Guest Blogger—Jeff Gerke, Part 1

As promised, today you will hear from Jeff Gerke, but first I wanted to pass on the official news that NavPress has signed Sharon Hinck to publish her fantasy trilogy. The first book is scheduled to release June, 2007, with number two coming out in September and the third, the following January. (Short time between release because the books are completed).

From Sharon (to the ACFW e-mail loop, quoted with permission):

Today I signed the contract for a three-book series with NavPress.

    What would happen if an ordinary soccer mom, studying the story of Deborah in Judges and longing to do something heroic for God, is pulled into an alternate world waiting for help–and she bears the signs of the promised Restorer? Susan uses all her skills as a mother—nurturing, negotiating, and building relationships—plus a few new skills she never learned at the PTA (like sword fighting and battling alien mind poison) to engage in epic drama and a very personal spiritual journey.

THE RESTORER is the book of my heart. I’ve prayed over this series, pitched the books to good-hearted editors who cringed at the word “Fantasy” and hoped for this day.

My test readers were women who read Kingsbury, Rivers, and many of our ACFW folk…most have never read sci-fi or fantasy. But they strongly identified with Susan and enjoyed the journey because of that.

God can truly achieve the impossible. This open door was a GIFT from Him, and definitely not caused by any savvy or skill at promoting on my part. He is remarkable and amazing.

Sharon also wanted to go on record as saying that Jeff Gerke is her hero for going to bat for her with his publisher. Signing Sharon is evidence, in my opinion, that Jeff is serious in what he believes about fantasy. So, with no other preliminary, Part 1 of Jeff Gerke on fantasy.

– – –

This year was my first to attend the Mount Hermon Christian Writer’s Conference. What a blast. I think I made something of an impact there by briefly taking over a fiction editors’ panel I was on. I got to talking about the future of fantasy and other speculative genres in CBA, and when that happens people tend to duck and cover because I get a little passionate.

Poor Dave Long of Bethany House had had to sit through my little spiel on a previous panel, but he was a good sport and even lent a hand—literally. I’d been drawing a pie chart in the air with my arms, but Dave whipped out a pen and drew the chart right on his palm, which he then displayed for the audience. Then someone pointed to a flip chart on an easel beside us, and things really got going.

What I drew was a circular pie with a one-quarter-sized piece missing. The three-quarters of the pie that was there represented the kinds of fiction that Christian publishers release: romance, suspense, historical/biblical, etc. These genres are also published by secular houses. The missing piece represented the best-selling genre in secular publishing: speculative fiction, primarily fantasy. This was, I said, a kind of fiction that hundreds of thousands of Christians read, but that Christian publishers do not produce.

I waved my marker above the missing pie piece and said, “We’ve got Christian authors who write it and Christian readers who devour it, but very few Christian publishers providing it. What gives?” I then went on record with this: “I predict that within two to five years a Christian fantasy is going to go big—hopefully one NavPress publishes—and then every editor on this panel is going to come here and say to you, ‘Never mind about that chick-lit; do you have any speculative fiction for me?’” At which point the room burst into cheers. I took a bow, put my marker away, and sat down.

Incidentally, the “research” that went into that missing pie piece thing is unscientific and based on a very small sample. But I still like it :-). I went into my local Borders bookstore and just observed. I saw that the front fiction section in the store was Suspense/Thrillers, and it had 5 long shelves full. The next section was Manga, which had 2 shelves. Then the third section was Fantasy/SF, which had 6 shelves. It was the largest fiction section—indeed, the largest section, period—in the store. I asked the clerk what kind of fiction sold best in the store. He said, not surprisingly, “Fantasy, definitely. Followed by suspense and Manga.”

So then I did some thinking. (Dangerous, I know.) I thought, the people who come to Borders are a cross-section of people in my community. Which means that there is a certain percentage of Christians among that group. And if fantasy is the best-selling genre in the store, then it’s quite likely that that same percentage of people who bought fantasy were Christians. (Does that make sense?) If 25% of the people coming into the store were Christians, then possibly 25% of the people buying fantasy were Christians. If the general public purchased more fantasy than anything else, then it stands that Christians were buying more fantasy than anything else. And that’s when I got excited and started dreaming about pie.

If fantasy is the best-selling genre among Christians who shop in Borders, why isn’t fantasy the best-selling genre among Christians in general? Why isn’t Christian fantasy the best-selling genre in the CBA?

When you’ve got people who want it and writers who write it, there’s a need and a solution. All you need is the right product for them to want. And you need to let those Borders-shopping Christians know that Christian fantasy exists. But that’s a topic for another day.

– – –

Part 2 tomorrow.

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Published in: on June 26, 2006 at 6:47 am  Comments (28)  

28 Comments

  1. Wonderful discussion Jeff and Becky. Unlike other genres, spec-fic/fantasy seems to retain a regular share of the film and secular publishing market. No doubt there are many factors at work in the CBA, but Jeff is addressing one of the most nagging questions I have about the industry: Why don’t more houses do spec-fic? I’ve been waiting for the answer, and I’m sure Jeff has it.

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  2. Great to hear about Sharon’s trilogy. I hope it does well for NavPress and validates Jeff’s passion and his direction.

    I think a large part of it will be about what Jeff mentioned at the end of his post. How do you let the right people know it is there?

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  3. Hey, Mike; thanks for the comment. I looked over the second part of the interview and realized it doesn’t answer your question, so I thought I’d do so here.

    The reason more CBA houses don’t publish more speculative fiction is that there is the perception that it doesn’t sell. Unhappily for those of us who love these genres, that percecption is based on actual figures. Historically, speculative fiction doesn’t sell well in CBA.

    Now of course there are wonderful exceptions, This Present Darkness and Left Behind being two notable ones. But if you were to put a typical CBA speculative novel up against a typical CBA historical (or biblical or romance or chick-lit), which one do you think will sell better? Thus you see publshers putting out lots of books in those genres and not many in the other.

    That will change. But the simple fact at this point in time is that a novel in a “proven” genre will have an easier time getting published–and will probably sell better–than a specualtive fiction novel, in CBA.

    What can we do but keep plugging away? We keep working at the fringes, trying to grow the market. This means, by the way, that we must all go out and buy every speculative novel that a Christian publisher dares to publish, even if we don’t read it, just to encourage them to publish more. And we keep hoping and praying that one will go huge and change the perception that these genres do not sell.

    Jeff

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  4. Big sisterly hugs to Jeff, who is not just Sharon’s hero this year, but mine. I’m excited that NavPress has taken on an editor that we at the ACFW forum (the SF subsection) have been praying for a big CBA publisher–one who supports speculative fiction. Yay!

    BUT..isn’t romance the biggest selling genre? I’ve always heard that in the stats. Romance, then mystery, then SF/Fantasy.

    Maybe the numbers have switched and I missed it?

    Welcome, Jeff, and my many thanks, you big hero-dude, you.

    Mir

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  5. As you probably have been told by Becky, Jeff, is that the chatter on the ACFW SF/F boards got us to do the blog tours that started in May, specifically to raise awareness among our CBA pals of the validity and availabilty of some Christian-friendly/CBA SF/F. I edit over at a Christian SF/F e-zine, and I hang with some believers in SF forums, so we know that we’re the underdogs in the CBA. We decided it was time to try and get more support on the internet with the blog tours.

    We’re young at it, but we hope to have a nice effect.

    I certainly tried to up the participation in the ACFW Book Club for Kathryn Mackel’s OUTRIDERS, which I thought was yummy Christian sci-fi, even if it has been, sadly, been selling poorly.

    Well, okay, time to go do boring stuff like errands and grocery shopping.

    Thanks, Becky, for hosting Hero Jeff.

    Mir

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  6. Well, pickles! Should proof my own posts. Muchas apologies for the hurried writing and the associated typos.

    Mir

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  7. All typos forgiven, always (please reciprocate).

    This discussion is fascinating, and since I can never let go of a good thing, I’m continuing last week’s blog tour over at my own place on the www.

    I’m dreaming about pie too. And as Mirta said, (not a direct quote), let’s make that dream a reality!

    I would like to hear Jeff’s thoughts on crossover fantasy (between CBA/ABA) as well, if he’s up for it.

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  8. Great discussion Jeff and Becky! I was thrilled to hear about Sharon’s fantasy and am hoping that this will be the big break-out fantasy we’ve all been waiting for.

    I’ve heard others mention this before, but I’m wondering if part of the low sales figures for speculative/visionary/fantasy–whatever you want to call it–is due in large part to marketing issues. For instance, I didn’t know that Kathy Tyer’s Firebird Trilogy existed until it had come and gone out of print. And then there’s Kathy Mackel’s Outriders. Some on the SFF forum have said that christian bookstores in their region didn’t even carry the book.

    I have to admit that when I go into a bookstore now, I’ll pull out some of my favorite Christian SFF if they have them, and put them in a more prominant position.

    Blessings!
    Beth.

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  9. Ooooh, sneaky Beth (good idea). I wonder about this as well – if it’s marketing, the sheer lack of books out there, the type of book that IS out there or something else?

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  10. I’m so glad to see this interview! As Mir stated, it’s nice to have an editor who believes this genre can take off if given the chance and time to prove itself.

    I’m with Beth — I do the same thing but pulling out the Christian titles. 😀

    Just be warned…watch out for the kilt-wearing platypus!!!

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  11. Regardless of how you feel about Harry Potter, I think you’ll find an article about the books/movies interesting.

    The writer is highlighting the fact that in a recent study the majority of parents aren’t discussing the supernatural with their kids. But check out the numbers of kids reading/seeing Harry Potter: http://headlines.agapepress.org/archive/6/262006g.asp

    Becky

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  12. Jeff, aren’t some of these ICRS sales numbers self-fulfilling? I mean, if a store has 20 titles of romance and 2 of SFF, what are the odds that someone looking at the romance books will find something to their liking versus the odds for the person looking at the 2 speculative titles?

    One of the things that became clear to me as I began studying fantasy is that there are varied types out there, never mind SF. (OK, I know we have some dyed-in-the-wool SF fans—I’m not leaving SF out, just making a point). 🙂

    Becky

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  13. Thanks for the blog post, Jeff. And major, major thanks for singing Sharon’s books. Yippee.

    And, Becky, great point on the ICRS sales.

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  14. Great post. It is nice to see publishers are rethinking these genres. Personally I believe if the publishers start opening up to more YA Christian SF/F books, the genres will grow faster than if trying to target the the adult readers first. The YA readers are more open to it, and as they grow publishers will be able to expand their adult selection.

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  15. Good point about the YA market. I just came home from the library with my 15-year-old book-devouring machine. He and his buddies are always looking for decent fantasy reads, especially Tolkienesque stories, but he often can’t find anything he hasn’t read already, either at the library or in stores.

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  16. Totally useless-and-unrelated-to-the-discussion comment alert:

    Well, visited the link Becky put up there. Ain’t that Jeff a cutiepie!

    Totally-unrelated-to-discussion comment now over. You may return to your regularly scheduled rambling, ranting, and questioning.

    Mir

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  17. You guys are great. Love the comments and questions. Let me try to field some of these. (I haven’t proofed this, so please excuse my sure-to-be-embarassing typos.)

    First, Stuart asked about how to let people know Christian fantasy is out there. I wish there was a magic bullet for this, but if it exists I don’t know it. Even when Christian speculative fiction gets published AND gets a marketing budget, I think this is a difficult prospect. I also am not convinced that all Christian publishers have as much knowledge at marketing fiction in general as they would like to have. Fiction is a different beast from nonfiction, and fantasy is even more, um, differenter. Secular publishers have this problem, too, and they usually have larger marketing budgets and teams.

    So what do we do? We buy every Christian speculative title that comes out. We get our friends hooked. We introduce these books to folks who might never darken the doorway of a Christian bookstore or read a Christian novel. We slowly build a culture of folks who like and demand great Christian speculative fiction. You guys are doing that with this blog tour. I applaud you all.

    On the publishing side, some of us will keep trying to find and put forward the best Christian speculative fiction we can. Which means you guys need to keep writing it (and buying it when it comes out)–and keep praying for us to find favor at our publishing committees when these projects are up for consideration.

    On to Mir’s question about romance being the best selling genre. As I mentioned in the interview, my research was unscientific and narrow. I asked one guy at one store.

    I do know that Publisher’s Weekly has been saying for years that fantasy is the hottest fiction genre in secular publishing. Maybe that meant the fastest-growing or something, but in terms of publisher excitement and bidding wars, it seemed to be all about fantasy.

    Since Christian publishing sometimes lags about 5 years beyind secular publishing, I keep hoping we’re about due for that same wave to sweep over the Christian publishing world. However, there are obstacles to that, such as a certain mistrust of fantasy sometimes encountered within evangelicalism.

    Rebecca’s question about crossover fantasy. Well, I’m personally not sure crossover even exists, not really. When a book like Left Behind takes off and sells great in Wal-Mart, is it really because non-Christians have gotten interested or because tons of Christians have gotten interested and are buying it at the best price they can find? Certainly there are many examples of people finding these books and giving their lives to Christ or coming back to God, but I’m not convinced that’s what people truly mean when they use the term “crossover.”

    My understanding of how sales works between a sales rep from a publisher and a buying rep from a big chain like B&N indicates that there are different buyers for each department. The fantasy/SF buyer is not going to meet with the rep from NavPress or Bethany. This person has budget to stock his or her section and is going to meet with the publishers who provide that content. Religious publishers are not included in that group. Reps from those publishers meet with the buyer in charge of the religion section. These F/SF buyers are wary of Christian publishers sneaking into their non-religion sections with their “agenda.”

    How can a Christian speculative novel on the “Religious Fiction” shelf truly cross over? And how can it get on the fantasy shelf if the buyers buy only for their sections?

    I think the closest we can get is to have a huge fantasy/SF bestseller that does so well, is so wonderful, and gets so many people talking that many Christians and a few non-Christians will want to see what all the fuss is about. And that may be as close to crossover as we can hope for, for now.

    Beth’s question: “I’ve heard others mention this before, but I’m wondering if part of the low sales figures for speculative/visionary/fantasy–whatever you want to call it–is due in large part to marketing issues.” Those of us who work in Christian fiction publishing always long for more marketing dollars. Fiction used to be the redheaded stepchild of Christian publishing, and so any marketing money we got was treasured. Things are changing now but it’s still never enough! (LOL–the awesome folks doing the accounting for publishers think it’s more than enough.)

    Do certain books get more marketing money than others? Yes. Do “big” books and “surefire hit” books get more money than little books or risky books? Absolutely, and it’s right that things are like this. Do Christian speculative novels get fewer marketing dollars than non-speculative novels? Often, yes. But this is more a reflection of the fact that these genres are currently considered risky.

    All of us in publishing know of incredible books that never found their audience, that never, for whatever reason, got their chance or their due. We all hate it, but it’s a common story. Almost every season every publisher releases at least one book that someone feels gets lost in the shuffle. It’s a shame. It’s something we all hate to see. But it’s the way it goes.

    That’s not easy to take when you’re the author (believe me, I know!), but that’s how it is. Maybe the market wasn’t ready. Maybe there was a recession going on. Maybe your cover stank. Maybe God knew He could do more good in you by causing the book to sell 2,000 copies instead of 200,000. Who knows?

    Marketing is part of it. With sufficient budget, marketing can often elevate a book’s sales from 5,000 to 20,000 units. But what has that done? The higher marketing budget has to be paid for by the book’s sales, so in the end you may not be ahead.

    The real question is whether or not it keeps selling after the main marketing budget–large or small–is exhausted. When a book is so special that it finds its audience and starts spreading by word of mouth, it keeps selling after the first 4 months of release. If it doesn’t, it won’t, no matter how big your marketing budget was.

    Becky’s question: “Jeff, aren’t some of these ICRS sales numbers self-fulfilling? I mean, if a store has 20 titles of romance and 2 of SFF, what are the odds that someone looking at the romance books will find something to their liking versus the odds for the person looking at the 2 speculative titles?”

    There is a catch-22 going on, it’s true. If Christian speculative fiction doesn’t sell, Christian publishers will publish less of it. If Christian publishers publish less Christian speculative fiction, readers who like that will have less to buy and will eventually quit coming into Christian bookstores. If these people quit coming into Christian bookstores, the few Christian speculative novels that publishers DO take a chance on will sell even less well than they did in the past. The mouse has gone off to look elsewhere for his cheese. And we’re back to the problem of telling these folks that there really is new Christian speculative fiction for them to read.

    But if a Christian bookstore suddenly decided to go whacked out speculative and converted an entire wall of the store to nothing but Christian speculative fiction, what would happen? (Well, first, I’d love to see someone try. But anyway…) I suspect there would be this awful, risky time when the normal clientele got somewhat uncomfortable and maybe even complained to management. Some of them would quit shopping at a store that carried such stuff, so the store would take a hit. Meanwhile it would take a while for the audience that does appreciate this kind of fiction to hear about the store and begin shopping there in large enough numbers to make a difference.

    The point I’m clumsily trying to make is that the typical shopper at the typical Christian bookstore is not the typical reader of speculative fiction, Christian or otherwise. If such a person does walk into a Christian bookstore he or she is probably not thinking that there might be some great new SF/F on the shelf and had better go check. This person may have given up. If s/he wants that kind of fiction s/he’ll go to B&H on the way home.

    Leathel makes a great point about YA. Young people are the ones who are reading speculative fiction in droves. Getting these people convinced that Christian speculative ficiton is cool would translate into the kind of revolution we’re all wanting.

    It’s like this year’s World Cup (soccer). Twenty years ago not many people in the U.S. cared to watch it. Now, after a generation that has grown up on soccer, people were flocking to restaurants and sports bars to watch the game on the big screen. Let’s do the same with Christian speculative fiction.

    That’s it for now. I’m pooped. And I’m supposed to be doing publishing stuff here at my desk!

    Jeff

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  18. Thanks for taking the time to talk all this out, Jeff.

    I do buy a lot of Christian books even when I don’t intend to read them. And I do recommend the good ones to my friends. Loudly. Unfortunately some are not good and it would do more harm than good to recommend them.

    Mir,
    I went in Borders today and just for fun I counted the sections in romance and sci-fi/fantasy. The shelving units were three feet wide by five shelves high and there were eight of these for romance and 16 for fantasy plus 2 more for horror. That was in the adult section. In the children’s section there was one section of easy readers, one section of new releases (many of which were fantasy) four sections of award winners and ten sections of fantasy.

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  19. YES! YES! YES! (jumping up and down and waving arms frantically) Thank you, Jeff! Thank you from the bottom of my heart!

    BTW, not only are some of us Christian SciFi/Fan readers reading secular, we’re reading a lot of young adult stuff in that genre because it’s less “adult,” if you know what I mean.

    (still jumping up and down) Is anyone listening? Chris

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  20. Sally, part of that may be that many romance readers get their books via clubs–direct Harlequin sales, Doubleday, Crossings. Look at the listings in CROSSINGS, a Christian book club, and it’s overwhelmingly romance and women’s fiction. And romance novels are also shelved in the Christian section (that’s where my Borders puts Inspirationals).

    The stats I have are for 2003, and things may have shifted. (If one takes out both Nora Roberts and JK Rowling, I wonder how that would skew the stats, too.)

    Those stats say:

    Romance fiction comprises–

    18% of all books sold (not including children’s books).

    53.3% of all popular paperback fiction sold in North America.

    34.6% of all popular fiction sold. (Different from above, this figure includes not just paperbacks, but hardcovers and trade-sized paperbacks as well as well.)

    To compare:
    Mystery/Detective/Suspense is 23.1% of popular fiction sales
    General Fiction is 24.1% of popular fiction sales
    Science Fiction/Fantasy is 6.5% of popular fiction sales
    Religious, occult, westerns, male adventure, general history, adult and movie tie-ins was 11.9.% of popular fiction sales

    Donald Maass says that he sells romance and fantasy and mystery well, so clearly, these genres are thriving. Quote, “Unit sales of Science Fiction have declined dramatically over the last ten years. Fantasy has been more popular. Romance and women’s fiction continues to command half or more of the paperback market, though its mix has changed greatly. Mysteries and thrillers remain popular and ever-changing, too. In all, though, I would say that in every category it is harder to win an audience and easier to be dropped by publishers. Only great storytellers last more than a few books. Literary Agents |

    And what I see most of in the SF shelves are books tied to established worlds (some game-related). Manga, I notice, is taking up more shelf space, too.

    But you’ve noticed what I notice. Lots of SF titles being published, having shelf-space, in the secular stores by secular publishers. CBA….: : crickets chirping : :

    Mir

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  21. Hahah–Chris–love your reaction. Your view re adults reading YA ABA fantasy is a good point! An author friend asked why youth fiction was so popular, speculating that it had to do with the “dumbing down” of the readership at large. But I think your observation might have more to say about the subject. The adult stuff is too dark, too angst-driven, too cynical, too focused on what is evil without any redemption.

    Becky

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  22. Sally and Mir, great discussion.

    I suppose it depends on defining terms (so many discussions come down to that).

    If we’re talking about books in print, that’s really something we can’t determine because that would have to include e-books and self-pubbed, the ones in Wal*Mart and Cosco, not to mention the book clubs and those shelved in stores associated with ICRS.

    If we’re talking about the ones carried in the big chain book stores, that’s a different matter, I suspect. In some ways, we’re really talking about two different animals-pulp fiction vs. literature, to use the terms of an earlier era. I am NOT saying everything in Borders is literature, mind you, but my impression is that most of those books aim for a longer shelf life than the romances sold through clubs. I could be wrong.

    Becky

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  23. In his blog post today, Terry Whalen quotes from a Publisher’s Weekly article, noting that romance makes up 40 percent of publishing in the US.

    http://terrywhalin.blogspot.com/

    Becky

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  24. re #22 >An author friend asked why youth fiction was so popular, speculating that it had to do with the “dumbing down” of the readership at large.

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  25. oops, sorry, here’s the rest of my comments.

    There’s less sex, less violence, less cussing in YA so the story is better and characters developed and grow. I’m not alone in this, mind you.

    It would be nice if adult books would follow suit…-C

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  26. Makes perfect sense to me!

    Becky

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  27. Wow! I’m so bummed I missed this. At least I got to be at the panel and see Jeff’s pie in person. 🙂

    Great job, Jeff! Koodoes!

    And I will just add about the YA fantasy, that that’s what I read primarily. Probably 75% of my shelves are filled with YA speculative lit. And mostly for all the reasons mentioned above. Hence it has become what I write. And someday hopefull sell ;).

    Thanks Becky for opening up such great discussions.

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