The Publishing Cart Before The Storytelling Horse

I got a little rant stuck between my teeth. It’s like a caraway seed, or a beefy tendon, or a .22 shell casing (hey, fuck you, a boy’s gotta get his vitamins and minerals somehow).

Self-publishers, I’m talking to you.

And I’m talking to the pundits, too. In fact, I’m talking more to the pundits than to those actually walking the self-publishing path. Not everybody. Just a handful.

If you get a little froth on your screen, here — *hands you a squeegee* — just wipe it away.

Here, then, is the core of my message to you:

It is time to upgrade the discussion.

Let’s talk about what that means.

First, it means: we get it. Self-publishing is the path you’ve chosen and further, is a path you believe is lined with chocolate flowers and hoverboards and bags of money and the mealy bones of traditionally-published authors. Self-publishing is a proven commodity. You can stop selling the world on its power. This isn’t Amway. You don’t get a stipend every time another author decides to self-publish. You’re not squatting atop the pinnacle of a pyramid scheme. (And if you are, you should climb down. One word: hemmorhoids.)

Instead of trying to convince people to self-publish, it may in fact be time to help people self-publish well. While self-publishing may by this point be a proven path it doesn’t remain a guaranteed path. In fact it’s no such thing: I know several self-published authors out in the world with great books, kick-ass covers, and they are certainly not selling to their potential. In fact, if they continue to sell as they appear to sell then I would suggest these books would have done much better had they been published — gasp — traditionally. Succeeding in an increasingly glutted space is no easy trick. Every bubble pops. Every gold rush either reveals a limited supply or instead ends up devaluing the gold one finds there. The reality is that it’s going to become harder — note that I didn’t say impossible — to succeed in that space and so it behooves the Wise Pundits With Their Long Beards to acknowledge the realities and help authors do well.

It may then be a good time to acknowledge some of the challenges of self-publishing rather than ignoring them. Filter, for instance? Dogshit. Total dogshit. Discovering new self-published authors is left almost completely to word of mouth or to the marketing efforts of one author’s voice. The discovery of just browsing a bookstore and finding great new stuff to read is gone. Amazon offers little in recompense: browsing there is like trying to find a diamond in a dump truck full of cubic zirconiums. Marketing as a self-published author is a whole other problem: it’s tricky as hell. Half the self-publishers out there still manage to sound like Snake Oil Salesman — myself included — and so why not try to discuss the best practices? Why not talk about the way forward?

Though, actually, let’s take a step backward. Here’s another problem: maybe we should stop putting the publishing cart before the storytelling horse. In self-publishing, I see so much that focuses on sales numbers and money earned, but I see alarmingly little that devotes itself toward telling good stories. After all, that’s the point, right? Selling is, or should be, secondary. The quality of one’s writing and the power of one’s storytelling is key. It’s primary. It’s why we do this thing that we do. Any time you hear about the major self-publishers, it’s always about the sales, the percentage, the money earned. What’s rare is a comment about how good the books are. When the narrative was all about Amanda Hocking, everybody was buzzing about her numbers, but nobody I know was buzzing about how good those books were. Focus less on the delivery of the stories and more about the quality of what’s being delivered.

It’s worth too to try to foster a revolution not merely in format or distribution but also in what’s being distributed. If DIY publishing is really going to assert itself, it has to stop mimicking other publishing. Exhort authors to take risks in format and in genre. This is the time to do some really new stuff — go big, get nuts, let what’s going on inside the story be as iconoclastic and rebellious as the means by which you produced that story.

Really, though, the biggest thing that needs an upgrade is the attitude.

Traditionally-published authors are not slave labor. They’re not idiots or fools. They’ve not made “the wrong choice.” You went one way. They went another. Sometimes your paths converge; other times, they do not.

Yes, yes, I get it. Big Publishing has, in some instances, abused authors who have come into their stable. This is no secret and it is inexcusable. It’s also not a universal phenomenon. And it’s a phenomenon that a good agent — not a shitty agent, not an agent who is more in love with publishing than with authors — can help to protect against.

You do realize that some trad-pub authors are actually… happy, right? Note I didn’t say “happy in the shackles of corporate slavery,” I mean, they’re actually pleased with the way they’ve been treated. They like their agents, they like their editors, and they’re actually earning out. Hell, it’s why you see some self-published authors take traditional contracts when offered — it’s because the terms were right.

Publishing traditionally remains a choice, but many want to paint a false dichotomy as if any who travel that path are deluded slaves or desperate authors — as if self-publishing is an immediate and guaranteed path to success. It’s not. Neither is traditional publishing. You pick your choice, you take your shot, and that’s that.

Not every author is primed to go all DIY on their own asses. Many paint that self-pub choice as an easy one — the obvious choice, the “duh” choice, like you’re some kind of brain-damaged window-licker if you didn’t make it — but the reality is, publishing your own work is a hard row to hoe. It’s more work than many authors want to accept, and I don’t blame them. Covers and formatting and independent editors and marketing and hey-if-you-don’t-mind-I’m-going-to-just-suck-on-this-shotgun-lollipop-for-a-while-BOOM.

Nobody should be punished for choosing either path as long as they walk the path wisely.

Self-published authors don’t like to be dissed by the traditionally-published and the reverse remains true. Nobody’s got a lock on the truth. Nobody’s got their thumb on the pulse of the future (despite how much they love to trumpet their own oracular insight). Yes, things are changing. But the sky isn’t falling — the ground is merely shifting beneath our feet.

Same way it shifted — and continues to shift — in other creative endeavors.

The rhetoric often assumes that we’re all on our own side of the fence, but here’s a newsflash for you: there’s no goddamn fence. You’re a storyteller. I’m a storyteller. Good books are good books no matter how they got to market. You make your choice, so why not let others do the same? Further: don’t be a sanctimonious dick about it. Upgrade your attitude. Elevate the discussion. You should be proud of your own accomplishments and excited that the path you picked was the right path. Go any further than that and you do little to endear anybody toward your imaginary bullshit either/or dichotomy.

We should all be helping one another tell great stories.

Let’s talk to one another not as publishers, but as writers and storytellers.

All of us, wondrously pantsless. And probably drunk.


*drops mic off stage, disappears in a cloud of incredulity and oompah music*

134 responses to “The Publishing Cart Before The Storytelling Horse”

  1. Listen to yourself, and ask: why would I want to interact with you anymore?

    Try, real hard, to learn something from this exchange. Attitude isn’t the issue. Following short-sighted paths that cause heartache down the road is the issue.

    Think about my argument. It’s in your best interest to logically, dispassionately dissect it.

    I could give a whit what you think of my delivery. But my facts, and my stance, are sound.

    Let’s pretend Stephen Hawking is a real dick. Does that make his theories any less valid?

    And as far as attitudes go, walk a mile in my shoes. Spend nineteen years busting ass and struggling to make it. Write thirty-two novels and over a hundred short stories. Make your first million. Then show me how you preach what you’ve learned.

    I do listen to myself.

    It’s you who should listen to me.

    Or not. It’s your life. You engaged, I showed up, you bowed out. This is your house, not mine.

    I don’t believe any author earns success. Success is luck.

    But smug? Hell yeah I earned my smug.

  2. Great, thoughtful post, Chuck. And I’d like to add one more piece that I don’t hear any of the self-publishing prophets mention: when traditionally published authors choose that route, they’re contributing to an industry that actually supports more than themselves alone. Sure, a self-published author might earn 70% royalties. But their work supports only them. Maybe self-published authors think it’s a scam that their earnings support editors, designers, sales representatives, publicists, printers, distributors and the other people a publishing house employs — but when that system works well (and it doesn’t always), everyone benefits, because better books reach more people in ways that build real-life communities. The move to self-publishing says that the author’s personal income is more important than those broader goals, and that’s an argument I can’t dispute. But I can still mourn the loss to the greater good.

  3. You only have had the success you’ve had with self-publishing BECAUSE of the rep and following you developed through legacy publishing.


    I keep having to bust this meme, over and over and over.

    Reread a few posts above. See what I’m making through my traditional publishers. Then see what I’m making on my own.

    The reason my books are still in print, and the reason they’re still selling, is based completely on my efforts, and my self-publications. If my legacy books are what boost my self-pub sales, why have I sold many more self-pub books than legacy books? Why do the majority of my fan mails come from people who tried my Jack Dnaiels series because they got hooked on the stuff I self-pubbed—-stuff that was rejected by NY?

    I once spent a great deal of time, collecting the names of writers who were selling like crazy without ever having a legacy deal. Then I gave up because it became too many to keep track of.

    The readers who by my self-pubbed ebooks have ZERO idea who I am. They see a cool cover, and interesting description, and a low price, while browsing the bestseller lists, and then they buy me. Then they enjoy the book and buy my others.

    That’s why I’m making money. Not because on anything New York did.

  4. From what I’ve gathered, traditional pub can give you something aside from just money.

    Ulcers. High blood pressure. Depression. A deep-seated feeling of failure and hopelessness.

    That’s what they give you. But not money. As the content provider, you are given zero respect, zero say so in important decisions, and very bad royalty terms.

    On a $25.00 hardcover, I earn $2.50. Compare that to a $2.99 ebook that I elf-publish, where I earn $2.05. Guess which is an easier sale?

    And this assumes publishers are accurate and truthful with their royalty statements. I’ve worked with close to a dozen publishers. Every single royalty statement I’ve ever had, outside of Amazon, was needlessly complicated, obtuse, confusing, and quite possibly inaccurate (intentional or otherwise.)

    This has been my experience, and the experience of a dozen-plus authors I’ve traded info with. Of course, you may have an entirely different experience.

    Also, the King doesn’t have a new outfit on. He’s actually naked.

  5. You listen to me, Chuck Wendig. This is the second post in a row from you that has made me want to pump my fist and shout profanities in agreement. I would rather chew my arm off than read a zombie novel but I am going to hunt down a zombie book lover and force them to read your book.

  6. See, there’s one problem in your logic there. When you’re not discussing scientific theory, delivery is actually an important part of the presentation. If people don’t like Stephen Hawking, if they’ve realized the terrible truth that his wheelchair is actually an advanced AI using him as a meat puppet in a frantic rush to teach Earthlings enough science for it to open a Fry Hole – sorry, Hawking Hole – for it to return home, that doesn’t matter. He’ll just point at the math, and that’s the end of it. Either he’s right, or he’s not.

    Publishing, on the other hand, is not simple math. There are definitely habits that are more likely to encourage and support success than others – write constantly, polish your work, get used to feedback, promote promote promote – but there is no single magic formula. (I think there was, once, but then the “You Can Write Novels Too!” book business had the writer killed, all his notes burned and his parrot put to death in case he used dictation.) You can put in thirty years of sincere effort and have very little to show for it, or you can be that lottery ticket whose debut goes bestseller right out the gate. You might find legacy publishing works for you, or you might be an evangelical self-publisher. I’m not saying it’s luck, but I am saying that ultimately it’s subjective – what works for some won’t work for others.

    Which is why presentation is crucial. Because when you’re trying to convince people of a subjective truth, everything matters. Especially in an atonal medium such as the internet. It’s like trying to convince a friend to watch your new favorite movie. You can list off all of its virtues, and be pretty much spot on about all of them – hell, you can be a movie buff with years of expertise and a successful film criticism column. But if you tell it to them as though they are a simple child and you are the exalted master on the mountain, you might as well not speak at all. Because all of your very good and totally supported points are pretty much instantly lost when you talk down to your audience.

    You have a tremendous amount of experience, and I respect that. But trust a teacher on this point. The reason I teach literature to crowded classes is because I never, ever talk down to my students. The second I am the Man From the Ivory Tower, they’re gone. You can actually hear their attention spans dry up.

    It sounds like crumbling up day-old bacon, if you’re curious.

    Anyway, I’m not saying that this only applies to you in this discussion. I have no interest in a dogpile. I’m just saying that as a general rule, when you’re discussing anything subjective, it’s important to remember that tone matters. If you actually want to convince anyone of anything, that is. If you don’t, well, then it doesn’t matter, because you’re only scoring points for yourself anyway. Just good rules to remember.

  7. @Joe I’ve read your blog for a couple years, now, because self publishing has always interested me. I know in the past, you mentioned that you thought it was still a good idea for a new writer to go the traditional route and then jump to self publishing after making a bit of a name. I’m not sure if that’s what Alan Baxter was getting at or not.

    With the changes in how much ebooks have become accepted, I’m not even sure if your advice to a new writer would still be traditional to make a bit of a name and then make the leap, or if things have changed since you offered that advice in the past that your advice is now just self publish. (Eisler, whom I became aware of through your blog, went the traditional – self publishing route at your suggestion; Amanda Hocking made it through self publishing.)

    Seeing Eisler’s and Hocking’s successes, I think that’s what Chuck is getting at: there’s room to make it in different ways. (I could be putting words in his mouth, though.) I can see somebody like Chuck going with the advice you’ve offered in the past: a blend of traditional and then all self once established. So far from what I’ve seen (and I claim to be no expert in self published books), it’s primarily genre fiction. We haven’t seen a “new John Irving” or somebody doing something like THE HELP or other more mainstream books become a Kindle millionaire. Unless I’m totally that in the dark, there still seem to be some kinds of books that can benefit a new author from still going the traditional route.

    Again, not to put words in Chuck’s mouth, but it seems that’s what he was saying (at least to me) about smarter choices and different choices with their own pluses and minuses. For some, it still seems that making a name traditionally and then moving toward self publishing (or even staying with a traditional publisher) is a better option.

    I’m not sure ebook self publishing is ready (yet!) for the next Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, David Wroblewski, etc. to become as big a success starting out with ebook self publishing as they could possibly still see going the traditional route. (Which I think is your point that for some — at least at the time you mentioned it — there still lies a certain benefit with starting out the traditional route.)

    I’ve seen crime fiction, paranormal fiction, cozy mysteries, fantasy, sci-fi, and other genre writers find success totally on their own by self publishing ebooks, but it still seems like the next Toni Morrison, Jonathan Franzen, or Richard Russo stands their best chance at success by going the traditional route.

  8. Because when you’re trying to convince people of a subjective truth, everything matters.

    At what point does subjective become objective? How many people does it take, following advice and succeeding, before a path becomes attractive to follow? How many mistakes must a legacy publisher make–documented, intentional, continuous mistakes–before people notice a pattern and should start paying attention and acting accordingly?

    I didn’t come here to teach. I do that on my own blog. This post was a specific, direct refutation of what I’ve been doing for years. My position here is to repudiate Chuck’s position, and I’m not concerned if I make friends while doing so.

    Because all of your very good and totally supported points are pretty much instantly lost when you talk down to your audience.

    I’m talking down to someone who essentially attacked what I say, and the way I say it. I don’t take it personally. But I do enjoy debating the points.

    I’m not concerned about winning people over with my angelic smile and upbeat, hip attitude. Why would I possibly care what strangers on the internet think of me? And why would I possibly care if they follow my advice? I have no horse in that race.

    But don’t tell me my advice is wrong. Or poorly delivered. That’s makes me defensive.

    I have ample evidence that my advice is extremely helpful. Yet I don’t want praise, thanks, accolades, or fame. I shun away from all of that.

    The only thing that truly interests me is being right. I enjoy figuring things out, and debating to prove my point.

    Delivery? That’s for politicos.

  9. I completely agree with your post, Chuck, and appreciate your responses in the comments as well. For most writers, the heart of the matter is (or at least should be) the story itself. It’s easy to lose sight of that when there’s so much focus on publishing and marketing.

    I think a lot of self-publishing fans are so adamant about that route because they feel like they have to fight against the naysayers, the people who still see self-publishing as the lesser of the two choices. But there’s no need to go so far to the other extreme and go up against traditional publishing so viciously. As you said, there are pluses and minuses to both tracks, and the great thing is that we, as writers, now have a choice. That’s what matters.

  10. Fair enough. I appreciate your input.

    I appreciate yours as well. Your level-headed, smartly phrased comments are right on the money, and people should follow your advice.

  11. Man I’d love to make $22k doing something I loved that brought people joy.

    I’d hate to stir up more trouble but I felt I’d go ahead and say that you’ve lost any chance of me being a customer of yours, Mr. Konrath, solely because of your attitude here.

    I might take what you give away for free because I can see some value at that price but none of my hard earned consumer dollars for you.

    Might not mean much but maybe you can take it as empirical evidence that not being a jerk does matter sometimes.

    “Thank you Wisconsin!!!!!!”

  12. Might not mean much but maybe you can take it as empirical evidence that not being a jerk does matter sometimes.

    This made me spit beer on my keyboard. Thanks.

    Look up “jerk” in the dictionary. Then look up “irony.”

    I’m going to hang myself in the corner over there, but, DAMN, I’m having a helluva good time. Blame my messiah complex…

    BTW-Wisconsin rocks. Been to 42 states, that’s my fave.

  13. […] Chuck Wendig‘s prose can prompt cowboys to cry and women to burn foundation garments. But this week, he voices in his PG-13 patois an important point about how self-publishing and traditionally publishing authors are talking about each other. If you don’t care for “colorful” language, just shut your eyes as you read The Publishing Cart Before the Storytelling Horse […]

  14. Chuck, your bloggery words are hilarity embodied, but the reasoning and mentality behind your efforts make me do a *face palm*. I just want you to understand what Konrath says because I hate to hear about you missing out on so much money that can help to feed your family and much more!

    That’s why I rant about self-publishing vs traditional publishing. I know Joe says he doesn’t care if someone takes his advice or not, but his advice is there, so why not take it?! I can’t stand to see my author friends get ripped off by literary agents and publishers. I’ve got so many nice lady writer friends with stacks of wonderful books they could be self publishing and earning money on right now, but the brainwashing myths publishers create are so embedded into their minds, they are fearful of the self-publishing route. I feel so frustrated and upset on their behalf when I hear they are still querying their books to literary agents. I don’t know why they would want someone else to get their hands on their hard earned money!

    Chuck, your writing is so good, why does your literary agent and your publisher deserve most of your hard earned money for it? And work for hire is more money missed out on.

    Joe, you rock, and I really, really, really appreciate your free advice to newbie writers like myself. You’re not being smug, but if you were you deserve every right to be so.

  15. Chuck, I’m all for attitude upgrades and discussion elevations, but I’m not sure a self-described “rant” is the best way to go about it. It might be that I’m overly sensitive to irony — I’ve never understood the logic of putting people to death to demonstrate that killing is wrong, either — but still, I couldn’t help but notice these three adjacent sentences:

    “Further: don’t be a sanctimonious dick about it. Upgrade your attitude. Elevate the discussion.”

    It would be nice, wouldn’t it?

    • Okay, repeat after me:

      Self-publishing, good. Attitude, bad. Self-publishing, good. Attitude, bad.

      This is almost hilarious by this point, given that the thing I was talking about in the post manifested here, like the Devil when you call his name. It would be as if I wrote a blog post about how it’s all too often that people call other people “Hitler,” and then someone comes into the comments and starts yelling “HITLER YOU’RE HITLER FOR SAYING THAT OMG HITLER OVER HERE EVERYBODY HITLER.” The irony is thick and sticky enough I could use it to patch a tire.

      I thank you all for your, erm, concern over my and my family’s welfare, but despite the name, my writing career has not actually put me on welfare. In fact, I think we’re all doing okay.

      Just to remind, I have four self-published books out there. And they do okay as supplementary income. But at no point have I earned millions from them. Now, I understand that I don’t have any novels out, but I know others who do, and they follow that simple path prescribed: good story, good price, good cover, etc. — and holy shit, wouldn’t you know it, they’re not millionaires either? They must be flukes, then. Right?

      Or — or! — maybe it means that not everybody is primed for the self-publishing path. Maybe it means that some types of books do better at self-publishing than others. Maybe it means that self-publishing is not a perfect and divinely-inspired system that operates as a Get Rich Quick Scheme Where You Too Can Make Your First Million. Maybe it means there’s a discussion where nuance and reality and the difficulties have a place and maybe it’s time to push aside the pulpit and stop acting like this whole thing deserves one more infomercial after another.

      I’m not getting “ripped off” by my agent, by my publishers, by any of my clients, be it Evil Hat or White Wolf or The Escapist or whatever. I’m getting paid. Because that’s the work that I do. I get paid actual money that puts actual diapers on my actual — like, not a unicorn, not a robot — baby. I don’t get paid in theoretical millions.

      I will self-publish a novel one of these days, and if I do, hopefully it will be successful. I’m not disputing the ability to be successful down that path. I have nothing against it.

      It’s just not the only way to go.

      And that is the last I will say about that because I’m up, I’m awake, and by god, I’ve got a novel to write.

      Thanks for having this discussion, weird as it may have been.

      I leave you all to it.

      — c.

  16. I’ll pay good money (and have) for Chuck’s nonfiction books on writing.

    You’d have to pay me to read Konrath’s blog. He gleefully ignores small publishers and the option they give to authors looking for something between dumping hundreds of dollars down the self-pub well and holding out for the big Six.

    There’s room for everyone to do what they want in both worlds.

    Only a Sith deals in extremes.

  17. Hi Chuck & Joe,

    I was in two minds about weighing in last night and today I just thought: fuck it.

    I like both of you and read you guys regularly, so I’m going to try and be as even-handed here as possible, because I can see both sides – to an extent – and I think there is some middle ground here.

    If I characterize either of your arguments unfairly, apologies.

    Now, Chuck, I nodded in agreement when I saw the title of your blog post. It’s true. Most of the discussions amongst self-publishers on Kindle Boards and their blogs center on the business side of things: sales numbers, pricing strategies, royalty rates, and so on.

    But you shouldn’t assume that self-publishers don’t discuss the craft. Out of two of the more popular “pundits”, Mike Stackpole regularly does on his blog (and if you thing Joe is trenchant…) as does Dean Wesley Smith (ditto).

    On top of that, you must consider the fact that self-publishing (as a popular, viable route at least) is relatively new. But there have been well established venues for discussing the craft for years and years. The members of places like Kindle Boards (probably the most popular self-publishing forum) aren’t exclusively members there, many are also members of other forums where the focus is more on craft. And anyway, I think that the structure of Kindle Boards doesn’t lend itself to such discussions.

    As such, I go other places for discussions on storytelling – like here – and you do a fine job on that score. I rarely participate but I always read and I enjoy your posts immensely.

    But there are other reasons why self-publishers talk so much about the business side of things. Historically, writers have been great at telling stories and talking about how to craft them. They haven’t been so smart on the business side of things and, in particular, have been suckered into some awful scams down the years.

    If you look at someone like Kris Rusch’s blog, for example, her whole mission is to get writers to think more like a small business owner. I think it would behoove all writers to adopt a little of that attitude.

    Really, though, we are all learning this stuff. And we are all trying to educate each other through our own experiences. Stuff is changing so fast, that it’s not just a case of needing to a quick Publishing Business 101, then go back to discussing craft again. We’re mostly shooting in the dark, and what’s good advice today could well be bad advice tomorrow as the market changes at such a breakneck pace. So we need to constantly educate ourselves – especially self-publishers who (mostly) don’t have publishers, agents or lawyers to provide professional advice (whatever you may think of publishers/agents/lawyers).

    I will say this. Some self-publishers go too far (and I’m not talking about Joe here). I’m not interested in joining the posse that wants to march on 5th Avenue to torch the buildings. I don’t cheer when I hear a publisher has gone under and I don’t feel validation of my chosen path when I hear a trade published writer’s deal has gone sour, a load of bookstores have closed, or a bunch of editors have been laid off. Those things make me sad, because there are real people involved. I have friends and family working in the business at publishers big and small, and I have met plenty of smart, committed, professional people who work on the publisher side of the fence, and who have helped me along the way too.

    Furthermore, I don’t think all agents are scammers, or that all editors are inherently evil, and that the whole query system is a giant conspiracy to repress my genius and hand publishing deals to Z-list celebrities and friends of editors instead. I do encounter that attitude from self-publishers, sometimes, and I do my best to temper their views, where possible (and it’s often not).

    A lot of self-publishers are defensive for good reason. They’ve had a lot of crap flung at them over the last couple of years. And yeah, some of them gave as good as they got.

    I’ve also seen a lot of the idiots that come along to Joe’s blog for a bout of name-calling, with no interest in engaging in the argument in a rational way. I’ve seen it on Twitter too, and I’ve seen lots of blog posts in that vein. I can only imagine that he receives a similar amount of private messages that are just as salty.

    That’s going to make a dude a little abrasive. If I had been in his shoes, I don’t think I would be as (relatively) restrained as he is.

    And to be honest, I think someone who has been chewed up by the publishing system and spat out the other side is entitled to kvetch a little, especially if they have found an easier way to make money.

    If anyone doesn’t like the tone, they can always change channel. No-one is being forced to read anything and it’s not the only place you can go to get advice. I’m sure some people don’t read Chuck’s blog because of the glorious filth he peppers each post with (their loss).

    As for what’s the best/right/correct/easiest/most lucrative path – oh, I don’t know. Read widely, even people you disagree with, then make your own minds up.

    But hey, maybe we are all deluded. Writing is hardly the most logical career choice. Maybe we should all just quit this gig and run off to Mexico and become simple fishermen and grow our own tequila or something.


    • @David:

      Thanks for the even-handed response. I’ll say only this:

      “Really, though, we are all learning this stuff. And we are all trying to educate each other through our own experiences. Stuff is changing so fast, that it’s not just a case of needing to a quick Publishing Business 101, then go back to discussing craft again. We’re mostly shooting in the dark, and what’s good advice today could well be bad advice tomorrow as the market changes at such a breakneck pace. So we need to constantly educate ourselves – especially self-publishers who (mostly) don’t have publishers, agents or lawyers to provide professional advice (whatever you may think of publishers/agents/lawyers).”

      That’s the key. That attitude? That’s it. This is unsteady footing. It’s good to talk about this stuff, I agree, and at no point am I advocating taking a discussion of business out of the equation — I too suggest that writers get a little business sense about them. But because this is all so new and all so uncertain, it behooves the pundits to help their readers and educate them on realities. What I see a lot of the time, including in some of the comments here, is an overpromise of self-publishing bounty. That old chestnut of: Step One: Action, Step Two: ????? Step Three: Profit! is large and in charge here.

      It’s that Step Two that demands more attention. It’s in that big bundle of question marks where the discussion lies. But the comments here suggest that no such question marks exist. That it’s the Smart Way or the Stupid Way. That you can either Hit Yourself In The Face or choose instead the path where you don’t slap yourself. It’s just another false dichotomy, another false versus contest (Apple Vs PC, Freelance Vs 9-to-5, Small Business Vs Corporate) that polarizes instead of enlightens, that neglects rather than educates, that closes doors instead of opening them.

      And I don’t buy that. I don’t buy that anyone has All The Answers. And the preaching and the catechizing grows weary.

      — c.

  18. This morning I opened my e-mail to find a message to me on Twitter. “You couldn’t retweet my last tweet, could you?” Naturally, I stopped following the guy. I don’t like being ordered around. Since I was still incensed when I saw your blog, it really grabbed my attention.

    I made the decision to self-publish because it works for my personality, period. I don’t care what other people do. I know there’s an upside and downside to each. I’m trying to make the best book I can and get it out there among all the noise — that is, some books that are not good at all.

    I also know that it’s frustrating to find the balance between “buy my book!” and creating content that will make readers want to read my work. I just shrug it off and keep going. Still, I will NEVER try to shove my book, or my viewpoint, in someone’s face, and it upsets me when other self-published authors give us a bad name by doing so.

  19. Bravo, Chuck. I think this blog and associated comments can probably now become the new Wikipedia entry for “irony.”

    As someone who has been trade published and has also made forays into self-publishing, I appreciate that there is more than one route to success. I think in publishing, as in life, keeping an open mind and refraining from passing judgment is generally a good idea. Be passionate by all means, but temper that passion with professionalism, which means sometimes learning to shrug and say, “Meh, each to their own.”

    And I’m so glad you mentioned Dave Gaughran as being one of the more moderate and instructive self-publishing advocates! I’ve had the pleasure of working with Dave on his self-publishing journey and his attitude is inspiring without being evangelical, which is no doubt why he’s amassed such a following in such a short time.

    Between your blog, Dave’s blog, Bob’s blog and Joe’s blog, the spectrum of self-publishing advice is probably covered (and all peppered with delicious profanity). I stop by all of them from time to time (and some religiously). I’m not carrying placards for self-publishing yet, although I can see the advantages to it, but nor am I cheering the imminent collapse of the evil gatekeepers, who’ve mostly paid my wage for the past 14 years.

  20. Why does no one see self-publishing services as “the establishment?” How could anyone think that Amazon (as exhibit A) is anything but a corporate beast?

    I am pursuing traditional publishing for the moment and will for a while. I may do some self-publishing in the future.


    When Amazon makes whatever% of every e-book sold, costing it (Amazon) virtually no overhead at all, its interest lies in convincing every writer that s/he’s the next Big Hit, just to get them to upload free widgets for Amazon to sell. All Amazon needs is to sell one of each and we’re talking HUGE profits. Not only is this abuse of writers, it’s a scale of abuse I’d challenge you to find any rival for among traditional professional publishers.

    I see all these uploads to the Amazon ebookstore to be where the “sheep” are going. Sure, there are some clever folks, strategically using the tools available to their own advantage, but overall, I see it as a huge brainwash of people with dreams of success. It’s more less like selling lottery tickets.

  21. It’s that Step Two that demands more attention.

    I get it. I write a blog called How to Bake Cakes, and I’m an asshole for not talking enough about how to mill your own flour.

    And the preaching and the catechizing grows weary.

    Repeating myself ad nauseum makes me weary. So does arguing with morons. But I keep on trucking, because it keeps helping people.

    Looking forward to your upcoming post giving examples of how we can all help each other write great stories, since you seem so keen on that.

    Also looking forward to your future post where you abandon legacy pubbing and completely come over to the dark side.

    And as for attitude–dude, seriously, do you listen to yourself?

  22. David’s response was much more balanced than mine is going to be.

    Chuck, I read your blog because you are even-handed, fair, and don’t see things in black and white. Most of all, you don’t attack people who don’t agree with you. You are funny and brilliant and yet somehow not consumed by your ego.

    Joe, I started following your Twitter feed and blog before you went on this crusade. I’ve been around for years. I miss the old you, the one who posted hilarious one-liners on Twitter, the one who wrote humorous but pithy writing advice articles. You are so strident now, I can’t stand your blog anymore. I didn’t even read all your comments on this post because your tone is so off-putting.

    Where do I get off even having an opinion? I’m someone who doesn’t buy your books because I don’t like your tone. I don’t take kindly to people smacking me on the head and shouting “Be healed!” (and if I’m not healed, it’s my fault). I’m someone who is put off from self-publishing by your rants. I don’t want to be associated in anyone’s mind with this type of behavior or attitude.

    Maybe you’re now a multimillionaire from self-publishing. Good on you! I know you aren’t here to make friends, and I’m sad to say you are reaching that goal.

    In five years, my goal is to meet Chuck at a writers conference, share a drink, and talk shop. I’d love to meet his wife and adorable little boy too. I’d even bring my own husband and son along. Well, maybe not my son…he’s not used to the salty language 😉 Because while you’re trying to be the voice of the underserved self-publisher and shouting down everyone who doesn’t agree with you, Chuck is being a regular not-a-dick writer and all around cool guy. Some things you can’t take to the bank.

  23. I have never been published anywhere, or released anything on my own, so what could I know? Nothing. However, I believe the competition is going to force publishers to rethink their game plan, to stay competitive.

    I plan on self publishing, when I am ready, frankly that will be a while. If my books are fortunate enough to experience success that gets attention from a publisher however, don’t think for a second I won’t cast an eye on what is being offered.

    I have long admired Konrath as a pitbull advocate for self publishing, but it is not the only way. Just imagine if Suzanne Collins had self published Hunger Games, where would the movie be, she may never have been discovered.

    I certainly see Chuck’s point on diamonds in the rough, I have yet to read a truly breathtaking self pubbed book, granted, I have not purchased one from the heavy hitters yet.

  24. Frickin’ brilliant…

    It’s so sad (and bloody annoying) to be on LinkedIn, FB, Twitter etc and be inundated by those plaintive cries of “buy my book,” “give my book a 5* review,” and (from the super desperate) “take my book for free!”

    You’re so right that in many, many cases the focus is on the wrong thing: like the gold rush dupes back in the day, thousands are now rushing into print thinking there’s a pot of something shiny and yellow at the end of the rainbow when in fact these folks have no clue that publishing is a business. Which is why I see so many comment threads starting with “I’ve published my book, now how do I sell it?”

    That typically means the author has written something for which they’ve no clue of the likely audience, where those people are, or really what they want. They’re therefore likely not telling the right story to the right people in the right way. So what’s the point?

    In any business, I believe it’s important to make each decision on its own merits. For example, I’m a nine times commercially published author who has now dipped her toe into the Indie market. One of my books, The Magic of Labyrinths, recently went out of print and the rights reverted back to me. The publishers asked if I’d give them permission to produce an electronic version and I said “hell, yeah!”

    This is a highly illustrated book and I certainly don’t have the budget to do it justice — so why not let HarperCollins make that investment? My book gets a new lease of life, I’m willing to throw some additional marketing dollars towards that and even though some might say the return won’t be as high as I’d get if I were to take on the project myself — I don’t want to! Harper is taking the risk, has the in-house skill, and distribution that I don’t…so this partnership (and the royalty rate I’m getting) is very attractive to me compared to the effort involved.

    Going into publishing clueless is a bit like expecting a VC to stump up the capital for a risky new venture (because no one can guarantee a book will be a best seller if you’re largely an unknown, don’t have the testimonial sluts in your back pocket, and are willing to game the system by getting all your info marketing buddies to target their affiliate marketing at precisely the same time)…and then bitching about the fact that they’re taking the lion’s share of the eventual profits.

    Having experienced both sides of the fence I’m open minded. If I felt that an upcoming book of mine would be better served — no, let me re-phrase that — if I felt that the potential readers would be better served by one of my books being commercially published, I’d do my damnedest to try and make that happen. Otherwise, I’ll do it myself.

    Thanks so much for one of the most refreshing reads I’ve had in a long time! Admire your balls.

  25. I think it is weird to avoid a writer’s work because of attitude or rhetoric. Outside of self-publishing there’s been similar things like Orson Scott Card’s political/religious rants that I’ve seen people get up in arms and recommend boycott. I liked Orson Scott Card’s books before. Maybe he’s changed to include his rhetoric in his book. If not, I probably still like his books. Konrath’s books. Tried a sample. Didn’t work for me. Occasionally, I read something on his blog.

    The self-publishing revolution is amusing to me. Everything on making more with self-publishing is predicated on a book earning out. A book earns out faster in self-publishing. No question. Just because you write a book and self-publish does not mean that it WILL make more than if you trad published. It depends on the sales of the book vs. the advance. It may take 10 years before that book makes more than the Trad contract.

    Statistically, you could probably prove that more books turn a larger profit as self-pubbed than the traditional contract they could earn. A self pub’d book that sells 10 copies a year compared to the fact that it wouldn’t get a contract is making more, right?

    It’s a matter of individual value. You can tell a woman that two shoes look the exact same, just one cost 20 times more, but that doesn’t mean she’s an idiot if she buys the more expensive shoes. I don’t know if that is a good analogy. Analogy starts with anal.

    I have to go now.

  26. You want facts and you want reality? Over the summer I made $5000.00 (May, June, July) on a book no New York Publisher would touch.

    I continue to bring in about $400 a month from that book. I may continue to bring in $400 a month forever. (And as Joe sez, “Forever is a long time.”)

    Now I have readers and fans and money… three things I didn’t have when I was pushing this idea around the Legacy publishing hampster wheel.

    But, don’t believe me (and don’t believe Joe). I prefer it if most people keep their books tied up with submissions to Agents and/or Publishers instead of having it out there on where it is competition for my book.

    • @EvilAvatar:

      I like facts. And to you I say: well done! Good for you. Your success is admirable and in many cases, repeatable.

      I just want to be clear that facts for you is not data for all.

      My facts:

      Over the summer I finally scored a publishing contract for a book no New York publisher would touch *and* that book’s sequel. I received a lot of rejections from publishers, and they were all very nice and were all very clear that this was a book they loved but was not a book they wanted to take a risk with. Which is fine; I don’t blame them. But then, out of nowhere I got two offers from two publishers — two non-NYC Big Six publishers. The book now already earned me a very nice advance as well as a publishing contract that is by no means punishing and is, in fact, fine by me. All the horror stories one hears about low advances and shitty contracts where they get dick royalties and end up having their books stuck in a reiterative loop? That did not happen to me. I’m happy. I won’t give numbers as I don’t feel it’s proper, but what I made was more than what I figure I could’ve made with self-publishing.

      That might be wrong. I dunno. Point is, I picked my road and I’m walking it. Happily. And well-fed.

      Does that make me stupid? Because that’s the vibe I’m getting. That I’m an idiot because I walked away from Potential Theoretical Money instead of taking the money and opportunity that sat there on the table. Because I want my book to be handled by a smart and savvy publisher with great media ties rather than having to handle it all myself. Because I don’t always want to be play publisher. Sometimes I want to play *with* a publisher, be it Angry Robot, Evil Hat, Abaddon, etc.

      More facts:

      I have four books self-published.


      Not novels, no. Three writing advice books, one short story collection. I never expected them to be epic, but they do fine for me. Here I’ll share numbers because no other party is involved, but I’ve earned about $5500 across all four releases. I’m happy with that — signs point to each book earning out at or beyond my normal freelance rate.

      Am I stupid for having self-published? Some traditionally-published authors might think so, but I reject that line of thinking, too.

      I did well over there. I did well here.

      Each book and each author will need to scope out their own path. That’s it. That’s what I’m saying. I’m saying that publishing — as well as writing as well as life in general — is not a ONE SIZE FITS ALL deal.

      But that doesn’t sound sexy. That doesn’t sound all revolutionary. “Do both and beware false dichotomies” sounds altogether too pragmatic. No fire, no brimstone. Where’s the fun in that?

      Sidenote: Evil Avatar remains my go-to place for video game news and zombie novel awesomeness. Great and unpretentious site.

      — c.

  27. Maybe you’re now a multimillionaire from self-publishing. Good on you! I know you aren’t here to make friends, and I’m sad to say you are reaching that goal.

    I’ll go cry on my solid gold bed.

    Sorry we can’t be friends. Especially since I’ve never directly, publicly insulted you, but you made an effort to directly, publicly insult me. I bet you’d be a hoot in person.

  28. First, a question: is ‘legacy’ just another way of saying ‘traditional’, or is there more to it?

    As someone who has self-published, let me just say, it is a Hell of a lot of work and if you don’t have a pre-existing audience or any money to spend or time to spam, marketing can be next to impossible. I’m lucky and experienced enough to be a decent graphic designer; I would have been absolutely screwed if I’d actually had to pay someone to do my cover art and layout (gruelling work, btw).

    Would I self-publish again? Absolutely. The next book I have in the works involves anthropomorhic rabbits running around an effed-up dream reality and killing each other… I’m thinking that it might be a hard sell for traditional publishers.

    Would I take a book deal if one was offered to me? You bet your ass I would. This either/or ridiculousness makes as much sense as people fighting over cars vs. motorcycles; in the end, it’s not just about fuel efficiency, price, safety or operating costs*, it’s about where you’re going and how you want to get there. If you could have both, why wouldn’t you?

    Sadly, I’m going to have to add myself to the Won’t Be Buying From JA Konrath list. I say sadly because I know this is an illogical reaction; poor attitude here might have no relation at all to the quality of his work – but it’s sort of the same as how I can’t listen to Gary Glitter** anymore. Just one of those things.

    After I finish writing Quicksand (the one with the dream rabbits), I’m going back to edit (strip and rewrite, then edit, then wash, rinse, repeat) one of my complete MSs and get it out in the traditional world. I have a lot of stories kicking around in my head and my plans for publication for each are dependant on each. I have no desire to limit myself.

    *Notice that both vehicles have different strengths and weaknesses. I’m nothing if not thorough with my similes.

    **Just to be clear, I am not comparing Konrath to Glitter in any way other than to illustrate how his actions have impacted my perception of his work.

    • @Athena:

      Generally, legacy and traditional are conflated, though one could argue “legacy” refers to Big Six or “New York” publishing, whereas “traditional” merely refers to publishing with a company as opposed to DIY’ing it.

      — c.

  29. Especially since I’ve never directly, publicly insulted you, but you made an effort to directly, publicly insult me.

    Disagreeing with you is not an insult. Neither is agreeing with you that you aren’t making friends. Feel free to take as such if you will, though.

    I bet you’d be a hoot in person.

    So I’ve been told.

    +1 Chuck. He doesn’t resort to personal affronts or personal attacks when he has nothing to say; he just stops talking.

  30. Hey Chuck,
    If I buy were to buy your “Confessions of a Freelance Penmonkey” but already had the 250 Things… book (because I got it when I bought “Revenge…” and it was included with that), would you be willing to send this secondary 250 Things to a friend of mine who might be interested in such wisdom as a gift type interaction with perhaps an extra dose of your trademark awesome-sauce slathered on top?

    Because that’d be super cool…..

  31. Enjoyed this post! I’m not too proud to admit that the reason I self-published my novel, The Dirty Parts of the Bible, was because it was rejected by 100 publishers, from the Big 6 to every small publishing house in Texas.

    During the 2 years I was shopping it around (2007-2008), it was proofread by several writer friends and a NY agent who offered some suggestions. So it was very polished by the time I published it on Kindle last year (and Amazon readers quickly caught the 2 or 3 remaining typos).

    Despite good success on Kindle, I’d honestly still like a traditional contract for a softcover that could get into bookstores (provided I kept the digital rights). But I’m focusing on selling ebooks and not approaching publishers at this time.

    Self-publishing was my only option for an odd book that didn’t fit what publishers were looking for. It’s been a tremendous opportunity, and I’m grateful.

  32. Well, it’s not easy being green.

    And, it’s not easy being a writer, either.

    Chuck, I think I love you.
    Joe, I know, I do.
    David, I love you, too.

    Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much. Helen Keller

  33. Holy flaming cowparts! I think I know why self-pub vs trad pub discussions sound so familiar. It seems to resemble university departments splitting between tenure track and non-tenure track faculty. Profs seeking the golden ticket of tenure would look at the lecturers as lazy scabs crossing a picket line. The lecturers would look at the associate profs as suck-up slave labor destined to a decade in the salt mines with no guarantee of success. There’s nothing like a staff room full of catty self-important academics ever so politely cutting each other to shreds over coffee.

    Of course, I’m not sure how the two sides of the black/white self-pub argument map to this scenario but I would say that leaves Chuck as the foul-mouthed, pantsless janitor that happens to have a reasonable publishing contract while also earning out on the self-pub market.

    The moral of the story is that maybe fewer writers should go to college. Seriously, those guys are assholes.

  34. Good post, Chuck. I had never really considered self publishing until my first two books were done and I started reading about attracting an agent. One of the things I learned I needed to do first was build a “platform.” So I did. I created a blog and a Twitter account. I followed writers, agents, and publishers and saw a LOT on self publishing and ebooks on Twitter and blogs. Much of it promising. One thing that struck me was the price difference to readers. All I wanted was to have my stories read. I figured more people could do that if I self published a $0.99 ebook than an $8 paperback or $15 hardcover. So I decided to try it. I never even tried shopping my work to agents even though I had compiled a list of likely ones and had drafted query letters based on guidance in multiple books on the subject. This may have been a mistake. I really don’t know. I figure I’ll leave my books available for a year and see what happens. If they don’t attract a following, I’ll probably shop my third book the traditional way when it’s done next year.
    Do you know if trad agents and publishers consider previously self published works soiled goods? Once self published, is a book forever barred from being considered by an agent or publisher?

  35. Re: cart vs. horse ordering

    Way back when I first decided I wanted to write a novel, and the internet consisted of little more than listservs and ASCII porn*, the first thing I did was to go out and buy a book about writing. (I believe it was called “Teach Yourself to Write Mysteries and Thrillers,” and I chose it strictly based on the fact that that was what I intended to do.) And I distinctly remember that when I got it home, one of the first things I did was to flip to the back and read the chapter on how to get published. Not because I knew everything about characters and plot and pace and setting, but because that was the fun stuff. I could read that chapter and daydream about the (inevitable) day when my book sold in a six-figure deal to great acclaim, and what I would wear for my TV appearances. Actually writing the damn thing was work. And maybe I’m reaching, but I suspect that’s what’s happening to the discussions you’re talking about too. People engage more with the conversations about publishing because it’s more enjoyable than talking about craft. Not more useful, for the most part, but I guess that’s just human nature.

    *I assume. I mean, there’s always porn.

  36. I’m traditionally published with Penguin and (gasp) I’m happy. I don’t think my publisher is out to screw me and frankly, while writing five different series at one time, I can’t do what they do. I need my agent, my editor, my marketing person and the art department. If I had to do all that they do and write excellent books (yes, I strive for excellence in every book), I’d stab myself to death with a pen. Honestly.

  37. Just so.

    However, I think we still need to promote how to self-publish and spread the lessons learned. I’m getting ready to talk to a writer’s group this month, and I’ll be surprised if I see 2 other pubbers in the room. And this is a SOLID group.

    I’d be interested to see if you find any good filters. This has been in my craw for some time–as a reader. If I WANT to specifically support self-published authors at the top of their game, how do I do that? Especially when reviews are so heavily biased at this point.

  38. @Deanna above regarding reviews and finding self-published authors’ great work: Search inside at Amazon makes it easy to review a work and determine the quality of the writing and the author’s voice. It’s not hard. And, it’s free.

    I don’t think we have to “teach” anyone. It’s all out there on how to best format a novel and write it. Self-publishing is a challenging path to take. Those looking for the quick turn of a buck will get their share, but give readers some credit; they’ll come back to the authors worth reading, again and again.

  39. Hey, man, great post. I couldn’t agree with you more. I’m planning on going the self-publishing route but everything you said made a lot of sense and I totally agree that it’s about the quality of the story, not the method used to pub. it.

    Either way you have to be smart business-wise. Either you cut a good deal traditionally, or you’re the one-man-army self-publishing. In the end it boils down to product and consistency. If you’re that good, and you push for that long, you’re bound to prosper.

    Happy writing, and cheers!

  40. Jesus Christ, Chuck. Kicked the hornets’ nest with this one.

    Wait, do hornets even have nests?

    Do they even sting? Because if they don’t, that means we can kick with impunity once the morality of the moment is cast aside.


    I with think a lot of this debate, both sides are motivated to some degree by fear. I can only really discuss it from the trad-pub side, but a lot of what I’m hearing when my friends talk about self-publishing isn’t actually negative. Still, some totally cling to The Fear.

    Some traditionally published authors worry that the model will change so much that they’ll have to get “real jobs” in 10 years, and that the market will be so flooded with shit that the signal-to-noise ratio means fuck-awful sequels to fuck-awful freebies (as in iBooks’ top charts) will be what make all the money in the future. With no filter for quality (not that traditional publishing has been A+ in that regard), there’s also the fear that it devalues the worth of the craft – if anyone can do it, and indeed if everyone *is* doing it, and their output is significantly worse than what’s been commonly seen in the past, then you’ve got the fear of the whole house of cards falling down. Because as we know from the music and movie industries, quality isn’t always enough. What sells is what’s visible and accessible. ‘Easy’ sells as much as ‘Awesome’. ‘Simple’ sells as much as ‘Deep’. Often, they sell more.

    Of course, we know it from the book trade, too. But whatevs. A lot of it seems to ivory tower snobbery, and some of it does seem to have genuine merit that quality is dropping. In a lot of cases, there’s a reason Book X wasn’t traditionally published; because Book X is shit and couldn’t get a publisher. But even so, I don’t see many trad-published folks applying that across the board. People seem to get it. Some of them are even trying self-publishing as an experiment to see if they can make more money through it.

    It’s not helped by publishing companies themselves lagging slightly behind, still trying to make the same profits despite cutting back on costs with ebooks. They’ll have to address the fact that with production changing so much, they’re no longer in a position to charge the same for e-product as a physical product. And if they are, the creator is the one that deserves the lion’s share. The music industry is still up to its throat in similar waters.

    Messy stuff, this.

  41. Coming to this a bit late, as I was out of the country and offline, but I had to comment on this one:

    Darlene Underdahl “I’ve got maybe thirty years of writing in me, and the publishers/agents want young-uns they can groom and milk for sixty or seventy years. Nothing wrong with that… it’s just business… I understand.”

    This is another of those myths that circulate amongst aspiring writers – that they can’t get published because publishers only want young writers. This is totally NOT TRUE. I speak from personal experience here – I don’t imagine I have much more than thirty years’ writing in me, if that, but it hasn’t stopped me getting signed by one of the most exciting and innovative new publishers in SFF. (I suspect I’m their oldest debut author so far.)

    Publishers want great books, full stop. Yes, it might have been an issue if I’d been old and/or in poor health to the point where I would have struggled to fulfill a multi-book contract – launching a new author takes a substantial investment of time, money and effort, so publishers want to spread that over several books if possible. On the other hand, I honestly don’t think publishers look much further ahead than that. They can’t, because a new writer is far more likely to disappear into obscurity after a handful of books than turn out to be a cash cow.

    Also, a successful author can easily change publisher if they get offered a better deal on their next uncontracted book, so the idea of any one publisher “milking” a writer is also based on ignorance/misunderstanding of how commercial publishing works. Yes, it’s a business, but unless you sign a really bad contract, you the author are still in control of your career.

    And of course self-publishing is one of your many career options, too 🙂

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