Sticks & Stones: The Changing Politics of the Self-Publishing Stigma

Bookselling This Week just reported that brick and mortar booksellers are making it easier for self-published authors to garner coveted shelf space in their stores. With  indies crossing into this and other territory usually staked out by the traditionally published, the battle between self-published and traditionally pubbed authors has heated up. Rumor has it, one big-name author even resorted to rallying fans, fuming about the deleterious effect eBooks have had on her income. Another traditionally published author went so far as to refer to self-publishing as “literary karaoke.”

The lines, it seems, have been drawn.

The “literary karaoke” slur notwithstanding, the stakes are less about the quality of indie books and more about the money indies are grabbing from their traditionally pubbed brethren. From the outcry, you’d think self-publishers were stealing and eating their babies—and, in a way, maybe they are.

While traditional publishers have seen an increase in overall profits, their mass-market and hardcover segments have been hard hit by burgeoning digital sales. According to the Association of American Publishers (AAP), in 2011 e-book sales rose 117%, generating revenue of $969.9 million, while sales in all trade print segments fell, with mass-market paperbacks plunging by nearly 36%.

As sales decline, industry leaders worry that some houses may focus on the more profitable hardback format, publishing paperback editions of only their highest grossing titles. For conventional authors, especially mid-listers, this would be a significant blow. As Rachel Deahl reports in Publisher’s Weekly: “ . . . the shift will kill the much-needed second bite books get at the marketing and publicity apple.”

If e-books are causing the ruckus, why focus all the ire on indies?

Fact is, most people buy a book for one reason: they want a good read. Assuming the book delivers, they don’t care who published it; many don’t even notice.  With publishing cachet exerting less influence on purchasing decisions, price has become more of a factor. In a depressed economy, it’s only natural to look for a deal—and indie authors offer one. With greater flexibility and lower overhead, self-publishers can afford to sell their e-books for a fraction of the price charged by large publishers.

Now, in addition to declining paperback royalties, traditional authors face stiff competition from inexpensive self-published e-books. No wonder they’re angry.

Nevertheless, casting aspersions by aggressively promoting the indie stigma is unfair – and unwarranted. “The idea that all self-published books are sub-standard is erroneous,” says literary agent Jenny Bent, founder of The Bent Agency in Brooklyn, New York.  Will Clarke, one of Bent’s clients, self-published his first two books, Lord Vishnu’s Love Handles and The Worthy. After Simon & Schuster republished, Bent points out, “he got a full-page rave review for both of them in the New York Times Book Review.”

Self-Published Books “Refreshing and New”

Naomi Blackburn, founder of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Book, a 400-member Goodreads book club, believes self-publishing has opened the door for new voices and given readers a far greater selection. Ranked #29 on the Goodreads list of top reviewers in the U.S. and #35 globally of all time, Blackburn reads nearly a book a day. She’s grown tired of traditional publishers “shoving dried-up authors down consumers’ throats and subjecting readers to substandard work, especially if they find a ‘cash cow.’” These days, Blackburn veers toward self-published books or works put out by smaller houses. “I usually find the works to be refreshing and new,” she says.

If bestseller lists are any indication, and surely they are, then millions of readers are following in Blackburn’s footsteps. Nowadays, indie titles regularly crack—even top —the NY Times and USA Today bestseller lists. John Locke, Barbara Freethy, Gemma Halliday, and Amanda Hocking have all broken into the million-plus sales club, and well over 100 indie authors have sold more than 50,000 books. No, gorilla-size sales figures do not guarantee the quality of an indie title, any more than huge numbers indicate the quality of a conventionally published book. The numbers do suggest that readers see value in indie books and they’re purchasing indie titles in droves.

Which is perhaps why some offenders have resorted to bullying, aggressively promoting an indie stigma that ceased to be unilaterally credible (if it ever was) around the time The Shack—an indie publication—sat for approximately 172 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list.

With millions of indie titles on shelves, some are bound to be lacking. Sometimes, says Jenn, a book editor and blogger, also known as “Picky Girl,” the lack of quality is immediately evident. “A cover that looks childish, out of date, or amateurish often speaks for the story it houses.” By publicly decrying the need to perfect their craft or bragging about writing and publishing quickly, Indie authors make themselves easy targets, says M.J. Rose, bestselling author and owner of “Self-publishing shouldn’t be an excuse to not do the hard work,” Rose adds.

True enough. But not all traditionally pubbed books are Pulitzer-worthy either. The difference is, when a traditional title garners negative reviews, only that book gets panned. No one cites examples of poorly written traditionally published books to support any conclusion about all traditional titles. Besides, lousy books are a non-factor anyway. Readers don’t talk about books they don’t like and retailers don’t put poor selling books in recommendation queues, so the books languish on the shelves.

Nor is it true, as detractors claim, that it’s impossible to separate the chaff from the grain. Jennifer, the blogger at Books, Personally, finds the best indie reads through her Twitter network and blog. Like Jennifer, readers can use their social networks to find fab indie titles. They can also peruse reviews on reader sites like Goodreads, ask their friends for recommendations, or rely on reviews posted by a favorite book blogger. For the most popular current titles, readers can check the IndieReaderList Where Indies Count,” a list of the top 10 best-selling indie books, updated weekly.

Today’s Indie Authors Choose to Self-Publish

No question, traditional publishers play an important role in the publishing world. Still, for better or worse, the days when they were the sole gatekeepers are behind us. Today, rejection by traditional houses says little about a book. “Some wonderful books [are rejected] for various reasons—nothing to do with quality,” says Jenny Bent. A publisher may reject a book because it doesn’t fit into a clear category. A traditional house may also turn down a book if it doesn’t have an obvious audience or if the author has too small a platform or a poor sales track with previous books.

In the old days, determined authors turned to self-publishing—or vanity presses, as they were called—as a last resort. Serious authors, concerned about being black- balled, dared not self-publish. As a result, talented authors like John Kennedy Toole, whose posthumously published masterpiece, A Confederacy of Dunces, won a Pulitzer Prize (1981), went to their grave believing their work did not measure up.

Today, many talented authors choose the self-publishing route and they do it for a variety of reasons. Jackie Collins recently shocked the literary world with her announcement that she planned to self-publish a new, rewritten version of her novel The Bitch. “Times are changing,” Collins said of her decision, “and technology is changing, so I wanted to experiment with this growing trend of self-publishing.”

Industry superstars like New York Times bestselling authors Barbara Freethy and C.J. Lyons use self-publishing platforms to market their out-of-print backlists. Other authors are drawn to self-publishing because of its flexibility, the ability to publish within their own timeframe, for instance—perhaps to leverage topical interest or mark an anniversary. Others authors self-publish out of a desire for artistic control.

Self-publishing can also be a practical way to build an audience. Today, publishers expect authors to have a solid platform. By self-publishing, emerging authors can build the fan base necessary to attract a traditional publisher for their next work. Other authors, long-timers as well as newbies, feel they can make more money on their own. At $2.99 a pop, authors earn nearly $2.00 on every eBook sale. Even at 99¢, with average royalties of 33¢ to 60¢, earnings on a hot-selling book can quickly out-pace the meager advance offered to all but the superstars by a traditional house.

These days—insult-hurling aside—traditional and indie authors are more alike than different. Mindful of their increased scrutiny, self-publishers take full advantage of the myriad professional services available to authors. Indies hire experienced editors to copyedit and proofread. For their cover and interior designs, some work with the same graphic artists who design for the traditional houses. Professionals are available and widely used to covert documents to digital and paperback formats, and POD printing has gotten so good that, to the typical untrained eye, print-on-demand books are virtually indistinguishable from books printed on an offset press.

Literary agent and publishing consultant Joelle Delbourgo, founder and president of Joelle Delbourgo Associates, Inc., formerly a senior publishing executive at Random House and HarperCollins, says some self-publishers go a step further and work with a professional publishing partner, a strategy she recommends. A publishing pro with a track record of success can bring an author to the next level, Delbourgo says.

For a few years, Bethanne Patrick, a publicist and media consultant also known as “The Book Maven,” creator of the global reading community Friday Reads, was skeptical of self-publishing. Through her work in social media, Patrick has read more indie titles and gotten to know writers who’ve chosen to self-publish. More and more indie authors, she’s noticed, seek the advice of freelance editors, publicists, and marketing consultants—and she’s intrigued.

As well-educated and experienced writers—emerging authors who’ve honed their craft as well as established and traditionally published authors—increasingly opt to go the indie route, the bar is rising.  As with indie musicians and filmmakers, indie authors bring new life to an evolving industry. Today, readers have access to a wealth of funny, poignant, brilliant voices of talented new authors from around the globe—voices that, just a few years ago, might have been silenced by the old guard.

The opportunity to self-publish—to publish their books their own way—has given both emerging and established authors more freedom than ever before. So, yes, now that readers choose which books to purchase and support, dollars may shift and some traditional authors may be forced to give up a slice of the pie. Change is never easy; inevitably, there are bumps and bruises along the way. But, like or not, indie publishing is here to stay. And the publishing world will be all the richer for it.


Terri Giuliano Long is a contributing writer for IndieReader and Her Circle eZine. She has written news and features for numerous publications, including the Boston Globe and the Huffington Post. She lives with her family on the East Coast and teaches at Boston College. Her debut novel, In Leah’s Wake, began as her master’s thesis. For more information, please visit her website. Or connect on Facebook, Twitter or Blog.

36 replies
  1. Pavarti K Tyler
    Pavarti K Tyler says:

    So true that more and more of us are choosing to self publish. It’s unfortunate that there are still those authors who just churn out a draft and throw it up without proper editing or professional input. We all need to work on our craft, we never stop learning or improving. The Indie Stigma comes from so many people putting out hack jobs. My hope is that as more of us take the time and invest in our product the quality with rise to the top. Thanks, as always, for your support of Indie Authors everywhere #IndiesRock 🙂

    • Terri Giuliano Long
      Terri Giuliano Long says:

      It’s lovely to see you, Pav! Thank you so much for stopping by! You are absolutely right about the need to invest time and energy into putting out a quality product. I do see more and more indies doing this. As you point out, many of us now choose to self-publish. As with your recent release, Shadow, some of these books are powerful works that simply don’t fit the traditional model. That they’re being published is wonderful news for readers!

  2. Michael J. Sullivan
    Michael J. Sullivan says:

    Times are changing. More more we see author’s jumping to each side of the tracks. I started out self-publishing, and then sold my Riyria Revelations series to a big-six publisher. Traditionally published authors are moving back lists on their own. I think in the future we’ll see a bunch of “hybrid” authors those that use both traitional and self-published. Traditonal for brand building and major distribution. Self-published for higher income and quicker time to market.

    • Naomi Blackburn
      Naomi Blackburn says:

      I think it will be interesting as stigma of Indie publishing decreases (which it is now starting to do) and it continues to make an impact on the large publishing houses, how this will all play out. Especially, if authors are able keep more profits from their works with going the indie pub route. I think, as this occurs and the market demands it, we will see more opportunities open for indies to do larger distribution and resolve the branding issue, as well.

      • Terri Giuliano Long
        Terri Giuliano Long says:

        Wonderful to see you here, Naomi! Thank you so much for stopping by! Yes, I agree – we’re beginning to see these changes already. More established authors are going indie, which of course shifts the balance of power. If this continues, I think larger publishers will be inclined – or motivated – to make deals that are more favorable to authors and distribution will open.

        You’ve mentioned branding before – I love that idea! i’d love to see indie authors forge a brand identity, much as indie filmmakers have done. Thank you again for your comments!

    • Lynne Cantwell
      Lynne Cantwell says:

      Michael, I think you’re right. But I also think the trad publishers will have to be dragged there, kicking and screaming, and the ones who resist the hardest won’t survive.

      I’m starting to feel sorry for trad-published authors who look down their noses at us indies; they’re simply trying to preserve a system that has worked well for them. I also think a lot of them haven’t looked at a self-published book in ages.

      Terri, good stuff, as always — thanks!

    • Terri Giuliano Long
      Terri Giuliano Long says:

      Hi Michael,
      This is precisely where I see the industry heading. As you point out, there are advantages and disadvantages to both self- and traditional publishing. The good news is that authors now have a choice. With more doors opening and authors making these informed choices, everyone wins – readers as well as authors!

      Thank you so much for stopping by and adding your voice to this discussion!

  3. Chrissy
    Chrissy says:

    Interesting article. I’d like to make a few observations:

    1. Self publishing is not the same as independent publishing. We are miles away from Publish America with Independent, or “DIRECT” publishing. One removes the middle man; the other inserts an unnecessary one.

    2. Small bookstores have been vacillating between open hostility toward Create Space and tentative willingness to deal. Until the latter takes the lead, the vast majority of indies/direct pubbers are getting the slap. Still.

    3. I LOVE the term “literary karaoke.” Genius. 🙂

    • Terri Giuliano Long
      Terri Giuliano Long says:

      Thanks so much, Chrissy! I appreciate your sharing your insights. The definitions do get muddled – I used both for the sake of clarity; the traditional people I spoke with all refer to indies as self-publishers. By using the term, I hoped to claim it–to eliminate the derogatory use. Only you and other readers can say if I was successful. Your point about bookstores is also correct, although in some cases policies do seem to be shifting. At the end of the day, it will be about money. If bookstore owners feel they can sell indie books, they’ll stock them. As for literary karaoke–you’re the second author today to tell me she loves that term. Ha! So much for my thoughts on that. 🙂

      Thank you again for stopping by!

  4. Elizabeth Ann West
    Elizabeth Ann West says:

    I am an author who purposely chose to self-publish over submitting to an agent or publisher. I scoured the submissions guidelines for top romance publishing houses and decided that a romance from a guy’s POV didn’t fit what they were looking for right now. I knew I could write a query letter that captivated an agent or editor, but then from my research, they had to turn around and convince a number of other people to believe in my book, too. From a business perspective, this system didn’t make sense for my book which would appeal to a niche of romance readers in the first place.

    There’s also been a massive increase in online publishing for years, and in many ways, fiction is rather late to the self-publishing party (from a massive distribution perspective). As a writer who regularly sold her non-fiction articles through web distributors for 65% of the take, the idea of anything less than a 50% return on my fiction writing was rather shocking. A few years ago, the cries about quality were against the many blogs and websites reporting news as they saw fit, and today, the biggest sites now syndicate those same columns that were “crap.”

    It’s a choice. There is no easy road for a self-publisher or a traditionally published author. Each author must decide which path makes the most sense for the book in question (is it a niche audience? is it a mash up of a number of genres making traditional classification tougher?) and for the author’s skill sets. For me personally, I don’t flinch at technology, so I was able to adapt to the technical skills needed to produce an ebook and POD paperback very easily. I stink at graphic design, so I freelanced that out.

    The “office” in general is moving though from high-rise buildings in large cities to cheaper venues in the suburbs and now finally to a room in a private house. With high-speed Internet, almost every activity done inside of a centralized office can occur from the comfort of one’s home, including face time through a variety of video conferencing venues. And let’s face it, meetings in corporate world are rarely the poster child for efficiency.

    Overall, for book publishing (and that’s both indies and traditionally pubbed) to stay competitive with other forms of entertainment, overhead must be significantly reduced and communication about products must adapt to the newer ways consumers want to interact. But there’s no reason for it to be an us vs. them mentality. We all need to work together to keep people reading.

    • Terri Giuliano Long
      Terri Giuliano Long says:

      Thank you so much for your insightful comment Elizabeth! The world is changing so much and we have to change with it. Self-publishing might not be the right avenue for everyone, but accepting that it’s a viable avenue with much to recommend it is the way forward. As with many things, there are issues – but we should work together to iron these out for a brighter indie future! Thank you again!

  5. Bob Mayer
    Bob Mayer says:

    This looks a lot like a blog post I commented on a couple of hours ago. So either it is and my comment hasn’t been moderated, or it’s a similar post in a different place.

    There’s a lot of disinformation in the eBook world. For example, John Locke’s “print only deal” from Simon & Schuster caused a great stir a while ago. Only to find out he was paying S&S to distribute his book, a sort of backward deal. Nothing wrong with that, but it made indie authors think they could get print only deals from legacy publishers. Not.

    Yes, the legacy authors who are in the top 5% are circling the wagons like Scott Turow, president of the supposed Authors Guild, which is an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one. Bill Butterworth aka WEB Griffin, told me years ago that joining the Authors Guild was akin to joining the enemy as a writer.

    I’ve had six #1 NY Times Bestselling authors approach me this year to discuss going indie. The cracks are in the wall. Soon it will come crashing down.

    On top of that, one has to wonder if the Big 6 lied so easily about their price-fixing scheme, what else have they lied about?

  6. Carol Davis Luce
    Carol Davis Luce says:

    Great article, Terri. I just finished an interview on self-pubbing for an upcoming author’s interview anthology. One quote from the interview: “When my former agent noticed the astonishing bump in eBook sales for my suspense novel, NIGHT PASSAGE, a novel he represents through another Print on Demand/Digital publisher, he offered to shop NIGHT WIDOW to the Big 6. I graciously declined. I no longer have the patience for the gruelling submission dance and, should it sell, the long book production process. I like being in charge. If the book tanks, I have no one to blame but myself.”

    • Terri Giuliano Long
      Terri Giuliano Long says:

      Thank you so much Carol! Your experience is a key example of the message I’m trying to get across: self-publishing is a choice, an option, not something authors are forced into. The reasons for embracing it are growing by the day!

  7. Bev Robitai
    Bev Robitai says:

    I find the best thing about self-publishing is the removal of that bitter, soul-eating frustration that most writers faced when submitting to a mainstream publisher was the only option. We were so ball-breakingly powerless! But now – well just look as us run! We have total artistic freedom to write and produce our books exactly the way we want them. The sensible writer will hire the expertise needed to polish their work – an editor, designer, proofreader – but the writer is still the overall producer and gains the huge satisfaction of seeing their work in print. (Or online.)

    Today’s reader has a wealth of quirky, original books to choose from, books that mainstream publishers simply couldn’t take a risk on. It’s a brave new world in publishing now, and it is SO much fun!

    • Terri Giuliano Long
      Terri Giuliano Long says:

      You’re absolutely right, Bev! If traditional publishers can’t find a ‘convenient’ slot for some books, they are doomed no matter their quality. Self-publishing opens up new opportunities for great writers brave enough to explore new territory!

  8. KC Klein
    KC Klein says:

    Great article!

    I have also become more and more disenchanted with the traditional publishers. Now they are doing the digital first contracts with authors and paying them 20-27% on NET with no advance. So I have to ask, with readers not caring where their book comes from (no brand loyalty), no print runs, and poor royalty rates what would be the reason to go with a traditional publishing house? I think it is time I ask myself that very same question.

    Thanks for the article.

    • Terri Giuliano Long
      Terri Giuliano Long says:

      Thank you for your comment KC! I’m sure there is a future for both independent publishing and traditional publishing, but the system is changing as you rightly say. What is good for one writer could be a terrible choice for another. The new options open up amazing avenues for authors to explore, and – as you say – perhaps they’ll even get a much better deal from them.

  9. M. R. Mathias
    M. R. Mathias says:

    I made 6 figures last year self publisging. Unless an agent comes along with a print only distribution contract that will put my titles on actual book shelves, nation-wide, I’ll stick with what I am doing. Even with a print run contract I will demand that I retain eBook rights. M. R. aka @DahgMahn on twitter

  10. India Drummond
    India Drummond says:

    For me, the call to self-publish was a purely business decision. I’d spent years writing and getting many requests for full manuscripts from agents, only to be told it was “almost, but not quite.” Then I was successfully published with a small press, but made very little money from it. In the end I realised they weren’t doing anything for me I couldn’t do myself, but I also could do it faster, cheaper, and in many cases, better. (Cheaper as in I could give someone a flat fee to edit my book rather than half my royalties.) I hated the cover they gave me, the book was overpriced… as an indie author, I could fix those things.

    Back then (a year ago) I would have been thrilled for a few thousand dollars advance on one book (I got no advance from my small press experience), and I expected to be able to publish one book a year (as traditional publishing will typically only allow one title per year per author to keep from “oversaturating” the market.)

    Now my fantasy novels appear regularly on bestseller lists on Amazon for my genre and I’m making more money than I did at my last “real” job. I work harder, longer hours, and ultimately all decisions are mine, but I’m happier with my working life than I ever have been. I can now afford to do full time what seemed like a pipe-dream only 18 months ago.

    • Terri Giuliano Long
      Terri Giuliano Long says:

      Thank you so much for sharing your experience India! Yours is a truly wonderful example of how the changing publishing scene is allowing readers to access books that otherwise might never have been seen!

      The control aspect is hugely important, and a key factor for many indie authors. Again, your experience is a great example of why it’s such a deal-maker for many when choosing this path!

  11. Margaret Lynette Sharp
    Margaret Lynette Sharp says:

    With the help of my husband, the Sydney Opera House Organ Builder Ronald Sharp, I have self published through CreateSpace six books. We love the fact that we are in control of not only the words but the cover. The volumes are a true representation of our crafts, a point in which we find great satisfaction.

  12. Bob Hatch
    Bob Hatch says:

    I enjoyed your article. I am a 82-year-old author just starting self-publishing. Define for me “indie .” Sorry I am so dated that I don’t know the meaning of this word, but then again there aren’t many 82-year-old author’s.

  13. Michael Vorhis
    Michael Vorhis says:

    Thank you, Terri, for a very thorough and insightful article! I enjoyed it quite a lot. I consider the so-called indie stigma as an attempt to apply yesteryear’s vanity publishing reputation on what is a very different and very viable market access strategy today.

    I’d like to add that the need for “gate keepers” (agents to gain access to publishers, publishers to gain access to distribution) is diminishing little by little. Those folks apply predefined filters to determine who gets published and who does not, which is an inherently flawed system. It may have been necessary because distriution and manufacturing capacity were finite and there was a need to artificially reduce the number of authors being published, but it’s still artificial and still inherently flawed.

    Ultimately, the only opinion that counts is that of the end reader. Thus, being abe to reach that opinion directly (because eBook technology has solved the manufacturing and distribution problems) means the pure goal is finally in authors’ grasp. Reviews, and more importantly the “silent reviews” wherein friends recommend to friends, call the shots. That’s a nearly pure system.

    Of course the author’s marketing task must shift from publicizing that a gate keeper liked the book to publicizing that readers are liking the book. For example my own suspense-mystery title ARCHANGEL has to distinguish its literary quality against the other millions of books out there, rather than try to claim some credential by virtue of having made it inside someone’s gate. It doesn’t need a “designer label” (i.e., a Publisher’s logo) to do that.

    And we also should recognize that electronic distribution technology isn’t getting all its volume by cannibalizing hard copy sales; it is also causing a lot more books to be bought and read. It is growing the market, rolling literature out to more people more often. That’s a very good thing; seen in that light, I think TV should be as worried as the traditional publishing crowd, and maybe more.

    I believe the traditional publishing system grew up over centuries because printing and distribution capacity, and also demand, were limited. Someone had to turn away all but the few. Now the need to silence most authors is evaporating; I think we should all, regardless of how we have published in the past, celebrate that.

    And thank you for the soap box!

    – Michael Vorhis

    • Tom Simon
      Tom Simon says:

      I’d like to add that the need for “gate keepers” (agents to gain access to publishers, publishers to gain access to distribution) is diminishing little by little.

      Actually, I’d say it has disappeared entirely for fiction, and for certain categories of nonfiction. (Not all. For instance, textbooks, reference books, and academic publishing all require gatekeeping for their own separate reasons.) What is disappearing little by little is the perception that the gatekeeping function is necessary. The wall has fallen down and you can enter the city wherever you like, but many people still have the habit of going in at the gate.

      The fact that the publishing industry works so very slowly contributes to this. A book coming out today was probably acquired by the publisher in early 2011, submitted in 2010 or even 2009 — before self-publishing lost its stigma, before ebooks were a major commercial medium. It will be next year at least before we see the true effect that these changes have had on the old-style publishing business. I suspect it will be a good many years after that before the survivors adapt to the new environment.

  14. A. Yamina Collins
    A. Yamina Collins says:

    My big hope is that indie authors will help change the way the publishing industry has held authors powerless for so long. J.A. Konrath wrote a great article on how unfair contracts are between publishers and writers; i.e. the publishers have all the power…the writers, not so much. read it at

    Hopefully, the playing field will level out a whole lot more and the artist won’t continue to get robbed.

    Best, to all….
    Yamina Collins

  15. Marissa Farrar
    Marissa Farrar says:

    Like a couple of other people who have commented, I was originally published by small presses, but it wasn’t until I made the decision to put out my work myself that I actually started seeing some decent money coming in. I’m now earning more than my bank-manger husband and have regularly got books on Amazon’s best-seller list for contemporary fantasy.
    At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what the big publishers say about indie authors. It’s the readers whose opinions matter!


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