How to Write a Proper Short Story Cover Letter

May 9, 2016

As an editor I see a lot of bad cover letters. I can’t help but think folks are following some bad advice out there, so I wrote a thing that might help. It’s long and it’s a little ranty and cranky (because I’ve seen a lot of bad cover letters in the last month), but I hope it will also be helpful.

Note that this advice is specific to genre magazines and anthologies and short fiction. Novel submissions play by a different set of rules, and there may be a slightly different etiquette in literary submissions and other genres. But, if you write and submit science fiction, fantasy, and horror short stories, the following essay is for you.

How to Write a Proper Short Story Cover Letter

The most important fact to remember about cover letters is this: the best cover letter in the world is not really going to help you sell your story.

An impressive list of awards and pro credits might–on a rare occasion–entice a slush reader who’s already on the fence about a submission to bump it up to the editor. An editor or first reader might delve a little deeper into the story before they give up because your previously listed sales have demonstrated a certain level of competency. But, beyond that, the story is going to sink or swim on its own.

However, a bad cover letter is at least as likely–perhaps more likely–to undermine your chances. It can clue in the editor that you’re new and inexperienced or, worse yet, that you’ve settled for being published in mediocre markets. (More on that below.) And if you manage to really put a foot in your mouth, you may end up with whoever is reading the story actively rooting against you.

The cases where the cover letter will sway things either way are rare. Some of the industry’s top editors wisely ignore cover letters altogether; they read the story first so whatever you put in the cover letter doesn’t pre-bias them either way. But not all editors do that. And since a good cover letter is really easy to write, why not give yourself that tiniest extra edge?

Let’s begin by talking about some of the most common mistakes one finds in cover letters. I write this at the tail end of a month-long submission window where my associate editors and I received nearly 640 submissions. Although the letter below is 100% fake, virtually every mistake and problem it features showed up in one or more of the cover letters I saw this month alone.

Without further ado, here’s a terrible cover letter:

Clueless Writer
123 Main Street
Cleveland, OH 44101
216-555-1212
c.writer@email.com

Attn: Mrs. Jane Smith, Editor

Dear Mrs. Smith,

I’m submitting my short story “Traveling Back in Time to Kill Hitler” to be considered for publication in your magazine, Time Travel Tales. It is formatted in Standard Manuscript Format and saved as an RTF file as per your guidelines. It is an original story not previously published anywhere and it is not on submission elsewhere.

This story is about a pair of scientists who invented a time machine and decided to to travel back to 1905 and kill young Hitler while he’s trying to make it as an artist in Vienna. They wrestle with the moral dilemma of killing a man before he committed any crimes as well as with the potential pitfalls of a scientific paradox his death would cause. In a surprise twist ending, they decide not to kill Hitler and go home.

I am a graduate of DeVry University where I earned my MFA. I then studied physics at Phoenix University Online and earned a PhD. My thesis was on time travel paradoxes. I’m also a Taekwondo black belt, and an award-winning cat breeder.

I’ve been previously published in For the Luv Review, Cat Breeder Quarterly, Obscure magazine, The Poetry Digest, Daily Movie Reviews website, and the comments section of the Cleveland Times.

This manuscript is a disposable copy.

Sincerely,

Clueless Writer

Let us now examine this bit by bit:

Clueless Writer
123 Main Street
Cleveland, OH 44101
216-555-1212
c.writer@gmail.com

Attn: Mrs. Jane Smith, Editor

1985 called and it wants its business correspondence formatting back. Your contact information should appear at the top of your manuscript, and while there are still a small handful of markets that ask you to include it in the cover letter as well, most don’t. Unless they specifically ask for it, don’t duplicate it in the cover letter, and certainly don’t include “Attn:” or “From the desk of” lines they may have taught you about in eleventh grade typewriter class. The first line of your cover letter should be the salutation.

Dear Mrs. Smith

At the very least, this should be addressed to Ms. Smith because she’s the editor and not merely an extension of her husband. If you know who the editors are, generally address the most senior editor at the market. Dear Ms. Smith or Dear Jane Smith would do nicely. But, really, Dear Editor(s) will do just as well. You could even go with my personal favorite (and a form of address I’ve actually seen in my slush pile): Gentlebeings. If you use any of these, you avoid the possibility of misgendering your correspondent, misspelling their name (Shvartsman here; I know a thing or two about that), and maybe sidestep the effort of trying to decipher the hierarchy of a specific market.

Most editors won’t care, but unless you’ve communicated with the editor in the past and they signed their e-mail to you with their first name, it’s marginally better to avoid addressing them by their first name (aka Dear Jane.) For the record though, “Dear Alex” is fine by me.

Moving on:

I’m submitting my short story “Traveling Back in Time to Kill Hitler” to be considered for publication in your magazine Time Travel Tales. It is formatted in Standard Manuscript Format and saved as an RTF file as per your guidelines. It is an original story not previously published anywhere and it is not on submission elsewhere.

The same rule applies to cover letter as does to fiction: don’t overwrite. Before you include any specific bit of information, ask yourself: is this necessary and relevant?

Jane Smith knows that the name of her magazine is Time Travel Tales. She can reasonably make an assumption that you’re sending the story to be reviewed for publication there. If Time Travel Tales asks that you format your story in SMF (Standard Manuscript Format) and does not accept reprints or simultaneous submissions, then she will assume your story is neither a reprint nor a simultaneous submission, because you’re a human being who is capable of reading and processing information stated in her guidelines.

Which brings us to my personal favorite: writers letting me know that they formatted the manuscript in RTF or DOC or whatever, as specified in the guidelines. First, again, I know which formats are requested in my own guidelines. And second, I can see your file right there. Either you formatted it correctly, in which case I don’t need a reminder as I will not be awarding you a gold star for this since we aren’t in kindergarten, or you sent me a PDF, ZIP file or some other strange beast I didn’t ask for, and then we have a different problem altogether.

This story is about

If you follow any advice at all from this text, let this be it: Do not summarize your story in your cover letter. Let me repeat that.

Do not.

Summarize.

Your Story.

In your cover letter.

This practice likely comes from the world of novel query letters where you do have to summarize your book in a few paragraphs. However, this need does not translate to short fiction. Virtually every editor I know hates when authors do this with a passion.

We want your story to speak for itself. We don’t want any sort of a preview, a summary, or anything else that will spoil it in some way. In fact, when I see a sentence that opens with “This story is about” I immediately skip to the next paragraph. So please, do yourself a favor and don’t include one.

Once in awhile, a market will actually ask you to include a summary. And while I don’t really get how this is helpful to them, always abide by what the guidelines say over what I write here.

Having said this, it can occasionally be helpful to include the story’s genre and length, especially for markets that review different genres. It may help the editor assign it to the right reader or to budget proper amount time to review it themselves. So it’s perfectly okay to say “Please consider my dark fantasy story” or “Enclosed is a steampunk flash fiction story of 900 words.) Just don’t get into the details of plot and sure as hell don’t tell the editor how wonderful and great your story is.

There’s one other notable exception to talking about your story in the cover letter, and we’ll cover it in the next section. Or, perhaps you can spot it in the next paragraph yourself.

I am a graduate of DeVry University where I earned my MFA. I then studied physics at Phoenix University Online and earned a PhD. My thesis was on time travel paradoxes. I’m also a Taekwondo black belt, and an award-winning cat breeder.

Generally, you should not include your non-writing related accomplishments in the cover letter unless your experience directly correlates to what the story is about. In our example, the author is absolutely right to mention their physics background and their thesis. It is directly relevant to the story they are submitting and to Time Travel Tales as a market. The other tidbits, however, should not be included unless the author is presenting a story about a Taekwondo tournament or about breeding cats.

So yeah, if you’re a NASA scientist mention that in your space exploration story. If you’re a history professor, this will be relevant if you’re writing historical fantasy. If you write a story set in Japan and you have lived in Japan for a few years, you can mention that. But your advanced degree in Windchime Studies is likely not helpful when trying to sell a cyberpunk story.

Then there’s my personal pet peeve, and that’s authors mentioning their MFA (a creative writing degree) in their cover letters. To me, this is an equivalent of saying “trust me, I write good” and is not relevant to your story, unless it happens to be about an MFA program. In fact, seeing this in a cover letter almost always correlates to something I can quit reading after a page because the writing is subpar.

Which is not to say MFAs are bad, or writers with MFAs are bad. It’s just that the good writers with MFAs do not generally feel the need to include this particular accomplishment in their cover letters.

The other thing that is perfectly okay (but unnecessary) to include are your professional writing association memberships: SFWA, HWA, and the like. Instead, focus on including your publishing credits and awards or achievements in creative writing, if any.

I’ve been previously published in For the Luv Review, Cat Breeder Quarterly, Obscure magazine, The Poetry Digest, Daily Movie Reviews website, and the comments section of the Cleveland Times.

First of all, let me say that listing no publishing credits if you don’t have them will never hurt you. It’s even okay to say you’re a new/unpublished writer. Really! Every editor I know loves discovering new talent and loves being the first to publish someone, or first to publish someone in a pro venue. No one is going to hold a lack of past credits against you.

It’s also perfectly fine if you’re new and you only have a couple of token credits to your name. Although I advise authors not to submit anywhere that pays less than semi-pro rates, that’s a different topic and a couple of token credits won’t hurt you. There are two things that can hurt you, however:

First, listing a ton of credits that are all lower on the totem pole than the place you’re submitting to. When a pro editor sees a list of twenty non-paying or token-paying markets they won’t be impressed. In fact, this will have the opposite effect as the editor might assume that you either can’t write work publishable at better venues or, worse yet, you’ve settled for the minor leagues and aren’t seriously trying to improve your writing. Either way, you’ve just pre-biased the editor/first reader against your work. So, even if you have 20+ small credits, only list three or four of them.

In fact, even if you have 20+ professional credits, only list three or four of them anyway. Name-dropping your top 3 markets is better for establishing your bona fides than name-dropping your top 10 markets.

The second way to torpedo your chances is to mix in your non-fiction credits with your fiction credits to make the overall list more impressive. It’s cool if you wrote an article for Clarkesworld, had a poem published in Strange Horizons or a book review at Apex magazine. You can even include those credits in your cover letter if you really want to. But if the editor thinks you’re intentionally trying to obfuscate things by bundling them with your actual fiction credits with statements like “I’ve been published at For-the-Luv Review, Obscure magazine, and Clarkesworld” they will notice that one of these things is not like the others, use their Google-fu, and then they will raise an eyebrow.

This manuscript is a disposable copy.

This is a thing I actually saw in a cover letter this year.

Back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and the price of return postage for a stack of typewritten pages was cheaper than the cost of photo-copying an extra set, some authors wanted their rejected manuscripts back. Magazines required that these authors include a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) either way, and enough postage if you wanted your precious pages back (coffee stains optional.) If you didn’t want them back, it was expected to mention in the cover letter that the manuscript copy you included was disposable. In fact, I remember doing this as recently as a couple of years ago, until F&SF became the last of the respectable genre ‘zines to stop requiring print submissions.

Fast forward to today. All submissions are electronic. (Some venues still accept print subs, but if you’re reading this, you probably aren’t among the authors who avail themselves of this option.) So, what is the point of adding this line to the cover letter? None, other than blindly following conventions from the bygone era.

To summarize, your cover letter should be short.

In e-mail cover letters include story title, genre (if applicable), length, and any relevant credits/awards. Consider including word count in email header as this may be helpful to the editors as they often choose to read stories based on how much free time they have available.

In webform that already makes you fill in the basic info, stick to credits/relevant info; no need to repeat info from the form’s fields.

Optimal cover letter for Clueless Writer submitting to Time Travel Tales would be:

Dear Editor,

Please consider “Traveling Back in Time to Kill Hitler” (SF, 3000 words).

My short fiction has appeared in For the Luv review and Obscure magazine.

I have a physics PhD from Phoenix University Online. My thesis was on time travel paradoxes.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Clueless Writer
ClulessWriter’sHomepageURL.com

It’s simple, it’s basic, and it highlights the relevant accomplishments this writer has.

This is the actual cover letter I currently use:

Dear Editor Name,

Please consider Story Title (SF, 2000 words).

I’m the winner of the 2014 WSFA Small Press Award for Short Fiction and a finalist for the 2015 Canopus Award for Excellence in Interstellar Writing. Over 80 of my short stories have appeared in Nature, Galaxy’s Edge, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and other venues.

Thanks very much in advance for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Alex
www.alexshvartsman.com

If anything, I feel like mine is on the longish side. Note the URL at the end of the letter. If they really care about my other credits or just want to make sure I’m not unhinged lunatic who writes 3000-word rants about cover letters on his blog (Ahem!), they can click through. But, chances are, they won’t. Because this cover letter has, hopefully, done its job of introducing me briefly and will not get in the way of the story.

Which is, really, all you can ask of an optimal cover letter.
#SFWAPro

###

I’ll be presenting a workshop on the business of short fiction at Balticon, where in addition to talking cover letters I’ll discuss contract review and negotiations, the etiquette of queries, finding viable markets for your work and submission strategies, reprint and foreign rights, and much more. The funds raised by this and other workshops will go to support Balticon 50 and there are great many other reasons to attend this convention. Check out mine and other premium workshops here.


2015 Year In Review

December 31, 2015

This has been an excellent year for me as an anthologist, but perhaps a tiny bit of a step back for me as a writer. Here’s why.

I published two new anthologies, both toward the end of 2015: UFO4 and Funny Science Fiction. Year to year the new UFO volume seems to launch stronger than the previous year and swells up the sales of the previous volumes to go with it. UFO4 was no exception — it has launched strong and I’ve enjoyed strong sales on the series in the last quarter of the year. The real surprise however, was Funny SF. It was meant to be a budget project: reprints only, Amazon only, e-book only. It was mostly meant to be a vehicle to help promote the UFO series. But then, selecting funny stories from among the best the last ten years worth of professionally published material has to offer can result in a pretty damn good book, and the readers agreed. It has sold better than any other book I’ve launched to date and continues to sell very well. I am already reading for the Funny Fantasy volume to be released this summer, and will follow it up with Funny SF 2 next year.

I’m also working, concurrently, on three anthologies! In addition to Funny Fantasy, I’m in the early stages of work on UFO5, and I’m also editing a non-humor anthology, Humanity 2.0, for Arc Manor. Which is great, but it also takes up an enormous chunk of my writing time.

And that’s where the step back comes in for me as a writer. I had my first collection and a novella published in 2015. I was nominated for an award. And I still say there was a setback. Why? I simply did not produce the volume in 2015 that I had in the previous two years. I wrote a whopping 24 stories and 66,000 words of short fiction in 2013. In 2014 I wrote only 13 stories totaling 38,000 words. That’s because some of my word count was dedicated to the novel. In 2015, I completed only 11 stories totaling 23,000 words. However, my novel is now at about 60,000 words total, 2/3 of the way to finishing the first draft.

Although I wrote slower this year, I am still selling what I write pretty well. I already placed 6 of the 11 stories I wrote this year, and sold all the remaining stories I wrote in 2014. That leaves only 3 un-placed stories from late 2013, and one from 2012 which is sort-of sold but the contract hasn’t been signed yet.

I earned $2275 off my short fiction writing in 2015 (also about a third down from last year) having sold a total of 19 stories (including reprints). I made a total of 155 submissions, over 20 of them still outstanding, which means I also collected nearly 120 rejection slips, or about the same number as last year. A much higher percentage of my submissions this year were reprints, both because I haven’t written as many new stories and because I have so many more reprints to choose from as the great many stories I sold in 2013 and 2014 are coming off exclusivity.

Looking to 2016, my main goal is to finish the novel (yes, I’ve been saying that for a while now, but progress has been made, however slow, and at the rate I’m going I should be able to finish it.)

Thanks for reading my ramblings on this blog in 2015 and happy New Year!

 


Paying Back, 2015 Edition

December 18, 2015

Every year around the holidays I donate a few bucks to various online services and sites that I use heavily and that mostly offer their services for free. I also write this post in order to encourage others to donate also, if they can afford to. Here’s where I sent my hard-earned cash this time around:

Wikimedia Foundation

I use Wikipedia heavily whenever I need to look something up as it relates to my writing. I wouldn’t be surprised if I accessed close to 1000 listings on there in the course of 2015. Although not specifically a writing resource, most writers I know lean heavily on it as well.

Codex Writers

This is an invaluable resource and I spend a lot of my time at conventions and other writerly gatherings proselytizing fellow authors. Anyone who graduated a pro-level workshop like Clarion or Viable Paradise, or sold at least one short story to a SFWA-qualifying venue is eligible to join. Highly recommended!

The Submission Grinder

Free and easy-to-use tool to track your submissions, learn about new and active short story markets, and get estimates on how quickly editors at each venue are responding to submissions. The Grinder continues to grow and they’re 100% committed to providing their service free to all writers. They’re also publishing fiction at the Grinder’s parent site Diabolical Plots (full disclosure: a story of mine will appear there next year), as well as The Long List anthology of Hugo-nominated and near-miss stories from last year. David Steffen does a ton of work to benefit the community. In addition to a donation for his operating expenses, I’d encourage those of you nominating to consider his site for a Hugo nomination next year under Best Fanzine or Best Fan Writer categories.

Locus Magazine

This is not really a donation since I get the magazine in return for my money, but I subscribed mostly to support their efforts. Locus has been around for a long time and a ton of work goes into covering the SF/F publishing word the way they do. As an author and editor I truly have a vested interest in their success, and buying a subscription is one small way to ensure their continued existence.

Happy holidays!

#SFWAPro

 


Lots of cool news (with pictures)

March 17, 2015

YearsBest2013-195x300

Twelfth Planet Press announced the Honorable Mention list for the 2013 Year’s Best Young Adult Speculative Fiction. I’m very honored to have my story “Things We Leave Behind” included on this list! Ken Liu’s story from UFO2, “The MSG Golem” has made the list as well.

You can read Things We Leave Behind at Daily Science Fiction, where it was originally published. You can also listen to the story podcasted at Cast of Wonders, and narrated by me!

 

 

Crains

The May 16 issue of Crain’s New York Business Journal ran a profile on me in my capacity as owner and operator of Kings Games. All I have is this thumbnail for now, but I’m expecting some copies in the mail and am looking forward to reading the article.

 

Informator

 

These are the contributor copies of Informator Gdanskiego Klubu Fantastyki, which has been publishing my Tales of the Elopus mini-stories translated into Polish, one per issue. You can also see the PDF issues online, here. (Click on the magazine cover at top right.)

 

missiontomorrow
Editor Bryan Thomas Schmidt shared the cover art of Mission: Tomorrow, his anthology forthcoming from Baen this November which includes my story “The Race for Arcadia.” This will be my second appearance in a Baen anthology, after this summer’s release of the latest Chicks in Chainmail volume.

#SFWAPro

 


2014 Year In Review

December 31, 2014

This has been an excellent year for me writing-wise. I got nominated (and subsequently won) my first writing award, I wrote some good fiction I was proud of (though not nearly enough of it), and I made a somewhat-decent amount of money from my writing (for a hobby. Definitely not enough money to live on.)

Here are lots and lots of stats, and some conclusions thrown in:

1) I got to the point where I can consistently sell what i write.

I wrote a total of 13 new short stories this year. Of those 13 I already sold 9. (Of the remaining four, two were solicited: one is very likely to be accepted at the anthology I wrote it for, and the other I haven’t sent in yet, as I want to polish it some more.) In fact, of the 13 stories, seven were solicited and I was spared having to shop them around and collect a bunch of rejections in the process.

2) I’m running out of backlog.

There’s only a handful of stories I still have on submission at this point. That’s because while I wrote 13 new stories in 2014, I sold 19 original stories (I also made fourteen reprint sales, and one original sale for a story I translated from Russian.) All of my original sales were to venues paying $0.05+ per word. About a year-and-a-half ago I decided to no longer submit original work to semi-pro venues (with only one or two notable exceptions). I’m happy to say this has not slowed me down. As I hope to spend a lot of writing time on novels in 2015 and do more solicited projects, I expect my submission volume will decrease further.

Which is not to say I’m not submitting. I was no slouch in 2014. In addition to the 34 abovementioned sales, I gathered around 120 rejections! Most of the submissions were for reprints (and in that I include podcast submissions, foreign language magazine submissions, etc.)

3) The money’s getting better.

I earned a total of $1850 from my fiction writing in 2013. I doubled that number for the total of $3755 in 2014. This is nowhere near the quit-your-job money, but that’s not really my goal. Considering this all comes from short fiction sales (this total also includes $600 I got paid for consulting in my capacity as a SF writer) it’s enough to cover the cost of my books, my convention travel, and anything else I spent money on that’s SF-related. I’ll take that.

This total doesn’t include self-publishing income (i.e. money I earned on Amazon etc from my short story sales) nor any money earned by UFO Publishing from the sale of anthologies: this is purely income generated by my creative writing.

4) Editing and publishing continues to be really fun.

I edited two anthologies this year: UFO3 and Dark Expanse. Both have received solid reviews and enjoy reasonably good sales. I also wrote intros and otherwise prepared for publication my very first short story collection, which is only a month away from it’s release date and I’m extremely excited about its release. I have also done some preliminary work on UFO4. You’ll be hearing lots more about it in the spring.

5) What’s ahead.

In addition to UFO4 there’s another anthology project I’m working on. My agent is negotiating with a major publisher for that one. There’s no deal reached yet, and if one is reached the book will likely not hit shelves until 2016, but you will hopefully be hearing more about it in the coming months.

In terms of writing, I am ready to get back to my novel-in-progress and hope to concentrate on it over the coming months. I’ll still produce an occasional short story, because they’re really fun, and I’ll still translate some stuff, but the novel has to take priority or I’ll never get it done.

I will also attend more conventions this year. I already booked my WorldCon and World Fantasy memberships. You will likely find me at Vericon, Fogcon, Balticon, and Capclave this year, and possibly others, too!

So that’s my 2014 writing recap. And as I post it to the blog at 10:30 on New Year’s Eve, my plan is to go back to writing and only stop around midnight. Because they say how you ring in the new year is how that year is going to go for you. Or something like that.

#SFWAPro

 

 

 


Paying Back, 2014 Edition

December 23, 2014

This is my annual post about supporting the free Internet resources that you find especially useful. Despite them being–well–free, websites cost a lot to run, both in terms of paying for hardware, hosting and bandwidth, and especially in terms of the endless hours of time the webmasters are volunteering.

Because of this, I donate a bit of money each December to the sites I’ve used the most over the course of the previous year. The list of writing-related sites isn’t really different from the last time around:

* Codex Writers

This is a community of neo-pro writers. It’s not open to the public, but anyone who has made a professional sale or has attended a pro-level writing workshop (such as Viable Paradise, Clarion, etc.) qualifies for membership and should apply. I find the forum incredibly useful and visit it on the daily basis.

* The Submission Grinder

This free alternative to Duotrope launched when DT ceased to offer a free membership option and asked its members for $50-60 a year for the service. Submissions Grinder works just as well, at least for the speculative fiction markets that interest me, and while I feel $50 is too much for the way I use a site like this, I’m happy to donate the same $20 a year I used to give to Duotrope. For those of you who might not already be familiar with DT and Grinder, they’re wiki-type services that help writers track their submissions as well as provide a database of fiction markets.

* Absolute Write

I haven’t spent as much time on the Absolute Write forums this year, but they deserve support for both providing excellent forums for write0r-folk, and for being vocal advocates against disreputable publishers, agents, and anyone else who might choose to prey upon ill-informed or new authors.

Of course, it’s also important to support authors and editors and everyone else involved in creating the fiction you like to read. To that end, please consider doing some of the following:

* Subscribe to magazines you enjoy reading, even ones you can read online for free.
* Support Kickstarter and other crowdfunding projects by your favorite creators.
* Buy their books, music, comics, or whatever else you enjoy.
* Take a moment to write a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or any other site where you might buy books. It will cost you nothing, but is actually very helpful to authors and publishers.

#SFWAPro

 


Tales of the Elopus

August 9, 2014

elopus

I wrote a total of 14 micro-stories for the GISHWHES contestants in the past week, and now I’m going to post them for people to read, one at a time, as updates in my Kickstarter campaign.  They are free for everyone to read, whether you back the campaign or not, so check out today’s story “The Most Dangerous Game” here, and check back daily for more tales!

I’m also very excited that the campaign has reached its first stretch goal. Now it’s on to the Big One — the audio book which will unlock if the campaign raises $4000+. I’m very excited about the possibility of working with Tina Connolly on the audio book and feel optimistic about being able to reach that goal — there is still 18 days remaining in the campaign.

Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma and Other Stories by Alex Shvartsman

Click on the cover to visit the Kickstarter campaign!

#SFWApro


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