The Economic Impact of Non-Diverse Romance, Part I: The Quality “Problem”

(Disclaimer 1: this post is a general discussion of the romance industry. Personally, I’ve been lucky enough to work with an awesome agent and attentive editors and publishers, but many, many marginalized authors have not.)

(Disclaimer 2: I know that publishing is hard for white romance authors, too, and that they also face rejection and income issues. Please read with the knowledge that this discussion takes that into account, but is specifically concerned with how there is an even higher barrier to entry for marginalized authors.)

So, I told myself I didn’t want to write about diversity in romance anymore. I’m tired. As Bernie Mac would say, “My body weary.” But for the last few months, something has been rattling around in my brain and I need to get it out.

When we talk diversity in romance, a lot of the discussion focuses on representation, which is super important–I know all too well the joy of finding a character that reflects your life when reading your favorite fiction, and the pain of only seeing caricatures of yourself. There is also a lot of talk about getting mainstream authors to add more diversity to their books, which is also important but I think shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the fact that there are already LOADS of marginalized authors writing diverse romance (many of whom get ignored when they reach out to people specifically ask for diverse romance). I’ll save that discussion for another day. One thing that I think people shy away from is talking about the economic impact of non-diversity in romance publishing. Money.

make it rain

I think this is, in part, because when money is mentioned, that’s when self-interest starts to rear its head. That’s when people start to think “Well, maybe people only want to make money off of this diversity stuff!” and start seeing discussions of diversity as some kind of scam or way to advance an agenda. I find this bizarre, because when feminists raise hell about women making less than men for the same job, no one thinks “Oh, she’s just trying to make money” in a derisive sense. Of course people want to be paid the same amount of money for doing the same job! But when you throw race, gender, sexuality, and religion into the mix, suddenly the “equal pay for everyone” ship loses some steam. Suddenly, doubts start to appear. Suddenly, people to start to wonder if maybe it’s not discrimination, but just “quality” that’s the problem. I’m sure all of those same people have wondered if feminists just weren’t working hard enough when they demanded equal pay though, right?

spock brow raise

So, I’m going to try to break down the diversity problem from the economic side, try being the important part there. I’m not an economist and numbers generally make me want to dive into a cave. The hard numbers and charts and all that will take some time, but in the meantime I’ll be taking a general survey of the economic terrain for marginalized authors. In a series of posts over the next few months, I’ll be discussing some of the factors that create an adverse economic environment for marginalized authors. I’ll be doing interviews and examining previously collected information, such as Audra North’s Diversity in Romance data and the Lee and Low survey of diversity in publishing. I’ll also be examining concepts such as race/ethnicity-specific romance lines.

Basically, this will be a work in progress, changing as it goes. Some posts will focus on race/ethnicity. Some on LGBTQ issues. Some on the intersection of several marginalized groups.  I won’t be able to cover everything, and really encourage people to comment with their insights, opinions, and experiences.

But to start, we’ll discuss a baseline issue that, while not quantifiable, is a major impediment for marginalized romance authors seeking to gain entry into the publishing world, and that is the QUALITY PROBLEM.

A few weeks back, a well-known agent (who may or may not be a robot, a theory floated after the bizarre situation I’m about to recount) took to Twitter to talk about diversity and how to increase the number of books by marginalized authors. A refrain started to emerge from her dozens of tweets, in which the quality of submissions from marginalized authors was lamented. It reached a point where one person even suggested that perhaps we should just rely on white/cis/ able-bodied people to write the stories of marginalized people because they can’t do it well enough themselves. Instead of telling this person that was completely out of the question, the agent responded in the same (robotic? hmmm) tone she used even with people who expressed their dismay, as if all of these things should have received the same consideration.

disgust

Now, I’m sure this agent meant well, which actually changes nothing in the grand scheme of things, but the entire hurtful conversation, which snaked through my Twitter timeline for  days, was offensive and condescending, and—most of all?—wrong.

No one is asking for crappy books to be published solely because the author is from a marginalized group. But, and here is where I take a deep breath because I’m going to say something not so nice: in the weeks since that series of tweets, I’ve read a lot of traditionally published books, most of them by white authors, the group that is presented (intentionally or not!) as the group most capable of producing quality romance literature. Were these all amazing paragons of high-quality literature? No. A couple were wonderful and moving and gave me all the great romance feels. Most were okay. A few were straight-up terrible. I’m not saying this to shit on other authors. I hate having to even type this! Basically:

  • Quality is subjective. Perhaps an editor read the books that I thought were terrible and thought they were great, simply because our tastes differ. BUT
  • I’ve read SO MANY self-published books by marginalized romance authors that were leaps and bounds better than many of the books I read, or could have been with the nurturing a publisher and editor provide. Even the self-pubbed books by marginalized authors that I thought were terrible were on par or better than the trad-published books that I thought were terrible.

So, I have to ask: just what do people mean when they say marginalized authors are not producing quality books? I mean, the statement is ridiculous to begin with. I’m sure that crappy white authors outnumber marginalized authors by manifold in the slush piles of agents and editors, but I’ve never heard anyone make sweeping generalizations about the quality of work of white authors.

Quality is thus something that’s defined by particular agents and editors who have, unless they are aliens (as we have already seen, robots aren’t immune), grown up in a society that reinforces the fact that “quality” or “goodness” is not something you think of when you think of marginalized people. Is the review process for all books exactly the same? I’d have to say no, given my aforementioned reading experience.

Because this is important, I have to say that this is hard on all marginalized authors, but particularly black authors. Other minorities as seen as smart, but not saleable. Many people are taken aback when they realize black people read and write books. Whether we like it or not, society has preconditioned many readers, no matter the race, to read through books with their internal copy editor turned on (Is that *really* the right word to use in this sentence? Was this statement fact-checked?) in a way that they don’t with other authors. Things that are seen overlooked in other books are seen as evidence of inability to write in black authors, leading to an even larger “quality” road block.

Now to the point: when the people who are the gatekeepers for romance publishing view submissions from marginalized authors as “less than” from the jump, how are these authors expected to achieve economic equality with their peers? Every book by a black/Asian/gay/disabled romance author shouldn’t have to be above and beyond just to be gain consideration. Although I read some amazing, amazing, amazing books by marginalized authors, they are often self-published, while books that many would consider mediocre are published by top publishers, complete with advances and marketing pushes. All authors have to work hard, but we all know that self-publishing is more time intensive and requires a significant initial investment by the author. Thus, too much of the time, the current state of publishing leaves marginalized authors with the economic options of (a) accepting less money for their work by trad publishers than their white/cis/able-bodied counterparts or (b) having to self-publish within whatever means their current salary allows them.

 

not okay

The level of diversity in the current romance publishing landscape is changing, too fast for some and not fast enough for others, but even if things proceed beyond our wildest dreams in the coming months and years, it’s important to remember that in addition to being a more accurate reflection of the world around us, diversity in romance is also about economic parity.

 

 

 

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27 thoughts on “The Economic Impact of Non-Diverse Romance, Part I: The Quality “Problem”

  1. I would be very interested in recommendations for great self-published work. I don’t read a lot of that unless it comes highly recommended, partly because I’m not good at sampling as a way of picking a book (reading five pages and giving up if I don’t care for them). But I’ve read some wonderful self published stuff that was recommended on book blogs I trust. If you have specific recs, or blogs I can read that review a lot of self-pub work, I’d love to hear more!

  2. Fantastic post, Alyssa. It’s an excellent reminder to privileged authors to continue to challenge our thinking on a daily basis and confront the biases we might not even realize we have.

    Thank you (to you and the other POC authors in our community) for speaking up, and continuing to speak up in the face of denials and dismissal from various sources. I have learned so much from following discussions on Twitter and elsewhere, and I really appreciate it.

  3. Thanks for this, Alyssa. I agree that the economic aspect of the diversity discussion is one that’s been sidelined, and I appreciate your bringing it front and center.

    I’m not sure what to make of the agent claiming quality issues. That kind of statement would have been shouted down in the 1980s, and yet here we are thirty years later, with people still spouting that kind of nonsense. I almost can’t get angry at it, it’s so absurd.

  4. Excellent post, Alyssa. The argument about “quality” irks me so badly for many of the reasons you’ve outlined. This is the type of discussion that often makes people uncomfortable, but it’s a discussion that needs to happen. Without discomfort there is no growth or meaningful change. So thank you for turning up the heat.

  5. I present here my personal opinion, of course, take it or leave it, but I see any arguement about ‘marginalized authors’ (what exactly does that even mean?) suffering in today’s publishing market as a complete non-issue. It may have once been an issue, but is now, with modern technology, almost completely irrelevent.

    Why?

    Because ethnicity is completely irrelevent in a market where (1) no one has to know the ethnicity, gender, height, hair colour, or anything else, of the author, (2) many, if not most, romance novelists use pseudonyms anyway, (I have known men who publish romance under a female pseudonym), (3) agents don’t know the ethnicity of the author until they decide to accept the work, (4) SELF-PUBLISHING has almost made traditional publishing obsolete, especially in genres like romance, and will continue to as e-books far surpass print in sales, (5) any author can self-publish anything they want, the amount you earn will be determined by the free market and takes into consideration such factors as the quality of your writing and the amount of effort you put into learning the business of your craft (specifically, marketing) – but it does not consider your ethnicity.

    ==> So if there is a huge pool of amazing ‘marginalized authors’ and a market for the stories they write, then, instead of complaining, let them self-publish and prove the agents wrong.

    Furthermore, this article seemed to jump around on diversity, moving from character to author diversity, as if they were the same thing. In terms of writing marginalized or diverse characters, the author’s ethnicity is irrelevant. If they have done the research and have the empathy to write a convincing character that’s different from them, then they can write the character, whether it’s black writing white, white writing black, asian writing hispanic, able-bodied writing parapalegic, male writing female, or whatever.

    1. So because marginalized authors can pretend to be white/straight/etc. and succeed under cover, there’s no problem? Uh, what? Have you not basically proven her point here?

      1. TL;DR there’s no problem, only opportunity.

        I’m not sure how I’ve proven her point, after all, female authors pretend to be male (J.K. Rowling for example), and male authors pretend to be female. There are also children’s book series where every author is given the same pen name to suggest continuity over a series lasting several hundred books. You do what works to sell books in a particular market.

        I believe any such modern problem regarding ethnicity that may exist is caused by people like the author of the blog, who focus too much on race, gender and diversity of ethnicity. Let the market decide is all I’m saying – that and the very important fact that anyone can publish anything. There are no gatekeepers in publishing anymore. Therefore, using them as an excuse is dishonest at best.

        Furthermore, if you, as an author, see an area of the marketplace that isn’t developed, the logical thing to do would be to write stories to fill that niche, not complain about it so it gets flooded and you lose out.

        Anyone of any ethnicity can publish anything about characters of any ethnicity. How then can one honestly claim that anyone could be marginalized in the modern system?

        If you believe there aren’t enough readers who are interested in stories about characters of a particular ethnicity then perhaps (1) there aren’t enough readers of that ethnicity in the marketplace – people tend to prefer stories that reflect themselves, (2) the stories are poorly written – already discussed in the post, (3) the authors who write such stories are not getting them out there – no one to blame but themselves, get self-publishing, (4) the authors who write such stories are not being discovered by readers – have people interested in reading such stories create networks to draw more attention to their favourite authors (but do something other than complaining), (5) perhaps such stories are read and liked and just haven’t found a vocal fan base – like the hundreds of thousands of other stories out there (an incredibly tiny number of stories actually draw any notice in the marketplace, regardless of ethnical consideration), (6) perhaps most people don’t really care about the ethnicity of the protagonist unless it’s relevent to the story – is there really that much difference between a love story of a white woman and that of a black woman? Any differences are not about the romance, but the setting.

        In short, be the change you want to see. Write and self-publish the stories you feel are missing. Then you’ll discover whether the agents were right or wrong.

    2. “I present here my personal opinion, of course, take it or leave it,”
      leaving it, but do mansplain on.

      “but I see any arguement about ‘marginalized authors’ (what exactly does that even mean?)”
      I’m pretty sure Alyssa explained it her post, but just in case she didn’t: Marginalized authors are authors that are not straight/white/able-bodied. So in essence, not you, Mr. Winhydenberg.

      “suffering in today’s publishing market as a complete non-issue.”
      The ignorance is staggering.

      “It may have once been an issue, but is now, with modern technology, almost completely irrelevent.”
      Like auto-correct. It’s a non-issue for you as a white man. Then why are you here? Why is your opinion relevant?

      “Why?”
      I want to know this same thing. But do, mansplain it to me.

      “Because ethnicity is completely irrelevent in a market where (1) no one has to know the ethnicity, gender, height, hair colour, or anything else, of the author, (2) many, if not most, romance novelists use pseudonyms anyway,”
      Right, so when you do to events and a bunch of white women stare at a brown woman up and down like she doesn’t belong there…that’s “irrelevent.” Why should someone have to change their name to something SUPER WHITE in order to have someone read their work? Because racism.

      “(I have known men who publish romance under a female pseudonym), (3) agents don’t know the ethnicity of the author until they decide to accept the work,”
      What?

      “(4) SELF-PUBLISHING has almost made traditional publishing obsolete, especially in genres like romance, and will continue to as e-books far surpass print in sales,”
      Not exactly true, but you’re still going.

      “(5) any author can self-publish anything they want, the amount you earn will be determined by the free market and takes into consideration such factors as the quality of your writing and the amount of effort you put into learning the business of your craft (specifically, marketing) – but it does not consider your ethnicity.”
      If you read this post, which you didn’t, you’d see that one of the arguments is that quality and diversity have nothing to do with each other. You can have a shitty piece of fanfiction written by a British woman sell millions of copies. You can have a Black author write a great book and never see the light of day because publishers want to stick her in a “Flavor Imprint.”

      Also, don’t try to tell women who are actually in charge of their business and craft *about* their business and craft, Mr. Hrydberg.

      “==> So if there is a huge pool of amazing ‘marginalized authors’ and a market for the stories they write, then, instead of complaining, let them self-publish and prove the agents wrong.”
      No. If they are successful in self-publishing, then publishers should want to buy these books and print all the copied themselves. But they can’t market books by marginalized authors when 90% of publishing is white.

      “Furthermore, this article seemed to jump around on diversity, moving from character to author diversity, as if they were the same thing.”
      Do, tell us about diversity.

      “In terms of writing marginalized or diverse characters, the author’s ethnicity is irrelevant.”
      Nope.

      “If they have done the research and have the empathy to write a convincing character that’s different from them, then they can write the character, whether it’s black writing white, white writing black, asian writing hispanic, able-bodied writing parapalegic, male writing female, or whatever.”
      In the immortal words of Buffy Summers, “A WORLD OF NO.” This is why we have gross stereotypes today. Because white people have been writing generalized two-dimensional versions of us from the beginning.

      Leave the diversity in romance to the people who want to help. Otherwise, why are you even here if not to interject your white male voice? Don’t answer that. I already know.

      1. I started responding to each point and then realized that (1) I was wasting my time commenting on someone who’s entire argument was ‘No’ and presents no alternative information, (2) is only interested in belittling and towing the party line (‘mansplaining’ please!! perhaps I mistook this blog for a discussion among grown-ups…), (3) the account is probably fake, made by a troll anyway, as there is no blog or profile linked to it. However, I will address a few of the points for anyone else of similar sentiment.

        So, for said people, please explain how the potential anonymity of self-publishing hampers ‘marginalized’ authors.

        Seems to me that J.K. Rowling has shown pretty conclusively that reader interest in the story trumps identity politics of the author (for those not aware, Harry Potter was not expected to be so big, as it was a children’s book she wrote under her own identity. More recently however, writing in Crime under a male pseudonym, in one of the largest genres – next to Romance – she had abysmal sales until her real identity ‘slipped out’).

        Please explain why a publisher enters into the situation at all for a successful self-published author -> hint: you do not need a publisher to validate your writing if you are successful. (i.e. if you’ve written and marketed a good book that people want to read and you’re making good sales with e-books, you should ask youself what you can gain with a publisher).

        Do you realize that publishing is a business and the publishers publish what their understanding of the marketplace suggests will sell well. Therefore, if the traditional publishing marketplace is 90% white (reference please), then it’s because 90% of their readers want books about white people. However, I would also assert that most people self-identify with the protagonist unless the setting is too foreign. I for one never even think about the race of the character unless it’s mentioned. Furthermore, in my own stories I almost never describe the characters race (skin colour, etc), because it’s irrelevent to me.

        Please explain how a generalized two-dimensional character comes from a good writer with true empathy for the character. I note not only was my point ignored here, but also there is no mention of all the well-written examples that support my assertion.

        Finally, regarding the ‘mansplaining’ feminist flame-bait I’d just like to mention that my own experience with agents suggests that in the current market (at least in the UK) about 80% of agents are female. In fact, the blog post itself notes the agent discussed was a woman. If there ever was special treatment for men in the industry (and arguably there may have been in some genres like SF, although doubtful Romance was one of them), there most certainly is not any more.

  6. First of all, I respect your opinion, and I absolutely agree when you say we need more diversity in romance and more writers that are not part of white/cis/ able-bodied norm, but in this post you try to explain why there aren’t more established and successful writers who are not part of the aforementioned norm (is it truly a quality problem or what), and I’m not sure I agree with your reasoning. But on the other hand I can’t not agree with it, because in the end these are all assumptions, not facts, and we can’t know the whys for sure.

    As you said, “Quality is subjective. Perhaps an editor read the books that I thought were terrible and thought they were great, simply because our tastes differ” and only if that editor comes out and say “Yes, I’m racist” or “Yes, I don’t want to publish books written by trans people” is when we can say that that is why marginalized groups of people have so hard time publishing their work. Until then, we are practically forced to trust them and can only make assumptions.

    And you know, I’ve also read great self-pub books by marginalized authors, but I’ve also read bad. The same goes with white/cis/ able-bodied authors publishing traditionally (with publishing houses) – I’ve read some both good and bad books. So you can’t use that as an argument exactly. And also your feminist reference is not exactly applicable here.

    I have a couple of favorite authors, and two of them are black. I’m telling you this to demonstrate that you can’t put all marginalized authors in a same basket and say they should be paid more. In the end, what the reader pays is that writers’s work – a book. I know you’re going to think now “but the marginalized authors will bring more diversity in romance,and thus more quality” (and you’re probably right), but speaking only of race now, that’s why I mentioned that two of my favorite authors are black. Because you see, both are self-pub, both are successful (very), both write romantic books, BUT while one of them has Latinos, black, white, Asian people in her books,and not as secondary, but as MCs, the other one has 100% white score, not a single POC, not even as a secondary (yeah I know, strange but it is what it is). But I love them both, because they both write great romantic stories IMO. And of all the authors whose books I’ve read, the most diverse ones are written by a white author. And besides do you think that all white authors have it good? Think again, because there’s so much quality out there that goes unnoticed and unpaid.

  7. Hi Alyssa,

    Your post struck a chord, because as a white writer, I do notice the lack of diversity, and I regret that books don’t always reflect the diversity of our world. Or that when such diversity is present, most of the time it is “pointed out”, and becomes part of the conflict.

    My main characters are white, because, obviously one tends to write about what they know best, but my favorite game is to make diversity an integral part of my world-building, and to always present it as a purely descriptive / non-crucial element.

    For example, in my first book, the white hero’s ex is a Nigerian woman, and … it plays no role in the dynamic between the characters. It’s utterly banal and there’s never any mention that they were an “interracial” couple or whatever. They were a couple, like any other couple.
    Or in another chapter, we meet the mother of one of the characters, who shamelessly flirts with the hero. She’s presented as an elegant, middle-aged woman. It’s only in a passing comment at the end of the chapter that the reader will realize that she is a transexual woman. (Some readers actually missed that detail, and I’m very happy with it: my opinion is that in a perfect world, what we call “diversity” shouldn’t have a name, should be a non-event).

    I kept doing the same in my second book, showing people of all colors and background, and the third book takes place in South Africa, so I actually have a chapter where I had fun doing a “reverse description”: the characters are in the middle of a “Cape coloured” Township, where they are the only white people, so they *are* the one being physically described as white, whereas no mention is made of the skin color of the people around them. I also casually introduce a character as gay, here again, in a passing comment, and of course it’s not a guy who fits the “stereotypes” people have in mind.

    It’s not much, but hopefully it’s a tiny contribution to the task of banalizing what is still labeled as “diversity”.

    Best,

    Camilla Monk.

  8. Hi Alyssa,
    This is the first time I’ve come across your blog. You’ve made some great points. I agree that marginalised writers are often forced to fund their own publishing. For me, I went indie for purely economic and artistic reasons. I didn’t want some low-level editor butchering my work, and I didn’t want to pay for that in my sales. I love having agency over my work; for me, it’s the only way. But, as you say, it’s hard for any writer, and a marginalised writer has got next to no chance. Now, just to clarify, I’m an indie author and editor, also, as you can see, I’m white. My first book is due out in September. It’s a paranormal fantasy romance, about a nymph who just happens to have dark skin when she is human form. I never saw her character as a way to produce a culturally diverse book, but I do see her as a soul that wants freedom to be who she innately is. I recognised that it is problematic for a writer who is white to write a character like this. It is difficult, because we all have our biases that mostly develop as we are brought up in the society we live in, but I gave it to some friends who identify as Indigenous and as African American. They didn’t see any racist discourse, or at least they didn’t mention it. The book is a romance, and doesn’t really comment on race. I know, I’m waffling. Sorry–I’m not trying to self promote. I guess, my point is that the depiction of a particular race has nothing to do with the quality of the read. When I surveyed readers, most of them said that they didn’t care about the character’s racial identification. They just wanted a good story. I’ve just finished editing a short novella by a romance author who is Indigenous, and the quality of her work is equal with other romance writers, so I agree. It is ridiculous to think that quality is an issue.

    I also want to mention that some of your own language needs adjusting. Our society has many biases and one of them is that people who are disabled are considered inferior, as objects of pity, even non-human, with little rights and very small voices. Therefore, I’d just like to give a friendly tip that the use of ‘able-bodied’ people to modify ‘white’ and disabled romance author is using ableist language. I understand no offence is intended, but it’s more inclusive to refer to the person before the disability. So instead of disabled romance author, you’d express that as a romance author who lives with a disability or a romance author who identifies as disabled or perhaps a romance author who lives with neurofibromatosis. You get my meaning. 🙂

    All up, Alyssa, a great blog post. And well thought-out. I love romance. I think it has enormous depth when written well, and economic parity is definitely something to think about. Thanks for your blog post. I’ll come back to read more later.

    1. Hi Georgia—thanks for the feedback! I used the word disabled because that is the word the people in my life prefer. Obviously, opinions vary, as in any other group. I do appreciate your comment, and I will definitely take it into consideration moving forward.

      1. I can be pretty passionate about this, for this I beg your forgiveness. Someone who uses the phrase ‘a disabled woman’ isn’t being derogatory in any way; They’re simply trying to describe that person. And if the people in your life who live with a disability don’t mind, that’s totally appropriate, but in a public forum, inclusive language matters. A disability can’t define someone. I know you probably think I’m being PC and picky, but if you’re the one who suffers from Schizophrenia, it means a lot when you see things like a ‘mentally-ill woman’ used at random. ‘Cause people are so much more than the thing that makes their lives hell. Is it quick and easy? Yes. However, the use of the adjective before the noun (disabled person) means that you’re modifying the meaning of the noun to define that person as inferior, someone who is lacking, rather than a person who lives with a physical, mental or intellectual difference. What I’m trying to say is that person is more important than their disability. I’ll stop now, but thank you for listening, because I believe it is an important issue in any arena.

  9. Extremely well said. I mean, (I’m not sorry to say this at all) I’ve read fanfic and free fic that was much better than a lot of trad published books I’ve read by non diverse authors. I do agree that some publishers are probably looking at the more diverse books with an even more critical eye than they do others.

    I look forward to reading the rest of your posts on this subject.

  10. Excellent article. The bottom line is that many book publishers are not interested in romance stories written by people of color. Rather than say, “Sorry, but we are not interested in your manuscript, they will come up with the same excuse: there isn’t a market for this type of story. It’s the same old song.

  11. First of all, thank you for this post. A few weeks ago I went on vacation and took a stack of romance books with me. They are not books I would’ve chosen myself, but they were all traditionally published and part of an assignment. They were the whitest of the white books to have ever been written. Not even a terribly written sidekick (thank god?). No gay bff. Not even a barista with “tan skin.” One was so bad I chucked it against the wall. I wanted to throw them in the pool but didn’t want to litter. Another one made me want to take a cheese grater to my eyeballs because I couldn’t believe how racist it was.

    That’s mean. That’s really mean. I know the struggle of putting words to a page. But the entire time I was thinking: these books are published by major houses.

    The quality > diversity argument is such utter bullshit.

    I look forward to the other parts of this post.

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