Where Have All The Writers Gone?

*I will do the post promoting y’all’s work this evening.  I did not forget.*

Writers Who Disappear

In 03, the first great “layoff” I witnessed, where at world fantasy you’d see people go off with their editors and come back crying, (This didn’t include me, I decided I wouldn’t die even if they killed me which was the beginning of the zombie career) things got bleak.

They got even more bleak in the Summer of 04, when the writers list I belonged to often carried stories of attempted suicide and people just disappearing and no one could reach them.

This is not the type of “writers disappearing” that Kris Rusch is talking about in her posts.  What she talks about is accurate (I think.  I know only one writer who had “accomplished what he wanted to” and I think that was because new-wife didn’t approve of SF) and of course she is going to continue the series next week, so it’s incomplete.

For those of you too lazy to click through on this Sunday morning: what Kris is talking about is not writers who vanish as though taken by a very specific Rapture (though there’s a story in that.  “I need a team to help me write the next part!” said the booming voice in the sky) but writers who vanish from the shelves not to be heard from again.

This includes writers whose series stop mid stride – I still get angry letters from fans of the Musketeer’s Mysteries – because the house decided it wasn’t selling ‘enough’ and of course it was the writer’s fault not covers, insane titling or lack of push.

It also includes – according to Kris – writers who’ve accomplished everything they wanted to.

And it includes writers who’ve made themselves toxic.   (Weirdly, I know who the guy is who called the distributor to ask why his book wasn’t on the shelves.)

It doesn’t include what, in my experience, over the last ten years is the main reason for giving up: battle fatigue.

That is, you are not doing badly enough (are you doing badly at all?  Depending on how my negotiations go to get my rights back from a publisher that shall remain unnamed until and unless they go badly – when the statements go public — you might be able to judge.  The statements just received cross the line of believability, claiming well under 100 sales for a book still on the shelves (two years out) AND apparently having phantom books held as reserves against returns, while the returns count separately, leading to a negative number, where no negative number can be.  Very interesting.  I think they have their accounting done in a fantasy world, or perhaps by the Fed.  It prevents their cutting me a check, though, so all is good, right?  They used to just take the books out of print at that point, but now, well… there’s erights, so they’re keeping them on, and dancing like nobody’s business.  Considering this particular publisher is now suing authors for amounts that should be petty-cash, I REALLY want my rights back.) that they fire you for good, but they keep hiring you and making you (trust me) write four books a year, and then the numbers are dismal again, and…  And you start feeling like someone who just has baby after baby and hands him/her off to the high priests to throw in the volcano.

After a while this feeling of “What the heck, why bother” sets in.  Worse, it’s like aversion therapy.  Because you’re selling on proposal and when the book’s turn comes around you might not feel like writing that (H*ll, you often won’t feel like writing at all) it makes what you’ve always loved doing into a form of torture.  After a while, just the thought of writing makes you depressed.

Part of this I think is the body’s defense mechanisms.  I’ve often told people that when Mercedes Lackey talks about magic and “stripping the magical channels” in the Valdemar series, she’s really talking about writing.  Of course whatever you write with (other than certain brain areas) isn’t physical, but you feel like it’s a channel attached to you, and when you’re forced to write book after book you feel less than enthusiastic about and which you know they’re going to kill one way or another, you start feeling like it’s stripped raw and like you’re doing yourself physical damage.  And your body learns to shut down whenever you sit at the computer to write.  I got to the point I’d be feeling fine, and suddenly, at the desk, all I wanted to do was sleep.

Some of us stay on.  Like dancers who dance on injuries, like athletes willing to become deformed through excessive training, we go on.  Maybe we don’t do our best work, but we work.  Sometimes we wonder if we’re getting Alzheimers, because we can’t remember our character’s name (or occasionally our own) from page to page, but we go on.  And if you’re there, step back and consider indie — I later, during the year Dan forced me to take off (sort of.  I only wrote one book) realized this was a sign of clinical depression.

The sane ones don’t.  And here, I’d like to point out I’m sane enough, but when we bought this house we were paying on two houses.  And then… stuff happened.  Like replacing our heating system.  Like the wall of the bathroom falling down on Robert during a shower.  Stuff like that.  And lately tons of stuff happened, stuff like runaway inflation, two kids in college, etc – and we need my income.  It’s as blunt as that.  Notwithstanding which, were it not for Baen, were it not for indie, I too would have walked away two years ago. I came within a coin toss of doing just that and going “Let the house be foreclosed.  Let’s just walk away.”

Because there is another barb that the writer in that position must suffer.  If you say anything – the slightest complaint – you get, from both the publisher, and the wanna bes who’ve never made it “How can you complain?  You’re living the dream.  You’re making a living doing what you love!”

Which is sort of like telling that to a ballet dancer forced to dance with broken feet and weighed down with a ton of rusty iron.

And you can’t talk back.  Or you couldn’t.  Now I can and my answer is: If you work at anything 18 hours a day, seven days a week, unless it’s something REALLY stupid, you too can make a living at it.  But after a while even what you enjoy goes stale.

No, I’m not announcing my quitting – you guys saw me go from “I can only go traditional” to the freedom of indie.

I just wonder how many of those writers who disappeared, leaving the windows of their writing house wide-open and the doors swinging in the breeze, will be aware of the opportunities of indie.

I’m hoping some of them come back, close the windows, light a fire in the hearth, find their writing desk and resume their work.  Because some of the ones driven away were very good indeed.

And meanwhile, today – the completion of Noah’s Boy having been put-off by a return of the stomach flu in an attenuated form (seems to be one of those that comes back weaker and weaker till it’s gone) – I’m going to write rights reversal letters for ¾ of my work (yes, in case you wonder, I REALLY want to continue the Musketeer series.)  And then I’m going to do some publishing.

Because I can.  And because I refuse to fade away.

72 thoughts on “Where Have All The Writers Gone?

  1. In good news, I’m seeing more and more authors that were screwed by the way the system is stacked against them (hell, we’re not even getting a full deck to play poker with!) come back and take control of it. They might not make a living, but at least creating stories is fun again and less like a slaveship.

    1. I’m starting to suspect this making a living at indie is a matter of volume, and that we CAN make a living, over time.

      (And now to find your previous comment with your email. In case it’s not obvious, this has been week-from-hell TM)

      1. It is – though I just chatted to a friend in Germany, who used to publish with a big publisher there, and she now does e-book, saying, essentially, “I can’t afford to publish with BIGNAME anymore. It’s too expensive for me.” (And Germany is a Third World country in terms of indie and e-publishing.)

        Email is vashtan at gmail dot com. And – I figured. 🙂 Life just happens, don’t worry about it.

      2. I know you’ve seen the entries Dean Smith has on the subject, Sarah, but I am really liking his and Kris’ math on what a short story is worth over the writer’s lifetime. It’s not unrealistic at all to expect a decent novella or pair of short stories or whatever your basic smallest distribution piece is to generate ten thousand dollars over the lifetime of the copyright. (Of course that is small comfort to you if your lifetime ends soon after the copyright begins, but in this modern age we all have long careers ahead of us with just a little luck.)

        Ten THOUSAND dollars.

        That ain’t nothin’. That’s a whole lot of not nothin’. Just keep cranking, and it’s mathematically impossible to not to make some decent money at this. Since readers read faster than writers write and there are more readers than there are writers, somebody’s finally invented a pyramid scheme that works!

        But, as you say, and as others have said, the key is volume. What sells titles is titles. I danced the Dance of Joy the day my Amazon Author Page started showing the “Click Here for Next Page of Titles” link. Of course, I cheated a little because it shows the Kindle and paperback versions as separate titles. But when I have an honest list of titles that spans multiple pages, I shall dance again!

  2. I am curious as to who left that you would like to see return. Not that such a list is possible to compile without omissions, nor would that list be the same from week to week. A lot of authors I like are people I like sometimes, other times or story lines,not so much. Then my mood changes…

    1. The problem is that I have a LOUSY name for writers and most of these published one or two books ten years ago. I’d need to go down bookcases in the hallway to compile a list, and I’m a bit lazy… 😉

      1. This is my problem. I KNOW there are writers with series I want to finish, or sequels out there, but by now I don’t remember the name of the writer, or series. This is really annoying because with the Internet and ebooks there is a good chance I could find them, or the series, and finally FINISH.

        1. There was one writer whose book I checked out from the local library, liked very much, and wrote the name down so I could check out anything else she’d written (there was nothing in the book). That book has since then disappeared from the library shelves, and I can’t find the paper I wrote the name down on to save my life. All I can remember is that the last name began with an “S”. ARRRGHHH!!!

          I also have another problem. I started several series that were being published by Donald Wolheim’s paperback press. I haven’t been able to even find new books by that publisher any more, much less the rest of the several series I’d started. Sometimes I think SciFi publishers (Baen excepted — at the moment) go out of their way to frustrate readers.

            1. Beth – unfortunately, no. That was a book I read during one of my “bad” times, when I hardly remembered the time of day. I do remember it was one of those books that I read and thought, “I wouldn’t mind reading that book a second time”. Now it’s not available (I vaguely remember the cover art), and I can’t remember the title or author’s name.

              1. Hm. What do you recall of the cover art, and approximately what year? You never know — someone else may recall it!

            2. Bless you, Beth! I swear, I was just searching for Alton last month, and couldn’t find her! So great to see her go indie with such a beloved and underrated novel! Hope she’s got some trunk novels for us.

              1. You can go to the comments on Amazon and bug her about Ghost Frequencies. (She used to be in our writers’ group though we lost all contact about 10 years ago.) Ghost Frequencies is a paranormal mystery.

  3. I just got my first rejection letter! And, frankly, I kinda deserved it. The story is not unpromising but it has that first-chapter feel and that’s not what you want in a self-contained short story. So I sent them the one I had the idea for thirty seconds after I hit “submit” on the first one. 🙂

    If that sounds kinda chipper for a rejection-letter story, it is. Because while that story was in review I wrote two other ones and published them myself. And they are making me money and will go on making me money for years and years. The stories I’m mailing out are part of Operation Subvert the SFWA. That is a long-term plan and I’ve fully reconciled to it taking a while. In the meantime, I know I’m a professional writer because I’m a) writing and b) being paid to do it. So faith is my shield and armor, as it were. Fine, *they* didn’t like *that* story. I have more. And other people to read them.

    This sounds kinda self-serving and I guess it is, but I do have a point. The point is that indie offers you that new way forward. You don’t have to disappear anymore. You don’t even have to wait to appear! 🙂

    Also by the way, I got my first CreateSpace POD proofs last week. Holy doppelgangers, Batman. I could put that sucker on the shelf at Barnes and Noble and 99 people in a hundred would have no idea it wasn’t tradpub. They’re gorgeous and they feel great. I’m probably going to pay the $25 and have them put into general availability, at least one one book. The problem though is that if I don’t do several, I’m a one-shot wonder or, to get back on topic, a “disappeared writer.” The book’s not for everybody but people who like it really like it. I don’t want those people to be in bookstores saying, “You can’t order any more of his stuff? Really? Why not?”

    It’s a puzzlement. But it’s fun.

    1. Go for it – set the retail price high enough that you cover the print costs, plus a 55% discount to the distributor ( who will give the end retail bookstore 40%) and returnability, plus a little slice for you, and go for it. If you can, specify that the returned books go back to you,and if they are not damaged or shop-worn, there’s a supply for you for direct sales.

      And get cracking on the next book … every book that you write will be an advertisement for all the other books that you have out there.

      1. It is my plan to sell exactly enough things to tradpub to become eligible to join the SFWA, and then never offer anything to tradpub again. I’ll happily sell them something if they come asking, but I’m going to publish everything myself ever after. Once I join, I will cast votes, publish comments, and otherwise make a bloody nuisance of myself in the cause of telling the Big Six to go and pound sand until they’re ready to enter the late twentieth century.

            1. Marc,

              You mentioned the OCR option earlier in regards to that novel I mentioned. I do have a way to scan it in as a bulk document, turning it into a PDF. I would think there’s got to be a way to OCR a PDF, correct?

              1. “Yes, but.”

                I’m sure there is a way to directly OCR it, but the software *I* have doesn’t have that capability. It can only OCR graphics files. If you want to OCR a multiple page document, it can only do it at scan time. (Largely because it’s free OCR software that came with my scanner. 🙂 ) “Real” OCR software can doubtless do it.

                However, if I were in such a position, what I’d do is print out the PDF and then OCR the printout by running it through my scanner. 🙂 Or, alternatively, I’d ask the person scanning the document to scan it as graphics files. The problem with that is that each page would be a separate file and that would be really annoying to deal with. Either way, yes, the ultimate answer to your question is that it can be done.

                  1. I don’t know if it’s awaiting moderation or if I didn’t post it, but I had a comment about this possibility.

                    All I did was put “OCR PDF” into Google and came up with several links, including a couple of free online OCR sites you can upload your PDF to, and which will return the converted text.

                    1. You know, I did have the idle thought that such tools probably existed. I’ve used similar online tools to convert PDF to Word, although it was a PDF of text and not bitmaps. I’d be iffy about using them on a manuscript of any potential value, at least without reading their TOS carefully. But it’s not surprising.

                    2. There has been a development in the last couple hours. His stepson told my mother who told me (lol) that an electronic version just might exist. Seems my grandfather might have paid one of the stepsons to transcribe it as an odd job while he was a freshman in college.

                      We’ll see.

      1. I read their rules once, and decided it wasn’t a group I wanted to be a part of. I’m eligible to belong to the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, but I don’t want to belong to them, either. The same goes for Mensa. This group is about right: few rigid rules, lots of fun and excitement, and if I miss a couple of meetings, no one’s nose is out of joint. I also have only ONE person I have to keep happy — our delightful host. THAT is a pleasure!

        1. Mensa and other high-IQ groups sound like a good idea in theory but in practice I find them kinda depressing. On the other hand, I find a lot of things depressing and I watch COPS for its self-confidence-enhancing properties, so I am probably not a good indicator.

    1. The bar is lower in some fields than others. But in the end, yes, the scheme DOES have one requirement: people who read one of your books have to say, after finishing, “Hey, that was good. I think I’ll see if they have any more.” If you can’t reach that level, well, then, the math kinda starts to fall apart.

  4. What a battle cry–
    I think the reason I didn’t start a writing career (lol — not a career yet) is because I was a little naive about my skills and was a little skeptical about what I was seeing and reading.

    I also had another life– secret Navy life, secret electronics life, and secret travel life. When those went away I had to find another life. (Secret agent writer lol).

    My hubby and I did a three-day vacation and it was fun. It kind of recharged the batteries even though I can back with a stomach ache (the food in those little towns are not always good for me.) I have pictures. I have a new lease. Now I need to sit in front of my blank page and write.

    1. Yeah. Working with classified material every day will make you hesitant to write, period. I had trouble writing about my secondary hobbies. Now that that part of my life is 20+ years in the rear-view mirror, I find it’s much easier to write. There are still areas I don’t like to write about, though.

          1. I’m sure you do, Stephanie! 8^) I worked imagery intelligence, mostly at the national level (Top Secret, with all kinds of caveats) for more than 20 years. I am SO glad those days are behind me, especially with my physical problems and the related mental problems. I have to admit, though, that I enjoyed every minute of it. The only thing I miss is the daily read file…

            1. Heh. I first read that as “Imaginary Intelligence”. Don’t really know how to explain what went through my head after that, but it was something like wondering if you had studied other countries’ hot-yet-implemented plans.

                1. *cough*

                  Imaginary intelligence is what certain political factions (who shall not be named) think they have. It differs from actual intelligence in that it only works with imaginary constructs; in the real world it fails spectacularly.

                  It is not nice to taunt the partisans, Sarah.

                2. Imaginary intelligence abundant but real intelligence lacking? Just rotate your intelligence through 90 degrees, and the imaginary component becomes real. It’s not that complex a problem…

                  1. Yes, don’t try to multiply an imaginary intelligence by itself, or it becomes negative.

                    Wait – that might explain a number of Politicians…

            2. I reminded of a guy I once knew who had been a nuclear engineer in the Navy. When he got out he had to attend school to get the certification for what he already had in his head. The problem was — while he knew more than the professor — his knowledge was classified while the professor’s was not.

              When he corrected the professor on a point the professor called him out, demanding to know the basis of the student’s knowledge. Sadly, “I could tell you but I would have to kill you” is not the sort of logic that convinces professors.

  5. I’m not a fledgling, and I’ve been reading forever, so I’ve seen quite a number of “one-shot” writers come and go. Thanks to the Internet, I can now research more thoroughly and find some of the other things these writers have written. I hope more and more of it is placed online, either as an ebook or as something direct-marketed by heirs. As for volume, I have seven books online at the moment, and two more in various stages. I’ve got ideas for more than a hundred others. Some of those ideas are only a few sentences, but I think with a little work I can build it into a novel, novella, or short story.

  6. After getting over eighty (80) rejection letters for Vienna Days, I self-published and sold a few hundred through my own website — as well as a few hundred more copies of Family Fortunes (which had also been rejected many times (I didn’t keep count of those; too depressing).
    Now, with e-pub (thank you, Amazon), I don’t care about rejection letters. Now I write because I don’t have any choice in the matter, I write on the topics which interest and enthrall me, and if I only ever sell a few hundred copies per title, that’s fine because I’m not interested in fame (no ego issues) nor am I concerned about income from writing (or else I’d be writing urban fantasy, vampire romance or S/M soft porn like SOG, none of which excite me).
    I write because I love writing, I love the creative process, and I love my characters. Those who want to enjoy my journey with me are most welcome to do so, and thank you. Those who do not enjoy my writing may pass by. They are the ones who may be missing something quite good, but it’s their loss, not mine.
    And to Big Publishing: FOAD. All of you. May your empires totter and perish like those of the Hittites and the Etruscans, and be likewise forgotten.
    Here’s the thing: long after Big Publishing has disappeared from the face of the Earth, there will still be writers, writers like me for whom writing is the end, not their silly marketing “campaigns” and their little distribution reindeer games.
    We will survive; they won’t.

    1. It is Amusing to note, at least if you are me, that the acronym FOAD is so close to the acronym FAOD, which to a lawyer means “For Avoidance of Doubt.” I have often wanted to end a weasel-worded missive with, “FAOD, FOAD.”

  7. The purest example of accomplished all he wanted was Bob Leman. First Fandom, published his first story in his fifties, ten years later started publishing regularly, almost all in F&SF. When he got enough stories for a collection, he stopped writing and published the book, “Feesters in the Lake and other stories.” Passed away within ten years of that. And he was GOOD, he wrote mostly in the rare subgenre of SF/Horror, You might at least have read “Windows,” which was in all the year’s bests. Ending is a punch in the face, totally unexpected.

  8. I always wondered about the two authors (a couple? or just coauthors) who write one starship-and-sorcery trilogy, started the prequel-trilogy and then vanished. They are still writing, but in a different genre and all short-stories (last I saw). Did their second series get cancelled for lack of sales? Was spaceship-and-sorcery too weird for a new editor? Did they have a crisis and quit the contract before things got worse?

      1. If you’re talking Doyle and Macdonald, they’re still around and doing well. They write a lot of kids’ books, some for hire and other under names, and they put out a couple of alternate-history-post-Civil-War steampunk fantasies, and Macdonald did a couple about his urban fantasy Templar priest with guns. They’re partially indie.

        Some people really do just have one novel they really want to write, or maybe one every ten years. But some are worn out, no question.

  9. Where do the writers go? Sometimes they write a great story and never lift a finger to get it out to the world.

    So…here’s my problem. My maternal grandfather, pushing 84, was a railroad engineer his entire life. When WWII broke out, he enlisted in the navy as a sailor on a minesweeper in the Pacific “for the duration” but went right back to trains.

    A few years ago, he wrote a book centered around the railroad and its story runs from the mid-1800’s through the 1930’s. It’s actually quite good, but unpolished. Roughly about 130k…written on a typewriter.

    So…the problem. He will NOT pay any money to have it professionally edited. I am NOT qualified to do it myself. While I’ve stressed to him that it has never been easier to self-publish, he just doesn’t understand the what the industry has started to become. On the opposite end of things, he doesn’t have any interest (he says…I think it’s more a matter of degrading health) in writing a ton of query letters and trying to go the trad route.

    I made a joke to my mother and my aunt (two different people, hold the puns) that if he’s just going to let it collect dust, I’m just going to wait until he kicks off and publish it myself. This was met not with the derision and “that’s not funny, Scott” I expected, but rather with a round of “that’s a good idea”.

    I suppose I could get the whole thing, word for word, typed into a electronic form and save that forever as the original…then submit it on my own dime for editing. Maybe doing a “Story by James Baum” “Written by Scott McGlasson”, although I didn’t technically write it…I will most likely be the one doing rewrites/edits/etc.


    Oh, and btw, yes, Baum. As in Frank L. As in, great-great uncle.

    1. A posthumous novel is “by James Baum. Edited by Scott McGlasson.” If you rewrote it A LOT or added new material, it would be “by James Baum with Scott McGlasson” or possibly even “by James Baum and Scott McGlasson.”

      Yah, it matters. It’s like a code — it means stuff. You don’t want to take away your grandfather’s credit, obviously.

      The other route is that you/family can pay to have it edited surreptitiously now, show him how nice it looks on a Kindle or iPad or Lulu in test version, and see what he thinks. (Possibly after finding out what kind of rail-fans you can get clamoring to see the story.)

      1. I’d read it. I’d even be willing to help do the data entry. I type about 70 words per minute when I’m not writing brand-new material. Heck, break it up into chapters, and farm it out! I’m sure there are plenty of people willing to help out.

        One other thing you might look into. Illustrations of railroad logos (especially over time), photos or line drawings of engines mentioned in the book, etc., maybe even some original photos he might have, would really spice up the book and increase its value. You might want to do some research. There are some of those photos in the public domain.

              1. Not sure I’d trust a high school typing class, knowing what my typing efforts looked like at that point……

    2. Dude. Data entry? Retyped? Are you mental? It’s TYPEWRITTEN. Scanners LOVE that s**t.

      I could scan that into OCR software and have an editable manuscript in about two hours, unless it’s on onionskin. Then it would probably take about six hours.. If you lived around here, I’d do it for free. You probably have a geeky friend close by who can do it.

    3. I think it would be great to publish your grandfather’s book, but I hope you can get him to see reason on editing and self-pubbing it, just so he can enjoy it himself.

      Oh, and btw, yes, Baum. As in Frank L. As in, great-great uncle.

      That is TOO awesome. Any stories about this? (Baum of the Oz books is one of my god.)

  10. Without apologies to Pete Seeger, whose views on private property are shameful:

    Where have all the writers gone?
    Long time passing
    Where have all the writers gone?
    Long time ago
    Where have all the writers gone?
    High School English teachers every one
    Girls have picked them every one
    When will they ever learn?
    When will they ever learn?

    1. I’m glad I’m not the only one to have that song stuck in my head when reading the title… I didn’t take the trouble to filk it, though, seeing as I couldn’t remember enough of the lyrics and too lazy to google. xD

      1. Drat – I notice now I missed a line substitution.. Oh well. The scansion was forced anyway. “Publishers robbed them, every one” would fit much better.

          1. Oh, now I am glad that I used “robbed” in lieu of some of the other terms that occurred. I s’pose editors could be replaced with editors, agents, marketing directors …

  11. First. *chants* Noah’s Boy, Noah’s Boy, Noah’s Boy, Noah’s Boy. *chants*

    Second, I’ve had a few series that I really enjoyed go the way of the dodo. It has been really sad to know that I more than likely will never see the ending of them. Many of which seemed to have flounder because somewhere along the way one of the things that was supposed to be part and parcel of traditional publishing, helping promote the books they are trying to sell, has almost disappeared unless they thing it is going to be a NYT best seller.

    One author I was following had larger eBook sales than paper. Their eBook stat in limbo for about a year. I wrote the publisher, editor, and eBook sellers directly. The publisher was too busying blaming the sellers to do anything about the situation. One of which said that they didn’t have it and if the publisher could just send it again they would upload it and the publisher’s responce every time was “we already sent it”. The series got cut for low sales. Go figure.

    Still for some it has been so long that I would actually be afraid for the author to take them back up because they likely have forgotten the story. So instead of the continuation we get a book that lacks any resemblance to what the characters were. I’ve read a few books that were only set aside for a couple of years and the character bear no resemblance to the ones before. Actions so out of character for who they were as to really be a totally different series. Which for me is much worse than never getting another story about the characters.

    If there is a character that I like there is a reason for liking them. If that reason is gone then there is no reason to read about that character. Seems simple to me. Still some times I get looked at as if I’m not following some obligation to keep reading (mostly by fans, but sometimes from writers) when I give up on a series of books because that is “the authors vision now”. Like it is my duty for ever having read a book from them to buy anything and everything they write till the end of time. Dead being no excuse for quitting either. I might be guilted into a lot of things, but paying for something I don’t like isn’t one of them.

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