5 Things Makes A Twenty-Palaces Heavy Post

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1) First, though, did you know that my brother-in-law teaches jazz drumming at a university in Europe? If you like Jazz, check out this interview he did with jazz writer Debbie Burke: Hard Bop Noir from the Michael Lauren All Stars.

2) Just before Christmas I pointed out that The Twisted Path had 18 reviews and I was hoping readers would drive it up to 25 so it would be favorably considered by Amazon’s algorithms, with the hope it would eventually make 50. As I write this, the review count is 66. Thank you all.

The number of reviews for Bad Little Girls Die Horrible Deaths: And Other Tales Of Dark Fantasy stands at 14, up from 11 two weeks ago. It’s just a short fic collection, but if you read it and liked it, please post a review.

3) The Twisted Path, at less than 25K words, is about a quarter the length of Twenty Palaces. Actually a little more. I know what 20P earned in its first three months, and I was hoping to make about a third of that with the new novella, despite the lower price. It’s not exactly science, but I wasn’t sure how much enthusiasm there was for Ray Lilly’s return and I wanted to set some sort of benchmark to see how well it was working.

It’s been less than a month and I haven’t hit that benchmark yet, but unless things go very screwy, I expect to. To be clear, sales haven’t been through the roof and I’m not saying I’m swimming in gold coins like Scrooge McDuck. The financial considerations here are fairly modest and I expect them to remain that way. Still, if things keep going at this pace, the door is wide open for more Twenty Palaces in the future. However, I won’t even begin work on that until I turn in my current work-in-progress (Working title: Open Enter) to my agent.

4) Speaking of sales, BoingBoing gave a terrific review to The Twisted Path. Check it out.

5) Finally, on a more personal note, we have hit the darkest, coldest part of the year up here in Seattle. Yeah, the days are growing longer, but even a few weeks after the solstice, we’re only getting 8hrs and 45min of sun. Most of that, I spend indoors on a computer, tapping out fiction. The cold and the dark make this a difficult time of year for me, but for the first time I’m armed with a quality SAD light. I’m going to make a commitment to myself to get out more, talk to people outside my family, and stay off Twitter. With luck, I can make it to April without too much unhappiness.

Thank you all once again.

Podcast Review of The Way into Chaos, and an interview with the author

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… Who happens to be me.

The podcast is right here. Podbean. iTunes.

I listened to part of it last night. At one point, I brought my son into the room, played about fifteen seconds’ worth, and said: “Is this how I sound in real life?”

Him: “Yeah, Dad. That’s you.”

Me: “It’s a miracle your mother ever gave me the time of day.”

Him: “Yeah, Dad.”

So, check it out. I talk about the successes and failures of Twenty Palaces, the various seeds that became The Great Way, and a number of other things.

Apparently, I talk earnestly about my work, and am honest and open. Which is how people should be, I think, if they’re going to put a microphone in front of their faces and recording the things they say. Otherwise, what’s the point of making speech noises?

Randomness for the Holidays

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1. Interesting etymology of holiday terms. Video.

1a. The classic holiday story “The Little Match Girl” which I’d never read.

2. Feeding the Poop Log: A Catalan Christmas Tradition.

3. The Tiny Desk Holiday Special.

3a. More Music: Christmas carols performed by goats.

4. Nine Holiday-themed D&D enemies to throw at your players.

4a. Holiday beers.

5. Are poinsettias really poisonous, and other Christmas questions, answered by Science.

6. I judge adaptations of A Christmas Carol by the way they depict the ghosts, and this right here is the perennial winner:

7. Last (and you knew this was coming), if you need a last-minute gift, ebooks like my new Twenty Palaces novella, The Twisted Path, are cheap and easy to deliver.

“We’re not in a prophecy.” “Let the past die.” “I’m scared.” Three short reviews

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I think that, if I group my reviews together, I can keep them short. So I’m going to try that.

Bright

Everyone who creates a fantasy with a contemporary setting has two major issues they need to address. Okay, it’s more than two, but as far as I’m concerned, these are the biggest.

First, the stakes are bullshit.

Second, monsters are not effective stand-ins for victims of injustice.

The first is pretty straight forward, I think. In the normal course of things, I care as much about who becomes the next arch-duke of the sewer goblins as I do about whether some complete stranger I’ll never meet is going to wear a blue hat or a green one. It’s made up. It’s not connected to me. I just don’t care.

Worse, when fantasy has a contemporary setting, the plot is always about *preventing* some terrible event. If the heroes aren’t fighting like hell to keep a mcguffin out of the villain’s hands, they’re doing their best to break up a ritual. That makes the most dangerous consequence the characters are facing into a threat that’s never realized.

That’s why, when I was planning Child of Fire, I set it in a small town where the villain is the main source of jobs for the locals. Hammer Bay will die off if the heroes end the bad guy and they lose all those jobs. That’s a stake that people understand and care about. (Also, the ritual happened long before the story started.)

Bright, at least, avoids the shitty ritual climax, but it still trots out a bunch of folderol about a Dark Lord who will return if the villains can blah blah with the mcguffin. It never happens. I knew it wouldn’t happen. I didn’t care.

And do I really need to explain that second pitfall? You don’t illuminate human injustice by dehumanizing the victims of injustice. It’s even sketchy to do it to the perpetrators of injustice, although there are ways to make that work. But the victims? No. Just, no.

As for the movie itself, it’s not good. The end is dull. The beginning is unpleasant because of that second pitfall above. The middle is buoyed by a few interesting action scenes but too much of it is too dark.

The first time I heard Netflix was going to make a Will Smith movie about a cop with elves and orcs, I thought they meant Law & Order: Angmar. That would have been interesting. Once I heard they were going to set it in modern LA I knew it would be crap.

The Final Jedi

I’ve been calling this film by the wrong name on Twitter as a joke, and now it’s begun to feel more right than the right one.

Seeing it a second time was a smart choice on my part (pats self on back). Having the ending spoiled, and knowing who was going to succeed, and which elements that I was originally rooting for turned out to be terrible, made the intent of the film much more clear.

I wonder how many people, conditioned to cheer on the hotshot pilot and the bold plan, were prepared for the way that plot line turned. The more I think about it, the more I suspect that some viewers’ disappointment lay in that unexpected feeling of futility and dismay.

It still feels a little long, but I liked it much more a second time.

The Punisher

I’ve seen this show three times now, and I’m more impressed every time. It very much wants to be divorced from the MCU that it’s nominally a part of, and frankly, that weakens it. It’s hard to imagine these villains in this particular setting operating without trying to recruit superpowered people or acquire high-tech weapons. And frankly, that’s what I was hoping to see.

The show gave me something else: a military/spy thriller about a CIA coverup combined with a drama about veterans and PTSD. And it was beautifully shot and acted.

I’d suggest a few of the roles could have been cast better. The actress playing Medani has the worst accent of all the non-Americans playing New Yorkers, and the guy playing Billy isn’t physically frightening enough to match Bernthal’s Frank Castle. He looks more like a successful divorce lawyer than a
deadly killer.

What’s more, unlike most of these Netflix Marvel shows, the pacing is solid. Not breakneck but there are no episodes that feel like treading water.

Turns out, it’s a solid show, but not a Marvel show.

My Kindle Mocks My To-Read Shelf: Machine Learning, Bestsellers, and the Future of Publishing

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This short (>8min) Vox video on machine learning is terrific. It’s a fascinating look at the way work is being automated.

It also reminds me of last month’s post about the academics who created an algorithm to analyze books to see if they’ll become bestsellers or not. Brief summary: they subjected thousands of books to several kinds of analysis in order to identify traits that the bestsellers had that the non-bestsellers did not. They found nearly 2800 distinct differences.

The algorithm couldn’t create a bestseller, and in their book the academics were clear the technology was a long way off, if it was possible at all.

The video above explains why that is, and why the software’s ability to teach itself is so interesting. Recommended.

Since that last post, the academics who developed the algorithm and wrote the book have opened a consulting service. Of course, right? It’s the natural next step. As an author, I guess I’m supposed to find this threatening/a sham/the end of literature, but I don’t. It’s just information. The only real question is whether it’s good information.

I won’t be worried until the day editors stop reading manuscripts my agent sends them unless they’re accompanied by an Archer-Jockers Score(tm). And I don’t see that happening in my lifetime.

But no, seriously, that’s an interesting video up there.

As I write this, The Twisted Path has eighteen reviews on Amazon. My short fiction collection, which includes a 20P novelette, has eleven. It would be extremely useful if those numbers could be boosted to twenty-five. Fifty would be even better. Amazon has algorithms of its own, and works with a number of reviews that pass a certain threshold get more prominent placing in search results.

It’s all pretty opaque, but what it boils down to is more reviews=more visibility. If you read and enjoyed either of those works, please consider dropping a review for it.

SPFBO, The Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off

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Have you guys heard of this?

Author Mark Lawrence, in an attempt to help self-publishing authors publicize their work, created a Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off. The system is simple: He recruited ten reviewers with blogs, solicited 300 fantasy novels from self-published authors, and distributed them. Each reviewer picks one out of their 30 to move to the finals. Then the reviewers choose a winner.

The Way into Chaos is one of those finalists.

The winner gets an award, but most importantly, a publicity boost, which is a big hurdle for self-published work. Last year’s winner also landed a publishing deal with Orbit.

So, if you’ve been thinking you’d love to try some indie fantasy but don’t know where to start, snag one of these finalists (right after you read mine).

Speaking of snagging one of mine, did you know that I’m trying to revive my Twenty Palaces series with a new novella that picks up where Circle of Enemies left off? Grab a copy today.

Where Things Stand with The Twisted Path after One Whole Day

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Let’s see:

The Twisted Path has its permanent reference post up on my blog. I also added the cover art to the front page in the Twenty Palaces section. (That felt good.)

I posted a download link for Patreon supporters, and sent messages to patrons who quit the service after their quickly reverted rate changes.

At nine-thirty-ish last night, I started sending out the newsletter announcing the book was available. As I type this at about three o’clock the next afternoon, it’s going to be another eight and a half hours before they finish sending. (To prevent throttling by my ISP, they go out at a rate of only 50/hr) So far, only four unsubscribes, which is pretty good considering it’s been a year and a half since the last one.

The first Goodreads and Amazon reviews have appeared. I’ve sent a copy to someone who may post a review on a high-traffic site (fingers crossed). I’ve sent a copy to Booklife, who gave The Way into Chaos a starred review and will maybe consider reviewing this one.

For the moment, the Amazon sales rank is below 1800, which is a very nice place to be.

In the reference post mentioned above, I reminded folks about the Twenty Palaces novelette “The Homemade Mask”, which was part of my short fiction collection. I thought I hit the 20P connection pretty hard back in 2014 when it came out, but in today’s sudden surge of new sales, about 10% have been the collection. The frontlist drives the backlist, I guess.

I also realized that I’ve spelled “The Homemade Mask” many different ways, including “The Hand Made Mask” at least once. Oops.

iBooks keeps kicking back the files I upload, giving me impenetrable error codes that are deciphered by Apple support through an exchange of emails. Not exactly timely.

B&N have finally posted the book for sale, but as of two seconds ago, without the cover. If I look at all the books written by people with my name, the cover art is there. If I click and go to the dedicated page, it’s “Image not available.” And email has been sent on that issue, too.

Did I mention that Nook has the most infuriating ebook uploading system? Worse even than iBooks. Centered text isn’t centered, and if you go into their manuscript editing section and manually set the text to be centered, it still isn’t centered. Have internal art? Set the size to very small and watch nothing happen. The world needs more skilled coders because the ones we have are making my blood pressure shoot through the roof.

Smashwords remains hilariously demanding for the amount of sales it provides. I’m not reading a fucking style guide for a couple of dozen sales. The epub is fine. Just accept it.

Amazon remains the center of book sales, and an odd duck. I uploaded the file from my own author page, but the book isn’t connected with my other works yet. I had to ask for that to be done separately, and it should take a few days. I’m also not sure how well the new book is connected to the rest of the series. I listed it as the fourth 20P in the information page as I was uploading it, but it doesn’t show. I also just noticed that the paper version of the prequel novel, Twenty Palaces, is listed as part of the series, but the Kindle edition is not.

Also, in the past I refused to give Amazon permission to sell my books in Mexico, India, Japan, and Brazil. Those are big markets, but unless you sell exclusively through Amazon, they won’t take a 30% sales commission. Instead, they take 65%. I’d rather not sell in those markets than be leaned on for a sixty-fucking-five percent commission, but the book wouldn’t publish unless I signed up for them. Which is annoying. Wish I could opt out.

In the middle of all this, I tucked my 27″ iMac into a canvas bag and took a bus out to the Apple store to get them to repair a dead ethernet plug. In the end, dude fixed it by rebooting and holding down a special combination of keys that reset the peripherals. Voila, the ethernet appeared in my network preferences again. Which meant I spent two hours, three-quarters of that on a bus, to do something I could have googled up at home. Go me.

Thank you to everyone posting reviews, talking about it on social media, dropping notes on reddit, and spreading the word in places I don’t even know about. Your enthusiasm is what makes this work.

Now to wrestle with iBooks again.

The Twisted Path

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Connolly’s Lovecraft-ian/Geiger-style lore and world building is amazing. I have enjoyed all of his novels and novellas, but none have been as anticipated as The Twisted Path.
— Jason Weisberger, BOINGBOING

Most of you reading this know that, a few years back, I said I was setting the Twenty Palaces stories aside due to a lack of sales. Readers were unhappy (although not as unhappy as I was) but I think they understood, for the most part. You understood. I wanted a growing readership that spread across the land and the seas and conquered all, but 20P wasn’t going to be that. Not for me.

I didn’t want to abandon it, but I’m not prolific enough to write a Ray Lilly book and a non-Ray Lilly book every year. Could I grow my readership by self-publishing more 20P, and only 20P? Clearly not. Even with Del Rey behind me, sales dwindled.

That extremely nebulous plan I had for the overall series went onto a back burner.

However, it wasn’t long after that I heard about other authors supplementing their series with novellas. I could do that too, couldn’t I?

The answer turned out to be No. I knew what came next in the series, but I wasn’t sure how to tackle it. After I finished The Great Way trilogy, I took a stab. I tried again after I revamped A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark. Both times, the story felt dead in the water. I was getting nowhere with it.

Then I talked it over with my son. I told him that the pacing was all wrong and the whole thing felt lifeless. He recommended I restructure it in an unusual way, and I’ll be damned if his advice wasn’t so on the nose that I took it verbatim. If you read the story, you’ll see what I mean.

Are you new to Twenty Palaces? This isn’t the place to start.

The Twisted Path picks up shortly after “The Homemade Mask,” (included here) which is set only a few days after the end of Circle of Enemies. This is the true beginning of the next phase of the Twenty Palaces story.

Yeah. Remember a few paragraphs ago when I mentioned that extremely nebulous plan? The first three books were meant to be about Ray working with Annalise against the predators. The next set digs deeper into the society itself and the spell books that pre-date the human race. That’s why the title style has changed from “[Noun] of [Noun]” to “The [Adjective] [Noun]”. When this series of stories wraps up (assuming things go well) Ray and Annalise will move on to the next phase, and the titles will change again.

But while the first four books were written so that readers could jump in with any of them, this one won’t be much fun unless you know what’s come before. I’d recommend starting the series with either Child of Fire, or the prequel Twenty Palaces.

Does that mean there will be more Ray Lilly stories after this one? I hope so. Circle of Enemies came out in 2011, more than six years ago. Is there still interest? That’s the real question. Time (and the Amazon.com Author Dashboard) will tell.

Which just means that, if you read it and like it, please spread the word.

Pick up your copy here:

Amazon | B&N | iBooks | Kobo | Smashwords

New Twenty Palaces Novella Coming Soon

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I’ve been talking about this here and there, so let’s hit the topic one more time, but with art.

The new Twenty Palaces novella, The Twisted Path, will be released soon. I just got the copyedit back, so sometime in the next few days, I guess? Being a novella, it’ll be ebook only, and I hope you’ll buy yourself a copy for Christmas.

Here’s the photo the cover was created from and the original.

My wife took that picture in the public square in Evora, Portugal. My son adjusted the image (in GIMP) and I did the text. I’m pretty happy with it.

And I’m pretty happy with The Twisted Path too. I’ve come at this story several times over the last few years. It was only this last effort where I feel I “solved” the story.

Of course, you guys will be the final judge of that.

If you want to hear about the novella as soon as it’s released, sign up for my newsletter right there in the sidebar.

Seeing the Forest for the Algorithm: a Review of Past Edit Notes and a Hard Truth

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In which the author makes an embarrassing confession

One of my little secrets is that, in between projects, I’ll sometimes read a book about writing. It’s always useful to reinforce the basics, and seeing how other writers approach the blank page gives me insights into my own work.

Sometimes I get the impression that I’m supposed to be past all that, but I’m not. I’ve never really felt that I’ve mastered this craft. Some aspects of it, maybe, but I still struggle.

And since I’m brainstorming something new, I took another writer’s casual mention of his favorite book about writing, Stephen King’s On Writing, and borrowed it from the library. I had barely started when I heard a discussion of a different book over the radio. You can listen to that here, if you really feel you have to. It’s not an interview with either of the authors, and the interviewee’s Wired article is more interesting and informative with fewer dopey questions.

The book is The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers. Maybe you remember when it came out last year, or maybe the title is enough to guess what the book’s about. The authors created an algorithm to analyze a variety of modern novels, then ran all sorts of books through them: bestsellers, non-bestseller, midlist books, self-published, the whole deal. The algorithm noted the differences, then sorted out the ones that were strongly predictive of bestsellers. According to the authors, their “bestseller-ometer” was capable of predicting whether a book would be a bestseller with 80% accuracy.

It’s correlation, sure, but the authors found nearly 2800 factors that were present in books that made the NY Times list but not present in the ones that didn’t. Yes, the NYT has issues with the ways it manages it’s list and it’s not a true sales meritocracy, but it is a powerful cultural signifier, and Archer, a former Penguin UK editor, wanted to better understand the differences.

The Bestseller Code is an exercise in finding meaning in those differences.

I don’t know if you remember when the book came out last year, but I do. I scoffed at it. Computer analysis? Of a creative endeavor? Please.

But that interview, flawed as it was, piqued my interest, so I borrowed a copy from the library.
It turned out to be interesting stuff.

What we talk about when we talk about luck

First, I want to say that the technology Archer and Jockers deployed—sentiment analysis, topic modeling, and more—was pretty impressive. The field is more advanced than I would have guessed.

Second, it turned out that the way they applied those tools, and the conclusions they drew from them, were entirely unremarkable. (Bolded because I want folks to take note.)

It’s common for folks to talk about success in the arts as part skill, part talent and part luck. I’ve talked at length on this blog about my opinion of “talent”, and at a little less length about “luck.” The effects of luck have been proven experimentally.

My question is always: what are they calling “luck”? What confluence of choices and incidents brought about this fortunate outcome? Because, to me, “luck” is what you call a series of events you don’t understand well enough to predict or control.

But what if we had the tools to look at things more closely? What if we had a better understanding of the differences between what people want to read and what we’re offering? What if we could narrow that gap?

Data doesn’t frighten me. Nihil veritas erubescit.

Besides, I’m a published writer with starred reviews and even, if you can believe it, fans. I already have the skills I need to break through to a larger readership, don’t I?

This is where my agent comes in

As I was reading The Bestseller Code, I kept thinking My agent could have written this.
Let me take an example. Using topic modeling, the algorithm breaks down what each book is “about.” Maybe a certain percentage might be concerned with crime and police work, and a smaller percentage for domestic matters. The next smallest percentage would concern, say, hospitals and medical concerns.

It seemed weird to me that algorithms are sophisticated enough to manage this task until I remembered Pat Rothfuss talking about programs that could handle the task five years ago.

Anyway, the books that sold well had fewer topics (around four), and those topics offered opportunities for dramatic contrast. Books that didn’t sell as well had more topics (around six, if I remember correctly). The subjects were more wide-ranging, less unified.

What’s more, one of the most important predictors of success was that a book devoted a certain amount of time to human interaction and connectedness. If one of the four topics was characters being with the people they cared about, living their lives and dealing with each other, that was a strong indicator of good sales.

Guys, my agent has been trying to teach me these lessons for years. For my whole career, I’ve been trying to establish relationships between characters the way a movie would: with a single, significant gesture or remark. She has been telling me, book after book, to give them more time on the page. To let them relate to each other. To let them bond. It turns out that human interaction in fiction is incredibly powerful, and I’ve been giving it short shrift.

She has also told me—many times—that I need to simplify. Often times I have too many storylines, plot turns, or characters. Especially characters. Too many “topics.” Maybe my work would reach a larger audience if it was more unified.

Another thing the algorithm does is generate plot curves through sentiment analysis. When the language of the book is full of upbeat words, like succeed, kindness, rest, and peace, the plot trends upwards. When it’s full of words like loss, failed, grief, and pain, it trends downward.

What surprised me is that, when the algorithm studied bestsellers, it produced plot curves very similar to the ones writers see all the time. One is quite similar to Freytag’s Pyramid; others matched different but fairly common models.

I’ll admit that I was startled to see a computer pull the old tried-and-true plot diagrams out of bestselling books, and how non-bestsellers seemed so flat. It made me question how well I manage the rise and fall of a plot curve and whether the language I use is appropriate for it.

There were other findings beyond those, obviously. The data was all descriptive, and it covered books that were popular but critically derided as well as popular but prize-winning. Except for a few surprises, like the need for scenes of human connection and a general distaste for sex (::shakes fist at America::) it’s standard stuff. Create a character who really wants something. Have them go after it. Make the plot turns powerful. Keep things focused. Write in a naturalistic style. Hook them in the first few pages.

Honestly, my agent could have written this advice, and as I was coming to the end of the book, it occurred to me that she sort of already had.

In which I step back from my edit notes to examine my edit notes

Just last week, my agent got back to me about a book I’d sent her. The news was bad, I don’t mind admitting, and of course she had some notes to give me.

As I was thinking about how closely the advice in Archer’s and Jocker’s book matched what my agent told me, I got the idea to go back through all her editorial notes for all of my books and look for patterns.

I’ve been happy to take her input—I signed with her, in part, because I knew she’d help make my work better—but I’ve been looking at them case by case. Book by book. It never occurred to me to look for trends.

To be fair, there was usually a year in between each new book, and sometimes more, and I’m a forgetful, disorganized person. It’s easy for me to carefully study a bunch of trees without once considering the forest.

So I opened all my old emails from my agent to review the notes she’d given me. My first thought was that past-me really needed to be more practical with his subject lines. My second thought was that I’d always thought of myself as a slam-bang thriller writer, a guy who could spin out an exciting story. It occurred to me that I wasn’t being exciting enough, because that self-conception wasn’t matched by outside reality. The work I was doing was earning fans and selling books (by my estimation, The Way into Chaos, which was self-published, has sold a little over 13k copies, which would be a fine, fine number for most NY genre publishers) but I wasn’t breaking through to the larger world.

What if I had placed myself in the “Good But Not Good Enough” category, and was missing out because I wasn’t really addressing persistent flaws in my creative choices?

So what were those persistent flaws? Obviously, each book had its unique problems, but there were several that popped up over and over.

Here they are:

  • Book started too slowly
  • Too many characters/plot complications/names
  • Characters not sympathetic enough/don’t have time for personal bonding

The hook must come sooner. More unity. More time for the characters’ relationships.

Honestly, I thought I’d already learned all the skills The Bestseller Code suggested I would need. I thought I was already working at that level. It’s pretty clear that I’m not.

The nice thing is that I’ll have a chance to be mindful of these persistent issues as I start a new book. Will it help? Shit, I hope so. I have ambitions, you guys, and I’m not meeting them.

My agent will still have notes for me, but maybe she won’t have to tell me the same old things she’s had to tell me every other time.

There’s more to say on the subject of computer analysis and the services various tech companies offer publishers, but that’ll have to be next time.

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