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Friday, May 30, 2008

So much to say, so little to say . . .

So it’s the weekend again. Thank goodness. It’s been a really long, really arduous week and all I feel like doing is stretching out on a reclining chair and slurping a frappuccino, loaded with an extraordinary number of calories. Which, on top of last week’s blog (oh, and various previous references to cake . . . ), may make you even more convinced that I am obsessed with guzzling.  Er, you have a problem with that?

There’s been a lot going on this week and tons I’d love to tell you about.  For a start there’s .....................  And then of course there’s ............................. Hah! And I’m desperate to tell you about ..........................  But you know what? Most of what I’ve been doing this week I’m not Ready to Reveal. I’m afraid I’m not one to splurge until just the right moment, plus I take a kind of Hippocratic Oath towards my clients.  Well, don’t you agree it would be ghastly to find your name and business out there in the ether before you knew about stuff yourself?

So having thought about it overnight, and recharged my batteries (with apologies to those who read a very truncated version of this post yesterday!), I’m going to dig up a thorny literary topic that is relevant to almost every debut novel I come across. The issue of Back Story, Present Story, and Future Story.  Now, Back Story is something you’ll have heard of before - the other Stories I’ve just invented to clarify the importance of the entire shape of, well, the story. If you can get your head around this, you’ll find it so much easier to create really convincing characters who (as we editors say) ‘leap off the page’.

The thing is, your characters don’t only exist within the confines of the obvious, immediate story you are telling.  You have to understand deeply - and convey to us, your readers - that, in fact, your characters had lives long before the first page of your novel.  They had lives in which they grew, developed, loved, lost, experienced joy and sorrow . . . all of which is compacted into that character whom we meet in the opening pages of your story. Many events, possibly long in the past, possibly just recently, entangled the lives of your characters and brought them together as your story opens.  They didn’t just spring into being on Page 1 - they were deeply formed before we ever met them. It’s just that now - as your novel opens - the spotlight has swung on to their world and illuminated them into print.  At the end of the story the spotlight will swing away once more, leaving them beyond us, in darkness.  And yet we have to believe they are still out there - and that we can imagine what they will be doing, where they will be headed, because of the story you revealed and constructed under that spotlight and long before. After all, if we really know your characters, we’re also likely to know what kinds of decisions and choices they might make in the future.

In practical terms all this means you must have a really strong and thoroughly worked-out grasp of those characters and all the events and dynamics that brought them to your Page 1. This is your Back Story.  You will need to reason out the logic of many situations, understand the personalities, deconstruct and reconstruct a whole world (especially if you are writing fantasy or anything supernatural).  Everything in your Front Story - the action that takes place within the pages of your novel - depends on a successfully constructed Back Story. 

You need to know where you are headed long before you ever start writing.  You need a literary road map that will take you from A-Z - the Z being a strong and clear conclusion, that will make sense of all that has happened before.  In many cases that ending will leave you with a clue to what the Future Story of those characters might be; what may happen to them after the book is closed or the Kindle is powered down (yes, I am rapidly becoming a big fan of the Amazon Kindle - invaluable for we ‘professional readers’ who have to gobble up print at insane speeds and don’t have enough bookcases).  I’m not talking about a sequel (though if you are intending to write one then you need an even clearer set of navigation points) - I’m talking about leaving your readers with a deep grasp of the reality of your characters. 

What you cannot do is invent your characters and their lives as you go along.  I’m not saying you can’t add bits and pieces and a lot of colour - I’m saying that broadly you need to know where they’ve come from and where they’re headed to.

Grasp your back story, imagine the spotlight swinging on to the stage of your characters’ lives and then away again - and I think you’ll find it very, very much easier to write your Front Story.

Give it a shot! Cheers and wishing you a happy weekend.

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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Ode to a tea shop

On Friday I had a sudden strong urge to jack it all in and run a tea shop.

Let me explain.  ‘Running a tea shop’ is British shorthand for considering a change of career. Because somewhere, in the recesses of most of our minds, is the notion of skipping away into a bucolic setting, acquiring a cottage (preferably pre-17th century), with roses climbing up its ancient stone, and spending one’s days serving tea (preferably from a floral-patterned, antique teapot), scones with home-made strawberry jam (Americans: preserves), cream that could coat your arteries at first intake, and a range of freshly made and delectable cakes. All this would take place in the perfect cottage garden, where colourful parasols would shade the crisp, white tablecloths . . . 

You have the picture?  Are you salivating for coffee cake?  Then I’ll tell you why I had the tea-shop moment.

A gentleman called me on Friday (a very nice gentleman, so, sir, if you have dropped in, I wish you good day).  He runs a website that tracks agents’ deals and wanted to update my information. We clarified a few points and I then I volunteered certain things about the Greenhouse - my ability to work editorially with new authors, the information to be found on the website, the kinds of manuscripts I am particularly interested in . . .  But it soon became clear that authors who use the site are only interested in one thing:  tracking which agents do the biggest deals. And that’s it.

Now, I am an agent who loves to do deals (and score pretty well given Greenhouse only launched very recently). I love auctions. I love negotiating, I love making money for my authors.  I love pursuing every opportunity. But for me, the size of the deal can’t be the only criteria for evaluating anything - I just don’t find the industry works that way. It takes an awful lot more than being a Good Agent to make an experienced publisher part with their precious acquisition dollars (or any other currency). There is no kind of subterfuge - they will buy what they want to buy, at its market value.  As the agent your job is to find them the manuscripts they are going to love (if possible, a ‘must have’) - and then do your level best to get your author the best possible deal (which is going to be very much easier if more than one publisher wants it).

But there are always Mystery X factors that you can’t control.  Like what they’ve already bought and have scheduled (and bear in mind publishers now will have most of their 2010 programs in place). Did you know there are lots of ‘funny ghost’ novels coming in the next 2 years?  Well, there are.  I well remember the year at Bologna where every second house had an ‘angel’ novel coming up; and the subsequent year when everything was the Irish Potato Famine.  And of course, much more recently, the endless vampire fiction. There is a weird kind of zeigeist that goes on, long before anyone knows there’s a tipping point in that theme or genre - or even a trend.

But to go back to the big deals.  There are the authors who score whopping deals first time out (and may then find it very hard ever to earn out those advances and get royalties). But there are also the smaller deals that change a person’s life, because they enable that individual to write, as they’d always wanted. And those authors can grow - so, if well managed and published, and with a fair wind behind them, that same author can quite possibly be making considerably more a few years down the tracks.  Do you think J.K. Rowling started huge? or Stephanie Meyer? Or Meg Cabot?  The answer is NO, THEY DIDN’T. In each case, an agent, an editor, believed in them and gave them that all-important first step into publication. Most authors don’t spring up fully formed, either in talent or income; they grow - or rather, they are grown, by editors, publicity, marketing, rights, and sales departments.

As an agent, you have a choice:  you could sit in your office waiting for the occasional novel with massive potential to swing by (once a year?) - or you can work with a range of authors, with varying styles, genres, expectations and potentials. And that’s what I like to do. Because I believe literary fiction should also be encouraged (which would certainly go out the window if you only focus on huge deals); the newly budding talent should be developed and given light and air. Publishers’ lists have room for all - the ‘super lead’, the ‘lead’, and the ‘take a risk’ fiction, and I believe that as agents and as publishers we owe it to our young readers to provide them with the full spectrum, not just a tiny number of same-old, sure-fire blockbusters. If you pursue the ‘publishing only whopper deals’ theory to its logical conclusion, we’d end up with shelves stocking very little, because a tiny minority of books would eat the rest. Sometimes it feels like we’re already not far off that - do we really want to make it worse?

I love working with new authors - that talent growing and developing, tentative, unsure and lacking in confidence.  They deserve to be given a publishing chance too.  This is a cut-throat business; but we should never lose sight of the small because we only have eyes for the large. 

So I’m off into the yard now, to soak up this glorious holiday-weekend sunshine.  Shame there’s no tea and cakes out there.  But hey, you KNOW I’d be rubbish at running a tea shop. Right?

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

A scary kind of assessment

Does anyone know if she’s any good?  Why does she have that funny commission structure?  How long does she take to reply? What’s her track record in the USA? Does she HAVE any track record in the USA???? 

Yes, the literary blogosphere is a scary place to find yourself - especially when you’re the one under the microscope, pinned and wriggling on the wall.  It was a shock when I first checked out a helpful would-be author’s link - and found myself being discussed at considerable length, and in a fair amount of detail, by people I’ve never had any contact with in my life. This kind of thing is new to me and seems to proliferate much more in the US than in the UK (though I could be being a bit naive about that).  Is it good, is it bad? Well, I guess it’s fine, so long as it helps you lot out there, and so long as it doesn’t encourage people to have seriously unreal expectations of how an agent should (or feasibly can) carry out their business.  But it does make me want to pop up, wave my hand and say, ‘Hi there, you have a burning question? Then ask me! I don’t bite!’

So let’s see if I can answer some of those questions you’ve been storing up. Why is my commission structure different to other agents based in the USA?  Because I represent both American and British authors (currently about half and half) and both countries are my home, so I do the logical thing and take the same commission (15%) on sales to both territories (instead of calling the UK ‘foreign’ and taking 20%).  But Greenhouse can’t afford just to give away that 5%, so instead we put it on to foreign sales (ie, the rest of the world) and take 25% there instead of 20%.  It all works out the same in the end - and if you are lucky enough to have a big deal in both the US and UK (likely to be your biggest markets), then you would do pretty well out of this method of cutting the cake.

Now, the issue of my track record.  I’ve been a publisher my whole working life. My career took me from Collins (when it was William Collins Sons & Co Ltd - ie, long before it was HarperCollins) to Transworld (now part of Random House) and then to Macmillan UK, where I started in 1994 as Fiction Editor, moving fairly rapidly to Senior Editor, then Editorial Director, then Publishing Director of Fiction - and finally in about 2005 to Publishing Director of the whole of Macmillan Children’s Books, which published 200 titles per year, from preschool novelty books right through to sophisticated teenage fiction under the YPicador imprint, which I was instrumental in launching.  I was on the Board of the business and led a large team of editors, so divided my time between senior management and hands-on editing, which I never completely let go.  Here are some of the authors I worked with and published:  Judy Blume, Meg Cabot (I acquired her for the UK and Commonwealth and developed the Princess Diaries series when Harper US had only bought one book; you’ll find my name in some dedications!), Sharon Creech, Karen Cushman, Carolyn Coman, Caroline B Cooney, Cynthia Voigt, Gary Paulsen, Coleen Murtagh Paratore, Carl Hiaasen and David Baldacci (children’s novels); Philip Pullman, Eva Ibbotson, Robert Westall, Lian Hearn, Celia Rees, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Geri Halliwell (yes, I worked with a Spice Girl!), Frances Hardinge - oh, and so many more. Earlier years also took in Terry Pratchett and Jacqueline Wilson (one of Britain’s bestselling children’s authors).

So what are my credentials within the USA?  Well, I was very much an international publisher - as many senior publishers are these days in our big, globalized publishing industry.  Apart from the bookfairs and other international trade events, I made many trips to New York in my London days, and helped to forge close relationships with American sister companies and other US lists. Many of my best publishing buddies are in the States, which has given me a wonderful platform on which to build now I live over here.  When you come from a very strong publishing background you become known - and it’s been really exciting to see how enormously keen publishers have been to find out what the Greenhouse has to offer (and also, I have to say, whom I have chosen to represent). The great thing about being a former publisher is that you know the business intimately, how it works, its culture, and I am finding that depth of experience incredibly helpful as I work with authors in this new way.

So that’s a brief snapshot of many years of my history.  But here’s what I really think of as my ‘track record’:  I know the dream, and I understand the dream.  The dream of one day finding your name in print; of sharing your creativity with the world; of seeing your talent recognized and appreciated.  I understand the thrill, the heartbreak, the frustration, the hope, the desperately hard (and always solitary) work that goes into achieving that dream.  And, quite frankly, the sacrifice (and not always just for you, the author, but also your loved ones).  Representing authors is for me a vocation, not just a business. It’s my passion and my joy. But I can’t do it for the many; I can only do it for the very, very few.  And if I take a few weeks to get back to you, and my note is short, I hope you will be forgiving. I’m doing my best, but you are not the only one who is writing to me. I try to give what I can to everyone, but inevitably it won’t be that much for the many.

Cheers, folks, and now it’s time to knock off and cook the dinner!

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

I was told there’d be cake!

Most mornings, the Greenhouse Husband and I encounter each other while making strange faces at ourselves in the bathroom mirror as we brush our teeth. Every single morning for the past week, the GH has chortled the same thing at me: ‘I WAS TOLD THERE’D BE CAKE!’ And then he laughs uproariously - or uproariously as one can, through a mouthful of toothpaste foam.

Now this strange sentence could easily be explained by the fact that both the GH and I have forsworn our most favourite food - enormous muffins - for some months now, with excellent results around the waistline. But this isn’t, in fact, the explanation.  I WAS TOLD THERE’D BE CAKE is actually the title of a book of funny essays, by someone whose first name is also quite strange (Sloane!). The GH hasn’t read this book, and he hasn’t even ordered it yet off Amazon (though given his massive raiding parties on Amazon’s stock, and the numbers of UPS boxes that turn up on our driveway, it can only be a matter of time). The point is - just the title alone has made the GH aware of this book, sure he’d love it, and desperate to get his hands on it.  Nuff said?

You’re probably aware already of my bossy little lectures about the importance of every word you write - that each one should be carefully considered and in absolutely the right place for the effect you’re striving to create. But I wonder how many of you put that same amount of thought and time into your chosen title? Because if you don’t, you must!  A great title will be your greatest ally, creating a strong impression before your reader even opens the cover (or the email query!). A bad title will go a long way to dooming you from the start, because the reader is going to have to overcome their negativity even to get as far as your first word.  That’s OK if your reader is Sarah D. of the Greenhouse (because she sees beyond the immediate); but if your reader has no particular reason to read YOUR work, as opposed to someone else’s, then you are in trouble. 

Imagine you’re in a bookstore.  You are browsing - open to buying anything that catches your fancy.  What are the factors that determine your choice (let’s presume you haven’t read any reviews recently):  jacket image; jacket copy; title.  At the stage most of you are at (ie, unpublished) you can’t produce either of the first two to impress.  But you CAN impress with the third - your title. So what makes a cracking good one?

First of all, you need to be very sure whom your market is. Male or female?  Both genders?  And what age group? 5-7; 8-12; 12+ (ie. teen)?  Think hard about WHO is going to be reading your book and what kinds of things will interest and excite that readership. 

Secondly, what genre are you writing in?  Is your story lyrical and literary?  Is it adventurous and mysterious? Dark and supernatural? Quirky and funny?  Is it all about teenage girls doing chick-litty kinds of things?  Whatever, your title should give the reader a clear idea of what kind of book they are going to get when they start reading, so there’s no doubt and no disappointment. The title is one of the weapons in your writer’s armoury, so go use it!

I shall be honest with you:  the titles I see in my submissions are pretty weird and wonderful - and not always in a good way.  A few have clearly been pondered very seriously.  But there are more that make me feel the author has just shoved whatever title first came to mind on to their work.  A good title is enough to make me single something out and read it.  It’s almost enough to make me want to represent that author. Yes, I’m quite serious here - because I am looking all the time for commercial potential and a great title gives commerciality a big jump-start. The other day I told a New York scout about a book I’m representing; on the strength of the title alone she said she wanted to see it. I rest my case.

So let’s be a little interractive and have some fun!  I’ve given you a great book title to start us off. I WAS TOLD THERE’D BE CAKE tells you instantly the book will be quirky, idiosyncratic and contemporary. Spot on! Lauren Myracle’s RHYMES WITH WITCHES is funny, clever, and tells you it’s for teen girls (and about not very nice ones). THE PRINCESS DIARIES does exactly what it says on the tin (to quote an ad for Ronseal) - which can also be a very good thing, especially for high-concept fiction.

So now it’s your turn.  Send me titles you’ve seen that you think work particularly well - and tell me why. 

Titles are great! They can be clever, funny, powerful, sexy, intriguing, dark . . . and they can sell your work to the max. So go use your titles.  They’re an author’s best friend!

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Friday, May 02, 2008

Raise a glass of champagne!

Never make a promise you can’t keep or it’ll come back and bite you. That’s what I’ve learnt, having declaimed to a London colleague a couple of weeks ago that ‘When I sell THE BOY WHO FELL DOWN EXIT 43 I shall dance naked in the moonlight in the back yard, singing The Star Spangled Banner’.  Yes, well, before you all leap into your vehicles and head over here to witness this particularly scary Rite of Spring, I shall move speedily on and distract you with the exciting details of my past two days.

THE BOY WHO FELL DOWN EXIT 43 (I’m a sucker for a good title, and this one charmed me from the getgo) and its debut author, Harriet Goodwin, crossed my path last Fall, in that strange limbo time before I crossed the Pond. Harriet was part of my transition as I unpacked boxes, wondered how to find the supermarket, and pondered the madness of ever thinking I could land in the USA and create a business from a standing start (thus testing out all notions of the American Dream). Let me tell you, Harriet is a top trooper and once again I put her through an editorial process roughly akin to the rack, that bone-stretching device much favoured by medieval British torture experts in dank dungeons.  But Harriet never flinched, and gradually EXIT 43 developed and grew - and Harriet found her voice (in fact, I shall capitalize that - Voice) and her writing confidence. Her quirky premise took on new dimensions and we started to get excited.

The publishing industry can move the speed of a moribund snail, so we’ve done a lot of twiddling our thumbs and watching paint dry in the submission process. But Wednesday everything sprang suddenly into life; up popped two offers within minutes of each other, flashing from my Blackberry like beacons. A moment of total, utter sweetness as I stood there and knew that Harriet was going to be published; that a fantastic dream was going to come true.  Now, two days later, the deal’s been finalized, and I’ve sold UK and Commonwealth rights to EXIT 43 in a two-book deal to Stripes in Britain.  Stripes is the new fiction imprint (18 months old) of wonderful full-colour company Magi, and the sister company of the high-profile Little Tiger.  EXIT 43 will be a lead title (illustrated with maps and line drawings) on the Stripes list in Fall 2009 and I know Harriet’s going to have a ball, not least with all the publicity they have planned for her. On the back of this deal I’ll be submitting later in the US, and we can now pick up the foreign interest that’s already come in. 

THE BOY WHO FELL DOWN EXIT 43 is a middlegrade story with a great premise:  12-year-old Finn Oliver will never come to terms with the death of his father, but he finds a few minutes of forgetting as he joyrides over the moors in the family’s beat-up old car. The car slides out of control and Finn is catapulted - not to his death, but down Exit 43 into the Underworld.  The Underworld is peopled with the Dead - funny, strange, crazy and downright scary - who tell Finn that their world is threatened by the rain and storms that batter the Other Side.  Only an ancient prophecy can save them - that one day a mortal child will join forces with a child of the Underworld to rescue the fabled Firepearl.  Finn is definitely mortal - and Jessie, a Victorian girl with a broken neck, is definitely dead.  And now the scene is set for a particularly weird and wonderful journey to the centre of the Earth! 

So I’ll be down in the back yard tonight, flitting like a wood nymph through the trees in a dance of celebration.  Or maybe not. Maybe I’ll just crack open a bottle of vino and raise a glass to Harriet, who stepped into the Greenhouse when it had absolutely nothing to show for itself other than an airplane ticket and a computer in a box.  Cheers to you, Harriet, enjoy your time in the sun, and many congratulations!

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Friday, April 25, 2008

Reaching into the jewel box

So I’m approaching the end of a week where I spent a lot of time on your queries and submissions. Can you imagine what this aspect of agenting is like?  Come into the Greenhouse with me and I’ll show you!

I open my inbox and look up the list - it feels vertiginously high. So many names, titles - and pleas. At times 25 per day arriving; 10 while I sleep (from other timezones). For every one I deal with, more instantly appear, sliding into my ether insistently and urgently.  So many people for whom this means so much, and who will open my response with both hope and dread. For each one, they are the ONLY one - none of the others matter. Writing is a solitary business, and in that first interface between author and agent no one else can go there for you. Yes, it’s quite a responsibility and not one I take lightly. 

I click on the first message and scan it rapidly - digesting the ‘query’ as it has come to be called.  I don’t see a query - I see and hear a person trying to communicate the essence of what may have taken them months or even years to create. Usually they’ve told me too much - paragraphs of content, a story that in paraphrase is unwieldy, so much to absorb quickly and with my eye on so many things:  Is this a great concept? Who is it aimed at?  Is there a market?  Is it derivative? And what does the literary task of query-writing tell me about the author? Usually a great deal. Some are sloppy, some are charming, some are desperate, some can’t spell . . . but others are masterpieces of precision. But this isn’t about the query email. No first novel was ever bought (or represented) on a query; this is all about the writing.  And as I click on the attachment (or scroll down to text) there is nowhere to hide - not in the courses you’ve taken, or even the prizes you’ve won.  This is me, the reader, responding to the impact that your first few pages will make - and in that, I mirror the editors you would encounter at publishing houses, and ultimately the young person who needs a reason to choose your work off a shelf rather than someone else’s. There is no grand conspiracy to shut new authors out of the publishing industry - it’s a business desperate for new talent, hungry as a vampire for fresh blood. And every submission I open could be the one; the one that will make me slowly take my feet off the desk and sit up, nerve-ends sizzling with excitement.

So what are the rules for all this?  Yes, you guessed it. There ARE no rules - but there are some really reliable suggestions. Here are just three:

You’ll find this in my Top Tips and I recommend that you tattoo it on your forehead, wear it on a sign around your neck, so you will never forget.  Because a huge proportion of submissions I read fall at this hurdle.  If you (or your characters) just tell the reader all about everything - the world you’ve created, your characters, what they think and feel - it will inevitably feel dull, dull, dull. Instead, try to let your world come to life in a more nuanced way, from the inside out, letting your characters SHOW for themselves what they feel, how they respond, what their lives are like. You can achieve this in so many ways - by the language you use, the expression on your character’s face, their mannerisms . . .  Let your characters bring themselves to life so they practically burst off the page - don’t just TELL the reader about them.  Work on this and you’ll improve your writing massively, I promise.

Yes, reading is the movie playing in your mind. That visualization is a magical process, so don’t break the spell. You want to make it really, really hard for the reader to quit.  So be careful to avoid clunky phrasing, repeated words, writing that lacks rhythm.  Shut your eyes, sit back and let yourself hear the cadence of what you’ve written. Care about every word you write - nothing should be redundant or ill-considered; your spell needs to be woven with every word.  There’s a great review quote (quite possibly, though I guess not necessarily, written by a woman!) on the cover of the UK edition of Jennifer Donnelly’s A GATHERING LIGHT:  ‘If George Clooney had walked into the room I would have told him to come back later when I’d finished.’ Could the same be said about YOUR writing? (If George doesn’t light your fire, I’ll let you replace him with Angelina or Jessica . . . )

Now quite a few people seem to think a good idea is broadly one that is selling rather successfully right now. Folks, you’ll have to do better than that.  The best idea for you is going to be the one that you totally fall in love with telling.  Start with the passion and work forwards.  Worry less about marketability.  There are some really quirky books that have gone on to do very well. Who’d have thought of Sharon Creech’s LOVE THAT DOG or Guus Kuijer’s sublime little novella THE BOOK OF EVERYTHING (Arthur Levine Books US/ Querido in Netherlands). In fact, the market LOVES work that is distinct and different. What is YOUR story and how are you going to tell it?  Don’t be in a hurry to send off your query; regard yourself as a writer first of all, a reader secondly, and only thirdly a submitter (thanks to Andrew Karre of Flux for that little one). How long did it take Joshua Bell to learn to play the violin? I rest my case. You are a student of the art of writing; this is going to be a long, long apprenticeship.

So what has the ‘jewel box’ of my title got to do with all this?  Well, before you is a box of treasures - richly sparkling gems.  Those gems are words - vibrant, potent, limitless in wealth and possibility.  Pick them up and handle them; roll them around and watch the light shine through them; catch that deeply resonant colour as it illuminates everything before it.  Fall in love with language; weave your emeralds, rubies and diamonds into magic.  And I promise you, I won’t log off when I find your name in my inbox.

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