we considered, even here on this blog, the possibility that the big book chains would kill off all the small independent booksellers -- and the precise reverse of that scenario: that the indies would be the only survivors. My own view, based on the digital-photography model, is that the high-street fiction-retailing scene is going to be transformed pretty damn quick.

Fiction, at least as we now know it, is pure text. It doesn't need pictures. Hence it can perfectly well be produced on a print-on-demand machine. I predict it will be. Let's say within ten years. What I envisage is that even books published by the big-time firms will be sold to the public through small high-street boutiques, or over a counter in a supermarket, just as digital photos are today. The chains may well continue to exist, particularly for non-fiction, and they may choose to go on selling fiction, but they won't be needed.

Publishers will not use traditional printing methods (for novels). They will not have warehouses full of books; they will not transport them round the country in huge vans. They will generate publicity as now, but they will supply their retail outlets, big and small, with a digital file. The customers will place their order -- over the phone or over the internet -- and then they will call and collect the book when convenient; or have it sent, of course.

The pattern of success -- with big sales and big fame going to just a few books -- will be the same as now. And such 'success' will come easiest to those who are the beneficiaries of the big firms' marketing budgets. But it will also be possible for books put out by small publishers to take off via the internet, in just the same way that unknown bands can launch a new song, without benefit of a big recording company.

In statistical terms, therefore, we shall still have sales of novels forming a Zipf curve, but the long tail will be increasingly important to everyone: publishers and readers and writers alike.

You can see evidence of this already. Compare, for instance, three science-fiction novels such as Robert Charles Wilson's Spin, John Sundman's Acts of the Apostles, and Geoff Ryman's Air. One of these three novels is self-published; the other two are published by major firms and have won, or been shortlisted for, major prizes.

What is there to distinguish these three books, one from another? Essentially, nothing. They are all three highly competent, fully professional pieces of work. Two of them I enjoyed very much, the other I didn't fancy. If you have a keen eye, you might guess which is the self-published book just from the look of the thing, but from the content alone you would have no chance.

How does it happen that two of these books sold to big firms and one didn't? Pure chance. Or circumstance; or randomness. See my Rats essay for details.

Today the two books published by major firms will have sold more copies than the self-published one. But not many more, I suspect, because John Sundman has shifted quite a few on his own behalf, and the two professionally published books were, in any case, part of the long tail themselves.

As the digital world expands, I expect this levelling of the playing field to become more pronounced. The sales curve will never approach a 'normal' distribution, but in the long tail it will become much harder to distinguish between the books from big firms and those from various companies, such as Lulu.com, which service the small or the self-publisher. Readers won't care who publishes a book. They don't now! And in the future, if they find something that turns them on, they will send an enthusiastic email to their friends, who will order it from their favourite supplier. No matter who published it.

The longer term

So far so good then. The immediate digital future seems to offer some hope for novelists, and even for big publishers of fiction -- if only the latter can stop living in the past, and cure themselves of the delusion that literary fiction is somehow 'better' than any other kind. For one thing, the print-on-demand model eliminates the nonsense of returns.

In the longer term -- say the next fifty or one hundred years -- I am less hopeful about the novel. In the sense that I think it is a medium in trouble.

Once upon a time, and not so very long ago at that, the poet was king. Byron was the movie star of his day. Swinburne was a household name. But poetry faded away. It didn't die (although various practitioners did their very best to kill it), but it was overtaken by everything else.

Poetry still exists. It's still written -- quite a lot of it. And it's still read -- mostly by people who think they are, or want to become, poets themselves. But it generates no income and brings no worldly fame. This, I suspect, is what may happen to the novel.

As a matter of fact it has already happened to the novel, to some extent. Various commentators have pointed out that, somewhere around the middle of the twentieth century, or slightly before, the world of fiction divided.

As soon as Eng Lit started to be taught in universities, those who made their living by teaching it decided, consciously or unconsciously, that you couldn't expect people to take the subject seriously if it was fun. So they made sure that it wasn't fun. They began to big up -- as the current phrase has it -- books of the most amazing tedium. The novel was split into two major divisions. There was 'serious literature' on the one hand, and popular, commercial fiction on the other.

By and large that's the way it is today. 'Serious literature' is occasionally hyped up, via the Booker and other devices, into a major source of income for publisher and writer, but for the most part it is a minority interest. Popular fiction is what pays the rent.

I suspect that, in decades to come, popular fiction will also continue to lose ground to the other media. The novel will then become, in time, the equivalent of poetry, black and white darkroom photography, the building of model steam engines, and flower arranging. In other words, it will be a minority interest. An interest which arouses deep passion in the hearts of a hard core of enthusiasts, but not one which really shifts the balance of power in the world. Not one which enables more than a handful of people to earn a living, in any capacity.

After perhaps three hundred years of life, the novel will quietly fade into obscurity. It will still be there, just as radio drama is still there, but no one will take any notice. And that really isn't terribly surprising.

What is surprising, when you think about it, is that anyone should ever have imagined that it could be otherwise. The novel was only able to flourish through absence of competition, not because of any great virtue of its own. And when you think about the interactive, virtual-reality entertainments which might soon be on offer, the novel's chances seem slim.

Writing a novel is, even now, a very bizarre enterprise. Why on earth should anyone ever bother to spend a couple of years slogging away at writing one?

The answer, at present, is for fame and fortune: the writer in search of identity. But even today, the statistical likelihood of achieving fame and fortune through writing a novel is so slim that you have to be more or less deranged to imagine that these (in any case questionable) blessings will fall upon you.

One thing is perhaps certain. Even if the novel does fade away, into a quiet state of decrepitude, there will still be writers around who are dumb enough to believe that -- if they just stick at it long enough -- fame and fortune must inevitably be theirs.

14 comments:

Debi said...

Ouch. There's so much in this post it's hard to know which bits to respond to without it taking all day ...
I don't believe a time will ever come when people will no longer want to be told a story - to escape into a different reality. What form that story takes (paper, oral, electronic etc) is up for grabs, but I just can't see the total demise of the novel.
Mind you, this is from the writer who is also a photographer who eschews digital.
The thing I really take issue with is the reasons you give why people write. I can only speak for myself, but the writing long preceded the hope of getting published. It never even occured to me for some time that I was writing a novel, let alone that anyone might give me £££ for it, or that as a result 'fame and fortune' would be mine. I'm on my 5th now. I got a deal for the first two, Nirvana Bites and Trading Tatiana, but am now in the situation you describe so well where it's proving extremely hard to get a new deal for the next two. If I was told now that I would never be able to make a single further penny from my writing would I stop doing it? No way! It doesn't even feel like I would have that choice.
And could a day come when I wouldn't want to read a book? Equally no way ...

Martin said...

I get the notion 'all books are entertainment ... false teeth of more value' etc. But I don't buy into it.
I personally do go with the notion that novels should be entertaining. I also learned early on that you can't rely on making a living from them. When I shifted to the States without a visa for a few years, I was left with having to make money from writing - so switched to nonfiction. i wrote two novels, yet to go out into the world, because they appealed to me, because they had to be written. The 'had to be written' books of course don't start from a commercial premise, and any consequent success in the world is a lottery unless your life comes filled with appropriate connections.
My new novel 'Slippery When Wet' waqs fourteen years in the writing and started from a very strong premise ... I had worked with kids and their families in schools all of whom had come from Bangladesh, and I wanted to bring some flavour of Bangladesh into UK understanding. It was a mission ... and one I had to embrace and learn from if I was going to pull it off, so visits to Bangladesh for example. I chose characters so readers could identify with them and be carried into the experience. The characters then define their own lives and experiences and the book reveals itself around them. But it's not mere entertainment. It started with an utterly different premise, to take someone across a cultural divide and deliver the emotional and phusical experiences of such a journey. What other books can do that?
Hooray for novels ... I've learned so much from them.
I experienced Monica Ali's BRICK LANE as an audio book recently. Driving through the outskirts of Manchester an elderly Asian man played havoc with the traffic as he wove his bike between cars, seeking an exit. Suddenly, from inside the experience of that book, I had a very real sense of the biography of that man, the valour and hopes and failures and efforts and successes of his life. Novels are terrific openers into other worlds. Better to suck at food without false teeth than have such worlds closed to you.

Gav said...

I'm with Debi, there is a lot to comment on.

As someone who loves reading I don't make enough time for it. The same with writing, drawing, taking photographs, reading tarot, working out, tai chi, walking movies, catching up with the lastest hot tv series like Lost, and Desperate Housewives. There is just too much to do and books take time. They are hours of entertainment.

I was in Hay last week, along with the estimated 90,000 other people. What I loved was seeing all these people in the book shop, queueing for autographs, all the children, the people sitting round reading (lots were reading the sample copies of Leaf Books that have been planted round the site). So there is still a lot of interest in books.

The childrens market seems to be in focus with authors like Ms Wilson, Garth Nix, Charlie Higgson, etc all doing well.

The problem with the adult market seems to be a contridiction between what readers want and what 'those who think they know' tell them they should read. Take The Sea. I'm never ever going to read it no matter now many awards and reviews it gets.

Is this dumbing down? Am I missing something? I doubt it.

As for the print-on-demand issues. The cost of producing every copy of a bestseller for example as print on demand vs tradional prinitng would be vast.

I think the problem is that there are too many books and too much discount. Take Harry Potter. I doubt that many copies were sold at the full rrp price. This means that readers don't trust the cost of a book. Would you spend 3.73 on a bestselling author or try an unknown for 7.99? As I'm a reletively poor student I'd go for the 3.73.

Though if i read good reviews, and got good recommendations I'd read the 7.99 one. But the books i love don't get reviewed that often unless I read SFX. Though the guardian is doing some good poetry reviews at the moment.

I'm sure there is more, but I feel like I'm rambling so I'll end it there.

gav.

Matt Curran said...

It's sobering that some of this is so true. I've been reading this blog for a while now, and I guess this is a sucker-punch for deluded writers. By virtue of our imaginations a lot of us dream of the fame and fortune (though I would just settle for a small fortune myself). Like Debi, I first went into writing when I was 17 because I enjoyed the process. I enjoy writing now, even though it has become a more serious venture for me - in January 2007 my book The Secret War gets published by Macmillan New Writing (one of the few big publishing houses who are embracing change). I’m not expecting a wheel-barrow of cash at the end of it, but my motivation for writing is different.
I know this isn’t the case for every writer – indeed on one site I had a frank discussion with a writer who was desperately trying to predict what would be the next “big thing”, which is a hopeless task as readers are a fickle lot and publishers have proved they can’t predict the direction of the wind either. Some writers (though not all) seem to chase fame and fortune through writing because they think the odds are better to improve their current situation than anything else. Yet the odds are probably worse than winning the lottery, aren’t they?
I’ve always approached the craft by writing something I would enjoy reading, and if someone else likes it enough to be published, that would be just fine. The only depressing part is that if we cannot give up our day jobs to write then we can only write less books (and at that rate I’ll still be writing when I’m 100 years old!).

roger said...

Interesting essay, GOB. But I think you overlook one important factor, which Gav, alludes to. Children. I have two kids and they both love reading, as well as playing on the computer and watching TV and going to see the latest Disney blockbuster. My son (who is 6) is an avid Captain Underpants fan and can actually quote sections of the books. Not high literature, but a book, nonetheless. That was where the reading habit took root with me, as a kid at school, Alan Garner, Enid Blyton, RL Stevenson, etc... And the writing habit too. I blame my desire to be a writer not on any ambition for fame and fortune, but on the fact that I received early encouragement at school. I loved making up stories and writing them down, and even, at times, reading them out to my class mates. My kids are the same. My daughter (8) took a phone call from one of her friends over half term and they were basically talking about a story they were collaborating on. Luckily it was her friend's parents paying (I think).

I would argue that once you have been switched on to the magic of storytelling - either as a recipient or practitioner, or both - it's hard to go back.

As for production and distribution means, etc, none of that should really concern the writer - should it? Writing and publishing are two different activities after all.

Noah Cicero said...

GOB

you are right. When Citizen Kane hit the theaters, it showed that a movie could do what a novel could, no problem.

Normal people like to be entertained by serious issues every once and awhile. So they went to the movies.

And all the people who wanted to about serious issues, like war or showing indepth looks at mobsters or whatever. People who would have been writers like a Spielberg or Scocese or Leone went and did movies.

Shannon said...

I can see where you are coming from, and I guess I agree with most of it. Literature is a dying artform. It takes persistence, it takes intelligence, and it takes effort, both to read and to write. (okay, this is arguable, but from the general public standpoint...) I agree that other parts of the entertainment media will eventually take over completely.

But... fame and fortune? Yeah, I guess... but as a writer (a failed one, so far at least... I'm still a student more than anything, and haven't learned nearly enough), writing to me is more an unending quest for the perfect story than one for fame and fortune. Yeah, I'd like other people to recognize said perfection, but when it comes down to it there's an ample amount of satisfaction in the writing and finishing of it. And it really is an unending quest, too. As a student, the more I practice and learn about my writing, the farther the road seems until I can achieve it. I guess I'm learning to see my faults, if not improve them. But I digress. My point was that while yes, every writer wants people to read and appreciate his or her work, that isn't the defining characteristic of a writer. That is the writing, the desire to create, to illuminate and to express something wonderful. A true writer, at heart, is an artist. The joy is in the creation, and is only multiplied when shared with others.

Or maybe I'm just an idealist.

Peter L. Winkler said...

I'm not completely convinced that the novel will be supplanted or drowned by the surfeit of competing entertainment media because most of them-radio, movies, TV, games, sports-have been around for decades. More recent new media technology, like delivery of movies on videotape and discs, is merely an extension of preexisting technology.

Maybe the internet is the exception, and what do many people do on the internet? Read, of course. So even that is an extension of the same activity into a new technology.

I'm skeptical about how soon we'll see bookstores replaced by print-on-demand kiosks. In order to be attractive as a new delivery medium to the public, there have to be a lot of them in convenient locations. That requires a significant investment in hardware.

In order to convince publishers or the stores that would have the kiosks to make the inestment there has to be a demand.

A reader doesn't care how or where his books are printed, so long as they are affordable and easy to purchase. Between brick and mortar stores and online ordering, books are already easily available. Unless the POD system made them much cheaper to the consumer, I see no reason for readers to suddenly throw their arms wide and embrace it or prefer it.

Joel said...

Most readers may not care how a book is printed. I do. And I must say that many of the 'professionally published' books these days leave a lot to be desired. Paperback spines so tight you can't open the book properly, type so small you can hardly see it, paper that is little better than newsprint, typography so amateur it makes me wonder whether designers are employed anymore.

A lot has been said, for instance, about how 'posh' the Macmillan New Writing books are. Well I've examined a few of them recently, and they're very poor actually. People seem overimpressed with the blue bit of ribbon for a bookmark. The typography and printing is atrocious, cheap Chinese litho. Frankly the Chinese letterpress books for their own market are so much better, they look cheap but examine them closely and they are a delight, with their paperback foldover flaps and sometimes wonky letterpress imprinting through the paper. A blast from the past. God I would rejoice to have my work published in cheap Chinese LETTERPRESS and forget the crap so-called "good" Chinese litho that Macmillan seems to have managed to persuade us is a product of excellent quality.

What I would give for the fine British letterpress of the 50s. Boy, do I care how a book is printed!

Joel said...

I also meant to say that if the time comes when 'professional publishers' aren't producing books any better in terms of quality of physical object than individuals can create themselves (because they too are using POD), then really the only service they have left to offer is in the field of distribution and marketing. Perceived value in terms of reputation of the press still counts for something, but if traditional presses are content to churn out books with a bad design aesthetic then their reputation will soon be eroded as well.

For decades the advantage of a 'professional publisher' has been in having the funds to produce a good quality book. But quality has cone right down these days, the money is going into marketing (or, in the case of Macmillan New Writing, not even into that). I look back fondly even to the days of the quality, yes quality, mass market paperback. When they actually cared about the product, even if they did do million of 'em.

And it's certainly true to say that some self-published books by POD are more professionally designed than those from 'professional publishers', although of course the vast majority of self-published work is fairly amateur in aesthetic. But I don't see that as a massive hurdle to get over, especially as the big presses don't seem to bother about it much any more.

skint writer said...

Much of what you write is valid, but you seem to ignore writers as artists.

There's a lot more I could say but would only be repeating what the other good commentators have already said.

Great article for inspiring debate.

Andy Laties said...

As to the real meaning of the long tail, here's a quote from the blog of Steve Weber, an online bookseller who's written a book about the subject: "Economists at MIT figured that a book ranked number 10 on Amazon sells about 5,000 copies on Amazon each week, and a book with a rank of 100,000 sells 1.6 copies per week on average. Amazon sells more than 100 million books per year, and about half of those unit sales come from sales of titles ranking above 40,000, according to the MIT research. Titles ranked from 100,000 to 200,000 account for just 7.3 percent of sales at Amazon, and titles ranked from 200,000 to 300,000 produce just 4.6 percent of sales."

Now, since Amazon lists just under 4 million different titles, this research is showing that 50% of sales on Amazon come from just ONE PERCENT (40,000) of those titles.

This is a VERY deep Zipf curve. Much steeper than the old 80/20 curve. We're talking more like 95/5 here. (95% of online sales come from 5% of the titles on sale.)

Sure it's true that online search does find some readers for books that would otherwise have found none. But I have to return to my old, old, old point: it's the absence of persuasive booklovers from the neighborhoods that we're missing. Whether librarians or booksellers, it's essential to plant lots of professionals on the ground, in the real world, where citizens can stumble across them. The novel, to find readers, depends on trustworthy advisors who can encourage those readers.

Case in point: Book clubs are so popular because they help people decide what to read, and provide a context for this reading.

Sadly, because libraries are funded through taxation, there will probably not be more libraries added to our neighborhoods. But: there CAN be more bookstores added, especially if these storefronts serve multiple functions beyond simple book recommendation and distribution. If they produce TV shows, if they host concerts, if they teach reading classes, if they host civic activism.

I would say that you're right about the novel fading away if it's the "self-service" novel you're talking about. But the "full-service" novel -- the one where someone you trust presses it into your hands and convinces you to read it, and asks you to come back to tell what you thought about it -- the full-service novel will still be around.

The book is an awfully inexpensive medium through which private individuals can break into the public conversation. All those other types of media -- movies, TV, interactive video games -- those are quite expensive as expressive media for individuals. Blogs now -- sure -- but remember that these are weakly edited, and off-the-cuff. The quality of thought is mediocre. Books -- that's a demanding format. The quality of speech is higher. Novels are a marvelous art form.

You really think novels are going out?

Maxine said...

I am one of the people who haven't been able to comment because of the Blogger comment crash. So I can't remember what I was going to write when I first read your post. It is an excellent piece, thank you for writing it.
Good comments, too!

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