The In's and Out's of Creating a Launch Team for a Book Release

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

 By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

As I count down the days to the release to my first-ever YA book, An Uncertain Choice (published by Harper Collins), I've been really busy getting ready for the launch!

One of the major ways I prepare for every book's release is by forming a Launch Team (aka Influencers). In the publishing world, Influencer is often used to refer to a reader who signs up to help in the promotion of a book in exchange for a free copy of that book.


An Influencer doesn't just agree to write a review of the book. Although reviews are a big part of influencing, Influencers do SO much more than review. They share their enthusiasm about the book in countless ways (by recommending the book to their libraries, pinning the cover on Pinterest, taking pictures of themselves with the book, passing out bookmarks, etc., etc., etc.)

We all know how powerful word-of-mouth can be in marketing a book. Influencers are strategic in getting the “talk” going and can help the marketing efforts at the time of a book's release.

In gathering Influencers for past books, I've always had an open policy--as long as I have room on my list and as long as the Influencer agrees to promote the book (in a few specific ways that I ask), then I add them to my list.

For my new YA book, however, I knew I needed to narrow down my list a bit more to those who were either teens or had a circle of influence with teens. So this time, I developed an online application that potential Influencers could fill out by a specified deadline.

After going through the applications and narrowing down those who had the largest reach to teens, I emailed them a letter explaining my expectations for Influencers. If they were in agreement, then I signed them up.

Once they were signed up, I invited them to a special Facebook Group I created specifically for Influencers of An Uncertain Choice. In this "secret" group, I can communicate with everyone easily and effortlessly about promotional ideas, etc.

I have to say that this particular group has been very fun and enthusiastic! They've jumped right into the group and shared personal information, pictures, pins, reviews, and lots more. They have truly become an encouragement and blessing to me in ways I never imagined!

However, inevitably there are always those who join my group of Influencers who end up not liking my book. Obviously, readers can't predict whether they'll like a book when they sign up and agree to be an Influencer. So for those who end up not liking my book, I ask that they do two things:

1. Give their copy of the book to someone they think might enjoy it.

2. Share at least one of the other positive reviews or blog posts regarding the book.

They don't have to lie or say good things about a book they don't like. Usually they just opt not to say anything at all rather than hurt the author’s marketing efforts. I ask them to follow the old adage taught to them by their mother: "If you can't say anything nice, then don't say anything at all."

That saying is THE key difference between Influencers and Book Reviewers.

Many Book Reviewers also get a free copy of the book (either through Net Galley or the publisher's book review program). Unlike my Influencer list which I control, I have no sway in who gets a review copy of my book.

A Book Reviewer may or may not be a fan of the author. Most often their intention is to provide a helpful review for other readers. They aren't agreeing to promote the book or author, although indirectly that can happen, particularly if they really liked the book and get excited about it. They may write a stellar review and recommend the book to others.

But a Book Reviewer can also rip the book to shreds if they don't like it. Their job is to provide a helpful and honest review. They're often asked to share that review in a number of different places (online bookstores, a blog, Goodreads, etc.).

In other words, a Book Reviewer's goal is to help the reader make wise reading choices. An Influencer's goal is to help the author with promotion.

A BIG thank you to my current launch team for being such an awesome group!

What about YOU? As writers, have you ever formed a launch team? What are some things that have worked well? What hasn't worked so well?

5 Point Checklist To Help Writers Get to Know Their Characters Thoroughly

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Reviews are starting to roll in for my new YA novella, THE VOW, published by Harper Collins.

Considering the length constraints of a novella, developing real, likeable, and deep characters can be a challenge. So I was pleasantly surprised to see that the characters have resonated with readers so far:

"I loved how Jody Hedlund developed her characters so quickly." (Velva B.)

"The characters are real and fresh." (Emilee D)

"The Vow's crisp prose and pitch-perfect characterization quickly immersed me in the romance, pageantry, and courtliness of Hedlund's medieval world." (Ruth)

"The characters are fleshed out with their own unique personalities." (Caitlin)

Let's face it making our characters REAL is difficult in a full length novel much less one a quarter of the size (as is the case of a novella). So how can we accomplish such a feat?

As I analyzed how I was able to bring the characters in my novella to life so quickly and realistically, I realized one very important thing: I wrote the full length novel (which is the heroine's main story) BEFORE I penned the novella. 

No, I'm not proposing that all novellas be written after the tie-in novel. Rather, my point is that as I sat down to write the novella, I ALREADY thoroughly knew my heroine inside and out. She was alive and fresh and vibrant in my mind because I'd spent weeks developing her character during my pre-writing plotting phase, and then I also got to know her even better while I wrote the full length novel.

The whole experience reminded me of just how imperative it is for writers to know their characters. In fact, if we want to have characters that come alive in our readers' minds, the characters must intimately come alive in our minds first. 

Whether we're a plotter or pantser (seat-of-the-pants writer), all of us can benefit from fleshing out our characters BEFORE we start writing our first drafts.

Here are some areas I explore with my main characters:

1. Appearance: 

(I describe exactly how they look; I even go as far as finding a picture of them online from among actors and actresses, models, or famous people.)

• Body type (including weight and height)
• Their unique scent
• Texture of hands, skin
• Eye color (along with synonyms and metaphors)
• Hair color and style (along with synonyms and metaphors)
• Unique physical traits/tags specific to only that characters
• Clothing (style, frequently worn clothes, etc.)
• Race/ethnicity
• Physical imperfections or something they would most like to change

2. Personality: 

• Admirable personality traits
• Negative personality traits
• Quirks or eccentricities
• Off-beat manners of behavior, dress, or speech that distinguishes them from others
• Things that make them angry (along with method of handling anger)
• Things that embarrass them (along with method of handling embarrassment)
• Things that make them afraid (along with method handling fear)
• Prejudices
• Pet peeves or gripes
• Sense of humor
• Philosophy of life

3. Interests:

• Favorites (foods, books, colors, places, etc.)
• Hobbies
• Item(s) special to them
• Person/friend close to them
• Years of schooling
• Occupations (past and present)
• Skills, abilities, talents

4. Backstory:

• Brief family history
• Description of home, home life, economic status
• Most painful experiences in their past
• Happiest memories from their past
• Relationships with father or mother (or another family member)
• Other important relationships that affected them
• Any other significant events from the past

5. Goals:

• What is their biggest dream or main goal in life?
• Why do they have that dream/goal (what happened in their past to give them that dream)?
• What is keeping them from reaching their dream/goal?

Yes, I know the above lists can look a little overwhelming! But I don't tackle the list all at once. In
fact, some of it I don't even fill in until I start writing the story. I usually get to know my characters on a much deeper level AS the story unfolds.

Even so, I always start with a basic framework. I bring my characters to life BEFORE I start writing. It's because the characters are ALREADY alive and fleshed out that I'm THEN able to go much deeper as I write the story.

Writers, if we want to develop deep, realistic characters that readers will love and care about, then follow this writerly commandment: "Know Thy Characters."

What about YOU? What are some other areas you explore with your characters to bring them to life?

One Important Thing Many Writers Neglect To Do While Waiting

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Most writers who've been writing for any length of time learn the mantra, "Persevere, persevere, persevere."

In fact, you've probably heard statistics like these about famous writers who persevered long and hard before getting published:

Agatha Christie went through FIVE years of continual rejection before landing a publishing deal; her book sales are now over $2 billion.

Louis L’Amour garnered 200 rejections before a publisher decided to take a chance on him; his book sales are now over $330 million.

Janet Evanovich wrote for TEN years before getting published; she now makes millions every year.

Yes, we all know we need to persevere. That's a given in the publishing industry.

Sometimes we have to persevere because WE aren't ready. Our writing techniques lag, our story-telling skills aren't honed, and we simply need to improve.

Other times the INDUSTRY isn't quite ready for us. Agents and editors have varying tastes, needs, and constraints. And sometimes it just takes time for our book to land in the hands of someone who loves it and wants to champion it.

There are even times when the READING PUBLIC isn't ready for us. Perhaps our genre or niche isn't commercially appealing, yet. The public doesn't see the value in what we're writing since they're still in love with the current trends.

Whatever the reason, many published authors can attest to the years of waiting before getting their big breaks. I wrote for about seven or eight years before I broke in to traditional publication. I had written at least seven books by the time I landed my first publishing deal.

In addition to persevering, most of us also know that we need to continue to write while we're waiting. It does us no good to pour our lives into one book and then sit back and wait for something to happen to our darling. We must keep on writing.

Continuing to write takes our mind off the waiting (mostly!). And it gives us more practice along with more books to potentially sell when we finally garner attention.

Yes. Persevere. And write, write, write. As I said, most writers get that.

However, I think there's one thing many writers neglect to do while waiting and writing . . . and it could be a factor for why some writers end up waiting for so long. They forget to MAXIMIZE practice time.

You see, it's not enough just to write. Anyone can continually write and have an enormous quantity. But quantity doesn't equate improved quality.

I liken the writing process to running (which I attempt to do with some regularity). I try to run every day at the same pace and the same number of miles. Over the past couple of years, I've accumulated quite a lot of miles on my Nike Running App. Such a regime means that I'm not getting worse, but it also means I'm never getting any better. I'm certainly not ready for any competitive races. If I really want to improve, I'd need to challenge myself to run a little faster or consciously push myself in small increments to go a longer distance.

The same is true of our writing. Yes, we need to keep steadily writing. But if we want to improve, we have to consciously challenge ourselves to take small steps forward by being intentional, incremental, and inspirational.

Be Intentional:

Analyze our words and sentences. Examine our weaknesses. Let others point them out to us (through critiques, contests, or writing partners). Then look for "coaches" either via writing books, blogs, or mentors who can help us improve our techniques.

Be Incremental:

Make a plan to implement new techniques in our writing. Take those small incremental steps to try something different. Practice with conscious effort (whether that's improving dialog or eliminating over-telling or any number of weaknesses).

At first we may have to go slower as we catch our mistakes and retrain ourselves to write differently. The process may feel cumbersome. But eventually, we'll find ourselves utilizing that new technique smoothly and even effortlessly.

Be Inspirational:

Find ways to draw new inspiration, to invigorate our writing with freshness, vivacity, and uniqueness. (See my recent post on 15 Ways to Find Inspiration in 2015).

How about YOU? Have you had to wait? What steps are you taking to make sure you're improving and not just staying in the same spot?

Do Writers REALLY Need to Use Social Media Anymore?

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

With the rapid growth of self-publishing, many writers have stopped putting stock in social media as a marketing tool. Instead many writers are focusing on output–creating more content to get in front of readers with the hopes that the writing itself will be the biggest marketing tool.

Essentially the strategy over the past year or two has been for writers to put a permanently free (aka perma-free) book out there to act as the catalyst to draw readers to their other books. But in order for the perma-free book to work at maximum potential, it usually has to be the first in a series. It also helps if the author has a decent backlist.

However, with every author now attempting to put out a perma-free book, the free book market has become glutted. If you're like me, you probably have dozens of free books on your Kindle that you haven't gotten around to reading yet. Unfortunately all of the free books have undermined the value of ebooks (but that's a topic for another post!).

Of course writers are trying other ways to get content in front of readers (in addition to a perma-free book). They're writing enovellas, eshorts, serials, and republishing out-of-print backlists.

But the question always remains (one I'm asked frequently by other writers, especially new ones): "How do get the word out about all of my content? Even the stuff that's free or relatively cheap isn't garnering much reader attention nowadays. So how do I get my books noticed?"

In the not-so-recent past, the typical answer would have been: "Build a social media presence, develop relationships. Then your friends and followers will want to help you get the word out because that's what friends do for each other." (Or something like that.)

All of us were at different parts of the path on the journey to publication. So those of us who were coming behind would cheer on and promote those farther ahead. And those farther ahead would do the same for friends once they landed their first deal.

With the explosion of the indie movement, the publishing journey is much shorter with fewer differentiations along the path. Almost everyone who wants to be published is published. And so that means everyone needs help with promotion at pretty much the same time as everyone else. Basically, we're all in the same place of needing to get the word out about our books.

In fact, as I thought about my early blogging friends, most are published or are in the process of it. Many of us have the same circles of influence. Some of us even have the same readers. And while we can support each other as best we can, I can only imagine that at times readers' eyes glaze over at the barrage of promotion they get from all of us.

In addition to the over-saturation of promotion among social media, the nature of social media is constantly in flux. New ways of relating come up that make the not-so-old seem antiquated.

Does that mean social media is fairly useless to writers as a marketing tool? Should we just throw in the towel and do nothing?

At this point, I  don't think writers should close up their social media accounts. Yes, I think a writer's focus should remain on producing content. We should have a perma-free book even if it's only a novella (like mine) or an eshort. We should continue to have a large volume of books (including backlist) available for purchase; occasionally we should even put them on sale to draw attention to our front list books. We can make use of BookBub and other promotional sites.

But we can't completely neglect social media. With patience and perseverance, with consistency and a little more creativity, the various outlets can still be an effective way to reach readers with the news of our books.

Above all, social media is an awesome way to connect with readers on a more personal level (and not just when we're trying to promote our book). I want my readers to know I'm here, I'm available, and I appreciate them. I don't want to be the kind of snooty author who sits away in her ivory tower pumping out book after book with the attitude that I don't have time to mingle with the masses.

Rather, I'd like to be known for my warmth, compassion, and accessibility. To me, being an author is more than just about my books. Yes, I want readers to find hope and enjoyment in the stories I tell. But I also want to be known as a real person who cares. Social media allows for that . . . if we do the work to make it happen.

What about YOU? What do you think is the role of social media in the writer's life nowadays? Has it stopped being an effective marketing tool?

How to Handle Bad Book Reviews

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

By Jody Hedlund @JodyHedlund

I recently got a REALLY bad review on my book, Love Unexpected. The title read "No! No! No! Dirty, dirty, dirty!" The reviewer left one-star, but I'm sure she would have left a negative number if that were possible.

When I first saw the review title, I was startled. I thought there must be some mistake. After all, my book is a Christian romance. It's devoid of bare-chested men, bodice-ripping, and bawdy bed-rolling. In the publishing industry, my book is categorized as a "sweet romance."

Granted, within the spectrum of sweet fiction, my books tend to be a bit edgier, truer-to-life, with grittier themes. Even my new medieval YA series doesn't shy away from darker themes like Bubonic Plague and gruesome torture methods. It's also true that the romantic elements in all my books (adult and YA) while "sweet" are definitely more realistic and emotion-evoking. However, the relationships are all very chaste (especially in my YA).

So you can understand my confusion when I saw the title of the review. After clarifying that the review was indeed referring to my book, then I chuckled. I thought it was funny that someone in this modern age of Fifty Shades of Gray considered my book "dirty."

Besides, dirty is a word I'd use for those slushy muddy footprints on my kitchen floor left by my children when they don't take off their boots. Dirty isn't something I'd use to describe a budding relationship and the ensuing sensuality that develops between a man and a woman. I'd actually describe it as beautiful.

My point isn't to elaborate on how sad it makes me that there are people who view sexuality as dirty. Rather my point is to say that ALL authors get bad reviews. This isn't the first I've received and it certainly won't be the last.

Authors will get stinging, biting, and even caustic reviews. Readers may nitpick about things we can't even remember writing or not say anything specific at all except that they hated the book. Sometimes an issue, character, or theme may upset them, and we can only scratch our heads and ask, "How did they get that out of my book?"

But the thing about reviews? They're for readers, not writers. Reviewers are allowed to say whatever they want (although even as a reader who sometimes leaves reviews, I have the personal policy of being graciously honest).

All that to say, writers have to learn how to handle bad reviews because it isn't a matter of "if" we get them, it's a matter of "when." So here are several pieces of advice for handling those bad reviews:

1. Either develop thick skin or don't read the reviews. 

As I mentioned, the reviews aren't really intended for the author to read. They're there for other readers. So if we read them, we need to go into them with the mindset that we'll face open, honest, feedback. If we can't handle it, then we need to stay away (and that's perfectly acceptable; everyone needs to know his or her limits).

2. Don't take the reviews personally. 

Remember this is a business. Nowadays every product out there gets rated. Recently when I was in the process of buying a new comforter for my bed, I scoured the reviews of each potential purchase. I wanted to be alerted to problems or flaws in the product before finalizing my decision. I appreciated the reviews in helping me narrow down the many choices. Reviews are helpful, even the "bad" ones.

3. Remember that reviews are subjective.

Readers view the pages of our books through the lens of their unique backgrounds, personalities, and values. All of that will shape their reading experience. Some readers who are accustomed to reading erotica may find my books boring. Other readers who prefer the sweetness of Little House on the Prairie may be offended by the kisses.

4. Focus on the positive. 

The "dirty" review is the only one-star review I have on that particular book. The majority are 5 stars. And the majority of readers have only positive things to say about the romance relationship. If we're pleasing the majority, we can't cater to or worry about the minority.

5. Never respond to those bad reviews. 

We can commiserate in private with other author friends. We should share our frustrations (or our humor) with our inner circle. But we should never, ever, comment back on reviews or defend ourselves (even if it's legit). When we do so, we only make ourselves look worried or defensive (too much like a hovering parent who always comes to the rescue of a bullied child). We should let our works stand on their own two feet without intruding as the author.

How about you? How do you think authors should handle bad reviews?

How to Utilize Tension More Effectively

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Tension is a very important story-telling technique. It's basically the way we tug on readers' emotions, how we pull them along page after page with curiosity, fear, or even fascination. Tension tightens readers' fingers to the book, making it very difficult for them to pry themselves away.
In essence, tension is the state of being stretched tight. I like to think of a rope tied to a tarp holding it down against a strong breeze. The harder the wind blows, the tighter the rope grows in its effort to hold that tarp in place. But if the wind dies down, the rope slackens and may even turn limp.

As writers, we can think of the tarp as our overarching story and plot, the rope as the varying types of techniques we use to stretch reader's emotions, and the wind as the amount of force we apply at any given moment.

The Tarp:

A writer must have an overarching plot. Many define plot as the connection of events or a series of causes and effects that are arranged in logical order. However, I would take the definition a step further to say that plot has to encompass the introduction of a story-problem, a problem big enough to last the entire book, a problem that covers and hangs over everything – like a tarp.

Small problems and conflicts are all fine and good (and needed). But without the overarching plot that hangs above everything else, we risk losing reader interest as the smaller cause and effect scenarios work themselves out.

The Rope:

There are two basic types of rope or tension that we can weave into our stories: macro-tension and micro-tension.

1. Macro-tension: This is the type of tension that carries through a broader scope of scenes and story. We introduce longer-lasting issues that stretch readers' emotions so that they have to keep reading to find out what happens. We can exhibit macro-tension in numerous ways:

• We make our bad guys so strong that it appears the good guys won't be able to win.

• We keep stacking the odds against our good guys until it seems they can't climb over.

• We set a ticking clock that our characters must beat or else . . .

• We withhold information to keep our reader guessing.

• We plant questions that we don't fully answer until later.

• We hint at problems that are yet to come.

• We add a sub-plot that has intrigue and inherent conflict.

2. Micro-tension: This is the type of tension that happens on a much smaller scale, usually at the paragraph or short scene level. We often feel this kind of tension when we're watching a movie and we know a knife-wielding criminal is in the house with the heroine. We're with her as hears strange thumps upstairs, as she rises from the couch, creeps down the hallway, and ascends each creaking step one at a time. We're waiting with tightening muscles and shallow breathing for the moment when the intruder jumps out. (Cue the scary music!)

With micro-tension, we stretch the paragraph or scene as taut as we can. We can do that a number of ways:

• We show more details; we move our "video camera" much more slowly and carefully, showing each step of the unfolding drama.

• We utilize the five senses to evoke a certain mood.

• We share the character's internal narration, their reactions, their churning emotions.

• We use contrast (instead of our character sneaking up the stairway, we can make her oblivious to the danger that awaits her).

The Wind:

As writers, we're the wind. We control how much pressure we apply to our characters and story. Obviously this will vary depending upon the genre we write. Suspense stories will likely have more inherent tension than historicals.

Whatever the genre, however, we writers are the ones who blow the breeze. And for the most part, we'll want to keep a steady stream in order to keep our tension levels tight.

However, we may make our readers weary if we never release the tension but instead keep the wind blowing at gale force all the time without any let up. Imagine reading page after page of both macro and micro tension without anything good ever happening to our characters. Readers may begin to think, what's the point in reading this if the character never succeeds or gets a break? They may begin to think the story is unrealistic or the character too weak.

Thus, the use of tension requires some releasing and then tightening. We blow hard, then relax, only to blow harder the next time. It's a process of give and take, and the better we get at it, the better we engage our readers.

How well are you utilizing tension in your stories? Any other tips that you can share with us? We'd love to hear them!

*Photo credit: Flickr Ollie Brown

P.S. My young adult e-novella, THE VOW (published by Harper Collins) just released! It's a prequel to the first book in my YA series coming out in March. If you love castles, knights, and the middle ages, then check it out!

Do Agents Still Hold the Gatekeeper Key to Getting Published?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

The world of publishing has changed radically over the past few years. With the evolution of ebooks and indie publishing, everything that was once tried-and-true has been shaken. As the construction dust settles, many are trying to figure out what remains of the old traditional way of doing things and also what is new and necessary.

Of course, one of the things many writers want to know is, "Do I still need an agent?" 

In the not-too-distant past it seemed that everyone was talking about getting an agent. In fact, when I first started my agent hunt about six years ago, the frenzy was at an almost ridiculous high. Most agents already had full client loads but occasionally bestowed their favor upon a giddy new writer plucked out of the slush pile.

As agents began blogging and tweeting, aspiring writers scrambled to get noticed in the new medium. At times among the cyber-hallways, it felt as though there was a "high school popularity contest" mentality both among aspiring writers and between agents.

The few writers who got an agent's attention were considered lucky and special. Because like it or not, everyone knew that agents held the gatekeeper key to getting published. Most publishers didn't have the time or staff to weed through manuscripts of all the wannabe's. So, for the most part, they let agents do the gate-keeping job for them.

But alas, the hype over agents has died down (finally!). The popularity contests are over (thank goodness!).

However, new, unagented writers are left scratching their heads wondering what to do. Do they really need an agent? And if they get agent, what would that person do for them anyway?

If you're planning to self-publish, then no, you don't need an agent. At least not right away. When you've written multiple books and they're hitting best-seller lists, then you can possibly consider acquiring an agent to help you expand your reach into traditional publishing, foreign print, and even film. (Sidenote: I'm not self-published, so I can only share what I've heard from indie friends. For those who are self-published and agented, feel free to chime in with the benefits you've experienced with your agent.)

For those still seeking traditional publication with a bigger publisher, yes, you likely WILL still need an agent to get a book deal. Once in a while, writers make connections with publishers at writing conferences. Every now and then, indie writers catch the attention of publishers if they have high sales like Hugh Howey with his Wool series (which I'm currently reading and enjoying). (Read his fascinating publishing story here on WD.)

But for the most part, traditional publishers still usually find authors from manuscripts submitted by trusted agents. Savvy knowledgeable agents not only broker deals but also provide much needed career direction (which I could expound on in a whole other post). The truth is, some agents are better at their job than others, and new writers should be careful to get feedback from agents' current clients before signing.

So how does a writer go about getting an agent? Sometimes writers connect with agents at conferences or get referrals from agented friends. But the most common way to get an agent is still through direct querying. Most agents have query guidelines on their website for exactly WHAT to submit (usually a query letter containing a synopsis and then a specific number of sample pages), HOW to submit (usually via email), and WHERE (usually to an agency email address). Follow those guidelines as carefully as possible. 

If a writer's skill is honed, if a story is well-told and captivating, and it holds general market appeal, it WILL eventually garner an agent's attention. From my many years of critiquing for new writers, I've learned that it's VERY easy to spot a talented writer and a great story. The problem is that many writers think they're at the graduate level before they really are and so end up querying an agent too soon in their writing career (like after their first book or two). Most successfully published writers will attest that they had to write several books before their writing skill reached a publishable quality.

My advice for writers who are beginning to query is this: Send it out and see what happens. If the story doesn't "hook" an agent right away, keep trying. But in the meantime continue to write AND improve your writing skills. Writing and learning must always go hand in hand.

The traditional publication process still takes lots of patience. But the good thing is that it's not the ONLY option available to writers. Our hopes for a writing career don't all hinge upon it anymore. If the traditional door stays shut, the future is still wide open.

So what about you? Do you still think agents are necessary in today's changing publishing industry?

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