Publishers and the tangled Web: Guest Blog

** Update**
I’ve frozen comments because I think it’s getting a bit heated and I’m fairly sure that is not warranted. I’m also a little concerned about what is being said in some of them, so if they disappear over the next day or so, it will have been me removing them, feel free to e-mail me concerns if you have them.
Eoin

Alexander McNabb*

Given the discussion around the web about Authonomy, I decided to invite Alexander McNabb to guest blog about his experiences and the ideal slushpile online! I was impressed by how forcefully he put his view across, I might not always agree, but I think you will find his views interesting at the very least. His bio is below and you can read some of his own material here!

Analogue in a digital world
The publishing industry is famously crusty, but when I first submitted an MS to the UK’s literary agencies five years ago, I was stunned to find them being quite so resolutely analogue. While the rest of the world was starting to experiment with Web 2.0, agents were insisting on printed MSs and SAEs or, in my case, international postal coupons. Not only would they not consent to respond by email, many sent quaint notes on compliment slips or photocopied rejections. One specimen arrived in a delightful copperplate hand on exquisite cream laid Conqueror.

Having found that most agents in the UK disagreed with my own assessment of my genius, I wandered off and wrote a second book. And so, two years later, I sent off another round of three chapters, slidebound, double spaced 12 point Times, indented paras; synopsis, covering letter, international postal coupon and self addressed envelope. This time around, a few agents accepted email queries, a couple even accepted the MS by email and a good handful had websites. This, then, was progress.

After that book went nowhere, I hung up my pen. I didn’t have the energy to sit down and write another one. Last year, I finally heaved my overweight carcass back into the chair and started to write again. I was 25k words in when a post on Boing Boing led me to Authonomy.

Discovering the internet
The publishing industry had discovered the Internet while I’d been away. Sites like You Write On had sprung up, literary agents and even publishing people actually had blogs. They might still be wearing tank tops and smoking pipes, but they were doing it online. I was, as they say, sore amazed.

And Authonomy appeared to be a piece of transformational thinking. The site, from mega-publisher Harper Collins, allowed writers to upload part or all of their manuscripts and then provided a forum for them to not only discuss writing and publishing, but also to promote (‘plug’) their books. Why? Because every member of Authonomy got five ‘bookshelf’ spaces in which to put books they liked. Very quickly, most people using the site appeared to reach a consensus that the standard they would apply would be whether they would buy the book in the real world. The more bookshelves you got, the higher up the rankings your book went. At the top lay the prize to end all prizes. A read and critique from a Harper Collins editor. At the end of each month, at midnight, the top five manuscripts (those on ‘The Editor’s Desk’) would be skimmed off to be sent to HC editors.

The rewards of Authonomy?
Now most writers know how hard it is to get feedback. After over 150 agent submissions, I had gained a few positive comments and encouraging words along with an awful lot of rejection slips. It’s lonely out there. And eny fule no that getting in front of a Harper Collins editor is nigh on impossible: HC doesn’t accept unagented submissions, for a start. Most would give at least a sizeable chunk of their left leg to put their book up for review. With its original taglines, ‘publishing contract anyone?’ and ‘Beat the slush’, Authonomy seemed to be a piece of brilliant thinking, disintermediating the gatekeeper agents and providing a peer-review website (you can never be sure, but I think I ‘coined’ that positioning) that helped to hone and select work for HC’s editors to review.

In Authonomy’s early days (I was one of the first few people on there after it went ‘public’, it had been through testing with a ‘beta’ community for a few months before) there were some pretty bad glitches. The first of these was the discovery that people would not only get friends and family to vote (something HC’s original FAQ for the site suggested people do) but that they’d actually rope in everyone they knew. The result was that books of questionable merit shot up to the top of the rankings. One example was virtually unreadable. The shame of this was that there were some good books up there too, at the time.

Power laws
HC moved quickly to deal with this and writers were assigned a ‘talent spotter’ ranking as well as a ranking for their books. This was increased if you ‘backed’ a book that subsequently rose up the ranks. Now the site was weighted – your mum only gave you a tiny little vote, while a top talent spotter could launch you up the ranks from wilderness to the top couple of hundred books. As for the rest, you had to convince people to read your book. And that was the fun bit.

The art of plugging a book on Authonomy was conceived as everyone realised that the only way you were going to get people to read your book was to promote the hell out of it. By now there were way over 1,000 books up there and competition to get to the top was getting fierce. Being active on the forums, thinking up new ways to drive readers over to your book, reading other people’s books and editing your work as feedback came in from readers was a frenetic round of activity, consuming considerable time. By the way, reading books onscreen is not easy. In fact, it’s a real pain in the eyes.

But I cannot for one second pretend it wasn’t incredible fun.

Much of the content on the forums came from writers wondering what Authonomy was all about: what HC’s intention was for the site. A number of us were of the view that it was a perfect talent spotting vehicle – a beauty contest that not only evaluated the quality of the work on offer, but that also selected the most talented and committed promoters and marketers. Writers that knew how to ‘do a Pratchett’, that would survive in the competitive, egalitarian world of the Internet and its communities.

There was great speculation about HC’s intentions and goals, but we all knew one thing. The entire rationale of the site was to provide a vote-based selection process for new talent. That’s all you could do on the site, all it offered. So it stood to reason that getting onto that desk, getting in front of that editor, was what the site was all about.

Trouble in paradise
It wasn’t. When HC announced, responding to a tide of criticism of the published editorial critiques, that its editors were scanning the site regardless of book rankings, many realised that there was something wrong in Eden. The next round of critiques (which included my book) sparked a furious reaction from a number of people on the site and was followed by speculation on the forums that twelve writers had been picked by HC for a ‘special project’. A wave of optimism followed this, even surviving the eventual realisation from those populating the site (we’re looking at about 2500 books uploaded by this time) that the ‘special project’ was sharing the book pitches with other publishers and agents to promote Authonomy.

By now, a number of the earlier adopters of the site had become less enthusiastic about it. And it’s hardly a wonder, either. A pattern had emerged that runs up to the present day, with HC’s announcement that Authonomy will support a ‘POD button’ through a tie-up with POD company Blurb.

The entire process of communication with the Authonomy ‘community’ has been one-way. HC has consistently either announced new features or responded to criticism. It has allowed constant speculation about the nature of the site, presumably not realising that this is actually a negative thing. That speculation existed because Harper Collins was not clear about its intentions and purpose in the first place and chose to manage Authonomy using ‘old world’ corporate thinking.

Many respected business analysts are now pointing to a new type of thinking in business, neatly encapsulated in the (sorry, it’s rather ‘fashionable’) book Wikinomics. That thinking is built around the idea that companies in the Internet age can’t afford to continue operating as silos. That research and development, for instance, is better off shared among a wider community of intelligences. That thinking also recognises that we are heading for a world where people are rewarded in different ways.

Take bloggers Perez Hilton or Arianna Huffington. They have never charged a penny for people to access their blogs, thinking that would be anathema to a newspaper proprietor, for instance, who has been used to charging for content. But both bloggers are now influential figures in their fields who can command a wide range of fees for other activities. Take Linux. IBM (my client, sorry) put $10 billion into Linux, an operating system that it does not own. Linux has been developed by a global community of committed ‘geeks’ based on an ‘open source’ license. Not one of those geeks is paid for working on Linux, which is free to the user.

Why would IBM put $10bn behind that software? Because it can make more money on providing the hardware, software and services around the software. And by being an active and sincere member of the Linux community, it carved a position of respect from that community and leadership in the technologies that the community develops. You see my point here? These companies have found new ways to use communities to drive their businesses in new directions. I’m restricted here by time and space and your attention span, but believe me there are thousands more examples out there. The Internet is changing the way we look at revenue streams in business forever because of communities.

Suggestions?
So what has that got to do with Authonomy? Because Eoin asked me to write what I thought my perfect publisher’s submission/slushpile website would be. And I would answer today, Authonomy. The Authonomy I first went to was a great slushpile site, but I do not believe Authonomy was ever intended to be a slushpile site.

Authonomy had so much to offer. I loved the idea of a website that allowed readers, people like me, to have an influence on the types of books we’d like to see in the shops. I found more good books on Authonomy than I found in any bookshop over the three months I was active on the site. Quirky, different, challenging, dark, beautiful books. Many other members of the community agreed: there’s more good up there in that stack of 3500 (my, how it’s grown!) books than you’ll find browsing many a bookshelf. They’re not all rom-com chic-lit or uplifting novels of human fortitude. But I happen to honestly believe that if publishing is really coming down to that, then it needs to keep a very careful eye out for fat ladies.

The model that I suspect informed Authonomy is there and plain for all to see. The music industry was tired, flaccid and fat. Formulaic music churned out by cynical executives to an audience of listless kids. Knapster and Kazaa didn’t just provide free music, they provided diversity and choice.

Suddenly I can get music, loads of music, online. New music, challenging music, music I like to hear. The principal of payment was never under debate – iTunes is a phenomenon. Record stores are closing down by the day because we’re all off buying our music online. Brilliant online services such as Pandora are springing up, introducing people to new music from a new world of choice. YouTube is breaking new acts and revitalising careers: the Arctic Monkeys were discovered online, Alannis Morrissette’s flagging career was transformed by a single video. Suddenly music is alive, vibrant, diverse and exciting again. And we’re buying it. Only not from record shops. And possibly not from record companies.

The idea of combining a collection of pretty much every new writer in the UK (and beyond) with the BookArmy readers’ website is a smart one. You can see now how adding that POD button means that readers on Book Army will be encouraged to take a look at some of that new writing. How that could possibly make Authonomy the ‘iTunes of literature’.

That is why I believe Authonomy is a platform play from Harper Collins. But I think it will fail. I think it will fail because you can’t be insincere with a community and treat people whose content your platform depends upon with disrespect. I think it will fail because it doesn’t provide a rich enough platform to transform reader interaction with the writers and their worlds – integration to other social media vehicles, supporting blogging and other social features designed for readers, not submitters, to use. And I think it will fail because people will drift away from it as they realise that Authonomy is not what it said on the box (BTW, the title of my original blog post, put up in anger after I had received an email offering me ‘early adopter’ benefits for the POD scheme and asking me not to reveal this to other community members).

A site like that needs the active participation in the community of the organisation behind it. With sincerity that wins the trust of the community. You cannot run online communities, you have to be part of them. You have to accept the principle that you give up ownership in favour of participation. Putting up a patronising blog post every week or so from an editor, or the occasional forum intervention from an unnamed contributor in response to critical threads is not really what Web 2.0 is about, is it? Even the critiques on Authonomy are from unnamed editors. But then my argument is that it was never about critiques.

I suspect many of the people who have used Authonomy would have bought the idea of the platform play if it was laid out in front of them. I suspect many won’t now. And I believe that is purely and simply because a publisher failed to understand the new models of communication and participation that are being driven by the turbulent and marvellous revolution that is the Internet.

* Alexander’s Bio
Alexander McNabb is group account director at Spot On Public Relations, based in the agency’s Dubai headquarters. As a co-founder, editor and then publishing director of the Middle East’s leading technology media house (ITP Ltd), Alexander launched more than 20 publications into that market over a ten-year period and was editor and publisher of leading regional titles such as Arabian Computer News and Comms MEA.
He is a regular commentator on marketing and communications issues as well as emerging technology and communications trends and is a regular contributor to radio, television, print and web-based media. A columnist for Campaign Middle East, Alexander also writes for online media such as Arabianbusiness.com as well as his own blog.

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28 comments

  1. It struck me as interesting that Alexander should talk about the way reading books online is ‘a real pain in the eyes’. When I was first enthusiastic about authonomy, I read around a fair bit and found it an unpleasant way to read a manuscript. So unpleasant that when I came away from the site, I didn’t follow up on promises to read some member’s work, which is bad generally and unusual for me – I try hard to keep all my promises. But that’s something any publisher needs to think about, if they are considering online publications. Blogging works because the posts are short. Pages and pages of a story are no fun to read on a screen.

  2. I’ve been on Authonomy since September last year. I have to say that I do agree with Alexander. The events surrounding the various happenings connected with Authonomy/Harper Collins, Book Army, the twelve chosen ones, the POD offer, have demonstrated incoherence of purpose and a departure from the original message. I am quite convinced that the battle for the Editors’ Desk, which can get quite cutthroat, is actually not worth the bother.

  3. I actually met Alexander in Authonomy as he was kind enough to comment on my book excerpt and me on his book.

    It is a valid platform but stuck as the basis of it’s evolution. He is right that HC haven’t been entirely upfront about how they manage the site and how they will continue to manage the site. However, 3 people from the site now have book contract and 100s more are continuing to hone and read so some good has come from it.

    Maybe Authonomy’s beginnings are another sites lessons for birth?

    SJJ

  4. I was one of the original beta members of authonomy. I absolutely agree with Alexander that the potential of the site has in no way been realised – yet. It’s a great social networking and critiquing tool, but that’s it at the moment. Alexander’s summing up of the history of the site, and its future potential, is very clear here. Why not do something more radical, using the combined intelligence, which is huge, of the authonomy community?
    Tricia

  5. As another Authonomist perched on the Ed Desk, I appreciate Alex’s observations about HC’s unclear objectives. But it is still young, and whatever mistakes have been made are still remediable. The dynamics of the community are shifting constantly. With the selection of three Authonomists well outside of the top 50 for publication, the members understand now (if they didn’t before) that the Ed Desk was (is) just a contest with a prize of uncertain value. The frenzy of December seems to have been replaced with a certain blase curiosity.

    But I think Alexander’s assessment of the potential and the future of publishing is spot on, and I don’t have great optimism that HC will catch on in time.

  6. I signed up for Authonomy a week ago, and I find all of this drama fairly interesting (as it was unknown to me until just now).

    Of course, the idea that maybe, just maybe, and the end of the Yellow Brick Road there was a wizard waiting did have it’s appeal. But the reason I signed up was the community. I had been thinking myself that what the web and publishing needed was a Wiki-publisher (yes, an atrocious prefix) that let the people do what the people need. That being, criticism, community, and even promotion and ranking.

    I’m still trying to decide for myself if Authonomy will be those things. I’ve discovered with interest the techniques that have evolved to promote books within this new context and framework. The “read exchange”, the “reviewer bandwagons”, and the “welcome to Authonomy” sorts who meet you at the door with a laudatory review and friend request, and direct you to their own work. But there’s the forums as well, and this is where I think the potential lies.

    The point of Web 2.0 is that the contributors make it what it is. The publisher can only make a tool, and it behooves them to make it as open and adaptable as possible so that the contributors can use it better. Remember, the reason “wiki” is a word is not because of Wikipedia, but because of the “wiki” itself–a website designed to be designed completely by its users, with a traceable history of edits. This is what allows an encyclopedia, a newspaper, or a literary project to find its expression through that innovative form. The folks running Authonomy would be better off letting the users run the site. Of course, some steering could help. I think YouTube is a good example of the need for this–it is a community on the brink of being completely useless. Only Google’s search engine and tagging formats give it any form whatsoever. Otherwise it would be a slushpile of meaningless video.

    So I’m sitting it out, waiting to see how it all goes down. As I said, I’m most interested in the forums right now. I’ve recently discovered the Literary Fiction reviewing list, which seems like an awesome idea. It’s evolved in the one space where the site gives its users latitude to define their own experience. Maybe there should be more of those sorts of areas on Authonomy.

    ps. Is the site having downtime yesterday and today? Or is getting lost in the tubes some where between there and Oregon?

  7. Has anyone tried the new “litry” site CompletelyNovel. I joined it the other day thinking it might be fun – and maybe it will be. But I now realise that it is really a self-publishing venture, like Lulu.

    By the way, Eoin, you were right about Bookbrunch. It is about to go the subscription route. Will you be signing up?

  8. Lee- I do: both! There is something about the insular network, however. I could put my fiction on a blog, but then, why would anyone read it? There is tons of bad writing on the Net, and there is no impetus to study any of it. But with a login and profile system, you can sort of herd the material together. You can tell who’s been on recently, and there is a democracy of the same, simple profile format. Thank goodness they don’t let you pimp it to MySpace levels!

    The effort to create a rating system is also intriguing. There will always be ways to manipulate the system, but it is much more dynamic than a five star system, a blog roll, or a linkback. The idea that you can only have five books on the shelf at any one time is really interesting. Weighting the reviewers’ backing is also an interesting experiment.

    Also, the really interesting part to me is that you have to upload 10,000 words to participate. I feel like this is a really good entrance “fee”, making the included users a lot less “oceanic” than any forum or discussion list.

    Basically, the Internet is all network. However, when you set up rules for accessing a network, you are changing the way it will be used. Some of these changes work to improve the site, some don’t. If I were running a network, I would focus on making sure the right people got involved–after that, I’d let their own creativity do the rest.

  9. I fully support Alexanders view on this. I was a beta member of authonomy and became disillusioned with the site in November. I suspected we weren’t being told everything and made my books private while I thought about what I wanted to do regarding the site.

    I came back in January with a different outlook on the site. No longer did I even hope that the site would be what it originally led us to believe it would be. I decided I would use the site for my own reasons, to improve my novel, to interact with many of the people I had come to know.

    Would I have signed up back in May if I knew everything I know now?

    No. Not at all.

    One of my very first posts way back when, was about not wanting to join another critique or writers group.

    When I came back I fully understood that authonomy was indeed, a writers group, except if I wanted I could pod my novel. I’d already suspected that back in the November.
    It’s a no to that too.

    All said, I stay because the people are what make the site what it is now, and the majority are helpful, insightful, fun and you can get a great critique. I also like reading the novels, giving my feedback and generally hanging around the place.

    I couldn’t give a mouldy leaf about the Ed’s desk. It never seems to amount to much for most people.

    Lorrii

  10. Well, Alexander, people do seem to read my fiction. Though I realise that download numbers don’t necessarily translate into readers, 50-100 downloads per day must mean that somebody, somewhere is reading it.

    And guess what? I don’t really care much about reader numbers anyway. That’s not why I write.

    You see, literature is not ‘material’, nor is art democratic. Am I elistist? Damn right!

  11. Another Authonomist weighing in here. Alexander, what a wonderful analysis. PeteM is very right. Though it’s true that those of us who came in relatively early (late September, for me) have been treated like the guinea pigs we are, that’s okay!–it’s early days, yet.

    The molasses-slow response of the publishing industry to the web’s potential is mainly owing to the fact that publishing professionals can’t help but see new distribution models as a direct threat to their own jobs. They’re right, too. Sites like Authonomy, should they grow into full-fledged “self-reading slushpiles” would totally obviate the need for legions of sub-editors.

    I have been squawking for weeks at my husband about how the music industry is the perfect analog for all of this–accelerated by a few years!! I was so thrilled to see that you agree.

    I run with a lot of journalists here in Los Angeles, and their stark terror of and antipathy toward the blogosphere has been a sight to behold. I wish I had a nickel for every time I have told one of these guys look, write an effin’ blog! You lot are not going to stop this tidal wave so for pete’s sake, ride it.

    As I believe the smarter ones will.

    Thanks again for the great post, Alexander.

  12. BTW, there’s extensive discussion on the nature of publishing and its likely futures here over at Lauri Shaw’s blog. My views there aren’t quite as up to date as they are here, but other people with far more sense than me are quoted in Lauri’s seven part series.

  13. And as I’m BTWing, here’s another interesting twist to the authonomy tale – one of this month’s batch of top five writers Patty Jansen received an unusually condemnatory crtique from the HC editor – and this is her reaction to it: Patty’s blog

  14. I am another member of Authonomy who was, until perhaps recently, excited about this new initiative. After all, in the age of electronic communication, it seemed utterly old-fashioned that agents and publishers still required huge wads of paper to be sent around the world for five seconds of fame on an agent’s desk.
    In Authonomy, I felt there was some intiative, and although there seemed not much direction, at least not from where I was standing, the site owners were probably watching us like goldfish in a bowl. Or guinea-pigs maybe.
    It didn’t really matter. The site was fun and vibrant.
    I got the POD offer, too. Contemplated it, but dismissed it because of the high cost of postage, and the high cost of the books.
    If you notice a recurring theme of postage in this message, then that may be because I am in Australia.
    Then… my book landed on the Editor’s Desk. I wrote a blog post about that particular experience (linked with my name on this response). Not nice. I wonder if the editors within the company agree with the principle of Authonomy. I don’t think mine did. Read the blog, and Alexanders.
    I am just wondering if HC is flailing aimlessly with this site. Without quality control, POD will be useless. I feel if they want to go that way, they should offer selected books (how about starting off with the top 5 of each month) a copy editor and giving the books a HC-Authonomy emblem to stick on the front cover, so that buyers know they’re buying a properly edited book?
    That was my idea, but after the recent experience, I’m not sure I care anymore.

  15. Hi, I’m Kate from HarperCollins…one of the people who helped set up authonomy.

    (Full disclosure: I did have a whole blog post written over the weekend by way of my own response to some of the issues and points being raised here – and how it’s probably more helpful to see authonomy not as a ‘beauty contest’, but as a box of tools to be harnessed in your strategy for successful publishing. But I’m thinking that over time what I wanted to say is being with equal passion by other people and fellow authonomists…both here and on the authonomy forums.)

    It’s very flattering people are thinking so seriously about what authonomy can be – and are engaging with the potential of our idea 100%. Back in 2007, from a bleak cupboard full of unfairly ignored m/s submissions, we had the idea for authonomy. We set it up with passion and total sincerity as a work in progress, and been hard at work since, and we’re open to all suggestions and thrilled at the level of debate and fresh ideas. Often our harshest critics are our best allies in making this the best it can be. So a big thank you – especially to Alexander for this considered post, and his frequent participation over at authonomy too. Please keep it coming.

    Heck, we’ve only been going for 4 months (and the book publishing industry doesn’t move at the fastest of paces), but in that time authonomy has at least got lots of projects off the starting blocks that probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day otherwise – and 3 books contracted to HC from it already. We’re experimenting with lots of ideas and BETA trials of things we might set up as as non compulsory services within the site – if and only if they are useful for our members, and if they technically function properly – before we commit to the site rebuilds and 1.0-style announcements these things tend to entail.

    We’re constantly learning from our members’ enthusiastic comments and, painful as it might feel at the time, welcome being told off and slapped on the wrists for not doing it right. We’re happy to feel pretty flexible about the whole thing. If anyone wants to help us with some more trials, there’ll be more on this over at our blog soon, in the meantime, feel free to give us more thoughts over at the forums and blog – which, believe me, we spend a unholy amount of time on!

  16. ‘Heck, we’ve only been going for 4 months (and the book publishing industry doesn’t move at the fastest of paces), but in that time authonomy has at least got lots of projects off the starting blocks that probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day otherwise – and 3 books contracted to HC from it already.’

    Kate, I consider this statement totally ingenuous. Three books announced almost immediately after the hullabaloo, right? And how insulting do you think it is to talk about projects that wouldn’t have seen the light of day without the blessings of authonomy! I probably have more readers than the average conventionally published novel.

  17. Lee
    Oh dear, I’m not sure why you think I’m trying to trick you! I’m in book publishing, just trying to get some good books out.

    I wish you very best of luck with the book – glad to hear it’s going well.

  18. Kate, I’m at a loss how you interpreted my comment to mean trickery. Let’s just say I’m amused by the ploy of producing those three books from the proverbial hat as soon as the ruckus at Authonomy broke.

    And luck may play a role in getting published, or making money at it, but writing itself involves hard work – lots and lots of hard work – with whatever measure of talent a writer may have.

  19. Kate

    ‘We’re happy to feel pretty flexible about the whole thing’

    ‘just trying to get some good books out’

    Why does the tone you’ve adopted unsettle me? Is it the fact that you answer none of the points raised by the post in your comment to it?

    Is it that HC persists on talking about the ‘three authonomy authors’ when it’s now public knowledge that one was an agented MS and the other a self-published book that achieved independent popularity – and that has languished on authonomy since the pre-public phase of the site?

    In fact only one ‘true’ authonomy book, whose author’s experience you have rushed to post on the authonomy blog in what I consider to be quite a cynical act so typical of HC’s deportment throughout this project, has been picked up by HC. And that book found at random and not as a result of the ranking system that authonomy was launched around (be clear, I am NOT complaining that my book wasn’t picked up).

    At least you’re an HC editor and ‘real’. Why not take at least a few of my points on board and start letting HC participants – including the ‘crit’ editors – participate in the site as people not anonymous camp guards?

    I don’t WANT you to fail. But I do want you to change.

  20. Alexander, your points are good ones, much better than my own, in fact. Kate’s comments read like PR announcements – and I’ve written enough of those in my time!

  21. C’mon guys, you’re sounding a bit like conspiracy theorists at the moment. Fair play to HC to join in the debate at least.

    What do you actually want from Authonomy.com and HC?

    Simon

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