Why Don’t Publishers Believe in Author Websites?

Authors and technology

photo by Curtis Palmer / via Flickr

It’s not unusual for authors to be told by their publishers that an author website isn’t necessary or effective. Publishers may advise authors that they’re better off creating and maintaining a Facebook page instead. (I address the flaws in that strategy here.)

It came up again, yesterday, at a Digital Book World marketing conference. I didn’t attend, but I followed the Twitter stream. Here’s the conversation that happened.

It got me thinking more deeply about why publishers (in this case, Open Road Media, a progressive media company focused on e-books, founded by The Other Jane Friedman) would advise authors to forget the website, or what I consider the No. 1 calling card for a digital-age author. In my experience of having a website *and* being active on social, I would feel hobbled if either piece went away. Social is more powerful with my website, and my website is more powerful with social. That’s not to say there can’t be varying strategies and tools for execution (and there have to be—every author career is different), but to say “no” to an author website for most authors? That seems like an opinion formed in 2005 that hasn’t been seriously revisited or challenged.

But publishers aren’t stupid or inexperienced. They shepherd thousands of new and experienced authors and know what sells books. What’s going on here? Am I horribly wrong in continuing to advise authors to own and control their own website as a long-term priority? Here’s what I think is going on.

1. Publishers don’t believe websites are effective for the time put into them—they create an unprofitable time sink.

I can see how and why this might happen, since most authors are not educated on best practices of websites, what websites are good at, and how they integrate into a larger online presence. There’s a learning curve that no publisher can be or wants to be involved in, so it becomes easier to say, “Don’t bother (because you won’t do it right).”

If the author decides to establish a website anyway, the publisher may be rightly concerned that the author isn’t motivated or capable of maintaining it. Sometimes a bad website or out-of-date website can be more damaging than no website at all. Even if it is up to date, what if the author’s website doesn’t link to all retailers, and it offends an account? What if the author is saying or doing things that make life difficult for the publisher? (I experienced this to some degree at F+W Media, where the editors received requests from marketing: Please tell your author to change X on his site.)

What remedies might there be?

  • Educate authors. No publisher really wants to do this, though I think it’s in their best interest. At the very least, publishers could write up a downloadable guide or record an hour-long webinar that’s periodically updated.
  • Advise authors to use platforms that don’t require technical knowledge to maintain. We’re no longer living in the days of the webmaster; any individual who uses Word or Gmail can also learn to update a website. Some think WordPress is too complicated. But there are a range of solutions out there: SquareSpace, WordPress.com over self-hosting, even Blogspot will do.
  • Clearly advise authors what constitutes a waste of time. No author site should take so long to launch that it’s out of date by the time it’s live. And there’s no excuse for an out-of-date site if you’re using a platform like WordPress.

Bottom line: I think it’s a mistake and a disservice to authors to make them think or believe a website is some sophisticated piece of technology that they can’t handle or maintain. I expect more, and I’ve seen many writers, some over 60 years of age, successfully start and maintain their sites after being encouraged and educated in a positive and empowered way. This is part of being a capable author in the digital age, if you want to grow your career over the next 5, 10, or 20 years.

2. Publishers see better, clearer results from other types of activities, such as Facebook or Twitter social engagement, which may demand less of the author. 

As a colleague said on Twitter, it’s important to start somewhere, anywhere. I also believe in the power of incremental progress; you don’t have to launch and perfect everything at once. Start small, and build your skills and presence over time. A Facebook start for most authors feels doable and sustainable—and sustainability is key.

This also helps authors focus on social marketing and soft-selling, which—even if they don’t know what that means—they might be more comfortable and successful at, if they’re new to online media. Plus, more than 1 billion people use Facebook. An author, if invested in it, may reach more people there and fewer people at their site, at least initially. (Go where the fish are.)

Yet I have a hard time endorsing a social-only approach when you, the author, are at the mercy of the social media tool for reaching your audience. You can never control what Facebook or any other site does—with its design, with its user interface, with your likes/followers, with its functionality, with its ad displays. And if and when it goes out of favor, you’ll have to rebuild somewhere else—whereas with a website, you only get stronger and better over time, assuming you don’t abandon it (and why would you, if you’re still writing and publishing?). When I first launched my website, it was a shadow of what you see now. (I discuss that journey, in depth, in this 20-minute video.)

Finally, Facebook is not an ideal set up for delivering straight-forward information. It’s better at conversation and ongoing connections, rather than delivering things such as media kits, official author bios, event listings, book club materials, and so on. Sure, you can put those things on Facebook, but that’s not an ideal setting for it, especially when people are typing your name or book title into Google. (And what about all those people who don’t use social media?)

3. Publishers aren’t sufficiently invested in the author directly reaching an audience on their own–or don’t believe it happens at a meaningful enough scale, except for a minority.

We all hear about agents and editors who want authors with a “platform”—which means authors who can directly reach readers. This mitigates the risk involved in publishing a book because there’s a ready-to-go audience that the publisher doesn’t have to find.

This presents something of a paradox. How can publishers seek authors with platform (which often involves an online presence that can be quantified) AND claim author websites aren’t terribly effective? But I can see the rationale. If the platform is essentially established ahead of time—and that process probably took the author years—it’s integral, but it’s difficult for an author, on her own, to establish a meaningful platform from the time a book is contracted to the release date, especially if she’s starting from ground zero. (Though, undoubtedly, the author will still be advised to participate in some range of online marketing activities, without being educated on what’s good for the short-term vs long-term, and may not realize that getting on Twitter is kind of pointless if you’re only doing it because your publisher said so.)

Put another way: Some authors are motivated and pretty good at the online and digital platform stuff (and at reaching an audience), and some aren’t. And for those who aren’t, the publisher may believe it’s not worth bothering because the payoff won’t be there in time for the publisher to see an impact on sales.

That seems rather focused on the short-term, or on the publisher’s immediate ROI rather than the author’s long-term career.

I’d argue it’s now the publisher’s job to help authors connect with readers—to be marketing partners. And if they’re going to be a valuable marketing partner, it means educating authors on how to do this stuff for the long haul even if the authors think they’re “bad” at it—which requires authors undergoing an attitude adjustment, not a miracle injection of computer-programming know-how.

There could be another reason publishers aren’t helping authors with this: it takes away their power if the author can reach readers without them. I don’t honestly believe this is motivating publishers in their advice to authors, but when you see hybrid authors such as Hugh Howey, CJ Lyons, Barbara Freethy, and others who do well because they’ve made the investment of reaching readers directly, publishers have less negotiating power. Being in direct contact with readers (through your own site, blog, e-mail newsletter, wherever) is like money in your pocket, a long-term investment that pays off over time. Any of the authors I mentioned above would confirm this. Sylvia Day, speaking at an industry conference earlier this year, said that publishers have to offer “a comprehensive marketing plan that covers things that I’m not doing myself. I expect them to hit a market that I’m not already reaching. You need to find me a new audience, to broaden my audience. As far as digital is concerned, you cannot compete with what I’m doing on my own. You have to knock my socks off with a brilliant marketing plan to be my publisher.”

There are probably two questions in this whole conversation that are most debatable and most difficult to answer, at least on a broad, general, and continuing level:

  • How much of an impact can an author website have on book sales over the long term, versus other strategies such as social media engagement, metadata optimization, Amazon promotion, Goodreads advertising, traditional media/PR, etc? This assumes that sales is the only or primary goal, and that other benefits are negligible (which is also highly debatable!).
  • Assuming the overall impact is meaningful, how many authors have the aptitude, patience, and/or perseverance to be like Sylvia Day? Can this be taught effectively, and if so, is it worth an author taking time and energy away from her writing? (And/or: Should an author spend money on someone else doing it?)

I say it’s worthwhile (because I’ve experienced the benefits firsthand), but I understand why others say no.

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Posted in Digital Media, Marketing & Promotion, Publishing Industry, Social Media.
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

Jane currently teaches writing and publishing at the University of Virginia and is a columnist for Publishers Weekly. The Great Courses just released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (2017).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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86 Comments on "Why Don’t Publishers Believe in Author Websites?"

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Don Stevens
Don Stevens
2 years 9 months ago

Great info Jane! Interestingly enough, I saw a webinar with Guy Kawasaki, who insisted that an author website may not be needed. He mentioned that Google Plus did everything needed to replace it. Nothing should replace an author platform, I think. You never know when guidelines or when the rules change with social platforms.

Fauzia Burke
2 years 9 months ago

I think Guy is also a consultant at Google, and has written a book on Google+

Amber
Amber
2 years 9 months ago
First of all, Twitter and Facebook take a HUGE amount of my time. My website takes almost none. So the idea that focusing on Twitter or Facebook would actually save me time is…. false. Very much so. If I needed to save time, I’d drop twitter! (And then go through withdrawals) I remember stumbling across an author website with a single book and it was one of the most fabulous-looking websites I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t hugely functional but it was gorgeous…and based entirely off the cover for their first and only book. It was also clear the publisher had… Read more »
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Joanne Tombrakos
Joanne Tombrakos
2 years 9 months ago

Great article Jane! An author needs both. No doubt. Social is not going to work without a home base and a website that no one is directed to is going to get pretty lonely.
I think the suggestion on the part of publishers goes back to what I see in so many industries. The bulk of the population still does not get what is happening on line and has no idea how to be truly effective. Which is good for me. It gives me something to consult about 🙂

Nina Amir
Nina Amir
2 years 9 months ago

Great post, Jane. I am a firm believe that the author website/blog is the centerpiece of all they do on line. And it’s a necessity for discovery.

Shirley Showalter
2 years 9 months ago

As an author over 60 years of age :-), I can speak to the value of a website combined with social media, especially when working with a small publisher. The website is an integral part of my outreach to readers. I hope to make it a hub for book clubs as well as media. I have invested in some coaching and am lucky enough to have family in the website construction business, but I can affirm that even elders can do it — and that it’s fun. One week after launch, my publisher has ordered a second printing!

Bob Mayer
Bob Mayer
2 years 9 months ago
Take a gander at most publisher websites and perhaps their focus is directed in the wrong way? Frankly, publishers spend little time if any promoting any authors than their top 5% so their advice has to be taken with a bit of skepticism. Second, publishers are only beginning to realize their job is to sell books to readers, not distribute books to consignment outlets. I rarely comment any more on these types of issues because I’m too busy writing and selling books to readers. For some authors, it is indeed a waste of time. For others, it’s invaluable. I believe… Read more »
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[…] It's not unusual for authors to be told by their publishers that author websites aren't necessary or effective. Should their insight be trusted?  […]

Christina Katz
2 years 9 months ago
Hi Jane, I wrote a post for you in the past about this: https://janefriedman.com/2011/11/24/katz-workout/ which might make it sound like I don’t think established authors should have websites. But in this post I was talking about rising writers, not established authors. It seems to me that a company like Open Road Media, which specializes in reviving and perpetuating the careers of already-successful authors (Jane, please correct me if I am wrong about that) would have an especially challenging time getting old horses to do new tricks (no offense, Open Road authors). And it also seems to me that many publisher… Read more »
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[…] the author-publisher relationship and today’s post struck a odd chord for me. She writes about “Why Don’t Publishers Believe in Author Websites?” (Thanks, Jane for a provocative […]

Andrew Crofts
2 years 9 months ago

I started with a small-ad in the “Bookseller” magazine. It earned me around US$1.5-million in ten years and I believed I couldn’t live without it. Then I built a website, which earned me US$3-million in ten years and cost me a great deal less to run. I no longer needed my old friend the small-ad and we had to part. I feel the same affection for my website now as I did for that small ad ten years ago. Maybe it is time to move on – or maybe not. http://www.andrewcrofts.com

Mark W. White
Mark W. White
2 years 9 months ago
There’s another reason book publishers might not want their authors to have their own web sites: Fear. The stronger an author’s “brand” becomes and the more she is directly connected to her fan base, the less she needs a traditional book publisher. Most book publishers’ brands are meaningless to consumers, and their platforms are weak. Contrast that with a company like Hearst Magazines (to which I have no ties except a few friendships), which has a database of 10 million email addresses, many times that number of subscribers and web visitors, and iconic brands like Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan. It… Read more »
Anthony Pacheco
Anthony Pacheco
2 years 9 months ago
Jane, this is a great article. Your comment on short-term vs. long-term shows you’ve put some thought into this. Which is a lot more effort than some of the people you quoted. Sadly, some (I hesitate to say most) publishers wouldn’t know a good website if it bit them on the ass. The majority of their websites either suck or are sexless piles of digital meh. Those publishers that dip their toes into eCommerce often do a half-baked job. I’ve seen smaller presses with better direct bookselling. So in a sense, of course some publishers think that way. If I… Read more »
JenniferLynKing
JenniferLynKing
2 years 9 months ago
This is such an interesting debate, Jane. Thank you for bringing up what you happened to see from DBW. I believe an author website is essential as the hub for anything else related to that author. Every time I am interested in a book, I visit Goodreads to check it out, and if I’m further interested in the author, I click through to their website. It doesn’t matter if the site looks and acts like it was made 10 years ago, an author’s website says something directly to the reader about their mark in the world. I’m definitely an advocate… Read more »
Jan Thompson
Jan Thompson
2 years 9 months ago
Excellent post! I’m with you on this, not only because I have the IT background to enable me to create and maintain my own author website and then some, but because advising authors to put their visibility and “anchor” at third party locations will generate some long term repercussions or future unknowns. E.g. Facebook can change their rules anytime, Twitter can remove your accounts anytime, etc. If you have your own website, you make your own rules. With a properly hosted and owned author website, there is a go-to “home” or “hub” for the author should Facebook (with its incessant… Read more »
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[…] Do you think authors should have websites? Publishing industry expert Jane Friedman does. […]

Every Day Poems
Every Day Poems
2 years 9 months ago
very complex topic. 🙂 We counsel our authors to build an on-the-ground platform primarily and online only secondarily, especially if the author has serious time constraints. It is our experience that on-the-ground platforms sell more books (if the author speaks, teaches, and so forth). As for what we can do for an author (or what any publisher can do for an author), that’s a very big subject. I’m going to leave it at this: industry connections (lots of elements here, but two big ones are securing reviews and other publicity—a good publicist can also do this but it comes at… Read more »
Verbal
Verbal
2 years 9 months ago
Everything you say makes sense to me. On the other hand, as a former IT professional, I am very web savvy, and I also read voraciously, but when I find a new author whose work I love, I really don’t spend any time on their website, or on their social media. What I personally am interested in is their work, a list of which is widely available to me on any book retailer’s website, or the many sites like Goodreads, Riffle, LibraryThing, Booklikes, or whatever. Perhaps the average consumer is different, but based on my experience, I could see where… Read more »
Marquita Herald
Marquita Herald
2 years 9 months ago
Really enjoyed this article and the comments. I’m just a little surprised there’s no real discussion about one of the most important benefits of having an author website, building a list. But I will acknowledge list building is definitely a long term strategy and I could see why a publisher might not consider it important for someone who may or may not write more than one book. But for those in for the long haul a great example of an author who makes the most of her list is CJ Lyons. She often talks about the fact she has two… Read more »
Fauzia Burke
2 years 9 months ago

Absolutely. An author’s mailing list is one of the most valuable assets they own. Shocking that anyone would argue against making it a priority.

J.Rose Allister
J.Rose Allister
2 years 9 months ago

In terms of static websites, I somewhat agree with this. That’s why I integrated my site with my blog a few years back and redirected my domain name there. The blog is updated a few times per week, is interactive, and ties in with social networking. It also draws new traffic when I take part in blog hops, guest posts, and other events. Still, I have included website-style pages with my bio, booklist, etc for those who are looking for the more old-school presentation.

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[…] Jane Friedman on the importance of an author website. […]

Lexa Cain
2 years 9 months ago

This as a very interesting post of the pros and cons of a website. I’ve opted for easy-to-use blogger and FB. I find the blogs of other people/authors on blogger (or WordPress) are generally easier to load and comment on than the ones with .com addresses, which are less easy to negotiate and can be annoying considering the amount of info I have to input to comment. But that’s just me…

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[…] Why Don’t Publishers Believe in Author Websites? by @JaneFriedman – Great, in-depth discussion about the pros and cons, opportunities and pitfalls of the author website. […]

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[…] Friedman: Why Don’t Publishers Believe in Author Websites? “It’s not unusual for authors to be told by their publishers that an author website isn’t […]

Ella Quinn
Ella Quinn
2 years 9 months ago

I don’t know who those publishers are, but mine insisted I have a website.

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[…] have a website. That’s a new one to me. Jane Friedman reported this week that (some) publishers discourage authors from having websites. Friedman, a proponent of a (wise) promotional strategy that includes both social media and a […]

Michael Peck
2 years 9 months ago
Any publisher who advises an author to forego having a website is thinking of their own best interests, not the author’s. (And if they don’t recognize that that’s what they’re doing, you should still reconsider your relationship with them.) If you’re not comfortable with putting up your own site, don’t have the resources to pay someone else to help you, or don’t think you have the time to maintain it, that’s one thing. Nobody knows your situation like you do, and it’s your call. But I’d argue that for the most part, it’s a disadvantage to not have your own… Read more »
Fauzia Burke
2 years 9 months ago

Could not agree more Michael. Publisher’s interest is in selling books. They are much less interested in helping authors grow their platform.

Glenda
Glenda
2 years 9 months ago

Great very well thought out article. As a reader I prefer for an auhor to have their own website.

I reserve my Facebook account for real life friends and no matter how much I love any author’s work unless I am truly friends with them, I’m not going to like their page. It’s a matter of principle. I recently joined Twitter, but I don’t want to rely on an author’s tweets for information.

Miral Sattar
Miral Sattar
2 years 9 months ago

Agree with you, Jane! If an author I like doesn’t have a website I take them less seriously. Plus, it’s so easy to get one up and running (WordPress, Wix) etc.

David Biddle
2 years 9 months ago
Great summary of the issues, Jane. I just responded to the DBW post on this from late last week. I think it’s quite weird that this is even an issue. Of course authors need a platform base on the Internet. It’s your home fort. It’s your archives, sounding board, and open house for displaying samples, videos, music, thoughts, and heartfelt musings. We’re freaking writers! Maybe them that spoke on this topic haven’t actually put together a blog or website. I know you said you don’t think publishers would be so nefarious with their motivations and need for control over the… Read more »
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[…] of promotion authors might take on. The busy give-and-take that followed led to Friedman writing Why Don’t Publishers Believe in Author Websites? And before you assume this was an immediate bashing of publishers, catch what Friedman […]

Dawn J. Stevens
Dawn J. Stevens
2 years 9 months ago

Authors don’t need a website? *SHUDDER* That is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever heard of. EVERYONE that wants to do business in some form, even authors, need websites. How else do you tie in all your social media platforms? The only way I could see it being “outdated” is if they are using HTML, but with all our free blogging tools out there like wordpress.com, that really isn’t an issue. Regardless of what a publisher says (and I’ve heard other huge marketing mistakes come out of their mouths), you NEED a website.

Dawn J. Stevens
Dawn J. Stevens
2 years 9 months ago

Agreed. Facebook has always been a “personal” networking site and doesn’t appear to be changing any time soon. Not a lot of room for anything other than baby pictures and funny memes. People even complain about the amount of game notifications they get from actual offline friends. We managed to build a 200+ local following with an offline business, but it was, after all, local and offline. People aren’t as quick to hit that “like” button as they are to hit “follow” on Twitter or Google+, so it’s ridiculous to put all your focus into Facebook.

Fauzia Burke
2 years 9 months ago

Thank you so much for the article Jane. When I saw what the panel advised in the DBW newsletter, I almost fell off my chair. I was truly shocked. I respect the people on the panel, but could not disagree more.

Geoff Hughes
Geoff Hughes
2 years 9 months ago

Hi Jane, a very interesting article. I suspect publishers are STILL grappling with the ‘interweb’. You can’t discount the ingrained corporate culture of some of the larger publishers. Much easier to ignore the web then embrace. Authors need to build their tribes, through twitter, Facebook, blogging and… a website. Publishers worry about the loss of control of the authors ‘brand’ whereas a website, blog and skilful use of social media can only make that brand much stronger.

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[…] p.o.v.) concluded that author websites aren’t worth the effort, Jane Friedman asks “Why Don’t Publishers Believe in Author Websites?”. (Lots more from me on the subject at a later date – […]

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[…] Why Don’t Publishers Believe in Author Websites? by Jane Friedman […]

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[…] Allison had a career as a writer but new to fiction when a friend suggested she start a blog to get a corner of the internet so she had a cheer squad when her book was published. I love that idea! Writing daily, she soon built up a thriving online community that she is convinced helped her land a publishing contract. Not everyone is able to devote as much energy to blogging as Allison demonstrated, but I agree that every writer should be in charge of their own online presence. In fact even publishing guru Jane Friedman mentioned this… Read more »
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[…] the social media front, Jane Friedman wonders why publishers often discount the author website as a marketing tool; Joel Friedlander says blogging your origin story is a great marketing tool; […]

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[…] Author website tips. Jane Friedman […]

Heidi Garrett
2 years 9 months ago
This is a really interesting conversation. I didn’t want to have a website or blog when I first published. But now it’s probably one of my favorite aspects of my work. There’s so many intangibles that come from it. One of the big ones is really figuring out who I am as an author. As an indie author, I pretty much have to do that on my own. The whole process of developing a website and figuring out what to put on it, forces me to think more deeply about what I write, why I write, and who I write… Read more »
Joanne Lécuyer, Topsy Books
Joanne Lécuyer, Topsy Books
2 years 9 months ago

Hi Jane, Great article. As a self-published children’s book author I wanted a place to sell my books and post information that I own and control. You definitely need to keep the material up-to-date and include content that readers find worthwhile. I think it also adds to an author’s credibility and professionalism. It’s still a work in progress, but I definitely feel it was worth the investment. J:o)anne

jeffabram
jeffabram
2 years 9 months ago
Jane, Obviously you struck a literary nerve with this subject. Well done :). Since most or even all of what I will say has been stated in previous comments I will convey what I believe are the more salient points. First, having a website does one thing that social networks don’t–provides you YOUR own hub. Facebook owns the content on Facebook as do all of the other networks. You need a place to call home. Second, as you’ve demonstrated it provides a place for additional content development to occur. Your blog and related articles allow you to continue to dialog… Read more »
aleshaz82
aleshaz82
2 years 8 months ago

Recently I was REALLY low on money and debts were eating me from all sides! That was UNTIL I decided to make money.. on the internet! I went to surveymoneymaker dot net, and started filling in surveys for cash, and surely I’ve been far more able to pay my bills! I’m so glad, I did this!!! – 5iia

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