Many unhappy returns

by Pari

What business do you know that lends brand new items to the seller and allows those items to be shipped back, anytime, often in lousy shape? What business do you know that wants many of those items to be defaced prior to being shipped back?

Welcome to the wonderful world of book returns.

Amid all the conversations about book sales, the publishing industry, finding the right agent, we don’t hear much about returns. I think I know why. It’s a crappy system no one understands fully and NO ONE seems to know how to fix.

A little history:
Back during the Great Depression, publishers sought a way to get booksellers to continue buying books and to try new authors. So, someone (maybe one of you readers can give me the name) came up with the idea of offering more books without risk. If something didn’t sell, it could be returned for credit — no questions asked.

Back then, I think the model worked well for everyone because
1. There wasn’t the volume of books published today (and that’s an issue that deserves more than one post).
2.  Though illiteracy may have been higher, I suspect many more people per capita turned to books and reading for their entertainment and information gathering.

Flash forward to today. The book return system aggravates just about everyone.

For authors
It can be good for new authors because bookstores can "taste" new works without worrying about being saddled with clunkers. However, any traditionally published author is never going to know how sales are going . . . not really. A book can be returned months after publication, sometimes even years. Publishers often hold back a portion of royalties against this possibility. Sales may look magnificent at the beginning of a book’s life because bookstores will order in large quantities. And then poof! Three quarters end up getting returned or, if they’re mass market paperbacks — they’ll be stripped (it’s heartbreaking, really).

For Bookstores
You’d think bookstores would adore this arrangement; after all it was created for them. But with the ever increasing number of titles, it’s impossible to predict what will and won’t sell. Over the years, publishers have changed their return policies and bookstores need manuals to meet their specifications. Some stores now only deal with wholesalers because of this (and other reasons of course. . . that’s another post if I can ever get enough info on it).

Even if everything is totally hunky-dorey with the system, returning books is still labor intensive — there’s packing, labeling, removing stickers (autographed copy! discount!) and keeping track of this revolving inventory. That’s why people like Steve Riggio of Barnes and Noble are calling for a major revamp of the system.

For publishers
It seems obvious why they’d dislike the system, doesn’t it? So why the hesitation to change? When HarperCollins announced a new imprint that would be return-less, many people screamed. What would happen to new authors? What would happen to the booksellers’ freedom to have a broad inventory? EEEEEEEE!!!!

I don’t know how they feel about the system. Their existence depends on variety and making life easier for bookstores, but in my research for this piece, I didn’t find anything specific on the subject. If I do, believe me, I’ll write more.

So, what to do?

*  Authors could write fewer books. Uh hunh. (I can just hear the response to that suggestion: "We’ll do that when we get paid more.")
*  Booksellers could stop over-ordering AND/OR commit to selling what they order. But how would they decide? What would be best for their customers and also great for the business bottom line?
*  Publishers could stop publishing as many books AND they could commit more marketing dollars to the ones they do produce. Has anyone ever seen that happen?

I don’t know what the answers are, or if there are answers. Far greater minds have tackled these questions. I found two interesting articles on the subject here and here.

Right now, I think it’s important to talk about returns and changing the system.

What do you think? Booksellers? Publishers(editors)? Writers? Readers?

Is there anything we can do to transform a dinosaur into a dragonfly?


Next Monday, Roberta Isleib takes the reins for a guest visit. Please join me in welcoming her.

42 thoughts on “Many unhappy returns

  1. Wilfred Bereswill

    “brand new items to the seller and allows those items to be shipped back, anytime, often in lousy shape?”

    My small publisher is “Returnless” through Ingrams and B&T for exactly the reason you posted above. Books are returnable if ordered directly from the publisher only. I can tell you, for the author, it is tough. I mean really tough.

    Funny that B&N is the one asking for reform since they won’t touch a book that’s not returnable. I’ve talked to dozens of Barnes & Nobles, including the ones I frequent monthly with different writers organizations. As soon as they see the “NO RETURN” line on Ingram’s system, they look at me and say “Sorry.” I tried to hold my Launch Party at a B&N and even with guaranteed sales of 50 books in a couple of hours, they said no.

    At least Borders will order a few and let me do signings. I’m working with Book-A-Million to get the book in their system, so I don’t know how they’ll react yet. Personally, I do better with independants.

    Now Pari, here it is Monday morning and you got me all fired up.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I don’t know how to address the problem of returns but I do think it’s a crime against humanity that publishers don’t allow the paperbacks that now get pulped to be donated to prisons and schools – or at least let authors buy those doomed books at a discount to donate to those institutions ourselves.

  3. J.D. Rhoades

    This is one of the things in publishing that not only don’t make any business sense, they don’t make COMMON sense. Particularly frustrating is that fact that publishers will tell you, “yeah, it’s pretty crazy” AND THEN DO IT ANYWAY.

  4. R.J. Mangahas

    Pari — All interesting points here. I think one of the biggest problems is that people in general, no matter what, are always resistant toward major change, even if it would make more sense.

    Alex — I have to agree with you on that one. Those mm paperbacks should be donated to the institutions that you listed. Sadly, many businesses would rather throw away excess than *GASP* give it away for free to *GASP AGAIN* help others.

    JD — Unfortunately, nowadays, COMMON sense isn’t so common.

  5. pari

    Will,I’ve seen other writers in the same bind. But it’s not just big bookstores. I was at a national convention last year and, oops, they didn’t get my books because they ASSUMED that since my publisher was a university press — my work wouldn’t be distributed by Ingram, Baker etc.

    I could’ve spit. This was a new audience for me and I would’ve sold a bunch — but . . .

  6. pari

    Alex,I agree with you 100%. What possible good is there in the practice of “stripping?” Hell, the books could be donated or used for future PR or SOMETHING!

  7. pari

    Yeah, JD,I don’t get it. Usually when something is this broken, when it’s losing money and causing heartache on pretty much every level, a business will try to address it.

    Instead, with returns, I almost get the sense that no one DARES. Take the attempt that HarperCollins made. Within a heart’s beat, bookstores and authors were fussing (perhaps with good reason).

    I think part of the problem is that the different interests won’t discuss it, they won’t try to work out a mutually beneficial solution.

    Can you imagine a congress of publishers, booksellers AND authors all trying to find a good answer?

  8. pari

    R.J.,You’re doing my job for me.

    You’re right, change is difficult. But, then, so is losing money.

    As to the whole idea of donating — we do see a similar reluctance in other businesses. I don’t understand it. For example, why isn’t all the food that could be used (I do know about produce and Second Harvest)– but I’m talking about nonperishable goods that, maybe, haven’t sold but aren’t bad . . . why can’t that stuff go to shelters or progams that feed the hungry?

    Don’t get me started.

    As to Dusty’s comment — I live in fear of seeing this everyday when my kids enter full adolescence.

  9. John Dishon


    nonperishable goods are going to be treated the same. And remember, nonparishable goods often times still have sell-by dates on them. If say, Wal-Mart were to donate canned goods, and then someone got sick, would Wal-Mart get any slack because they were trying to provide a serivce? They didn’t know the food was bad. But no one will care about that; instead, Wal-Mart will be accused of unsafe practices and it would be a PR disaster.

    Consumers are to blame for some of this too. I used to work in the Wal-Mart produce department. Take green bell peppers, for example. As they sit out they begin to develop wrinkles. Now the wrinkles don’t harm the pepper; you can still eat it and it will taste the same, but people won’t buy it. So you can either throw it out now and replace it with new product and perhaps sell more, or you can leave it there and let it take up space that new product could be taking up. And since they still won’t buy the peppers, you end up throwing them out later anyway.

    I’ve had several people come up to me when I’ve been culling bad product and talk about what a shame it was the produce was going to waste, but not one person ever offered to buy some of it before it was thrown out. And people can’t buy a bag of salad unless the sell-by date is a week a way. If the date is even two days away they ask for something more fresh, regardless of what the product’s condition actually is.

    I understand it’s their money and they want good quality, but you can’t have it both ways.

    Donating goods presents a company with a health risk and legal liability, regardless of whether or not the food is bad or not, and no business with a shred of sense would take that risk.

  10. Louise Ure

    Like John, I’m taking this discussion outside the realm of publishing.

    When I was in college, I worked full time at our local JC Penney. Customers would bring back worn, soiled underwear, particularly children’s underwear, and expect a refund or a new package. We did it.

    Now THERE’S a return policy that needed changing.

  11. pari

    John,Thank you for this perspective. I was hoping we’d get differing viewpoints so that it would be a real discussion instead of a bit*hfest.

  12. pari

    Debi,Please don’t jump to conclusions; that’s what turns discussion into anger where no one can be heard.

    Here are the facts:1. Tess accidentally ran the piece on Sunday for a few minutes. It was a technical mistake. Sundays are reserved for Allison or Toni.2. Murderati is not a political blog. We discussed Tess’s post internally; she asked for our opinions BECAUSE Murderati is not a political blog and she got all of our opinions.3. I’m not sure what she’ll decide to do tomorrow. Some of us wanted her to run it; some didn’t. Ultimately, it’s her decision.

  13. pari

    Holy cow, Louise. Thanks for this info.

    I never worked much in retail — only in service industry/restaurants. There, if someone hated a dish of food, but ate half of it before complaining, we rarely comped. If the complaint came right away, well, that was a different story.

  14. Tammy Cravit

    This is a tough question, Pari, because the system has been this way for long enough that the people driving it simply can’t conceive of any other way it COULD be. The fact that it’s massively broken on many levels is immaterial — at least it’s broken in ways that (we think) we understand.

    There are a great many things in society that work they way they do because it made sense once, even if it doesn’t anymore. Take the whole social security system, for one example — created at a time when life expectancies made 65 a sensible retirement age. Now, with the baby boomers aging, and at the same time spending huge sums of money to “stay young” and live longer than ever, the system is falling apart.

    The problem is, I think, that the time to fix these broken systems is BEFORE they reach the critical mass point. Once you’re up to your neck in alligators, your window of opportunity to build the bridge over the swamp is rather past.

    What’s the solution? I don’t know. I wonder if combining print-on-demand technology with some new ways of marketing books might make it less expensive for publishers to “take a flyer” on new authors. Would the economies change for the publisher if a first novel didn’t require committing 5,000 books worth of ink, paper, labor and distribution? I suspect it would. What if everyone who read books had a Kindle? That might change the paradigm, too.

    But, much as everyone hates to contemplate the thought, I think all the stakeholders in this crazy business — authors, publicists, publishers, distributors, booksellers — are going to have to sit down someday, collectively tackle this issue, and hash out a new way of doing business that works in the new world. I don’t really think any one group in that equation has the power to “force” a solution on the whole industry.

    The question really is this: Will we (ie the industry) fix the problem now, when the writing’s on the wall? Or will we wait until we’re off the side of the cliff and in free-fall before we start sewing a parachute?

  15. pari

    “The question really is this: Will we (ie the industry) fix the problem now, when the writing’s on the wall? Or will we wait until we’re off the side of the cliff and in free-fall before we start sewing a parachute?”

    That’s a great question, Tammy.

    I know that many publishers are moving to POD technology to print smaller runs in a cost-effective way. It’s a tiny answer, but it’s also movement in the right direction.

  16. Fran

    It’s a seriously tough call, and it is crazy-making. As bookkeeper for SMB, I can tell you we tie up thousands of dollars in what is, basically, speculation and hope. We believe, honestly believe, we can sell what we order (provided it comes to us in reasonable shape, which often isn’t the case — publishers don’t know how to pack books, sad but true), but at the end of the day, push as hard as we may, we can’t force our customers to buy what we think they ought to.

    With no returns, I can guarantee we won’t be buying near the numbers we have, even if we know we can sell them. We’d buy only enough to cover reserves, and very, very few for walk-in, impulse types. It’s just not economical for us.

    Short discounts on books make a huge difference too, for what it’s worth.

    Granted, if a book is available from a wholesaler, and if the customer is willing to wait for a few days, that works out nicely. But in this immediate-gratification age, we generally want to get the book into someone’s hands right away.

    I have no idea what the big box boys would do, but the potential to be able to return a book is what gives us a certain amount of latitude in what we order. We don’t like having to return books. As Pari pointed out, it’s labor intensive, and it’s not cost-effective. But it’s a cushion that indies have used for years.

    Do I think it needs to be revised? Oh yes. But there are such variables, it’s going to take (to interject a small political phrase here) sweeping reform, and no one wants to tackle that. Change is scary, and if the return policy is abolished, I suspect fewer books will be published because fewer bookstores will be willing to speculate, except on proven winners.

    Talk about a vicious circle.

  17. John Dishon

    Fewer books being published might be what we need. If you combine reduced publishing with higher standards, then people might start feeling like the books in the store are worth buying.

    Lowering the price of books might help too. $24.95 is a lot of money for something you are probably only going to read once. DVD’s are cheaper than that.

    I don’t know about fiction/nonfiction, but textbooks are marked up 300%.

  18. pari

    Fran!I’m so glad you chimed in here. I was hoping you would.

    Your perspective is essential and it highlights both pros and cons of the system far better than I can.

    Nope, no answers here. But talking about returns at least pulls the subject out of its dark little corner, the one with the cobwebs that everyone is afraid to walk too close to.

  19. pari

    John,I think this is a real suggestion . . . one that most publishers would abhor.

    Publishing, like bookselling (see Fran’s comment), is speculative. There’s no real incentive to publish fewer books that I can see.

    And how would one decide in terms of quality? I’ll use one of my favorite examples: The Da Vinci Code

    IMHO it’s not particularly well written, but it’s a great ride and took off beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

    Or what about the first HARRY POTTER? Also, IMHO, not a great first book — but it launched a series that has only gotten better and has encouraged countless kids to read.

    Quality? I don’t know.

  20. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    What an interesting post!

    For ages after my first novel went out of print, very time my royalty statements arrive, I’d see that one or two more copies of my first novel, KILLER INSTINCT, had been unearthed from somewhere and sent back.

    I desperately WANTED those copies. I knew just how expensive they are, IF you can find them.

    I always asked if I could buy them, but they could never seem to physically put their hands on them. It was so frustrating.

  21. Fran

    John, you’re absolutely right about the price, and that highlights one of the problems of POD. We’ve had POD books for signings, and they’re trade paperback size and feel, but sell for $20, $21, $22. If people are reluctant to buy a hardcover at that price, it’s incredibly difficult to sell a trade paperback when it’s priced like that, except to the author’s family and friends, regardless of how wonderful the book itself is.

    And if you have a 20% discount on it, that makes it even more unwieldy for a bookseller.

    With all the new electronic print capabilities out there, it just seems to me that the cost of printing a book should be going down, not up. But I’m sure there’s a lot in the publishing end I don’t understand. No, let me rephrase — there’s a lot in the publishing end of books that I *know* I don’t understand!

    Pari, of course I dropped in my 2 cents. It’s a nice break from packing stuff into boxes!

    I loved Tess’ post over on JD’s blog. She’s right on the money, in my book.

  22. tess

    The returns system is like what they say about Democracy: “it’s the worst system in the world, except for everything else.”

    I suspect that if returns were no longer allowed, bookstores would be forced to drastically cut down on their orders of books by new authors. And we as customers would find that stores would be “out of stock” of many titles. These factors could drive more customers to online bookstores, and this would be disastrous for brick and mortar stores.

  23. toni mcgee causey

    I think the system is so dysfunctional, it’s going to take something utterly brilliant to cut through the clutter. Great topic, Pari – it’ll be interesting to see what the bookstores / publishers could come up with to solve it.

  24. Allison Brennan

    Pari, excellent and poignant 🙂 post.

    There is no easy solution. I could write an entire blog–every day for a week!–playing the pros and cons of possible solutions.

    Returns suck. (Can I swear here?) But for new authors, the return system is really the only way we get out into the marketplace. Why? Because there is little risk to the bookseller if the product doesn’t sell. The publisher prints more books than they think will sell because buyers often don’t buy the last item (or only item) left on the shelf. (Unless it’s a sudden trend or something.) So the books need to be out in great numbers (at least in mass market, which is really the only thing I know a little bit about.) Probably 45% or so of my books are stripped. Pulped. Why? Because it would cost more for the bookstore to ship the unsold books back than it would be for them to recycle them. It is cheaper to print new books than to have books shipped back, sorted (torn covers, frayed edged, etc would have to be tossed), reboxed, and reshipped. At least for mass market. Hardcovers are a completely different animal, because they’ll hold up longer with handling and shipping, and the product has a higher cost to produce, and the profit is higher as well.

    If my publisher printed half as many books–I would sell fewer books. Let’s say a publisher prints 100K PBO books. 55K are sold. 45K are stripped. So next time they print 55K. The author would probably sell only 30-35K. Fans would not be able to find the book, and unless you’re a big name author where your fans are anticipating your release, most readers aren’t going to hunt down a copy. Make sense? Probably not except in my head.

    One of the big problems (and really, problem is not the right word because I don’t think of it as a problem, just the reality of the 21st century) . . . consumers expect to have their needs and wants met. There may be a handful of readers who like space alien time travel romantic adventures, but if a publisher can make money selling such books, they’ll publish them. Business is good at fulfilling the niche markets, and consumers expect it not just in books but in everything. Look at how many types of orange juice is on the shelf. Not the brands, but the types. No pulp, low pulp, medium pulp, lotta pulp, with calcium, vitamin fortified, hand squeezed, etc. etc. Books are the same way. I’m sure one of those juices has a very small sell-through, but there’s enough buyers that make it worth it for the overall brand to provide them with that choice.

    I could go on . . . but I’ll stop here. Back to work.

  25. pari

    Zoe,I know what you’re talking about. I’d love to buy some hardcovers of CLOVIS and BELEN — now long unavailable — but can only find ones at price or much higher now.

  26. pari

    Fran,I suspect a part of the expense of books nowadays is simply the cost of the basic supplies — paper had gone up exponentially and shipping has too — so that might explain a tiny bit.

    I honestly don’t know WHO is making money in this business — booksellers aren’t, writers aren’t, publishers aren’t . . . . at least not as much as anyone assumes.

    I actually meet people who think I get the full $24.95 on each SOCORRO.

  27. pari

    Tess,You’re probably right. And publishers would be even more hard put to figure out how many books to publish because, without inventory per se, those online bookstores present a real moving target.

    I’d be devastated if brick and mortar stores disappeared. Already in Albuquerque, we’ve lost some really wonderful ones in the last few years.

  28. pari

    Allison,What a cogent post. You must’ve outlined 😉

    Actually, I wonder if consumers want as much choice as we think. Take that orange juice example . . .

    Is this because of demand, or was demand created by marketing?

    All I know is that at the same time we’re supposedly getting more choices, there’s a smaller and smaller amount of real choice — real difference — between products.

    OOOOOHHHHH, this would be a great post, wouldn’t it? The homogenization of literature.

    Someone’s probably done it . . .

  29. JT Ellison

    Oh my. There is so much to think about here my head is spinning. : ) Wonderful post, Pari. I’m afraid I am woefully inexperienced and can’t even begin to address a cogent answer. I’ve learned a lot though, with the links and the comments. So thank you, everybody, for teaching this newbie.

  30. pari

    Aw, JT,I bet you know more than you think. You’re in mmpb, for example, and you must have an idea of how many books Mira publishes and how many are returned? No?

    Actually, maybe you don’t.

    Deciphering our royalty statements can be a real challenge, too.

  31. toni mcgee causey

    Hey Pari – LOL. Well, I think authors are probably the least equipped people to have input about returns, honestly. As authors, we want our books in as many stores as possible. In as many numbers as possible. It’s why we create–we want that audience. But ultimately, a bookstore is not about art, but about commerce. Bookstore owners *must* care about whether or not they are making a profit in order to survive another day… and they cannot have stock sitting around that they can’t sell. They can’t warehouse it all, can’t make a profit, and if they don’t, they close.

    The one aspect of returns that *could* be changed and would be more profitable for all concerned is *how* returns are handled, because that part of the system is especially idiotic. In an article I read last year, (and I wish I could find a link, but it’s on a now-defunct computer) there was a detailed accounting of one (hardcover) book’s travels. It went from the printer to the distributor (trucking, labor, fuel, warehousing) to the bookstores (more trucking, labor, fuel, housing), where it had a modest stack on a co-op table. After the co-op (discount) period was over, it was placed on the shelves for a little while, and eventually, the publisher either gave a bigger discount to keep the space, or the bookstore moved it out to make way for the next book. And moving it out meant that the publisher paid for shipping it back to a warehouse (trucking, labor, fuel, housing) where it was stacked up. Then the discount buyers were offered the book (and sometimes, the exact same chain would re-buy the book at a lower price), whereupon the publisher would pay for, you guessed it, trucking, labor, fuel, to get the book back to the store. At some point, if it still didn’t sell at this steeply discounted (or remaindered) price, it was shipped back to the publisher, who pulped it OR sold off to the $1 a book type of places, which litter got it for a few pennies. So if the book didn’t sell originally, it moved around multiple times before it was deemed impossible to sell. (Which is why it’s hard to find the damned things.)

    It’s a horribly inefficient way to run a business.

    In the movie business, the distributors have a step process where they split the proceeds with the theater owners — the theater owners get 60% or more of the box office take for the opening weekend, and on each progressive weekend, the theater owner’s take decreases and the producer / studio’s take increases. This is why it’s so critical to a studio for a movie to ‘have legs’ — because they’re not making that box office price you hear about in the news on opening weekend, they’re only making a fraction of that price. However, the movies that do have legs make them increasingly more money every weekend, allowing for a studio to take a risk on a smaller film which may not make money until it hits DVD or re-sells to TV. This might not be a bad interim template for the book business — but publishers would never go for it and writers would end up getting smaller advances up front. And, just as in the movie business and the way art films have died out, because art-house theaters can’t sustain their costs and have gone to much more commercial fare, publishers would be less willing than even now to give anything outside of the proven middle ground a chance. Even trading for a larger royalty down the line wouldn’t really help any because (a) proving the book was still selling and (b) wrestling the money out of the publisher after the fact would mean far fewer writers could afford to write.

    So, no. I don’t think authors can have much say in the process because I don’t think the system as it stands can sustain a major overhaul.

    What is happening in the TV film world, though is the change in distribution. The internet and direct TV and downloadable movies are making the indies more viable as a distribution funnel into a much bigger market share than even five years ago. Five years from now, you’re going to be able to go online and pick from hundreds of movies and download them, and you’re going to be able to browse the first five or ten minutes of a movie to see if you’d like it. Systems like Netflix are changing how you see movies. If that happens in the book world, then there is a market opened up for publishers to take a chance on new writers and also a way for new publishers to emerge and gain a large foothold in household shares. If that happens, and we can make sure that the books are copyright protected (i.e, not illegally copied) (tall order), then more and more people will have access to authors they never would have seen in a bookstore.

    (um, sorry, long answer. I started this earlier today, realized I couldn’t finish it, hence the short answer earlier.)

  32. Catherine

    Whenever someone raises change in the world of publishing it reminds me of a case study we did in Strategic Management at Uni,(hope I’m remembering this accurately) where stockbrokers had created this elitist system based on their own carefully nurtured professional skill…then the internet happened and people were able to gain similar access to the formerly carefully guarded information (for a fee but not as much as using a stockbroker) and a massive upheaval of how stockbrokers defined themselves and their industry occurred.

    I’m wondering if the carbon footprint of a book with the present system (as described by Toni) combined with utilising the technology of information sharing via the internet could trigger some change also.

    Although knowing what hard copy book you want and getting it in a straight line could be seen as beneficial for the planet too. Hmm great way to justify buying books.

    Must mention also, how thrilled I was to receive JT’s latest book and Toni’s first one from the Seattle Mystery store and see a ‘staff pick’ sticker on them both. Even with postage these books were still cheaper than I can buy here. It’s delayed gratification but worth the wait. Thanks Fran.

  33. pari

    Holy cow, Toni,What a superb answer. Thank you.

    Just reading the back and forth of the books, the amount of cost in transportation alone, is astounding . . . staggering.

    I’ve been doubtful about the benefits of the internet when it comes to novels, but there are also good options — as you point out — that if they could be secure would greatly benefit authors AND the planet.


  34. pari

    Catherine,Isn’t it interesting how “carbon footprint” has become a real part of our language and consciousness?

    I wonder how we could transfer what has been learned in other industries to the book business?

    Self-published authors and ebook authors are the ones who’ll lead the change, I suspect, but I’m not sure their models will be adopted by the larger players unless there’s an obvious and easy line to profit.

  35. toni mcgee causey

    Aw, Catherine, thank you. And Seattle Mystery is one of the best bookstores. I got to shop there when I was at LCC in Seattle and I loved the feel of that place, and bought several from their recommendations. Incredibly great staff (and I’m not just saying that now, but honestly, before they’d ever seen my book, they were amazingly nice.)


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