A Few Random Notes on Self-Publishing

(35 comments)

I just spent most of today fighting with book formatting for a thing I'll talk about in good time, which led me to dust this set of notes I drew up off for your reading pleasure. Because occasionally people have asked me for advice about self-publishing. Which is funny, because it assumes I know what I'm doing, which I don't, but here, at least, are some things I used to not know that I have since learned.

1) Recognize that everyone will assume you are an unprofessional git. This is potentially true, but equally, may well not be. It doesn’t matter. You’re self-publishing, which means you couldn’t get a real publisher, which means you must suck. Never mind the myriad of sane reasons to self-publish and the fact that you might just be working in a niche market where the overhead of professional publishing renders your book financially unsound. You’re a hack because you’re self-publishing. Therefore almost everything you do has to be done with the knowledge that this is how people see you.

2) There is shit you have to pay for. You cannot edit your own book. You just can’t. Nor can you give it to a friend to edit unless that friend is a professional editor or at least should be. Just having been an English major isn’t enough. My main two copyeditors are a professional editor and a former student whose work I was particularly impressed by. I have many, many friends with English degrees, graduate and undergraduate, who I would not let near my prose in a million years. That said, if you can work with a fan or friend who will subsidize the cost out of love for you or your work, it helps.

3) Your editor is right. I know. You loved that line. You thought it was brilliant. Tough. Your editor is right. Your editor is always right. This is, in fact, the primary thing to look for in hiring an editor: that they will always be right. You want someone you will grudgingly defer to every time. You’re allowed some raging against the dying of the light - I routinely mark things as “leave this as I wrote it, but also leave this comment in place so I can meekly change it back next round of edits." My editor pretends to allow me dignity. It’s very nice of her. But frankly, the number of times you overrule your editor should be miniscule if you have a good editor. This requires you to be careful in choosing your editor. But it’s the key trait - that they will be someone who is always, obnoxiously, right.

4) You probably can’t do your own cover design. You can probably buy some stock photo or something and slap some writing on it, but your cover will look like shit and everyone will know that you’re a self-publishing hack the moment they look at your book. Pay an artist real money. Again, a fan or friend is ideal, but make sure they’re good at it, and more to the point good at the style you want out of them. Simple covers can be fine, but make sure it looks professional. Look to the covers of academic presses - they’re usually done very cheaply but don’t look like crap. (I'm very lucky here - James is phenomenally good and works for a song because he's terribly nice.)

5) You’ll notice a recurring theme here. Making it as a visionary solo artist is insane. Get a community. I am a big proponent of always getting paid, but of working for free or cheap among colleagues and friends. This requires having colleagues and friends. Even that way, self-publishing is expensive - a book costs me nearly $1000 to put out, and I get very, very good rates from my freelancers and am willing to do a lot myself.

6) Marketing. It’s actually a thing. A sustained marketing campaign is exhausting, frustrating, and you spend lots of time doing things for few rewards. But unless you’ve got a sizable built-in audience, it’s the only way to work. I can convert roughly 10-15% of my daily readership into book sales for a given book. I have no idea if that’s a good conversion rate, a crappy one, or a normal one, but it’s what I get. So do the math and make sure you know what you’re doing. If you’ve got 200 readers a day then your book isn’t going to sell much. Maybe a few people will find it on Amazon - in non-fiction, at least, that happens. Otherwise, you need to know how to market your book.

7) You do not know how to market your book. It is as different a skill from writing a book as doing cover art is. If you think you have the gift for this, go for it, and remember that you’re going to spend a week or two mainly doing something very different from the writing you actually enjoy. If you don’t, hire a publicist.

8) You also don’t know how to format an ebook. You never do, actually - every book I’ve put out has had some bizarre formatting snafu, and I’ve started to just plan on losing two days to one every book. Your first book will be longer than two days unless you do it very wrong, i.e. badly. (This is what I did. I don’t recommend it.) For God’s sake, take an ebook and a print book and look at the formatting. Make yours resemble it. Learn how to do a linked table of contents. If you haven’t thought extensively about font choice, you’re doing it wrong. You can pay someone for this as well, but I at least found it relatively easy to pick up on from tutorials on Amazon, Createspace, and Smashwords.

9) Incidentally, those are the three companies to deal with. You can sub Lulu in for Createspace. I don’t, but plenty of people do. Smashwords will be a small segment of your income, but a lovely one, as they get you into every ebook store save for Amazon. Amazon you need to deal with directly, which is simple. Yes, they’re evil. Tough. You want to put a book out, you have to get in bed with Amazon. Maybe 3% of my annual writing income doesn’t pass through Amazon’s bank accounts at one time or another. Createspace and/or Lulu are for print editions. Amazon owns Createspace, incidentally.

Comments

Ewa Woowa 3 years, 10 months ago

You should probably tell 3 to JKRowling...
Lord knows, those last few HarryPotter books needed a good / ruthless editor...

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Darren K. 3 years, 10 months ago

While those books definitely needed further editing, I would wager that when major international businesses are breathing down your neck and shareholders are deeply invested - literally - in your book's success, when you have a publication deadline, that deadline is going to be met, whatever you or your editor think, especially when a large part of your audience has no problem with the rambling nature of the text.

Those big, later books came out like clockwork at the end of June, beginning of July, every two years, and needing further revision or not, they were going to come out at that time. Phil at least has the advantage of not having the heads of Bloomsbury and Warner Brothers breathing down his neck so he can take the time to get it right without having to issue a profit warning to shareholders if he needs extra time - though I bet the weight of all those Kickstarter backers shows up whenever a snag occurs with the revised Hartnell.

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Froborr 3 years, 10 months ago

Thanks again for these Phil.

Number 3 is the truest thing ever truthed. My editor SHREDDED the first two chapters of the MLP book, and we're now renegotiating our contract so he can afford to go similarly in-depth on the rest of the book. He's even giving me homework in the form of "you really ought to be referencing these authors, go read them."

I'm attempting to market myself, which is insane because I'm terrible at it, but I'm going to give it a shot because how do you even find a publicist? Right now my thinking is cross-promo, cross-promo, cross-promo: find people whose audiences might be interested in the book and offer link trades/guest posts/appearance on their podcast/what-have-you. Conventions are good for this, I picked up a guest post trade and invited myself onto a podcast this weekend.

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Chris Andersen 3 years, 10 months ago

George RR Martin certainly doesn't seem to have problems holding off his publisher.

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 10 months ago

I don't have a problem with that. GRRM is writing a sprawling epic. If you want it condensed, we have the HBO show. If you want a richly detailed Saga, the books.

I think Harry Potter is a little different as the cast and story are much smaller and yet for a while those books just kept ballooning.

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Mike 3 years, 10 months ago

Thank you for this post! I've been pushing a friend to consider self publishing but this is the kind of useful information I can't provide.

I was lucky enough to convince a publisher that I could write a book, so I've experienced the way-easier mirror image of most of your points. The difference is marketing, which they'll do a bit of, but it's still my responsibility to get out there and get attention. That means submitting talks to conferences, figuring out ways to get me to those conferences, and trying to get articles or blog posts accepted in other publications.

By the way, 10-15% conversion rate sounds incredible to me! Very nice.

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C. 3 years, 10 months ago

Martin's an interesting case in that the HBO show (a series a year) is likely going to outpace his books by 2015. It could wind up an odd situation where the adaptation "spoils" the books, as the creators allegedly know the main plot resolutions; it would be as if they made a film of "Deadly Hallows" before Rowling published it.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 10 months ago

They're in slightly better shape than that. Book Three was split over two years, and Books Four and Five are (presumably) going to be done simultaneously (since the novels' structure of having two books taking place simultaneously but featuring differing sets of characters would be impossible to do on television - the actors would revolt, if nothing else) over, I'd guess, three years. So I'd guess they have until 2018 before they need Book Six, which ought to be more than comfortable - I'd guess it will end up coming out in 2015 or 2016.

The interesting race comes in 2020, when they need Book Seven. That will require an optimistic writing pace.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 10 months ago

I suspect 10-15% is very much on the high end of what one can accomplish, though I don't really know.

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Darren K. 3 years, 10 months ago

Martin is writing for a different audience, one that isn't in danger of growing out of his books, and while his books are immensely popular, they are not even close to selling in the same scale as the Harry Potter books (HP has outsold A Song of Fire and Ice by about 30 to 1, which is hard to fathom by still true). While it is clear the HP books could have used editing, getting them out in a timely and profitable manner, well ahead of the films, before the demand fell, just in time for the summer holidays, very possibly meant that Rowling wasn't egotistically demanding that the books be published "as is" but more likely were published as necessary. The necessities of production trump art, for better and for worse.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 10 months ago

See, what always interested me about Harry Potter was that the books grew up with their audience - if you were the right age for The Philosopher's Stone in 1997, you were also right around the right age for Deathly Hallows in 2007, give or take one or two years.

Actually, what really interests me is that the book series will be quite odd in its later life as a classic of children's literature because there's no correct age to start it - the first book will be a bit young feeling for you if you're ready for the last one, and the last one will be a bit overly intense if you're ready for the first one.

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C. 3 years, 10 months ago

They could do a combined Book 4/5 in two seasons, because mercy, there's a lot of stuff in 'em (esp. Book 4) that could get the chop. but yeah, maybe for pacing's sake, they'll make it 3.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 10 months ago

I figure given that Books 3, 4, and 5 are all in vaguely the same range (4 is a bit shorter, 5 is a bit longer), and 3 is a two-season book, 4+5 would, by that standard, be four seasons. So there's already (god willing) a lot of fat to be trimmed in a 3-seasoner.

That said, I thought the pacing of Season Three was harmed by the fact that it didn't actually have an ending to build to. It managed to finesse it for most characters and their plots by having changes in the status quo in the last few episodes, but there was only one plot that felt like it was actually building to a conclusion over the course of the season, and that was the one whose conclusion was intended to be shocking and out of nowhere.

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Ross 3 years, 10 months ago

It could wind up an odd situation where the adaptation "spoils" the books, as the creators allegedly know the main plot resolutions; it would be as if they made a film of "Deadly Hallows" before Rowling published it.

Seems unlikely that they'd do it that way. More likely, they'd do what adaptations of comic books do, and just insert a filler season with a non-book plot to let the books catch up.

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Froborr 3 years, 10 months ago

That or a so-called gecko ending, like the Scott Pilgrim movie or many anime: just make up an ending that seems consistent with what went before, and work with the author of the source material to ensure that it *doesn't* spoil the ending of that work. I've heard rumors that sometimes it even works well, though I've yet to encounter one.

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C. 3 years, 10 months ago

Books 4 & 5 are kinda like the middle episodes of a Pertwee 6-parter. Lots of moving around, capture/escape/recapture, new characters showing up, but not really that much plot/character advancement. It's going to be tough for the series to build arcs and provide the sense of narrative conclusions, as you said, for these next few seasons.

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Chris Andersen 3 years, 10 months ago

I have to wonder if GoT really stretches out as long as it theoretically could that some of the people involved in it might not grow tired. I mean we're talking a potentially 10-11 year show. Not many shows can maintain over that long a stretch of time.

I wonder if they might follow the Soprano's route and just take a year off at some point just to let everyone catch their breath.

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Daibhid C 3 years, 10 months ago

If we're talking about books not getting edited because of publishing deadlines, then it's almost obligatory to bring up Douglas Adams. If you've ever wondered why the first Hitchhiker's Guide novel pretty much stops dead and, at least in the first edition, doesn't have several pages of "If you've enjoyed this novel, here's the rest of our SF range" is because they literally had to publish what he'd written by the absolute cannot-be-missed deadline, with a pagecount that was their best guess when he was still writing.

Neil Gaiman's biography of Adams suggests that Adams himself would have removed the "If you want a Marvin bit, feel free to skip the stuff *I* want to write" passage (and if not, the editor would have) if So Long And Thanks... had ever had a second draft.

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Andrew Hickey 3 years, 10 months ago

The rule that seems to hold true for people buying things online by unknown/indie people based on free samples like blog posts -- and has ever since the days of MP3.com and sites like that selling music in the late 90s, which I used to be involved in -- is one purchase for every 1000 clicks, on average.

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Pen Name Pending 3 years, 10 months ago

Thanks for the tips. I now am sure that self-publishing is not something I should consider with my work.

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Pen Name Pending 3 years, 10 months ago

It will be interesting to see how Harry Potter is devoured in the future...I read all seven books in the month before I turned 12, and actually liked the bigger ones better.

I personally dislike the dividing line between children's and young adult fiction for a number of reasons. I'm working on a trilogy that is about growing up, so how would it fit? It doesn't have the trappings associated with YA, but it has some undertones that would be appreciated by older kids (or adults, even) and I wouldn't want young kids to read at least one scene in the last book.

So Long and Thanks for All the Fish didn't have a second draft???

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Andrew Hickey 3 years, 10 months ago

No Hitch-Hiker's novel -- except maybe Mostly Harmless -- had a second draft. Adams often didn't *start* writing until the deadline had already passed, and in the case of one of the novels (I think Restaurant) he was actually locked into a hotel room by his editor for two weeks, and not allowed out until he'd written it.

Of course, the first two Hitch-Hiker's novels were based on radio scripts he'd already written, so they could have counted as "first draft" in some ways -- and those were written under the same kind of deadline pressure. There was one episode of Hitch-Hiker's series two where (if I remember right) Adams was still writing the second half while the first half was being recorded.

Some writers don't *need* second drafts -- Robert Heinlein, Harlan Ellison and Isaac Asimov all said they never did them -- and write best when inspired, writing good clean copy very fast. Other writers need multiple drafts to get anything right.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 10 months ago

Draft fetishism is, if we're being completely honest, mainly a teaching tool. Nobody learning to write is going to turn out golden prose on a first draft, and having your crappy prose handed back to you dripping in red ink with a note saying "try again, only without the sucking" is important. Some writers are capable of doing this for themselves, looking over stuff, identifying the mistakes, and learning. Others need an external eye.

It's also worth noting that the "nth draft" nomenclature is artificial in many cases. When talking about drafts of Doctor Who scripts most writers seem to do near-full rewrites, such that only a handful of lines survive. The Doctor's Wife had its plot completely restructured in revisions. These are huge changes that involve, basically, actually writing the thing more than once. In this regard numbered drafts make sense.

For me, it's very rare that I'm not happy with the structure of something once I've written it. My sense of structure is pretty solid. On the other hand, the fact that I favor a discursive style means that it's almost unheard of for me to make it through something without at least one sentence that I blatantly lost track of halfway through. So I tend to do what amounts to a copy-editing pass with a bit of cutting wanky bits/expanding sparse bits. The result isn't so much a second draft as draft 1.5.

But this mostly masks the extent to which I'm terribly reliant on my sense of structure. I can do non-fiction structure in my sleep, and actually often do block out posts while I'm nodding off. I'm not comfortable with fiction structure, and that translates into an actual phobia of writing it that I'm still trying to get over.

When it comes to process, there's no "right way." What's much more important is decision making - learning, both consciously and unconsciously, to make choices about structure and rhythm and perspective, and understanding the decisions you've made. The material decisions you make about how to get words onto the page amount to "whatever's comfortable for you." It's learning to make good decisions in your writing that's the trick. Drafts are a useful tool for making the decisions explicit, which is really important in learning.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 10 months ago

I honestly don't understand marketing at all. I got lucky, basically - I just started the blog and started arguing with people on GallifreyBase with a link to my blog in my signature. I got a few nibbles, and then word of mouth did the rest once Wife in Space linked me a few times. It was very much one of those slow-building successes made out of two years of waiting and making sure I never missed a post. And, presumably, some amount of actual quality in the content.

As far as I understand the practice, you're basically doing it right - figure out where your audience is already hanging out, then go make yourself visible to them without being a complete tit about it.

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TG 3 years, 10 months ago

I've been reading and enjoying this blog for some time now, but have yet to comment. I'm doing so now because I am a collection development librarian for my city's public library system, and as such review many self-published titles for possible inclusion in our collection. I select very few. However, once Dr. Sandifer's Hartnell volume is ready, I do plan to purchase it. If it does well, which I hope it does, we'll add the subsequent volumes.

The library market is certainly one worth considering for self-published authors, but we are as tough as any other. If anyone is interested in suggestions on how to get your books onto library shelves, I'd be happy to add them to this comment thread.

And mark me down as a fan of "Last War in Albion." It brought you another reader in a colleague of mine who has no interest in Who, but very much in Morrison/Moore.

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Jesse 3 years, 10 months ago

The word "draft" lost a lot of meaning in the age of word processing.

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HarlequiNQB 3 years, 10 months ago

To be fair, the chances of most people getting a good cover artist for what Phil pays are not great (and my being a good cover artist is of course subjective; I'm not exactly Olly Moss, but I'm not working with crayons either - I'm saving those for the Fear Her cover of the Tennant book).

I don't do the covers for the money (though I would be less enthusiastic if there were none), but because:
A) I enjoy doing it.
B) Seeing your work on an actual book cover is badass.
C) I get cred with my son for it.
D) I get associated with Phil Sandifer, which may do well for me when he makes his first million.
E) I get hits on my blog when the books go out - it's terribly exciting.
F) I enjoy the challenge as well.

That's not to say Phil pays terribly; he just doesn't pay what I'd be getting paid by a publishing house. Since I do just fine from the day job, and no publishing house has ever heard of me, Phil gets the benefit.

It helps if the artist is a close friend (though even close friends will often charge real money), or is a fan of your work to begin with, which is of course how I got in touch with Phil. Or maybe I'm just terribly nice...

Incidentally, when it comes to the cover on a self published book (on CreateSpace at least) they have lots of hidden rules, such as you can't have partially obscured text (even if that's a design choice), and you must have the author's name match the one they have on file. I cover them in more detail on my blog write-up for the second book.

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Ewa Woowa 3 years, 10 months ago

The fact that the richest, most famous novelist in the world, gets pressured into handing in bloated sub-par work says lots...!
I'm not sure what of, buts it says lots of it...

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LouderInside 3 years, 10 months ago

Long-time reader, first-time commenter, etc.

I'm a freelance travel writer, and lucky enough to have a publisher. That said, my most recent book is pretty niche market, and in this respect I don't think that there's a great deal of difference between being self-published and having the support of a company. Bottom line: my publisher doesn't have the expertise or the time to reach out to the potential market for my book. But I do, and I'm happy to take that on. While there are many negatives towards to the current 'information wants to be free' attitude of the internet, there are great benefits to the social media revolution in allowing you to connect directly to your potential market.

There's an awful lot of nonsense written about online marketing, but what I found out is that ultimately you need to build a community who you can engage with. If people trust and like the stuff you've been putting out for free (on your blog; in my case on my book's FB page), then they're more likely to convert that interest into buying your stuff. It can be a slog – particularly when you start and you feel like you're engaging with an empty room – but it's fun too.

From my experience, a 10% conversion rate sounds achievable (especially for digital products) if you're actively engaging with your audience. Give them interesting product for free so that they can be given occasional nudges that you have stuff that you'd like them to actually buy, without feeling like they're being sledgehammered by a hard sell.

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Froborr 3 years, 10 months ago

Thanks, Phil and Louderinside! Good to know I'm on more or less the right track...

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Froborr 3 years, 10 months ago

I'd be very interested, TG. Please do post those suggestions!

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TG 3 years, 10 months ago

Sure!

First, these can be taken to apply to larger public library systems. Some of this may not apply to smaller districts--especially those are severely underfunded.

Follow all of Phil's advice above. Think of libraries like bookstores--you're competing for space with the output of the established publishers. And despite the long-predicted death of print, there are a lot of great books coming out every year. Even in a library people aren't going to pick up your book if it looks amateurish. Especially when it's sitting on display next to the latest release from Harcourt or McSweeney's. We are only going to buy what we think will check out.

For fiction writers, you're best off sticking with your local/regional libraries. Despite what a publicist might tell you, there's little point in mailing off copies of your book to libraries around the country. The only self-published novels I'm going to even look at are from local authors. Besides wanting to support our local writing community, it's also an effective way of narrowing down what we consider.

For non-fiction--if it's a memoir or very regionally-focused, the same as above. For niche subjects such as in-depth analysis of Doctor Who or MLP--those sorts of things we're interested in. The best way to get it to our attention is get it into a trusted review source. Your best bet is Kirkus-- they review indie/self-published books and are closely read by librarians. Publishers Weekly also has a "Select" program you can submit your books to for possible coverage and review.

You don't need to give us a copy of your book. (And if you do, don't expect it back.) If we want your book in our collection, we will buy it. Librarians support authors! Promotional materials are sufficient. Just do your research and try to send it to the right person or department. When in doubt, send it to "Acquisitions." Also research the collection--are there other materials like or related to your book? For example-- does the library have Doctor Who on DVD? Is it just the new series or do they have the old episodes, too?

Research suggests that libraries help drive book sales. Getting your book into a library exposes it to a large, diverse population of readers. It's worth the extra trouble to try.

I hope this helps! Feel free to follow up with any other questions, etc.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 10 months ago

TG - do you mind if I repost this comment in the next Saturday Waffling? It's deserving of a wider audience then it's going to get down here.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 10 months ago

Yes - covers are, it turns out, subject to the same insane idiosyncrasies as the interior when it comes to formatting.

And you are terribly nice, James. :)

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TG 3 years, 10 months ago

I don't mind at all! By all means. I'll add in one more, too: As much as you are able, make sure your binding is strong and durable. Library books get pummeled.

Glad this is of use-- and, of course, please edit as necessary.

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