Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

How I Know The Tipping Point For eBooks Is Here Or Very Near

STATUS: Two contracts to wrap up and 270 emails to go in the inbox. Feeling significantly better after a lot of rest this weekend. Kristin–7 Flu–3

What’s playing on the iPod right now? NEED YOU TONIGHT by INXS

As you folks know, I’ve been on planes quite a bit in the past month. And here is how I know that the tipping point is potentially here (or near) where eBooks are concerned.

On one leg of my trip, I sat next to a 60+ grandmother (by her own admission) who saw me reading on my Kindle.

Grandmother: “That’s a new eReader, isn’t it? Where did you get that?”

Me: “This particularly eReader is called a Kindle and I bought it through Amazon but Sony and BN and a couple of other companies sell eReaders as well. You can buy them online at Amazon or go into Best Buy etc.” [For the record, I do try and promote equal opportunity purchases for electronic readers! I even mentioned the iPad.]

Her: “I read at least 3 novels a week! I’d love not to have to carry all these books around. I’m going on a cruise this week. [Leaning over to look at the text on my Kindle] Looks like you can up the font on that.” I gotta get me one of those.”

Me: “Yes, you can change the font size.”

Her: “That does it. I’m asking for it for my birthday and Mother’s day combined. If my children can buy a $200 game program for my grandkids, they can buy me one of those.”

In chatting with her a bit more, this grandmother was from Pueblo, Colorado—a smaller but good-sized town in South Colorado. Probably not too far off the core of “middle America.”

When I’ve got an older grandmother expressing unabashed enthusiasm in owning an eReader, I can’t help but think the tipping point is near—even if current electronic sales only equal about 2% of the market right now (statistic via a recent PW article).

I think a lot of us assumed the older generation would be the luddites where this new technology is concerned but through my anecdotal experiences, I’m not finding that to be true…

69 Responses

  1. Sandy Williams said:

    I think the words ‘font size’ is what sells ereaders to older generations. My grandmother bought a Kindle last fall because she has so much trouble reading the small prints in books. She HAD to purchase oversized text books. Not only were those books difficult to find, but I’m pretty sure they’re always published in hardback, so they cost so much more than the $7.99 pbks most people can buy.

    My grandmother has read more books in the last six months than she has in the last ten years, all because of her ereader.

  2. Matthew Rush said:

    I totally agree Kristin, and thanks for posting this.

    I do have to add one thing though: I love books. Real books, there is something about the feel of the pages between my fingers, the binding … maybe I’m just old fashioned seeing the world through my rose tinted glasses, heck I do own about 2500 vinyl records.

    That being said I look forward to owning an e-reader someday soon. In my perfect world I could buy a hardcover copy of a book and get an electronic copy bundled in for a reasonable price. Apparently that may start to happen.

  3. Donna Alward said:

    Even after having all my books available in e-format now, I have never had an e-reader. I always read on my pc or my netbook.

    But guess what I did this morning?

    Bought an e-reader. I’m insanely excited about it.

    The last few months have really exploded, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens with sales!

  4. Annette Lyon said:

    That’s pretty much the conversation I had with my mom (in her 60s) about e-readers. Her gut reactions was, “I love real books. Why would I want THAT?” But then I pointed out that she could take dozens of books with her on airplanes and in her purse, and with her next breath it was, “I need one of those.”

  5. Tracy said:

    Truthfully, I think if/when the price of e-readers comes down a bit there will be a lot more people embracing the idea.

  6. Bernita said:

    No, you’re right. It’s not true.
    I’m barely post-Luddite and a grandmother – and the only things that hold me back at the moment is the price and the fear my tech ignorance would screw the machine.

  7. Anonymous said:

    The first person I knew with an e-book reader was a writer and avid reader in her 80s who liked not having to lug a hug bag of books around on her travels…come to that, she still the only person I know who actually owns an e-reader!

  8. Alice Anderson said:

    I can see where that’d come in handy…I really enjoying having all my ebooks in one place, but have noticed lately that my eyes get tired of looking at the screen. Both my lappy and iPhone have those super shiny screens so I’m thinking that might have something to do with the eye fatigue. DH and I are going to have to take a serious look at the ereaders this year. I’m running out of shelf space and I hate the thought of my books living in the attic.

  9. Carolyn said:

    I bought my mother (82!) a Kindle for Christmas after she expressed interest in a reader. I showed her the books I have on my iPhone and she felt that was pretty readable. She has arthritis and has trouble holding thick books and hardbacks. She enjoys her Kindle and is reading quite a bit on it.

  10. Sean said:

    I was at the Associatiation of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Denver this week, and I had my Sony reader with me. i received more than a few comments along the lines of “…but I love REAL books…”.
    So do I. I responded to all that the reader is just another tool in my life. I prefer live concerts at Red Rocks, but that doesn’t stop me from using my iPod.
    Like most of you, I have a pile of books to read at all times, and currently 4 of those are hard-copy and 2 of those are electronic. But when I’m carrying my briefcase, the e-books are definitely better for the back.

  11. Margaret Fleming said:

    An anthropology graduate once taught me one of the most valuable things I know: There are always more differences within groups than between groups. Thank you for calling attention to one of these differences. My idea of a perfect day is twenty four hours when I am not dumped into any age group.

  12. Arlene said:

    I was at Best Buy this weekend, playing with the iPad. Its books feature was pretty cool.

    But me, I’m not quite 40 and I can’t imagine a life without real books. There’s something about the feel of a book in my hand that can’t be replaced by an oversized iPod or mini computer.

    That being said, if I had fewer books in my house, there’d be a heck of a lot less clutter!

  13. Dara said:

    My comment is the same as Tracy’s–when they drop a little more in price, it’ll catch on more. I’ll know that’s the biggest issue with me right now.

  14. Mary McDonald said:

    I think e-readers can tap into the older market by highlighting the advantages for them. I can think of two off the top of my head. The increasing the font thing, like you mentioned, and just not having to hold a book open. Lots of older people with arthritic hands/fingers, would probably appreciate that.

  15. Barbara Early said:

    While not elderly, I read about 3-4 books a week. That, added to the time I spend staring at my computer, has led to the strain of my middle-aged eyes. I got an ebook this past Christmas, and with larger fonts, I am able to read for longer periods of time with fewer problems. I’m also enjoying instant delivery of books, and the frequent shaving of a buck or two off the price. And while I always did enjoy the look and feel of real books, I do appreciate not having to find a place to shoe-horn yet another book shelf.

  16. GalaktioNova said:

    Phrase of the week:

    “If my children can buy a $200 game program for my grandkids, they can buy me one of those.”

    Thank you! Lots of food for thought.

  17. Margaret Yang said:

    I can’t believe you sat next to my grandma on a plane!

    Okay, it wasn’t her, but it could have been. Because the conversation sounds exactly like her.

  18. Kim said:

    Here’s a question I’ve been wondering since these have started to catch on. What about those of us who use the library extensively? I think the option to “borrow” or “rent” books needs to be there, before I consider it.

  19. Kate said:

    I just had a conversation with my art director this morning about buying his 86-year-old mother an iPad – she wants to do email and read books, and maybe one or two other things. Her laptop just bewilders her. The iPad is so user-friendly and clear for those things that it’s a foregone conclusion…she’s getting one for Mother’s Day now.

    It’s all about user-friendliness and interface. Make something so simple that a 3-year-old and an 86-year-old can both understand it intuitively, and you’re on to something. And if you can make it like the “normal” reading experience (page-flipping and notes in the margins) but better (enlarging text), you’ll win hearts and minds to e-books.

  20. Marie Lu said:

    That just makes me grin–it’s enlightening (and kind of adorable) to see the older generation enthusiastic about eBooks!

    To add another anecdote, my new stepdad is a physics professor in his 70s (very sweet man) but is getting an eReader this year as well. I think he already has an iPhone. He loves the new tech coming out for books and echoes the convenience factor.

    (And fwiw, I’ve been using my iPhone+Kindle app as an eReader for the past several months and it works surprisingly well. I would’ve thought the screen would be too small but it’s actually pretty convenient. I’ve read SO many more books b/c of this!)

  21. A.L. Sonnichsen said:

    You’re absolutely right. Anyone who travels will find the eReaders useful, whether they’re young or old. The older people will want them for convenience, while the younger people will want them for convenience and the toy factor.

  22. Paige said:

    I work in a library, and what I find interesting about the whole ebook thing is that it’s not the young people who are the early adopters of the technology, it’s the over-40 crowd. The teenagers get perk up when they find out we have free downloadable audiobooks for their iPods, but they couldn’t care less about the ebooks. The only ones who show any interest in our ebook service are much older.

  23. Bill Greer said:

    My wife an I are about to embark on a 10-day beach vacation. We do this once a year and we each take 4-5 books we intend to read on the trip. Even then, we sometimes finish them before we intended. I tend to read mostly hardcovers, so my choices for what to take with often depends on length. The shorter the book, the better it fits into my suitcase. Point Omega and The Big Short are going with me, and Drood is staying home.

    Now if I had a Kindle . . .

    Can you take a kindle to the beach? Any problems with sand?

    The thing with the Kindle is that I’d only want it while I’m traveling. While reading at home, the book is fine wherever I decide to read.

    One of the drawbacks to the Kindle or any e-reader is that I would just be leasing the book. I can’t resell it. I can’t give it to one of my daughters to read. I can’t donate it to the local library.

  24. karen wester newton said:

    A year ago I spent an hour showing an 89-year-old lady how to use her new Kindle 2. She’s 90 now and still reading books on it.

    I have a Kindle 2; my husband has my old Kindle 1. At work I know about 12 people with Kindle 2s. Plus I know a couple folks who read on their iPhones, although not extensively. Interestingly, the one person I know with an iPad doesn’t plan to use it for books but rather newspapers and magazines.

    Most people who insist they could not possibly give up “real” books have never tried reading an e-ink screen. But it’s ok, because no one is going to make them use one.

  25. Anonymous said:

    I’m not surprised at all.

    My dad will turn 60 this year, is the grandfather of 5, and has had a Sony Reader for a couple of years. He’s had his longer than I’ve had mine! And my mom (about to turn 59, grandmother of 5) has her own. And they’re contemplating a Kindle for my grandfather (somewhere near 85).

    On a train trip in January, I ran into an older woman (older than my parents, anyway) with a Kindle. Since I was carrying my Sony, we stopped to compare.

    I do think the Kindle particularly appeals to those who are slightly technophobic, because it doesn’t require anything else–no computer, no WiFi. If you can handle a DVD player, you can handle a Kindle.

  26. Sean said:

    “…if you can make it like the “normal” reading experience (page-flipping and notes in the margins…”
    That is one thing I like about my reader (Sony touch) – the ability to take notes, highlight, insert drawings, etc.

    “…I think the option to “borrow” or “rent” books needs to be there, before I consider it…”
    i believe some library systems and some internet sites are working on this.

    “…Can you take a kindle to the beach?…One of the drawbacks to the Kindle or any e-reader is that I would just be leasing the book. I can’t resell it. I can’t give it to one of my daughters to read. I can’t donate it to the local library…”

    Don’t know about sand problems, but i do know many readers have SUN problems. Mine did, but Sony replaced it with one that didn’t – no hassle.
    I agree with you – that DRM/leasing is a BIG drawback. Though you CAN share with people who are on your account. My wife and use one account and share, though our tastes are not very compatible. 8^(

  27. By W. J. Howard said:

    I take my Kindle with me everywhere I go and get asked about it all the time, mainly by women over 50. It’s not just the variable font size that interests them. Try holding a 700 to 800 page book when you have arthritis in your hands. I hate it and I don’t have arthritis. I don’t miss anything about a paper book, at all.

  28. scarlettprose said:

    Actually it was an older co-worker who gave me my first glimpse of an e-reader well over a year ago. As a reader I love the concept. As a writer, I’d still want to see my work at an actual bookstore, or in someone’s hands at the beach. And what will happen to book signings? I hope I can get published before this becomes a thing of the past. Call me sentimental.

  29. Creepy Query Girl said:

    That old lady sounds like a peice of work!:) It’s true that the general stereotype is that elderly people are uninterested or confused by new technology. But like everything, I guess it just depends on the person.

  30. Nareshe said:

    My partner is legally blind. She loves reading and was restricted to audiobooks for a number of years after her sight worsened. Audiobooks are expensive, and a lot of the stuff she wants to read isn’t on audiobook.

    She got a Kindle, and she loves it. She does wish that the font went up a couple more sizes (24-28 point font is the easiest for her to read), but the Kindle has meant access to thousands of books that she never would have been able to read.

    She went to an Amazon event a while back, and happened to talk to one of the guys who did a lot of work on the Kindle. He asked her a *lot* of questions about what did and didn’t work for her when she was reading.

    Another sign that e-readers are getting mainstream: I have been a Sony Reader girl for a few years now, and I’m used to the questions about “what is that? how does it work?” Recently, I went to have my hair cut at a local salon. The person who was doing my cut saw my e-reader and said, “Oh, is that a Sony Reader? How do you like it? My daughter wants one, but I think the Kindle might be more practical…” and we spent some time talking about the benefits and detriments of various e-readers.

    The technology is starting to gain acceptance. It’s a big ball to get rolling, but it’s starting to move.

  31. mary said:

    I view the Kindle as similar to my htc phone. It’s rad, functional, and travel-easy. However, just as the phone will never replace my large-screen laptop, neither will the Kindle replace my beloved books. On a side note, I wonder if anyone has ever dropped one while reading in the bathtub…

  32. David Kubicek said:

    I’m still a fan of paper books, but I love my Nook. Being able to up the font is a draw as is the storage capacity. We’re running out of space for paper books.

  33. Kristin Laughtin said:

    I participated in a literary festival this weekend (which I plan to start blogging about this week, once I’ve processed it all!), and was pleasantly surprised by how many older people I saw with Kindles or other e-readers. They’re definitely not just gadgets for younger or tech-savvy crowds, but can prove quite practical, especially for avid readers. I haven’t purchased one myself yet, but know without a doubt that I will be in the future.

  34. Dawn Chartier said:

    I bought my mom a Kindle for christmas because she can’t hold books open anymore due to artritis. She said that was the best present in the world. For her to be able to read a book again. (She once owned a book store).

    And now she can read my first book coming out next month on her kindle. How cool is that?

    Dawn Chartier

  35. Ruth said:

    Kim said…
    What about those of us who use the library extensively? I think the option to “borrow” or “rent” books needs to be there…

    The option is there, Kim! Libraries are starting to get into ebooks. There’s one service called Overdrive… once you’re signed up through your library, you can download books directly from home. They become unreadable after the loan period expires.

  36. Katherine said:

    The age part doesn’t surprise me. I taught adult ed. computer science during my first career, and we had a lot of recently-retired seniors. It was usually a case of, “Now that I’m retired I finally have time to learn about these things!” Before that, they weren’t so much Luddite as run off their feet from the working world. I’ve seen an awful lot of people with grey hair jump from “newbie” to “techie” in an astonishingly short amount of time.

    I really believe it’s not an age thing, but an opportunity thing. Something for marketers to think about.

  37. _*rachel*_ said:

    I’ve got mixed feelings on ebooks. On one hand, I intend to travel a lot. Assuming I get one used and cheaper, it’d be pretty convenient.

    On the same hand, if I’m on an ereader, it’s easier to knit, eat, etc. while reading.

    On the other hand, I love books. Not just the stories; I like the thickness of them, and the feel of flipping the pages and the satisfaction of coming home with so many library books I can barely carry them.

    And when you’ve got ebooks, you can’t loan them or give them away. One of the best things about books is seeing other people enjoy them.

    Add to that: I can leave a book in a tent during a rainstorm. It may get bloated, but it’ll still be decently readable. Multi-hundred-dollar equipment? Not so sure.

    I’ve got a sneaking suspicion I’ll get one someday, probably used. But I doubt I’ll ever be weaned off real books.

  38. Niki Turner said:

    I wonder if we could make a comparison between the shift from “real” books to e-books and the multiple shifts in format the music industry has made over the years. What was the tipping point for the changes from records to 8-tracks, to cassettes, to CDs, to MP3?
    I got a Kindle last year. Not only is it a lifesaver for traveling, it has been extremely beneficial for homeschooling my teens. When there’s a classic they need to read that I don’t have in my library, I just load it on my Kindle. Almost always for free.
    Just one more use for an E-reader!

  39. Anonymous said:

    Oh, no! You’ll have to pry my hard covers and paperbacks out of my cold dead hands!!

  40. Jen said:

    I suspect a direct correlation between your airline travel and current cold/flu.

    feel better

  41. Chazley Dotson said:

    You know, I haven’t even thought of that benefit — no need to search for large print books, because you can adjust the text size yourself. And someone else mentioned that it was an easier option for people with arthritis. The ebook advertisers should really think about targeting older people, too. That’s fantastic.

    I e-read on my iPod, and I love it. Since I live in Korea, it’s a real lifesaver in a city with no good bookstores. Only stupid Barnes & Noble won’t let me buy from here, but at least there’s still Amazon.

  42. Chazley Dotson said:

    Ugh, sorry to comment twice in a row, but Mr. Greer, if you put your e-reader in a Ziplock bag, it’s even safer than taking a book. You could swim with it! And the touch screen still works through the thin plastic of the bag. (This also works well for reading in the bath.)

  43. Anonymous said:

    My mom is also a 60-year-old grandmother who LOVES her Kindle. My dad was listening to my cousins and me talking about them at a family gathering and started asking questions. On top of adjustable font size, it didn’t take him long to realize that there would be fewer books that she’d already read and wouldn’t be reading again lying around the house and fewer dollars spent on new releases (her biggest vice). Finding out the price had been cut in nearly half sealed the deal and after a little time spent checking it out on Amazon he bought her one for her birthday.

  44. Starstruck said:

    As for the sand on the beach problem, I’ve heard that you can just put your e-reader in a ziploc bag and read it just fine in the bathtub.

  45. blondie said:

    There’s another aspect to the older generation – I believe they read more than those of us who are younger. As a busy mom, I only got back into reading when my kids hit high school. My parents and my husband’s parents are all avid readers and have been for a long time. Being able to have so many books available at their fingertips is the real draw.

    There is a tech-saavy-ness that does have to be overcome, but my MIL already has a kindle (in her 60’s). I expect her husband to follow suit soon (his birthday IS coming up).

    My parents, however, will probably never get an ereader, more because of the price than anything else. They buy very few books, getting almost all their reading material from the library.

    So, even in this little microcosm there’s differences – none of which has to do with the stereotypical ‘grandma doesn’t do technology.’

    Great post!

  46. EKMac said:

    I hate to admit it, but both my mother and mother-in-law, both 63, have the Kindle, while I still lug my beloved paperbacks around. I may have just entered the twilight zone…

    Erin Rieber

  47. lynnet said:

    I bought my dad a kindle for christmas because he’s been not admitting that he needs larger print to read for a while now. With the kindle he can increase the font size and maintain denial.

    For me, though? I’m 24, have perfect eyesight, and carry a purse big enough to hold four or five paperbacks, several snacks, and a veritable pharmacy. No need for me to drop $300 on a kindle I’ll just need to replace in 4 years.

  48. Stephanie said:

    I had a very similar experience at the gym the other day…I now take my Sony Reader and read while I’m on the elliptical, treadmill or crossramp/stepper thingy. An older gentleman stepped onto the machine nest to min…looked to be at least 60..maybe a bit older. Started asking em about it. Being a soon to be epublishd author, I had to show him some of what it could do and I felt very cool! 🙂 He seemed impressed, especially with how easy it is to read and the option of increasing the text size.

  49. Tawna Fenske said:

    I agree with Sandy that “font size” will be the selling point with a lot of seniors.

    My grandmother is terrified of computers, but if she knew she could read all the books she wanted to in the font size she desired on a gadget that wouldn’t “steal my identity,” she’d be all over it.


  50. Stephen said:

    Bill, I have a Cybook, not a Kindle, but I take it everywhere. To the beach, out in the garden, walking through light showers (not heavy rain). Never had a problem, and it’s several years old now (I’ve read 1800-2000 books on it).

    If you’re really worried about moisture, (for example you’re in a bath, with wet hands) put it in a clear ziploc bag. It’s better than a paper book that way, as you can easily push the button to turn the page on a reader while it’s in a bag, not so with a paper book. I’ve only done this a few times though, mostly I don’t bother.

  51. Diana said:

    Our library runs a Homebound program, and we think it won’t be too long before e-Readers will be the way to go for Homebound users. It would mean the ability to download the books they want, when they want them, and e-Readers will be way easier on arthritic hands than some of the gigantic and heavy large-print books.

  52. Caffeine said:

    This rings true for me. I find it interesting that much of this generation- those of us growing up completely immersed in technology like this- are often the ones pulling away, rather than embracing it. Right now there’s a huge trend in my age group (for the record, I am eighteen) toward ‘outdated’ tech… vinyl records over mp3s, film cameras over digital. A surprising number of people I know have lately begun using typewriters. Perhaps it’s simply the fact that things like ereaders aren’t much of a novelty for us, or maybe we’re truly starting to reject the amount of technology being thrust upon us. I currently use a computer for almost everything- I’m not ready to give up my books to that, too. If I started using an ereader, I’d be spending virtually all my time staring at a screen.

  53. Natasha Fondren said:

    I stayed the winter in an RV resort with retired snowbirds in Arizona. Three bought Kindles, and at least four already had them. Several more are planning on buying one.

  54. India Drummond said:

    Both of my parents are in their 70’s and they love technology as much as I do. They’re both on Twitter and Facebook and will call me up when they see a cool gadget on the market.

    I think where they get left behind is the way gadgets are marketed, not in their interest in technology.

    What was once techy is becoming mainstream, and 15-24 year-old men no longer deserve 100% of the gadget marketing dollars being thrown at them, if ever they did.

  55. A said:

    I’m only 28 and find it incredibily difficult to imagine reducing my library to one device. I’m taking baby steps with my new iPhone and reading my first ebook there. I like it; I do. But I just love holding the real thing too. Not sure I can ever fully make the transition… so age apparently has very little to do with it!

  56. MJR said:

    I think caffeine is right–at least for some young people. My sons (college age and a bit older) aren’t interested in getting ereaders. I’m hoping this generation will open bookstores and will embrace printed books. Maybe they are sick of all the i-gadgetry they’ve grown up with.

    I like my Sony pocket ereader, but I love bringing home a shiny new book from the library or bookstore. Downloading a file onto an ereader isn’t the same.

  57. Sean said:

    [i] “…f you’re really worried about moisture, (for example you’re in a bath, with wet hands) put it in a clear ziploc bag…”[/i]
    I saw an ad (I think it was in WIRED magazine) for a waterproof kindle cover. Doesn’t seem worth the expense over a ziploc bag, but the fact that someone makes one has me thinking “mainstream”.

    [i”This rings true for me. I find it interesting that much of this generation- those of us growing up completely immersed in technology like this- are often the ones pulling away, rather than embracing it….”[/i]
    I am a baby-boomer (late – 1961) but went into I.T. straight out of the army when I was 25 years old. So I have been immersed more than my “peers”. I have an ebook and Mac, but I also use fountain pens and drive a 1968 Plymouth, so I guess I’m one of those pulling away, at least a bit.

    [i]”…I don’t miss anything about a paper book, at all…”[/i]
    Although I still read plenty of hardcopy, I agree with you. The STORY is the thing, not the format, IMO.

    [i]”…hope I can get published before this becomes a thing of the past. Call me sentimental…”[/i]
    BUT I feel the same way – so I”m slightly torn.

    [i]”…I can’t decide between the iPad, Kindle, or Nook…”[/i]
    This is a good place to research with information from real readers:

  58. Wendy Delfosse said:

    Wow – I hadn’t thought of the font-size. I’ve recommended books to my stepmother only to know she probably won’t read them because they’re too hard to find in large print.

  59. Donna said:

    While I travel quite a bit (once a year on average, will a lot more than most people), I don’t travel enough to render me paying that much for an eReader. While I can see the benefits of not having to lug around a stack of books, I would quickly want to break the habit of dropping the Kindle in the sand at the beach. From past experiences involving cameras, technology doesn’t like sand. Regular books? They get over it.

    I’m 27 and I’m fighting the trend. I have a TBR pile that’s about to eat me and my eyes aren’t at a point where I can complain about font size. So I’ll stick to that old timey method of killing reads and reading traditionally.

  60. Bon said:

    My mom just turned 68 and we got her a Kindle last year for her birthday and I’m pretty sure she’s responsible for at 1.8% of the 2% sales figure. LOL!

    She loves being able to adjust the font size and the instant gratification aspect (my dad and the credit card are less in love) but I think what really makes it for her is that she has a nervous system disorder and holding hardback books is almost impossible as she gets older. The Kindle really works for her.

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