Analyzing My Royalties

I’ve done this peek behind the business curtain thing a couple of times before because fans seem to enjoy it, hopefully it helps other writers, and it’s fun to delve into your royalties and see how your various books are shaking out against each other. I’ve talked about this on WriterDojo too in our business episodes.

Okay, first off a quick primer on how traditionally published authors get paid. First we sign a contract for a book, and part of that we are given an Advance Against Royalties. This is a payment up front to the author. The author doesn’t get any more money until after the advance “earns out”.

To make the math easy, say you sign a contract for a book, and are given a $10,000 advance (heh, good luck with that newbs! 😀 ) and for each book you sell you get a percentage of the cover price, to make this easy we will say you make $1 a book. The first 10,000 copies you sell, you won’t get anymore money because that’s earning out the advance. Then after that, for each book you sell you would get paid a royalty of $1. So if you sold 15,000 copies in the first royalty period, you’d get another $5k.

Most publishers pay royalties twice a year or quarterly, and there is a delay between when the book comes out, and when you start getting paid for it in order to give the book stores a chance to return what copies they don’t sell. This is called Remaindering, and what they keep is your Sell Through percentage.

So if a publisher does a big mega push of an author to launch a career and the bookstores get swindled into buying millions of copies, but only thousands sell, after desperately trying to get rid of them (i.e. the 70% off super discount hardcover bin) they return the rest to the publisher. Those are remaindered and the author will have a terrible sell through rate. (my rate is actually extremely good on most of my titles, thank goodness).

That means there’s a delay of when you turn the book in, to when it comes out, and then a full royalty period after that, before you may or may not get paid again. This is why advances matter.

After the delay, then if the book has earned out, you start getting royalties. Sadly many books never earn out. There just aren’t enough books sold, and that author never collects royalties. If that happens your career is usually toast with that publisher unless they’ve invested in you for some other reason.

This is the advantage of smaller advances. It’s easier to be a winner on their books, and you’re getting paid based on sales either way. However, if you get offered one of those rare mega huge advances, take that unicorn money and run!

My first advances were fairly small when I was a newb, but they’ve grown over time so that now they’re pretty dang good, but my publisher feels confident doing that because they’ve got a history of how I actually sell and I’ve got a track record. Even then I’ve managed to earn out almost every one of my Baen books in the first royalty period, which means I start collecting royalties the year after it comes out.

For me there’s usually the royalty spike of whatever the new hotness book is which most recently earned out. Sales tend to spike at first, and then taper off. The books that have tapered off from that spike, but which are still selling are actually how you make your living. Not the advances and spikes. The key to actually quitting your day job and making it as a full time author is all your old books which are still selling and earning royalties. This is called your Back List.

You can hope for a giant super hit book which will get made into a movie, but that doesn’t happen for 99.9% of us. You can hope for that, and its nice when it happens, but realistically most of us who do this for a living are able to do so because we consistently produce and have lots of old books that are still selling.

This is for my last royalty check I received in December. The one before that SUCKED because it was the one covering the opening period of Covid lockdowns, when most of the book stores in America were closed. Sure, there was still online, eBook, and audiobook sales, but if you are actually carried in stores that’s a big chunk of income which nut kicked all of us. This last statement was getting back closer to normal. Thank goodness.

I’m not going to cite any actual dollar values. I’m going to keep this vague as to overall amounts. I’ll just say that I’m not a mega super star with an HBO show. Those guys make millions. But I’m no scrub (unlike most of the bossy authors online who dispense writing/business commandments) I make very successful doctor/lawyer money, and have for about the last 8 years. My last royalty check would have bought our first fixer upper starter house outright (or paid for the current Yard Moose Mountain Driveway of Death).

The most recent new release on this statement was Destroyer of Worlds, which had a good sized advance but earned out immediately. That one book, by itself, was 31% of my total royalties for the period. That’s the new book spike I was telling you about. (not bad considering it came out in September 2020 and 2020 sucked ass).

Now here’s where it gets interesting. Whenever you release a new book in a continuing series, it also causes people to once again pay attention of the previous books in the series. Son of the Black Sword jumped a bit to come in at a whopping 12% and House of Assassins at 9%. So the Saga of the Forgotten Warrior series made up over half my royalties for that 6 month period at 51%(!).

Now that series is really interesting, because none of those book spike as high as something like a Monster Hunter novel. Much like the main character, Ashok Vadal, that series is a slow burn. Lower opening spike, much larger tail, overall slow but continual growth. I’m told this isn’t weird with epic fantasy series though, because so many fans have been burned by lazy unprofessional writers turning in great opening books and then never finishing, that buyers hold off until the series is finished, or it looks like it is likely to get finished.

Son of the Black Sword moved past Grimnoir two years back to become my #2 overall series. And it did that with 2 books against Grimnoir’s complete trilogy of 3.

Then there is my Monster Hunter series, which is the one that actually pays the bills. This one is always interesting to watch, because the backlist is large and remarkably consistent. Every single MHI book still sells well, and more importantly, every time I release a new one, I see a corresponding bump in all the earlier ones.

So this statement was a non-MHI period, but even then MH titles make up 33%. I already know when I get the royalty statement with Bloodlines on it, I’ll see a significant jump. MHI is the opposite of Forgotten Warrior, in that it gets a BIG spike for a new release, narrower tail. That’s because the hard core MHI fans tend to buy as soon as it comes out.

Now behold the power of backlist.

Monster Hunter International, which came out 12 years ago(!) is still 5% of my royalty income. It’s been a consistent seller for over a decade. Now, 5% doesn’t sound like a ton, but by itself its enough to buy a decent used car or pay several mortgage payments.

Monster Hunter Vendetta, 5%. Monster Hunter Alpha, 4%, Monster Hunter Legion, 2%. Monster Hunter Nemesis, 4%. Monster Hunter Siege, 4%. That stuff adds up. These numbers vary period to period, but if you’ve got a reliably continuing series with a good fan base, you can make several thousand bucks per book, every six months, for YEARS.

The bigger the back list, the more of these you have, the easier it is to meet your needs. That’s why authors need to be good AND prolific. New book in the series, causes all those old ones to refresh and get a bump.

Plus, there’s the MH spin off stuff, with the memoirs. Each of those is only at 1 or 2%, but keep in mind that’s my HALF. So if it was the full value they’d be in the same range as the others, though I’ve found that the overall spike on collaborative books isn’t as high as on my solo stuff. I suppose that’s just market hesitancy. Beats me. Monster Hunter Guardian is still pretty new, and it’s at 6%. Except again, that collaboration, so that’s just my percentage, not the overall total of sales.

Up next is my Grimnoir, which has now fallen to the #3 spot in all time sales as Forgotten Warrior surged ahead. Those are at 9% for the trilogy. Which sounds sad in comparison until you realize that the last of those 3 came out in August 2013! That’s almost 9 years since I’ve done anything in that universe. I’ve been collecting money off of work I did a decade ago. I’ve got another trilogy planned, and when that eventually starts I imagine it’ll cause another bump for Grimnoir.

4th this time are the two Target Rich Environment collections. TRE1 is at 1% and 2 is at 3%. Being short story collections, that’s pretty awesome actually. It’s enough to buy a nice sniper rifle. 🙂

Last on this royalty are the Dead Six novels with Mike Kupari, at 2% for the trilogy. Which again, ain’t bad when you realize that’s just my half, and the last book came out 6 years ago.

So there you go guys. New books are awesome, but backlist is how you pay the bills. When you’ve got a couple books in backlist, if you make a little money for each that’s nice, but you can’t live off it. But if you’re making a little money for each, but you’ve got 23 items, that adds up fast. And honestly, but the time you’ve got a couple dozen items, you’ve probably built up enough of a fan base that it’s not a little money each, it’s several thousand bucks each. And then you are styling.

Gun Runner will show up next, followed by Monster Hunter Bloodlines. GR I’m not sure how it did because it came out in February of everybody panic and freak out and shut down the world. Though that had gotten better by the time Bloodlines came out, when I had the weirdest pandemic, post-apocalyptical book tour in September.

The moral of this story is work. Work your ass off. Produce. Keep trying to get better. Keep growing that fan base. I self published my first book in 2007, had my first Baen publication in 2009, and have continually worked and tried to improve that whole time. This business it is not easy to be successful, but it is super easy to fail. Don’t get jealous of others who are doing better than you, instead observe them and see what you can learn from them, if anything.

And have fun. That’s the most important thing. If you’re having fun writing it then the readers will have fun reading it.

WriterDojo S2 Ep6: Supporter Spectacular (Round 3)
WriterDojo S2 Ep5: Pacing (Round 1)

68 thoughts on “Analyzing My Royalties”

  1. I seem to notice it all comes down to write, publish and repeat repeat repeat.

    There might be a hint I need to take here somewhere…

  2. Larry, could you please go into the economics of anthology sales? I’m sure they don’t sell nearly as well as novels, and the editor gets a cut as well.

    I also get the impression that a lot of times the publisher is going for “here are three stories by our top tier sellers, and another dozen by our mid-list authors” as an effort to boost the sales of the mid-list via discovery.

    1. There’s actually an episode of WriterDojo where we go into that, short vs. long, and the economics of anthologies.

    2. To he fair that how it works for me. I’m not going to plug other authors here but reading an anthology I just discovered a whole genre of books set in the public domain universe H.P Lovecraft created.

  3. Jerry Pournelle made a point that the royalties for Mote in God’s Eye were not insignificant, even 40 years after it was published.

    1. For that matter, some of Heinlein’s books are still outselling the cream of modern woketardery, and his first book is 75 years old now.

      If your book is getting its ass kicked by a 75-year-old novel, you should probably open your mind to the possibility that you’re Doing It Wrong.

      I recall someone (possibly Camazotz Flappytongue) making a snotty remark about “old white men” when this was pointed out. Nope. All the old white men (and oldish, whitish men, like me) bought our copies of Heinlein’s books decades ago.

      1. > If your book is getting its ass kicked by a 75-year-old novel, you should probably open your mind to the possibility that you’re Doing It Wrong.

        To be fair, writing is unusual in that you’re always competing with the “greatest of all time”. In pretty much every other field you’re only ever going to be competing with the “greatest of your generation”.

        There’s probably only a couple of modern authors who out-sell Shakespeare, and I suspect most of them are in chick-lit or young adult.

        1. Video games are weird in this area because PC games very much are competing with the greatest of all time (bar licensing issues), but most consoles are so trend driven and have (had?) such a vibrant used market they’re only competing with the greatest of the last few months (if not THE month) a lot of the time. Some companies do VERY well with a library of “evergreen” PC titles with relatively slow steady sales.

          Since the evergreens are mostly on word of mouth and the virtually non-existent price of digital goods allowing impulsive buy provoking sales, the ones that keep selling tend to be good, or at least unusual/weird enough to raise interest. The ad campaigns and those propped up by fake “journalism” astroturf for the right politics tend to flounder after release and only occasionally sell more when on sale. Naturally these hacks complain about anime titties instead of making games people want to play.

  4. The Covids really stomped on us Indies too. I took a massive cut in my income for that time period. It seems (best me and the others could figure) that with being home all that time people stopped reading and started playing games and binge watching.

    Because instead of having a couple of hours of free time, where they’d normally read part of a book, they had all day long, every day, and so they could invest in things that took up a lot more of their time.

    Things didn’t return to normal for me until halfway through last year (2021). 2020 sucked the proverbial pair of round objects.

    The bit about Back List is something everyone needs to understand. My first best selling series (from 2015) still does okay. The last book I released in it (during the covids, sadly) made a lot less than I expected. But I still got a huge Back List spike which made it worth releasing. When releasing a new book, you always need to take that into account.

    1. And the nice thing about indie is there’s no pressure to succeed in release month because ebooks are evergreen – in stores as long as you want them there. So there’s always another chance for success.

    2. My allotted reading time in the COVID Era took a big hit because I no longer have a mass transit commute. That was 1-2 hours a day of dedicated Kindle time lost. Works out to about a 50% reduction in what I’ve spent on books.

    3. Out of curiosity John, if you don’t mind sharing, what percentage of your book income comes from KU vs book sales?

      1. for me it’s a 50/50 split on income, but about 66 percent of my sales are via KU. I did do an experiment at one time where I pulled out of KU, completely, for five months. enough of the KU readers migrated over that my bottom line remained the same, but a fair number of people claimed they couldn’t afford to support KU and buy books directly.
        I look at KU as more of a method to get my name out there nowadays. I’m also starting to take books out of the program and am looking at changing my approach to how I use it.
        Unfortunately there are a lot of ‘woke’ people starting to get jobs in the KU portion of KDP. They already control the advertising side (and I can no longer advertise my books there).

        1. John, I try to help authors double dip. I read the book the first time in KU (unless im advance reading of course). Then I buy at least an ebook so you all get paid twice.

          Sometimes I buy a hardcover too.

          For example David and Chris’ Into The Light, I bought both an ebook and a hard cover.

          Personally I think.this is the best way for we fans to reward you all. Read in KU so you get paid there, buy an ebook, and the occasionally buy a hard copy.

          With hard copies I try to buy directly from the author. I can’t always but I try.

          The way I see with doing this is the KU price for me spread over a ton of books is basically like paying 6.00 for an ebook instead of 5.00.

          But for your income you get laid the full amount twice.

          Math is easy that way.

        2. When you’re wide again, there are two non-exclusive subscriptions like KU that you can point readers to – Scribd and Kobo Plus. Distribute to all the catalogs for libraries and you can also direct them to requesting books through Overdrive etc. Readers have lower cost options besides KU.

    4. Not all indies. I’ve heard many say that 2020 and 21 were the best years they’ve had as indie writers and that was certainly the case for me.

  5. The business end of writing is not a joke. Thanks for doing what you can to teach people about it.

    Also: A new Grimnoir Trilogy in the future? Excellent news. I just finished Tokyo Raider on Audible last night. Thanks a ton. That was a blast!

  6. Fun fact: I don’t know if it’s still the case ( because I haven’t been in the book world for like 20 years) but when a publisher gets a lot of remaindered books back, they sell them at auction. This is where Half Price Books gets their big stacks of books on the tables with the nice displays- they bought up 10,000 at a good price and they can sell them for more than half price because they’re brand new.

  7. Interesting. My paternal grandfather was organist of Chichester Cathedral (in England) and a minor composer and author. After his death (1948, IIRC) my grandmother collected the royalties and after her, my aunt. Finally my mother ended up getting royalties which still amounted to about UKP 100 or so a year — half a century after my grandfather’s death.

    The Correia children and grandchildren will probably be collecting on MHI most of their lives.

  8. Out of curiosity, do you get any meaniful royalties off of the Malcontents novels? Those are some of my favorites, although I completely understand why you don’t write in that universe anymore.

    1. They aren’t on this one because they aren’t from Baen, but they are tiny compared to any of my other stuff.

      1. Darn… that means little incentive for you to write more of them. Shame… I really like those books! (This is not me trying to guilt trip you, because you make it quite clear about the economics of working as an author. )

        I wonder… do you ever get the urge to write something just for the enjoyment of watching a new creation come into being, even though you don’t expect it to do well financially?

    1. Don’t know what Larry’s contract might be, but the major publishers usually offer 8% for paper and 25% for ebooks. Some small independent publishers, like for romance, offered 40% for ebooks.

  9. Oddly enough, my experience with 2020 ran counter to most folks: It was one of my strongest years ever for book sales. I suspect this has to do with the fact that most of my stuff is largely digital, and the closure of bookstores wasn’t as big a deal for me as a result, but even then I saw a huge upswing in sales that I wish had stayed that strong. I always chalked it up to “people are home with nothing to do, but I’ve always wanted to read more” followed by buying a bunch of books.

    It’d be really interesting to see a breakdown of book sales in 2022 and 2021 based on medium, dead tree VS digital. I know that games BOOMED during the plague year and most of that success was attributed to digital growth, and I’d be curious to see if that held true for books as well. If so, it could explain the incongruity. Digital has always been my larger seller, even when launching ebook and paper at the same time.

    It’s just weird to hear the other side of the coin lamenting 2020 and the plague years, when they’ve been by far my strongest years ever. Sands, sales in 2021 were roughly 2/3rds of 2020 … and that was with me entering several new national book markets thanks to Axtara.

  10. Thank you so much for this. You have boiled all the extraneous crap out and made this easy to understand.

    Next useful essay:
    How to not blow it all as soon as you get it (money management) and paying the guv’mint to not arrest you [taxes).

    1. Luckily I already wrote that one (check Ask Correia under the Best Of tab) and did a podcast episode about it on WriterDojo (the business one)

  11. Yeah, 2020 was alright for ebooks and some self-publishers saw a rise. When times are tough, people either indulge in hard subject books with happy endings, or total comfort food. Obviously, fans are fans, some readers were going to keep buying their fave authors as long as new stuff came out. But I also saw a lot of mentions of people watching TV and movies versus reading, so 2021 seemed to be better overall.

    Backlist is absolutely king.

  12. I’ve learned a lot about publishing from you and Sarah over the years, more than I’ve learned from anybody else. Thank you.

  13. I think it was Roger Zelazny I heard talking about this at a con. IIRC he said that the secret to making a living as a writer was to have at least one backlist title in print for each member of your family, plus the mortgage.

  14. Concur on the back list! Saw a nice little bump when I released both the western and the latest MilSF books. The anothologies we’ve done have gotten the other authors bumps, which was the goal going in. And yes, 2020 sucked!

  15. Just my own personal opinion, but I vote for Larry to get Emperor Barry advance money.
    Wasn’t it like $60 million?

    1. Driveway of Death sounds like it should be the title for the first adventure for the Yard Moose Mountain RPG.

  16. Thank you Larry, that was cool. I love the closing lines. The only person you need to compete with, is yourself!

  17. What about stuff like the Dreaker story, that shows up in multiple short story collections (I swear I saw it in two different collections).

  18. Yup… tradpub economics and indie aren’t much different, although I’d argue my lack of exposure to bookstores made me see what could arguably be no difference due to COVID, if not a possible rise in sales through the ‘20/‘21 seasons.

    Good post, Larry.

  19. This post goes some way in explaining why everyone with a name doesn’t just self-publish. If the catalog is what pays the bills a writer kind of locked in.

  20. I really liked TRE series. Lots of good introduction to other authors and I liked your take on Lovecraft world; that one was trippy.

    “I’m told this isn’t weird with epic fantasy series though, because so many fans have been burned by lazy unprofessional writers turning in great opening books and then never finishing, that buyers hold off until the series is finished, or it looks like it is likely to get finished.”

    I swear if I die before a certain author finishes his trilogy, I will haunt that fat fuck for the rest of his life.

    Brad aka Drundel from TFL who wore your t-shirt to the book signing.

  21. “Monster Hunter International, which came out 12 years ago(!) is still 5% of my royalty income”

    It’s also free on Baen’s website in most common e-book formats. Getting people to pay for something you offer for free speaks to either a: power of physical media b: how poorly that’s advertised c: power of Amazon and people not checking elsewhere (most likely C). Actually, how does the The Monster Hunters compilation factor in? Are the royalties (presumably small since your other trilogies haven’t gotten a 1200 page behemoth release like that) just divided among the three books evenly?

    As for reading less in 2020, I discovered I read less because my biggest time for reading is when someone else is driving or I’m waiting for my food (which is surprising for someone who gets out as little as me). Mass market paperbacks fit perfectly in the pocket of cargo shorts/pants at my size.

    1. So, I don’t know about other people, but for me eBooks are cheap intros to an author and/or a series. I’ll pick up a cheap (or better yet free) eBook that starts a series, and likely end up buying additional books in the series in eBook format.

      But if it’s a series I absolutely fall in love with, I go out and buy physical copies, partly because I love me a physical book and curling up in front of the fire with a cup of coffee and a glowing screen doesn’t have the same appeal as doing the same with a physical book. Plus, nobody can suddenly revoke my access to my physical book (well, okay, I suppose my wife could), which is another reason for Baen eBooks I buy direct from them, as I can download the epub version and store it locally.

      So that might account for some of it.

  22. Thanks for all the great stories =)

    Question feel free not to answer, but if I buy a audio book of say something like Nemesis do you make the same amount of money off that vs the paper book? Does it matter if its audible or the physical CD? I like you and your work I’m less wild about Amazon.

    1. I always tell people the same thing. Don’t worry about what I make. You should buy the books in whatever way and format that makes you happy.

  23. As a numbers guy yourself, I’m sure you’d be interested in payouts with finer grain detail than every six months. I would love to see the distribution (you can obscure the values on the Y-axis) of a new book like Destroyer (which was great, by the way) in bins of months or even (be still my beating heart) weekly. And what would the fit be? How long a tail is it?

  24. I can see why these trends exist. I had the pleasure of introducing one of my friends to your Monster Hunter series. He normally doesn’t read novels, but I lent him a copy of Monster Hunter International, and now he tells ME about how much I need to read your next MHI book. Not only did he buy all your past MHI books, he’s marketing for you! Like you said, if you make stories that are fun, people will read them.

  25. Interesting insights, Larry. Thanks! I can honestly say that you’ve gotten your fair share of the royalties from me… In reading through your post, I saw myself – got turned on to your work through reading one novel, then said “huh… I like this” and went out and found others. Invariably, my only hesitation was in changing between series (i.e., I knew I liked MHI but was initially reticent to get into another, even though the author was the same). Some of this was genre related I think, but once I bit the bullet and got into the new series, I found I liked them just fine. Guess you could say that “like for the author overcame fear of genre/series change.” Your point about continuing to create new works while enjoying royalties for existing works is the publishing equivalent to any business always having to A) Bring in new customers; or B) Deliver new products and services. Businesses that do that can succeed while those that don’t will invariably fail…

  26. My first novel was indie published, and I’m still trying to get it up to the “buy me at least one round of Taco Bell a month” levels of sales. It might be a bit dense, which is my biggest issue in personal writing, but I am getting close to finishing the sequel. Assuming that Real Life will let me get away with it any time in the next few weeks.

    But, it’s interesting to see how things work “under the hood.”

  27. Word of mouth is still a huge deal for sci-fi and fantasy, even for older work. I heavily market Larry’s books to my Monday night gaming group. I now have them hooked on MHI, as well as Grimnoir, and begging me to start up an MHI RPG campaign once we finish up the CoC and Pathfinder games we’re doing right now….

  28. Larry, I was hoping you could help me,, one of your short stories I really enjoyed bur I can’t remember the name. It was about a starship visits a human colony in which everyone besides one man is dead, and he’s telling them what happened. How the entire planet sold to their souls to some evil entity.

  29. Maybe a dumb questions, but assuming your book sells, isn’t royalty better than advance on sales? My experience is that work for hire and advance on sales is earned income while royalty income is not. You pay payroll taxes on earned income, but not on royalties (at least according to my tax guy).

    Given that (and ignoring both time value of money and cash flow) if you know a book will make its sell-through isn’t better to take as small an advance as possible so as to maximize royalties? Note this assumes your publisher is honest about sales figures so it may be more academic than anything else.

    Still, I always figured million dollar advances were either marketing or a legal way to bribe politicians. Or maybe this earned income thing is limited to the peasants and the elites get around it.

    1. Uh no.
      First, I don’t know what your tax guy is talking about there, as an advance against royalties should be taxed the same as royalties. They are both income, and you’re self employed and doing FICA/FUTA/SUTA either way.
      Next, “if you know a book will make its sell-through” except when you are starting out, you don’t know that. You guess. So if you’ve got the opportunity starting out to get a fat advance, you have no idea how it’ll actually sell, you take the big advance.

  30. I’d like to know who is fronting all the millions of dollars to politicians for their book deals? I seriously doubt they sell enough copies to pay for the ink – forget about the royalties. Remember we are talking about millions here.

  31. “because so many fans have been burned by lazy unprofessional writers turning in great opening books and then never finishing, that buyers hold off until the series is finished, or it looks like it is likely to get finished. ”

    I will not buy a book in a trilogy or fixed series until it is all available any more. Because, yes, G. R. R. Martin IS my bitch. I paid for three novels on the assumption that he was going to finish it. He still hasn’t. I want my money back. And what I think of Neil Gaiman is unprintable.

  32. Just finished Servants of War, and scrolling to check whether there’s any book that needed buying when I got to this post.
    Which is almost cooler than the CISG ones.
    I don’t know if the data available allow for an analysis of the kind below, but suppose that both writer and publisher would be very fond of having the ability of making more money…
    It’s about the timing of the publications: is there a way to capitalize what you see in your bank/royalties statements to set the publication dates of new books in series so that the income from the back list sales bump is maximized?

  33. As others are also answering, my ebook sales have been fairly flat the last few years. Admittedly, my sales might cover our host’s paintbrush budget. They also might not. I have been a bit worried that Smashwords seemed to be losing momentum, but their merger may well fix that. I tried KU and a free period once, years ago, and sold lots of books … for free. Sales did not improve thereafter. Short stories in two anthologies helped more, for a little while.

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