A Question from Calvin

Hi Hugh,

I’m a huge fan. I have a quick question. Can you tell me the benefits of being a self-published author vs. going with a publishing agent?


Hey Calvin, thanks for getting in touch and for the fantastic question. It’s so fantastic, in fact, that I’d like to use the answer as a blog post. My advice, briefly stated, is to do both if you can.

Agents and self-publishing aren’t always at odds with each other. For most agents, this might be the case, but more and more agents are handling self-publishing in one of two ways: After exhausting their submissions to publishers and receiving nothing but polite rejections, some agents are backing up their authors’ decisions to self-publish as a last resort. The other hybrid method are those agents who take on successful self-published authors in order to shop their works around. I know authors in both camps. They have all the benefits of representation and all the benefits of self-publishing.

The benefits of an agent are numerous, but first, a word on landing one. I published a dozen works before I produced something an agent deemed worthy of representation. I didn’t waste my time trying to find an agent for a work that wasn’t ready or right for them. I didn’t even think about agents. I wrote what I wanted to write, what I wanted to read, what I loved immersing myself in. And when readers, those ultimate arbiters of taste, decided I’d written something halfway decent, agents came to me.

Now, that makes a lot of hard work sound frightfully easy. I worked my butt off at something I loved before I had the success that made agents take notice. But I also find the correlating advice from traditional publishers hopelessly oversimplified: “Write a manuscript. Write a query letter Land an agent.” Both recipes require a ton of work and an equal amount of luck. So when I suggest waiting for success to come before seeking an agent, know that I’m talking about winning the lottery in order to pick up a hot date. And keep in mind that the inverse is equally difficult: landing a hot date before you’ve won the lottery. The advantage of what I’m suggesting is that you just write. You don’t waste your time in bars testing pickup lines; you’re at home increasing your odds of winning the jackpot.

(Of course, if you’re writing for the reasons I write, you’ll be happy if you never land an agent or pen a bestseller. I was just as happy with a few hundred readers as I am today. That might be my own neurological disorder. I’m not on any drugs to help me feel this way, so I can’t offer you any. All I can tell you is the way I went about things and what I would do right now, just starting off, knowing what I know.)

Now, what exactly can an agent do for a self-published author? They can target markets the author is hard pressed to infiltrate on their own. Foreign publishers are always on the lookout for new titles to translate. Many of their works come from English-speaking territories, where the output of publishing houses are so great. An agent will work with co-agents overseas to submit and promote your work for translation. These aren’t usually huge chunks of change, but there’s always a chance your work does better in Germany or China than it does domestically. You’ll pay a 20% commission on these deals, with half going to each agent. That’s a little more than the normal 15% agency fee, but it’s worth it. You wouldn’t land these deals on your own, not with the same terms.

Your agent may also pitch your work to film and TV studios. Again, this can often be a small chunk of change, but if nothing gets made, you get your rights back. Their third goal (really the agent’s primary angle of attack) will be for domestic publication, where sales and therefore earnings can be highest. But you probably won’t get an offer that I would suggest taking. Which is why I say to take on an agent if you can, but to stay self-published.

Why self-published? I’ve listed the advantages elsewhere, but those posts get buried, so I don’t mind reiterating them. When you self-publish, you retain complete control over your work and its rights. The biggest advantage here is that you can price your work where it will sell, rather than what the publishing industry does, which is price the ebook in an upper tier so it won’t cannibalize print sales. The publishing houses have this completely backwards. Rather than use ebook sales to drive print sales, they feel the two are in competition with each other. Until they figure out what they’re doing wrong, it gives indies a lot of power on the pricing side.

You also make 70% of your ebook’s price rather than 15%. If they left the price alone, it would take 6 times as many sales with a publishing house before they made you a penny. Of course, they’ll probably be selling the book for much more, which means it might only take a doubling of sales, but the higher price will cut the sales in half, instead. I’ve seen this with my WOOL series overseas. When the price was no longer in my control, it went up. And sales went down. Publishers don’t mind this because they have thousands of books for sale at a high price. What happens to that single book is of less concern (for the author, it’s the only concern).

Publishing contracts are detrimental in other ways. Many of them contain non-compete clauses, which preclude an author from writing and self-publishing anything on the side. These contracts often gives them rights of first refusal on subsequent works. You may be signing more than just a book over — you may be signing away your career. And if your book doesn’t do great, they drop you. There’s an endless stream of new authors to try out. They’re looking for the Dan Browns and the Stephen Kings, authors whose works go to the top of the charts and guarantee sales on subsequent works. On top of winning the lottery once, you’ll need to win it again. These are the double lightning bolts that admirers of the traditional machine love to point at as exemplars of that path. Meanwhile, they point to any breakout indie as the rare exception. It’s an unfair and weighted argument.

Back to those contracts. Domestic book contracts never expire (unless the publisher wants to cast you off, which they can in an instant, sometimes demanding their advance back). The foreign contracts I’ve signed, meanwhile, expire in 5 or 7 years. I get all my rights back, and we can renegotiate based on sales. This is what publishers here in the States need to move toward. Until they do, I won’t recommend anyone signing with them. In fact, if enough people refuse to sign, we’ll win these rights for more than just the indie authors. Established veterans like Sue (if she circles back through the alphabet again) will benefit from the competitive state the publishing industry would then find itself in. Think of it as a superior form of a union. Rather than strike and threaten violence on scabs, we just move across the street and set up a factory that sparkles with all kinds of benefits and higher pay. The old crumbling brick factory belching smoke up into the sky will adopt our ethics and codes once nobody is showing up for work. They will, or we’ll just erect another factory on their property once they go under.

But what about bookstores? you might ask. I suspect most of us get into writing because we were avid readers. And avid readers grew up in bookstores cherishing their bound volumes. Which is one helluva lure for getting us to sign publishing contracts. It’s the fulfillment of a dream, seeing our books in print. I’ll admit, it works on me. I still do videos of every proof I unpack, that’s how much I love holding my printed works. But you have to understand what you’re getting when you sign those rights over.

With a publishing house, your book will sit spine-out on several hundred or a few thousand bookshelves that increasingly fewer people are browsing. It’ll sit there with a ton of other spine-out books. Shoppers, meanwhile, are rushing in to grab whatever the hot book of the moment is. They’re browsing the center aisle and the bestsellers. Your book will be in these bookstores for 3-6 months. I know. I used to shelve these books when they came into the store, and then I boxed them up to send them back. Soon, your book will be out of print. If you want another copy for a friend or to sign at a craft fair, tough luck. They’re gone, and there won’t be anymore.

With self-publishing tools, I can create a print book for ZERO cost. I make the PDF at my leisure, upload it to CreateSpace, and they show me what the book will look like with their new digital proofing tools. I can see the cover and flip through every page. I press a button, and the book is on sale on Amazon, which puts you in every home and every place of business, every coffee shop and every airport, FOREVER.

There is no going out of print. You want a dozen copies for a book convention? You order them wholesale through Createspace. The printing cost is so cheap, that I can sell a 250 page book for $9.95, which is competitive with major publishers who have their books printed in China by the thousands. Mine are all printed in Charleston, SC by people I know. They arrive about a week after ordering them. I can order a single book or hundreds, the price doesn’t change. You have to have lived in the era before these technologies to fully appreciate them. They seem miraculous to me.

So: The only way I recommend publishing is self-publishing. At least until the contracts, terms, and royalty rates change. And if an agent approaches, ask if they are cool with you remaining self-published. See if they want to represent you overseas and with other forms of media (like audiobooks). If they are, great. I wouldn’t give up working with my agent Kristin for anything. But keep in mind that winning the lottery in the publishing world is a lot easier to control than landing that hot date. Not only is it more in your control to concentrate on writing and publishing rather than querying and handling rejection, it’s a lot more fun! You’re doing what you love. You’ll have a handful of readers. You’ll get a positive review on Amazon, and maybe an email from a fan. And until that hot date comes along and asks you to dance, having a wink or a free drink aimed your way isn’t a bad deal at all. Better than walking around rubbing your cheek while agent after agent slaps you for not wowing them with your first five pages.

I hope that helps. Best of luck. And keep in mind that my opinions are based on years of writing on the side, dreaming of making it big, and now my temporary success. I’ve seen almost every angle of the publishing world: As a reader, a writer, a bookseller, my own publisher, with a small publishing house, and with a major publishing house. I’ve had agents and editors and worked without them. I’ve done my own covers and had them commissioned by both experts and those starting off. These variety of experiences have taught me a lot, but someone else might have a different suggestion based on what they’ve been through. Sue Grafton, for instance, has spent 150 years writing the same book in the same manner, and she would advise you to not be lazy and follow her path. So take my answer with a grain of salt. And thanks again for the excellent question.

40 responses to “A Question from Calvin”

  1. I recently decided to self publish my first novel because it will allow me flexibility to do what I want to do- target teachers and school librarians by offering them deep discounts on my work.

    Why am I doing this?

    Because I’m more interested in students reading my work than I am making a making a million dollars off of them.

    Now, I’m not saying I don’t hope to make some money off of my writing, but I love teaching and plan on remaining a teacher. I simply won’t have the time to do some things full-time authors do.

    What I can do, however, is target the things I know how to target by contacting the people and organizations in the school districts I’ve worked for, making tests and other school-based materials for my novel available for free on my site, and by going to conventions to advertise the book.

    I don’t know if what I’m doing is the right thing, but I do know I’d rather do this myself rather than spend countless hours writing query letters and waiting for the gravy train to pull up. I’m looking for something sustainable- not the hot ticket to instant success.

    Reading Hugh’s work and following this blog have been inspirations that have helped guide me to this decision. I hope I can make him proud and spread the word about his writing every chance I get. Sue Grafton may look down on me for doing it this way, but I could care less what old Sue thinks. S is for Stupid, Sue.

    1. In Sue’s defense, she came back and admitted that she has absolutely no idea what she is talking about. :)

      And it makes me nervous that people are taking my advice, but I know you’re doing the right thing. Now that the stigma against self-published works has disappeared in the eyes of agents and publishers, it only makes sense to get your work out there and wait for something to develop, rather than write query letters while you wait for something to develop. More logical and more fun!

  2. Great post Hugh! I often get emails from readers and new writers asking this very question and this amazing blog post you’ve written is now the first thing I’ll have them read. The second will be Wool. ;-)


    1. I’d have them read your “Hive” book first, and then these blatherings of mine.

  3. Thank you for such a candid response. This post really resonated with me. I have found some level of success self-publishing (not nearly the lottery, though) and have been considering querying agents for foreign and other subsidiary rights. Now, after reading this, I’ve made my mind up about waiting. It’s refreshing and freeing to think all I need to do is keep writing and doing what I love.

    Your success is an inspiration, and I can’t tell you how much it means to me to see you standing up against the unfavorable domestic offers. You are showing trad. publishers that all self-published authors aren’t in this simply because we had no other choice. You’re also showing everyone that some of us really do care more about our creative control, our love of writing, and our fans than we do about a shiny publishing contract. Hopefully more and more successful self-published authors will stand up against their unfair contracts. Maybe, just maybe, it will inspire change.

  4. I don’t know why you didn’t just point Calvin in Sue Grafton’s direction from the beginning. She has shown us all, and very recently, how completely knowledgeable she is at handling these guestions.

    (But seriously Hugh, you never stop impressing me.)

  5. I can personally attest, like Hugh, that it’s very possible to be successful doing both. Because of the success of my self-published stories, I was approached by several editors and landed what I once considered a “dream agent” (back when I used to dream of going traditional). I’d given up that path, going indie instead, but recently decided to see what was available on the Other Side. I was quite content with self-publishing but decided, like Amanda Hocking and other indies who made the jump, to try my hand at traditional.

    What’s wonderful is, if for whatever reason I don’t enjoy this experience, I can always come “back” to indie with future works. You’re no longer bound to one path – the world is your oyster, and you can make your way as you see fit. Heh, Hugh would probably say I gave up too much but I’m happy with my decision, just as he is with the one he made – there’s no right or wrong except what you yourself choose, but it’s SO AWESOME to be allowed to have that choice!!! :)

    1. Amen, Sara! And congrats on all your success.

      (Sara is #1 in erotica. Go buy her books. I’m not saying if I have or not, but maybe I have. Or haven’t. I’m not saying. But get them. It’s like 50 Shades but with great writing. So I’ve heard. From a friend.)

      1. Heehee, you’re too sweet. :) I’m still enamored with your Molly Fyde books and am holding off on reading Wool until I’m done with this last part because I’m so afraid I’ll get sucked into that story like I did the Molly series!! (seriously, I was useless the week I found those books lol)

  6. William Jacques Avatar

    Hugh.. This is a terrific summary and should be given to every instructor who teaches creative writing so they can distribute it to their students. Thanks for taking the time to put this together. (PS, I’m sending it to several people.)

    1. I would bet most creative writing teachers are warning against the evils of self-publishing. Just as they warn against Wikipedia.

      1. Sadly, it’s the librarians that seem to be mostly staunchly against the digital revolution. I think they worry it devalues their cultivation skills. It’s a legitimate concern, mostly because too few districts get that librarians are important for a lot more than just shelving books.

        Sadly, this will continue as long as board members are people who don’t get what schools do.

        Most creative writing teachers think people actually writing is the most important thing. How they choose to publish is (and should be) a much smaller concern.

      2. That’s because most of them are still caught in the old dynamic of what it takes to be successful and don’t understand how the landscape has changed in the last five years.

        1. Hello, Librarian here!

          It’s on an individual basis – from person to person. Not all of us are behind the times.

  7. “we just move across the street and set up a factory that sparkles with all kinds of benefits and higher pay. The old crumbling brick factory belching smoke up into the sky will adopt our ethics and codes once nobody is showing up for work. They will, or we’ll just erect another factory on their property once they go under.”

    Well said.

  8. Mr. Howey : you ended the last wool book on a cliffhanger !!! Any status on giving us the next fix?

    1. Working on it now. Got sidetracked by zombies. Should be out in October, but probably won’t give you the answers you’re looking for. That’ll come with the 9th book, I’m afraid.

  9. Great advice, as usual, Hugh. I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts and what you’ve learned through your own experiences and success. (I particularly enjoyed the line about a “wink and a free drink” – a particularly adept image.) Stacks of rejections later, I can only be grateful for how Amazon is revolutionizing the industry and the opportunity it affords all us indie writers. I hope for your continued success, Hugh. You’re an inspiration for all us indies. (Quick personal story – for a brief moment in time, you and I shared the same screenspace on the Indie BookSpot. You with the headline interview, and my first novel listed under Latest Reviews. I’m not ashamed to say I had a little “squee!” moment and took a screencap.) :-)

    1. Thanks, Tiffany. And I’m a screen-capping fool, so I’m right there with you. :)

  10. Excellent advice, Hugh. I just wish to underline your paragraphs dealing with non-compete clauses and those pesky open-ended contracts. Those have been the deal killers for me. I can’t agree to contracts that restrict my ability to produce other works nor permit any “point of review” for a business arrangement. In any other industry, these stipulations would not be tolerated. In the publishing industry, they are the norm. Yet so few of the authors signing these contracts even take the time to consider the implications of these clauses. That makes me rather tristful. : (


    1. Agreed. But I’ve heard that these clauses are already eroding due to the pressure brought on by self-publishing. It’s not the indies so much as the ability for authors like Lawrence Block to walk and do his own thing. Change is afoot. Good change.

  11. Yet another great post, Sir Howey (yeah, you’re Sir Howey to me. Deal with it.) (^~^)

    Another aspect, and this is something to think about if you’re a self-pubbed author tempted to do the Nestea plunge into the arms of a waiting Publisher, is the loss in readership you’ll inevitably see with the switch.

    The books they had seen for $2.99 or even .99 are now $7.99 or $9.99. Sadly, those used to paying the lower will not always go with the higher no matter how much they love you and swear you’re their BFF.

    Hopefully the Publisher is throwing their weight behind expanding your market while still focusing on those readers you already have as a self-pub. Which they don’t always do. If they even know who your readers are. Which they rarely do.

    See how complicated it can be?

    The best advice, which is something I covered on my own blog yesterday, is to go into anything with your eyes open. Know the realities of the business AS IT IS and not as you would like it to be. Know what you’re signing away. Know what that contract actually says and speak up, for God’s sake, if you have questions. Know what they have planned for you marketing-wise (as specifically as possible, if you can) and what YOU can do to help. Know what your options are if the numbers bottom out and you find yourself stuck in They-No-Longer-Return-My-Calls-ville.

    And don’t be afraid, pre-contract signing, of course, to politely, but firmly, walk away if it’s a bad deal.

    Nothing wrong with being self-pubbed. The sooner the Majors realize that, and adapt, the better we’ll all be.

    I think.

    Again, another great Post, Hugh.

    1. Thanks, Jonathan. Please don’t be shy about dropping links to your blog entries in the comments. It saves me a click or two!

      1. Newbie blogger here and didn’t want to do something HIGHLY offensive or inappropriate.

        But since you did give the go ahead:


        Enjoy! :)

        1. Enjoy I did!

          “I can publish any fucking thing I want.

          I can be brave and creative, ballsy and controversial, amazing and incredible and unforgettable and breathtaking in ways your Publisher will never allow you to be. “

  12. Very interesting post.
    Just a follow up question though …… (and I think you might have mentioned it somewhere else but can’t remember where)
    what about editing? To me, that would be one of the main things that a publisher could help you with. Do you just pay for an freelance editor and how much would that cost? You know, just so you don’t self publish some complete dribble that goes on and one based on a YA vampire series.
    While I think self publishing sounds great and I have read some good self published books (yours included), there are a lot of self published electronic works out there that are just really badly written and edited.

    1. Editing is very important. Major publishers, unfortunately, are skimping on this more and more. They provide line edits and look at grammar, but not as much developmental editing anymore. I think all indie authors should attempt to get their books soundly edited. I also think readers should be able to forgive a dozen or so typos in a 60,000 word work when they’re paying $3 for it. I see typos in the NYT all the time. In major magazines. On major websites. In books from the big 6. We should aim for our best work but not be held to standards that no one else is meeting.

    2. Hugh’s right. The Big 6 have slashed their budgets so far that you’re getting the line edit and nothing else. And even then, you have to ask WHO is doing the line edit. At the end of the day, you might end up catching more than they do.

      Self-publishing is all about being diligent and responsible. Take it upon yourself to abandon spell check and get in there and find the typos yourself. Line by line (ergo, the term “line edit”) And then accept that even then you’ll miss something. In one of my books I have two typos. In 88,000 words. Two. And it kills me, but there you go. Suck it up and move on.

      A second thing to do is get good beta readers who don’t mind ripping you a new one. Being breathlessly told your opus is amazing and incredible does nothing for you. I want to know where it sucks and sucks bad so I can fix it and not make a fool of myself and damage my reputation as a Writer to Read (I just made that up .. I have no such reputation … yet).

      Third, put it away. Bury your book in a (virtual) drawer for a month and then, red pen in hand (I personally PDF a copy to Goodreader and annotate until I can’t see straight), revisit it from page one word one and then circle everything that makes you go ‘WTF?’

      And then fix it.

      Those right there will probably be more than any Big 6 is gonna give a newbie writer right now.

      Hard work? Yep. But this is your career we’re talking about, right?

      Trust me, it’s worth it.

      1. Funnily, your advice is almost exactly what I’m doing. I’m surprised how many beta readers just say, “It is so good!” Even after I told people to be brutal, I still got a few of these. Luckily, I gave it to more beta readers than I needed to in order to make up for that predilection.

        The most interesting feedback was from someone who asked to read it that I would have never expected to. I figured I wouldn’t hear back from him, but he sent interesting feedback informed by his job as a big-wig in a company. He had criticisms only someone who cares so much about employee structure would, but filling that bit out a tad will keep me from annoying yet another potential market.

        I also took a month off from the book, but am using a paper copy to savage with notes and blood-red ink. :)

        1. Good job!!!

          Brutal really is the way to go. Best we be brutal on ourselves before we publish than have soon-to-be-ex-readers be brutal in their very public reviews.

          Keep up the good work. :)

        2. P.S. I have yet to have a beta reader tell me my work is really, really good. Or great. Or splendid. Or breathtaking.

          And I wouldn’t have it any other way. (^~^)

  13. I’ll just say one thing (especially after reading this, Hugh): “My new motto is: just keep writing, just keep writing. The rest will come.”

  14. Another excellent post! I’m just now making a new 5 year plan for my writing (I achieved the goals of the first one in less than a year of self-publishing), and I’m giving some serious thought to the issues you touch on here: agent or no agent, foreign deals and film rights, but most especially the idea of where I want my writing to go creatively. Because it IS all in my control, and I want to make sure I’m pushing myself to explore the boundaries of what I’m capable of (and push beyond them). Thanks again for sharing all your experience – it’s a tremendous help (off to tweet and check out that link from Jonathan!).

  15. This really is an awesome post–thanks, Susan!–and having been on the agent side w/a traditional deal now looking at the SP side for a MS that didn’t sell, I think you’ve summed up the process perfectly and hilariously. :)

    The one heartbreaking moment is the part about your book in bookstores spine-out just waiting to head back as a return.

    But “slapped on the face for not wowing w/the first 5”–*snort*

    Thanks, and congrats on all your success!

  16. I’m trying to get my wife (who is now in the editing stage of her first books, a trilogy) to understand that I am her most important beta reader. I fear her ‘friend’ readers may not be critical enough, but I don’t have a problem saying “Babe, WTF were you trying to say here?” Granted her other betas are people who are ‘into’ the genre and I am really not, but she has a hard time accepting my (contstructive) criticism, especially when the others are raving about how good the books are.

    1. My wife is brutal with my books. Morso than anyone else. I think it’s crucial to hear from non-genre readers and to hear the absolute worst.

      But it can also be difficult to hear it from a spouse. I’m used to it, and I beg for it, but your wife might feel that your criticism is hard to take because of who it’s coming from, not what you’re saying. If that makes any sense. Maybe she feels like this is her domain. My wife and I have these conversations all the time. It’s a tricky situation to try and navigate. Probably worthy of a blog post in the future.

      Best of luck to her with her series.

      1. Thanks Hugh. Stumbling on your stickam show last week has been a very welcome event in this process for me and I hope for her. I have been sharing a lot of what I’ve learned with her. She is not really into social media so, at least in the beginning, I’ll probably be her ‘online voice’. To that end, I hope you won’t mind if I post a link to her page here. I just started it so there’s not much there, but if anyone would like to follow it for updates and info on when the first book is available: http://nataliedwilson.com

        Oh, btw, I downloaded a copy of I Zombie and I’m a little way into it and find it a very compelling read so far. I’m a big fan of The Walking Dead and this is definitely making me think in a whole different way.


    2. My Other Half is a BRUTAL beta reader. So much so that when it’s Comments and Question Time, they ask me how strong I’m feeling — on a scale from 1 to 10 — before unleashing the verbal uzi.

      I tend to hover around a 6 and take the bullets in shifts.

      Any-hoo, the way I see it your wife has two choices:

      She can either bask in the glow of beta readers who assure her it’s absolutely wonderful and amazing and fantastic when it maybe isn’t yet and release her book based on that.

      Subsequently, the chances of her work being ravaged with 1 Star reviews from Readers who slogged through one too many WTF moments is pretty high. Not only will this hurt her feelings, it might also hurt her sales, her reputation, and perhaps the hopes for her trilogy.

      OR she can find a way to hear what you’re trying to say, mope and pout for a minute or two, and then dig in and make the work better. I’d also consider upping the water boarding on those Happy Betas. If you’re seeing issues, chances are they are, too. More often than not, if given the chance and pressed ever so slightly, she just might hear them say “You know, actually, yeah, I wondered about that, too, now that you mention it.”

      Long story short, for any writer wanting this as a solid career, sucking it up, putting aside your emotions, and making Constructive Criticism your BFF is a damn smart thing to do.

  17. Thank you for your thoughts Jonathan. She’s slowly coming around. I actually got her to consider changing her ‘meh’ titles to something a bit more intriguing. This has been my hardest sell so far as she really liked her titles and one of her most vocal beta readers indicated that she did too. Again, maybe it’s just not my genre, but I would have passed her titles by without as much as a second thought. Even as her toughest critic, I really believe she has done a very good job on her books. Hopefully the fact that her other beta readers have been clamoring for the next books in the series does speak to the fact that they are not just gently patting her on the back in friendship. At least one has given her some constructive criticism at this point which she has heeded, and positively so in my opinion.(I think the others are intending to finish all three before they do their critiques).

    1. Nice! Good to hear you’re making a chink in that constructive criticism armor. :) And the titles are important. Best to have them “pop” as much as possible. And I am happy to hear that A) the books themselves are good, and B) there are betas waiting to finish the series before responding. Perhaps there’ll be some helpful thoughts after all.

      Love the fact that you have such a strong, sincere interest in her writing. Very cool.

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