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Bestseller Lists Demystified: Readers, We Are Following the Wrong Leaders

Bestseller status means something. It is not only a publishing coup for an author, it can mean guaranteed sales. Let’s face it, we as a society haven’t moved much past junior high. We are largely driven by the herd mentality. If something appears popular, then we all want a piece. I certainly am not immune to the bestseller status of romance books. If a book is on there, particularly by an unfamiliar author, I find myself wondering what I am missing.

The bestseller lists are circular. Get on a bestseller list and you are likely to sell more books leading to more appearances on the list. But are the bestseller lists actually accurate? Are the books on the NYT list really the best selling or is that list really fiction just like the books it enumerates? According to Steve Wasserman, a former Book Review editor at the Los Angeles Times, the LA Times list is not scientific “one is almost tempted to call it [a] whimsical — compilation.”

The bestseller lists actually identify only the velocity of the sale of the book rather than cumulative overall sales. This is why lay down dates are so important to authors. If the authors can capture most of their sales in one week instead of two, the book has a better chance of achieving bestselling status even if another author outsells them overtime. According to Stanford professor and researcher, Alan Sorenson, bestseller appearance actual slows the deceleration rate of book sales. Books sell well soon after their release and then the sales taper off. For a bestseller, the sales taper off at a slower rate than a book not on the bestseller list.

In Sorensen’s research, the regular visitors to the bestseller list such as Nora Roberts or John Grisham receive very little sales boost than the newcomers. First time appearing authors might see an overall increase of sales by 57% whereas repeaters might average a 13-14 percent increase in first year sales.

All a bestseller list can do is imperfectly capture the state of bookselling for one week. The problem is that no one list truly represents the nation’s consciousness as to the most popular books. Every list has a different set of measurements. There is rarely overlap between the lists and if there is, it is generally a fiction book.

  • The NYTimes method of compilation is considered, by them, to be a trade secret. There are 4,000 reporting bookstores across the country who provide data to the NYT. “The names of booksellers used for our lists are kept as secret as the keys to the crown jewels,” said William Adler in a 1991 interview with the International Herald Tribune. Times have changed as there are several known reporting bookstores. The Colgate Bookstore in Hamilton NY, Joseph Beth Bookstores, Powells are some major independents who provide data as well as the chain booksellers like Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books a Million and wholesalers.
    The Times prepares a list of expected bestsellers (based in part on past performance and on wholesale preorders) and sends that list to the bookstores. The bookstores then rank the books and are provided space to indicate which books not on the list are big movers.
    The data is reported for a selling week that starts Sunday AM and ends with the close of business Saturday night. Monday and Tuesdays are spent obtaining the data from the reporting sources and tabulating the data (based on statistical weights to represent a national average of sales) and preparing it for publication. On Wednesday, the NYTimes Book Review makes its final rankings available to the TimesDigest. For $30 per month, an individual can subscribe to the TimesDigest and get the NYT list rankings before they are published on Sunday. Because NYT is extrapolating data based on statistical measurements, its listing can be an inaccurate measurement of the most popular books. Further because of the time involved, the printed list is always two weeks behind.
  • USA Today list is compiled from computer data from over 4,700 retail stores, both chains and independents, brick and mortar and online.
  • Publishers Weekly uses data from over 3,000 bookstores, both chains and independents and then, like the NYTimes, uses statistical weights to determine the placement.
  • The Wallstreet Journal uses data from only the chain bookstores (about 2500 hundred of them) and amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com and reports the 10 hardcover bestsellers in fiction and the top 15 non fiction bestsellers. (available online at cnn.com and others places).
  • Booksense uses reports from independent stores only. This list is reprinted in newspapers such as U. S. News and World Report and on CSPAN.
  • Bookscan’s list is a true point of sale measurement meaning that the actual sale of each book is tracked via ISBN from the reporting stores. Nielson claims to have captured 70% of the bookselling market as even warehousers such as Costco and Target report sales. Missing is the big one, Wal-Mart. My understanding is that Wal-mart sales cannot be tracked because Wal-mart doesn’t scan individual UPCs of book (which has the ISBN) but it’s own upc code marking the item as “book” or “Silhouette”. Unless Wal-mart can be convinced to change its scanning system, point of sale measurements including one of the largest retailers of romance books is elusive.

Besides Wal-mart, these lists are also missing sales from grocery stores, drug stores, and many other non traditional venues.

What about the bestseller placement spots at grocery stores? I believe that these are paid for by publishers through a “coop” publicity program where they pay a fee for a number of books to be placed at certain points on the racks. What does National Bestseller mean? My understanding is that it refers to any bestselling list other than the NYT or the USA Today list such as PW, Wall Street, and internal lists such as Barnes & Noble and Borders.

What does it all mean? It means that no list is accurate. That we readers need to rely on each other to find the best new books because the best new books aren’t always the ones on the bestseller list. The readers owe it to each other to talk more about our favorite books, not just on our blogs, but in the bookstore, to our neighbor, and at the ball park. Next time you are in the bookstore, pick up a midlist author’s book and share it with the reader standing next to you. You can be a better leader than the newspapers and trade magazines. Here’s a meme for your blog and if you don’t have a blog, leave your own list in the comments. List 10 books (not authors) that should be bestsellers but aren’t (or aren’t likely to be). Mine are as follows ordered by release date:

MEME MEME MEME

  1. Ilona Andrews, Magic Bites (Out now. As good as Patricia Briggs).
  2. Meljean Brook’s, Demon Moon, (Out now. What can I say? I love her writing like Karen S’s fat kid loves cake).
  3. Melissa Marr, Wicked Lovely, (Due out in two weeks, I think).
  4. HelenKay Dimon’s, Your Mouth Drives Me Crazy (Due out in July).
  5. Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Sharing Knife, Vol. 2 (July release)
  6. Joey Hill’s, The Vampire Queen’s Servant, (July release)
  7. Eve Kenin’s, Driven, (September release)
  8. Nalini Singh’s, Caressed by Ice, (September release and possibly the best book she’s written yet.)
  9. Elizabeth Hoyt’s, The Serpent Prince, (September release. It made me say “wow” at the close. I get shivers thinking about that book and would have re-read it but Jayne has my copy.).
  10. Sherry Thomas, Private Arrangements (Due out in 2008. Hey, I am trying to build buzz here.)

Let’s start our own bestseller list, a reader led revolution.

Pages: 1 2

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

41 Comments

  1. Karen Scott
    Jun 05, 2007 @ 05:39:11

    I think I’d struggle to come up with ten, if we’re talking about new books or books soon to be released. My fave books this year so far have more often than not been books that have been out for a couple of years already.

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  2. Jane A.
    Jun 05, 2007 @ 06:52:18

    I have no idea whether or not the books I pick up have ever been on Bestseller Lists. I ignore such lists completely as not being relevant to my reading preferences. I pick my books based on known (to me) authors and feedback from blogs and message boards. I thank you for your ten recommendations, though. :)

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  3. Wendy
    Jun 05, 2007 @ 07:19:40

    Wasserman left the LA Times book review a year, no, two years ago. The current editor is David Ulin and yes, they have a best seller list.

    ReplyReply

  4. Jackie
    Jun 05, 2007 @ 07:47:54

    Jane, thank you very much for this post. The term “bestseller” makes a lot more sense to me now that it’s in perspective.

    ReplyReply

  5. Sela
    Jun 05, 2007 @ 07:57:28

    I can’t remember the last time I read a Bestseller list, much less allowed it to influence what I buy. And I can’t help but think they’re irrelevant to a lot of genre readers.

    And you don’t have to sell me on The Sharing Knife — I’ve been waiting for it since I got my hands on the first one!

    ReplyReply

  6. Kathryn S
    Jun 05, 2007 @ 08:03:12

    That’s weird about WalMart, because I know publishers are able to get sales numbers from them. If they’re not tracking the books somehow, how do they know who they are selling? They must know — what other information can they use to base ordering on? I mean, they go through a distributor, that person would have to know what’s selling.

    As for bestseller lists…I’ve made a couple. And even though Bookscan is more accurate, the USA Today showing made me feel more like I had ‘arrived.’ Go figure. It doesn’t really mean anything except your book sold really well at first. Publishing companies like to see it, but the bottom line is still how well the book performs overall. Say Meljean Brooke and I release a book on the same day for the same publisher. We both have print runs of 100 000. I hit the USA Today and she doesn’t (or vice versa). That’s great, but if six to 12 months later I’ve sold 50% of my original run and she’s sold 70%, her sales are looked on more favorably by the publisher.

    I’ve probably over-simplified and someone with more knowledge of the business could correct me, but that’s my understanding of the whole thing.

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  7. Jane
    Jun 05, 2007 @ 08:06:43

    I’m thinking it must be the distributor because the book sections in Wal-mart are actually run by levy and anderson, I believe. So they must count the number of books they place in the store and then when they go to replen or remove, they count the number they are getting back. But they can’t do point of sales reports that USA Today, Bookscan require. One article said that the editor of the PW Trade list has worked for years to get Wal-mart to be a source of reporting, but still hasn’t cracked them.

    I saw conflicting reports of whether Wal-mart was part of the NYT list.

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  8. Jennifer Ashley
    Jun 05, 2007 @ 08:14:48

    Speaking as an author, I’ve always known NYT and other lists are weighted, and I take them with a grain of salt. I put more faith in USA Today and Bookscan which list point-of-sale purchases (what people are *really* buying). Bookscan is the only one (as far as I know) that lists series romance–Harlequin Presents, Silhoutte Special Edition, and Desire are regular appearers, and their sales numbers are similar to single-title romance sales. I am skeptical about Nielson’s claim to report 70% of booksales, because they don’t have Anderson (who supply to Walmart, grocery and drug chains). Anderson orders can easily account for 1/3 of a print run. In hardback, Nielson might be right; in mass market, no.

    Speaking as a reader, I don’t much look at the lists when choosing what to read. I choose by time period, setting, favorite author, etc. I’m willing to read brand new authors who haven’t made a mark as well as the blockbusters. Right now I’m reading Naomi Novik’s second book in her dragon series–whether that made any lists I can’t remember. I picked it up because–dragons, Napoleonic Wars, Regency–what’s not to love?

    Speaking as an author again: Would I like to be on the NYT list? You bet! But if I never get there, I won’t consider myself a failure. I love writing what I write, but it may never be what gets to NYT.

    ReplyReply

  9. sherry thomas
    Jun 05, 2007 @ 08:45:59

    Jane, you da pimp.

    ReplyReply

  10. HelenKay
    Jun 05, 2007 @ 09:56:57

    What a fabulous thing to see first thing in the morning. Thank you!!!

    I don’t pretend to understand bestseller lists. I see the same names over and over and figure that means something. At this point in my career, I’m happy when someone other than my mom buys my book. Of course, if someone is thinking about buying 4,000 copies of my book, well, I wouldn’t argue.

    And, there’s no question that mentions like this help. For example, I saw Sherry’s books on Romantic Advances and now here. You convinced me. I’ll buy her book because of you guys. I already have Meljean’s book – it’s awesome – and planned to get Nalini’s book. Thanks to this push, I’ll go check out the others on your list as well. Word of mouth is a powerful thing.

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  11. Meljean
    Jun 05, 2007 @ 10:38:31

    I’ll take being on this bestseller list, any day!

    HelenKay, I don’t understand them either — but I do know I’d like to hit one, eventually. The sales would be great, of course, but the real reason is something more like Job Security. I know bestsellers can be dropped if sales of later books decrease, but it seems like a publisher might hang on a little longer to someone who has hit a list than someone whose sales have just been okay. And I agree that every little mention helps. Because of reviews and mentions around the blogs, I’ve planned to get/gotten every book on that list up there, except for Sherry’s … but now I’ll be checking that one out, too.

    Now if I can just find the time to read them, sigh.

    ReplyReply

  12. Eve Silver / Eve Kenin
    Jun 05, 2007 @ 10:51:35

    Holy cow! You put my name on your list! I’m thrilled and honored to be on this bestseller list! (Okay Eve…back away from the exclamation point key…just back away…)

    ReplyReply

  13. Angela
    Jun 05, 2007 @ 10:55:58

    I take the best-seller lists with a grain of salt because practically anyone can get on them (#50!) and use the moniker “USA Today”/”New York Times” on their books despite the fact that they only hit the list once. That said, I do do the snoopy dance when a favorite authors hits the list, but only because it heralds that they have a larger chance of remaining under contract. Thats said, my (short and likly to be modified) best-seller list is as follows:

    I second the Hoyt and the Kenin and raise you a L.A. Banks’ Bad Blood: A Crimson Moon Novel , Rachel Butler’s Scorched, Patricia Sargeant’s On Fire and Elspeth McKendrick’s Perfidia.

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  14. Jane
    Jun 05, 2007 @ 10:57:46

    Hey, I’ve got Scorched but I have never heard of the last two books. Am off to find out more about them. I want to read Banks’ books, but I haven’t read the first one and I figure that they are the type that need to be read in order.

    ReplyReply

  15. Laura Vivanco
    Jun 05, 2007 @ 11:02:24

    The link to Melissa Marr’s website isn’t working. I think it’s because you’ve missed out the hyphen: http://www.melissa-marr.com.

    ReplyReply

  16. Jayne
    Jun 05, 2007 @ 11:47:20

    Okay, I can’t come up with 10 off the top of my head but I will add
    Michelle Styles – The Roman’s Virgin Mistress due in July from Harlequin
    and Julie Kenner’s Demons Are Forever also due in July.

    ReplyReply

  17. readerdiane
    Jun 05, 2007 @ 12:41:29

    Ok I love Nora Roberts’s books and I buy them in hardback as soon as they come out but I don’t get how her re-prints are on the best-sellers lists all the time.
    I don’t look at the bestsellers’ lists to buy a book because frankly how many romances actually make the list. It still is confusing as to how they get the numbers… Demons and Angels sold that many to be on the list for as long as it has been? Are there that many book buyers?

    I do love looking at your recommendations especially when you suggest authors I have not read before. Please keep that up because I love finding new books to read.

    ReplyReply

  18. Angela
    Jun 05, 2007 @ 12:57:51

    I want to read Banks' books, but I haven't read the first one and I figure that they are the type that need to be read in order.

    Bad Blood is the start of Banks’ new werewolf series that comes out this fall. But yeah, her Vampire Huntress Legends series need to be read in order, and the installment that is being released in July (The Cursed) is book 9 of 12. The Sargeant is a RS with a firefighter hero (mwuaha!) and the McKendrick is a historical romance set in WWII Berlin (the author was formerly known as Morag McKendrick Pippin, btw).

    ReplyReply

  19. Carrie Arp
    Jun 05, 2007 @ 12:58:27

    I take the best-seller lists with a grain of salt because practically anyone can get on them (#50!) and use the moniker “USA Today�/�New York Times� on their books despite the fact that they only hit the list once.

    And what about authors who make a list in an antho with a big name lead and then are able to call themselves NYT bestselling. Kinda stinky.

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  20. Jane
    Jun 05, 2007 @ 12:59:54

    Carrie, I hate that too!!!

    ReplyReply

  21. Kalen Hughes
    Jun 05, 2007 @ 13:08:47

    And what about authors who make a list in an antho with a big name lead and then are able to call themselves NYT bestselling. Kinda stinky.

    That’s the whole point of the publisher putting the newbie in the antho. While it is slight of hand, it’s a trick I’d take if it were offered. LOL!

    ReplyReply

  22. Phyl
    Jun 05, 2007 @ 13:19:04

    Doesn’t the recording industry track cumulative sales with its gold and platinum status awards? I think I would find it more interesting to know cumulative sales in the way Kathryn S described above, although I doubt we have access to that kind of data.

    But by way of example, the community of readers that we have here, loosely knit through various blogs in addition to DA, buzzed about The Raven Prince. Long after it was released many of us were buying/borrowing it. We’d have had no affect on it’s bestseller status, but we might have had one on its cumulative total. I have no idea how big the DA “community” is, but I think it would be both informative and entertaining to know that 20 of us read Book XYZ this month. The book may or may not be tied to a particular release date.

    P.S. I really hate you, Jane for that link to Sherry Thomas’ book. I read the excerpt and am totally frustrated that I have to wait 9 months and 20 days for the rest of it!

    ReplyReply

  23. Jane
    Jun 05, 2007 @ 13:27:56

    Phyl – Isn’t it great. I read it too after seeing it on Sybil’s blog and I emailed the author saying, hey, if you have an arc, I’d love to read it. It was originally scheduled for the fall but then Bantam is giving her the back to back release (which is good) so we all have to wait. Okay, not all, but generically speaking.

    Thomas’ excerpt is a great example of how excerpts can really whet the appetite. Her ending is so grand.

    I think it would be fun for the community of bloggers to do a blogging experiment about a book. I think a midlist or debut author would be great for this. Any suggestions folks? I think it would have to be a paperback. Maybe if I got 20 bloggers signed up, I could see if a publisher would be interested in donating the books?

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  24. Alison Kent
    Jun 05, 2007 @ 14:11:26

    Maybe if I got 20 bloggers signed up, I could see if a publisher would be interested in donating the books?

    Oh, I’d love doing this if you let authors be readers, too, heh!

    ReplyReply

  25. BevL(QB)
    Jun 05, 2007 @ 14:34:08

    “List 10 books (not authors) that should be bestsellers but aren't (or aren't likely to be).”

    Um, since some of those “exalted” best seller lists don’t make a lick of sense, how would I know who/what actually IS a best seller?

    Like alot of the others that commented, I don’t pay much attention to those best seller lists. But I will admit that, while browsing for books, I will stop at one labeled “From Best Selling Author” more often than I will another unfamiliar author’s books. It’s another selling tool like the cover design, title, author recommendations or review blurbs.

    Although, if I was an author, it would give me some way cool bragging rights! *g*

    ReplyReply

  26. KS Augustin
    Jun 05, 2007 @ 23:37:06

    I must be one of the most naive writers around. For years, I thought it was all based on plain ole revenue, just like movies that move up and down the Top Ten list based on gross takings. And the NYT method is confidential??!! I mean, WTF? Thanks J&J for explaining all this to us innocents! :)
    Can’t wait to explain this one to DH, who already thinks the publishing world is a few cards short of a full deck.

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  27. Flo_over
    Jun 06, 2007 @ 01:01:25

    I just hate it when an author gets the little title of “NYT Best Selling Author” and waves it around like THAT is their sole credibility. If your story rocks, let it stand on that. If your story stinks, then let it stink.

    I can see how it could give you job security but it’s still a slightly hallow one. But jobs are jobs. As a reader though it’s just slightly irritating that I look at various book fronts and see this huge title and all I can think of is “Really? So what week did you shine?”

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  28. sherry thomas
    Jun 06, 2007 @ 08:23:07

    I’ll volunteer PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS for your experiment, Jane. Me, me, me! Pick me please! :-) I think Bantam would cough up the books. If not, heck, I’ll print them out myself and mail it to everyone.

    Sherry

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  29. Jane
    Jun 06, 2007 @ 08:37:34

    I’d love to do your book Sherry, but its not out till 2008!!!

    ReplyReply

  30. Phyl
    Jun 06, 2007 @ 09:01:00

    Oh, I wish it could be Sherry’s book. I’d be BEGGING to be one of the 20 for that!

    ReplyReply

  31. MKeeton Books
    Jun 06, 2007 @ 09:28:13

    Thanks for the information, this is good to know. This sheds a whole new light on the term “best Seller”.

    ReplyReply

  32. Ilona
    Jun 06, 2007 @ 11:39:08

    I made Jane’s Bestseller List, I made Jane’s Bestseller List!

    :dance-dance:

    :dance-dance:

    On a serious note, excellent post. I love the line about measuring velocity. It’s awesome, because it captures the essence of the bestseller perfectly.

    Velocity is so easily altered. When Magic Bites was released, it didn’t do that well in the first week, but did slightly better in the second week. I thought that was rather odd, but it was explained to me that I, accidentally, hit the same release window as the 4 other paranormal/urban fantasy books. So I picked up a lot of “rebound” readers, who have bought their first pick and came back to the store looking for something similar. Which shows how easily sales rank in general can be manipulated by all sorts of circumstances.

    Another interesting thing: the best advertisement for the book is the presence of copies in the store. While a book with a larger print run isn’t guaranteed to do better than a book with a smaller print run, it helps. Science fiction and fantasy genre print runs tend to be smallish for first time authors, around 12-17K, while first time paranormal romance author can hit 2, 3, 5 times that number. Truth is, SF/F has a much smaller audience than romance. Suppose there is a book that straddles the line between being a Fantasy and a Paranormal Romance. It can easily hit all sorts of bestseller rank on SF/F bestseller list, while doing poorly among other romances.

    The more I become familiar with the business of publishing, the less sense it makes.

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  33. sherry thomas
    Jun 06, 2007 @ 13:04:37

    Darn! Do me for Round 2 then. You have to experiment several times to know if the result is reliable and repeatable. :-)

    ReplyReply

  34. HelenKay
    Jun 06, 2007 @ 14:01:03

    Jane – Mine comes out in 2007 (June 26th, in case anyone is wondering). I’ll volutneer if you want to try it.

    ReplyReply

  35. MKeeton Books
    Jun 06, 2007 @ 15:04:00

    [quote comment="30223"]

    The more I become familiar with the business of publishing, the less sense it makes.[/quote]
    That’s not good, I’m new to this and I can’t make any sense of that. If it gets an worse I’m in trouble. :)

    ReplyReply

  36. Shelly @ Bewitched
    Jun 06, 2007 @ 20:51:47

    I don’t think I pay much attention to the “lists.” I know in our store we may start out with what’s on a list but then as stuff sells, we replace it with books that we have a large quantity of. :) So we’re probably misleading the public. LOL I am intrigued by your choices though.

    ReplyReply

  37. May
    Jun 21, 2007 @ 08:17:25

    Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely is 8th on the July 1st NYT list. :)

    ReplyReply

  38. Jane
    Jun 21, 2007 @ 08:19:42

    Is it on the Children’s list because it wasn’t on the usatoday top 150.

    ReplyReply

  39. Jackie Kessler - Cat and Muse
    Mar 23, 2008 @ 16:21:32

    [...] My Dear Creator was hanging out at Dear Author, where there’s a terrific post about what it means to be a bestselling author. Me, I’d always thought to be a bestseller, you had to make a deal with You Know Who. (Hey, I drink the company Kool-Aid, you know?) Turns out, that’s not the case. Check out the post. [...]

  40. Chris Eastvedt : Are Bestseller Lists Worth the Chase?
    Dec 24, 2009 @ 01:49:01

    [...] To be fair, coordinating precise, sale-by-sale data from thousands of stores each week is a daunting task: different stores have different systems of record keeping, there are delays getting the information to a central source, etc. But the thing is, if you're going to portray your list as definitive, you're obligated to step up and ensure this truth or state clearly to readers that what you're presenting is based more on opinion than fact. [...]

  41. Tweets that mention Bestseller Lists Demystified: Readers, We Are Following the Wrong Leaders | Dear Author -- Topsy.com
    Jan 20, 2011 @ 23:12:07

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jane L, Daniel Friedman and Rachel Jameson, Andrew Shaffer. Andrew Shaffer said: "Bestseller lists demystified" by @jane_l : http://bit.ly/gVXOY8 – A good rundown of the various lists and what they mean [...]

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