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Donald Maass
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Book Talk & Exchange of Views > Konrath and Eisler excoriate literary agent Donald Maass

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message 1: by Matt (new)

Matt Posner (mattposner) | 276 comments Joe Konrath and his running buddy Barry Eisler demolish a column by Donald Maass. Having been ignored by Maass' staff a couple of times when I was trying to go trad, I am happy to see him get pilloried. However, Robust members may have a spirited debate, I suspect.

message 2: by Matt (new)

Matt Posner (mattposner) | 276 comments An indie authors weighs in:

message 3: by J.A. (new)

J.A. Beard (jabeard) Maas pimped for his own book in his rejection letter? Classy!

WI knew about the 'just go over here and get your book my wife' stuff, but that's both amusing and appalling. Yeah, no conflict of interest there.

I don't even really care much about his 'most indie suck' stuff. I don't really care. The trads basically stopped defending quality over short-term profits, at the latest, during consolidation, so the argument is hollow at this point*.

I'm struck much more by the contempt toward writers this column demonstrates from someone who is supposed to be an author champion.

When I used to read a lot of the 'blogger' agents, I was always struck by the fact that most of them seemed to hold writers or even their own clients in contempt (I will note Kristen Nelson is a notable exception).

I mean why would you want to work with someone who doesn't view you as a partner but rather just as 'cattle'?

That attitude means they inherently don't have your interest at heart.

message 4: by Andre Jute (last edited Feb 06, 2014 09:53PM) (new)

Andre Jute (andrejute) | 4851 comments Mod
Where do you get this idea that a literary agent is a writer's partner? He never was. Until about 1980 he was an employee you used to cut deals so the money shouldn't cause difficulties between you and your actual partner, the editor. Over the next decade the function morphed with the conglomeration of the industry, until by1990 the agent had become a gatekeeper for publishers. Basically agents were still paid by writers but no longer worked for the writer. What writers, and especially indies, don't grasp is that from about 1990 forwards the opportunities for agents narrowed as they did for writers. Maass once counted the number of publishers left who could conceivably be interested in one of my big thrillers. It didn't amount to ten houses. It wasn't just me, it was every writer, and every agent. In that very small market, there was little scope for negotiation; an agent who tried for a good deal for his writers would soon find even more doors closing. The agents had no choice but to become gatekeepers for the publishers. And those publisher were rarely interested in literature; many of them were accountants.

Though I have no intention of excusing such bad manners and snobbery, I understand why Maass and others are lashing out. There is considerable fear abroad at the upheaval in ebooks. People know that the 70% of books still being quoted as print's share is dicey and unhealthy -- it may hide returns as high as 50%. They somehow, stupidly, let the new market of ebooks get away from them, and we're a very long way from seeing the last of the changes yet. Frightened people lash out. I know more than half the people on a list of "industry leaders" Konrath exhibits who've published silly comments recently, and it must be a serious perturbation, because normally they're not stupid.

message 5: by J.A. (last edited Feb 07, 2014 06:17AM) (new)

J.A. Beard (jabeard) Oh, I get why they are lashing out from fear. I just find it amusing because of the years of an attitude that basically amounted to, "Listen to us. You don't understand this BUSINESS. We do."

Dean Wesley Smith (he's an author who spent most of his decades as more a write-for-hire sort and has been very open about trying to educate aspiring authors and has been honest about some of the changes in publishing) wrote an informative post a few years back that I read where he laid out all the transformations in the agent role over the decades. It was very informative, but that isn't actually what set me straight.

I mention the partner thing because its one of the agents' big offered reasons to justify their existence in recent years. Author's champion, blah, blah, blah, and all that.

I used to believe in the agent-partner myth when I first started looking into publishing if only because it was incessantly repeated to me by industry people and the occasional writer. In thinking about this years later, I now realize that most of the people singing the glorious praises of many of these agents were people who hadn't actually had their books sold, but just seemed to be pleased that they had an agent.

I was disabused of the notion that the average agent 'works' for the author by actually paying attention to what they agents were saying themselves in public and talking to former trad pubbed authors who had less than kind things to say about their agents.

Unfortunately, I believed in agents for probably longer than I should, and it even affected the kind of projects I chose to pursue because I drank up their "wisdom" before buying a clue.

I don't hate the trads or agents like some people, but as I'm not a shareholder in the trad parent companies nor partners in the agent offices, I honestly find I don't particularly have any more sympathy for their continued ability to thrive then they do, for say, my ability to make a living as an author instead of my day job.*

*My favorite agent story is when one former trad pub author called up her agent a few times over a few months to ask about some books on submission. She had several books with the agent and was decently successful. When she expressed some frustration with him not keeping her abreast of submission efforts and his general lackadaisical attitude toward it, he informed her (paraphrasing but close), "It's not my fucking job to make sure you earn a living."

Well, then!

The world will change, and the market will decide. Like they say, past performance is no guarantee of future returns!

Adapt and overcome, but given their wretched track record in recent years**, I kind of just chuckle at any grand pronouncement from the traditionalists (and yes, I do also chuckle at indies who seemingly believe that publishing companies will be going away any day now as well).

**Another fun multi-year game I used to enjoy was watching agents badly botch predictions/anticipations of sub-trends, especially since many spend/spent so much time excoriating authors for not "paying enough attention to market conditions and general patterns."

Look, I get that some things come out of left field (50 Shades of Gray), but you had agents basically saying, "XYZ is done, next year its all ABC, query me with ABC 'cause XYZ is done" and then the next year saying, "I don't understand why XYZ is still selling, and why ABC has't taken off."

At minimum, that sort of thing makes them look as clueless as the authors they often seem to want to pat on the head as ignorant lambs who need guidance.

message 6: by Andre Jute (new)

Andre Jute (andrejute) | 4851 comments Mod
William Goldman, screenwriter and novelist, one smart cookie, said you can express everything that everybody knows in the arts in three words: "Nobody knows anything."

message 7: by LeAnn (new)

LeAnn (leannnealreilly) | 159 comments I've read Maass's Writing the Breakout Novel, and I found it useful to a point. Let's be honest: publishing is a business and big-name traditional publishers need to publish the authors who win the lottery with readers, that's why they set up their own publishing lottery to begin with. I would probably do the same thing. I'd try to gauge potential sales for books with a calculating eye towards paying the bills. Of course, I'd get it wrong a lot, maybe the vast majority of the time, but as long as I hit it out of the park enough times, I could still be profitable.

The problem lies in the fact that not many people, writers and publishers alike, can accurately predict the reading public's tastes or whims. It's the same problem with movies and music. Probably politics, too. There's a book on the challenge of identifying the "breakout" bestseller of any product category: The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. I haven't read it, but I've been told that it discusses how virtually impossible it is for anyone to predict THE NEXT GREAT THING. Hindsight, as they say, is 20-20. That's why some agents pick up XYZ, not realizing that it's played out, while others hope to be smart enough to recognize ABC (THE NEXT GREAT THING) and make a killing.

So while I understand and appreciate Konrath and Eisler's stick-it-to-the-man smackdown of Maass, I'm highly skeptical that they're much better. After all, they've both succeeded as indies, so they can afford to be dismissive.

In both worlds, what authors need are readers, and word-of-mouth has always been the best way for readers to discover books and buy them. No one will ever know when a book will hit that sweet spot of discoverability and satisfying reader whim (especially as readers don't know when they're ready for something new and different).

So the real question becomes: what avenue best reaches potential readers? Neither traditional or indie publishing guarantees success, so I think it's got to be up to each individual author to weigh her perceived risks and rewards and do what she thinks is best, fully expecting never to earn even enough to cover her expenses and time let alone earn her an income.

One thing that traditional publishing still has over indie publishing: I fully believe the majority of readers want to be told what to think about books. Sure, some people won't agree that a novel really is as exciting, original, thought-provoking, whatever, as promoted, but they're still more likely to give a hyped book a try, and even if they disagree with the hype, they're not likely to think the books is awful and resent having purchased it. Maybe the hyped book doesn't sell millions, but I'm sure it will sell.

So I think word-of-mouth can be started and fed with blurbs and testimonials and reviews from recognizable, reputable sources. The key here is that there isn't any one source to which all readers look for recommendations, and as the market becomes more fragmented, it will be harder to identify these taste-makers -- for both readers and publishers.

Amazon's recommendation system (and maybe that of Goodreads) will help here, but I suspect each title still needs to be seeded with a certain level of reviews in order to keep sales rolling in. That's been true from my own experience. Here, I think the traditional publishers have an advantage over the vast majority of indie publishers. They still have networks and connections with readers and taste makers who believe in the traditional publishing system to winnow out poor novels and identify hot prospects for them.

message 8: by J.A. (last edited Feb 07, 2014 05:37PM) (new)

J.A. Beard (jabeard) One thing is that a lot of people who are becoming successful on their own, don't necessarily immediately jump on board with the trads when they come knocking. This somewhat undermines Maas' "We'll just cull the best from the herd" idea.

A lot of this will depend on how well these print distribution channels stand up in coming years. I don't think anybody really knows that.

Taleb's book is a bit overrated, I thought (Fooled by Randomness was better, if less insufferable). I don't disagree with many of his points, but its mostly a rambling primer on cognitive bias and a lot of presumptions and ex post facto justifications he feels proves his theories. Plus, he goes from just saying, "We can't predict black swan events" to basically making sweeping pronouncements about major historical or economic patterns and claiming they were just random. Yes, I did read "fooled by randomness", but he takes more than a bit too far.

Even his glorious insight, "That the market can be unpredictable and random" isn't that impressive given that his "deep" strategy amounted to, basically, a hedging strategy. It's less about being fooled by randomness/black swans and more, if you distill it down, as I said before, "Past performance does not guarantee future success."

There's a lot that's interesting thing, but its far less definitive than the hype, I'd argue. That said, I don't even really think its that important to the topic at hand because, if we're going by, say, Taleb's theories and thoughts (or even if we're not), we shouldn't be worrying about the black swan or breakout event at all. That very paradigm is going to ruin people who try to follow it, and it may very well ruin the trad pubs if that becomes their sole focus. Note that though they've increasingly gone that direction, there used to be a much stronger idea of different levels of success, steady streams, et cetera.

There's a lot of room between "Your book has to be THE NEXT GREAT THING" and "Your book doesn't sell at all."

When I complain about agents not getting things right, I'm less, "Wow, why didn't they guess Gone Girl was going to explode and prep more like that?" and more, "Why did they declare entire genres and styles dead, repeatedly, over several years and another as a big up and comer when the patterns repeatedly didn't show that?"

Indeed, one of my complaints about the trad pub consolidation (which of course was in play long before the ebook revolution) is that it has increasingly shifted to a model where they are obsessed with breakouts rather than steady streams + breakouts.

Note all the squeezed out midlist authors and what not in recent years.

Quite frankly, if their paradigm is becoming, "We basically only care about breakouts", then it's not a matter of one lottery vs. another, as, quite frankly, I know tons of indies who are making a decent living/money off of steady streams of stuff that have decent sales, but aren't exploding off the charts.

It may be that institutional bloat just makes that a non-viable plan for many publishing companies, in which case, they better be more right than wrong, and they should make efforts to be author friendly to keep the people they have.

Of course one of the big reasons the trads are currently suffering is that, for the most part (except for companies like Harlequin), the big companies, don't actually sell books to readers. Readers aren't actually their customers. Retailer book buyers are their customers. A lot of their business efforts stem from that paradigm. Indeed, a lot of publishing companies don't even do much in the way of actual direct market research (Harlequin is again a noticeable exception in this regard), and considering their primary funnels (agents) don't seem to be doing much earlier, it makes for a lot of money being thrown at "sure things" that aren't so sure. Not saying they have to only produce "What the people want" or whatever, just that their connections with the pulse of readers is perhaps more tenuous, at least for the big companies (some small niche publisher like, say, Baen, obviously knows exactly what a certain market segment wants), than they let on, I'd argue.

Their networks are kind of currently overrated because, functionally, they can't actually just "dictate" a success. I'm not talking a black swan 50 Shades, but just a modest success. If most books are basically just earning out, which seems to be the case, that's a lot of running in place.

In fiction (as the different markets have their different quirks), least, the more disrupted those institutional channels become (e.g., if B&N collapses), the less effective they'll be. The big boys' efforts to try to recalibrate more directly to readers (e.g., Bookish) have been, honestly, kind of laughable.

Like I said, I don't think trad is going to die or anything, but basically they've run their business a certain way for a long time with the basic assumption that they controlled distribution. The assumption no longer holds, and so their going to need to really adjust their paradigm.

I don't know. Maybe the future is all niche smaller pressers doing a lot of stuff and the big boys just poaching people from below. Or maybe they'll regain their footing in general (though consolidation seems a bad way to go about in a world of fragmenting markets) and prosper more than ever before.

I think its a good thing certain industry types are genuinely afraid. Before it seemed like they just didn't want to admit the situation on the ground has changed. If they are afraid, then maybe they can actually start seriously looking how to deal with the new world of publishing.

I think eventually it will settle into some sort of general hybrid system, even more so than now. I kind feel like agents will go back to more what they used to be. Someone you hire to help you out after you've had some success.

The funny thing is when I used to read agents a lot, some started talking about how they needed to increase their percentage even more. Some were suggesting that agents, in general, go to 20% instead of 15% (which is only a couple of decades, I believe, I may be misremembering). The thing is, at the time, they didn't really suggest the extra value they were adding to justify that, just that since they were needed and times were tighter...

Kind of the same thing with the trads, I suppose. Though, now that I think of it, some trads have gotten smart by doing things like establishing their own ebook-only imprints and what not to have more flexibility. Who knows?

message 9: by LeAnn (new)

LeAnn (leannnealreilly) | 159 comments Wow, J.A. A lot there. Your point that "it will settle into some sort of general hybrid system" seems, now that you make it, pretty obvious. I just wonder whether the Big 5 are ready for how it will operate. Especially as I agree with you that big traditional publishers have increasingly seemed to chase the white rabbit/Black Swan of breakouts and relied on their distribution networks to support institutional bloat. That's why they're likely to continue to use indie publishing as a means test before investing in a new author (it's how it works in the entrepreneurial world). If they look beyond the breakout indies, who are just as likely to tell them to go fly a kite, to smaller success stories, then they might be able to build mutually beneficial partnerships.

What I wonder is how big publishers will handle the highly successful traditional authors who decide to jump ship now that they have a fan base and recognizable, desired product?

For example, I just finished reading a romance author's open letter to the CEO of Kensington, a romance publisher. While grateful for his willingness to engage online with authors and readers about the state of publishing and Kensington's willingness to take her on when she'd been turned down by all other romance publishers, this author wanted more insight into the business side of their relationship. In the comments to her piece, she pointed out the latest big-name romance authors to self publish when the CEO was less than willing to admit that traditional publishers might not be treating their authors as well as they should.

It seems to me that the traditional publishers will have to be more nimble, identify talented writers earlier, and then take better care of their talent. A successful indie will want to be convinced of the clear benefits of giving up control to a traditional publisher and a successful traditionally published author will want assurance that remaining with a publisher will be worth more than striking out on her own when it's her brand and not that of the agent/editor/publisher, that readers will recognize and buy from.

message 10: by Matt (new)

Matt Posner (mattposner) | 276 comments How I would love to have been cultivated and nurtured by a trad publisher, as is reported to have once been possible. That was all I wanted when I was young. I didn't know terms like midlist and breakout and shelf space when I first submitted a novel (to Del Rey Books) at the age of 16. I got a nice personalized rejection letter that made me think they didn't realize I was a kid. That was the one and only time I ever heard from a professional editor (and I don't count my editor in India, who has made a total mess of my manuscripts).

I had a literary agent, Nat Sobel, shopping around one of my novels in 1993, when I was in my early 20s. He sent me a packet of letters from top publishers that said "gee, we almost took this." Sobel told me to go ahead and write the next one and he'd look at it. Then I sank into a depression (my bad) but it was the only time I had meaningful contact with a literary agent.

Many years went by unproductively. Then Kindle came along, and the rest has been told elsewhere.

Being an independent author has provided me with plenty of wonderful people to meet, such as the members of Robust, and a number of fans and boosters who make my heart palpitate, but I do wish I could have done it the other way back when that was still possible. Knowing that trad publishers screw more people than Caligula on a summer night, knowing that I can never go that direction because I will never be seen as a breakout and can never be treated well otherwise, does not diminish the sting of not having made it in the way I wanted to when I was a teen aspirant.

message 11: by Andre Jute (last edited Feb 07, 2014 04:38PM) (new)

Andre Jute (andrejute) | 4851 comments Mod
LeAnn wrote: "Amazon's recommendation system ... I suspect each title still needs to be seeded with a certain level of reviews ... Here, I think the traditional publishers have an advantage over the vast majority of indie publishers. They still have networks and connections with readers and taste makers who believe in the traditional publishing system to winnow out poor novels and identify hot prospects for them."

You hear a lot of rubbish from the indies about how an editor will somehow make their book "better". Two things will tell you they're talking through the backs of their necks: that "book", singular, is a dead giveaway, and the other is that they think in terms of copy-editing, patching up their spelling and grammar. That isn't what an editor does. Copy editing is done by technicians, cultured technicians (and sometimes amusing ones) but technicians nonetheless.

Before all editors became "commissioning" editors, more interested in dealmaking than literature, some editors would be interested in the structure and flow of the story. But an amazing number of top editors refused even to give "notes", never mind work closely with the writer on his book. That story about Kerouac being knocked into publishable shape by his editor is no doubt true, but you're talking about outliers.

An example of an editor who would tell you virtually nothing was John Blackwell, the editorial director at my London publishers of record. A famous and revered editor, he had so little to say on the subject of literature or storytelling down at the microlevel of your particular work in progress, that David Lodge in John's obituary in The Independent mentioned that getting anything out of him was a painful process -- and none of John's friends objected. The best you could hope for was something witty, like his famous comment about Andrew McCoy that his novels "fishtail asymptotically to the consummation in the conflagration". A writer who drank with John would have no problem working out from that throwaway phrase that he liked violence, a big climax, and an unpredictable plot ("asymptotically" and "fishtail"), but the grimly serious, such as we can see daily among the indies, could become extremely frustrated working with him. His skill was identifying from the slush pile and the introductions* those novelists capable of telling a story excitingly without any input from him; the main "editing" preoccupation of the indies, copy editing, never entered the equation because his writers already all spoke and wrote decent, indeed exciting English (we mustn't forget that Secker was a poetry and literary prose house). This was not an uncommon pattern.

*Since time immemorial, writers mainly arrived at publishing houses by introduction.

message 12: by Andre Jute (new)

Andre Jute (andrejute) | 4851 comments Mod
Matt wrote: "How I would love to have been cultivated and nurtured by a trad publisher, as is reported to have once been possible. That was all I wanted when I was young."

I hate to tell you this, Matt, but you were never young enough. By 1993, when you were in your early twenties, the accountants were in charge and nobody was being nurtured, in fact they were firing editors for being literate enough to read a French menu. The accountants killed the gracious living, and the gracious manners, in a series of nights of the long knives, starting c1990.

Incidentally, the agents now whining about ebooks causing problems welcomed conglomeration, claiming it would make publishing "more professional, more rational, more stable" and consequently inexorably make them rich. The guys with their brains in gear were not so sure, but were condemned as sticks in the mud, against progress.

message 13: by K.A. (new)

K.A. Jordan (kajordan) | 3042 comments Very enlightening.

I read Maas' book "Writing the Breadout Novel" - and found it interesting and useful.

I have nothing to add.


message 14: by Andre Jute (new)

Andre Jute (andrejute) | 4851 comments Mod
I think there's something to add. It seems to me, from general economic principles, that five huge book publishers make a lopsided industry with plenty of interstices for lively, smart small publishers with targeted aims to set up and prosper. But the business model will be as different as the people. The gentlemen publishers, and the literary trade publishers (oh woe!), aren't returning; this is a market that most definitely is not moving upwards but downwards. Julie, over at Kboards, makes a living publishing RPG. That strikes me as clever.

message 15: by K.A. (new)

K.A. Jordan (kajordan) | 3042 comments RPG modules have a good market.

message 16: by Matt (last edited Feb 09, 2014 07:38AM) (new)

Matt Posner (mattposner) | 276 comments What RPG is popular now? Dungeons and Dragons and Vampire: The Masquerade, MechWarrior and Hero System all seem pretty dead.

message 17: by J.A. (last edited Feb 09, 2014 10:26AM) (new)

J.A. Beard (jabeard) White Wolf (Vampre: TM, Werewolf, etc.) is a shadow of itself, though still has some decent popularity, but D&D is still rather popular, even if it isn't the dominant force it was say 15 years ago.

Battletech and Hero have their adherents, with the former still vaguely having a foothold in certain quarters.

The thing is, the RPG market (White Wolf dominance of the 90s aside and later 90s peaks in things like In Nomine), past basically the mid-80s has always been more about people liking various specialty systems, and its even more so now. The RPG people also adopted electronic publishing early (in PDF format primarily) to help cut down on distribution costs.

So there's a lot of people publishing systems with an eye toward smaller audiences rather than trying to be the new WoTC/TSR/FASA/White Wolf.

Go to any gaming forum, and they'll be your White Wolf and D&D forums and then a zillion others.

The other factor in this is that WoTC (who bought control of the D&D intellectual property from the dying TSR) introduced the "D20 system", a more general mechanics for gaming (kind of like basically GURPS derived more from D&D mechanics), and they've released a lot of that using things like creative commons* licensing to basically encourage people to develop systems that are basically using D&D-style mechanics in a variety of settings. So, you'll see a LOT of "D20 XYZ" games (e.g., D20 Steampunk or whatever) out there that aren't necessarily direct WOTC-controlled (or some that are).

*WOTC's big obsession is what they call "product identity", which is basically the very specific characters, spells, and unique monsters they've generated (e.g., your Forgotten Realms setting stuff, your beholders, that sort of thing).

message 18: by Matt (new)

Matt Posner (mattposner) | 276 comments I never learned the d20 system. The last campaign I played was VTM which ended in 1999. I thought Hero system was pretty good for choosing your genre, and my group used it for that purpose in the 1990s. I haven't gamed since 1999. I wish we lived nearby each other, Jeremy. It would be the start of an epic game group for mature adults.

message 19: by J.A. (last edited Feb 09, 2014 10:27AM) (new)

J.A. Beard (jabeard) That would, indeed, be nice (I stopped around 2006 because of a combination of time, new kids keeping my busy, and a lack of good people to game with, but I try to vaguely keep up with the scene).

message 20: by K.A. (new)

K.A. Jordan (kajordan) | 3042 comments I haven't gamed since 1992 when I moved to Kentucky.

I loved to write modules.

Never went any further than 2nd Edtion. I've still got my books and dice, and maybe some figurines squirreled away.

Back in the 80's we ran some great games. I was DM for some of them...those were great times.

message 21: by J.A. (new)

J.A. Beard (jabeard) Oh, I used to have soooo much stuff from a lot of different systems (I spent way too much on games I never even played), though years of moving and consolidation have basically whittled me down to almost nothing.

message 22: by Andre Jute (new)

Andre Jute (andrejute) | 4851 comments Mod
My hobby was designing and building high tension (very high voltage, 600V and up to 1500v) thermionic tube hi-fi and associated huge horn, electrostatic and wall sized array speakers. Well, more than a hobby, I licensed my electronic designs, and got a lot of industrial design work out of it. These were basically hand built amps for multimillionaires. One design I did was for a factory-sized horn, and an Italian manufacturer built it, and put his desk in the mouth of the horn... I was never brave enough to ask the workers what they thought about the walls vibrating... Another amp I built, with associated speakers, shook a 100ft luxury yacht so badly, the captain threatened to resign unless the owner made me choke it off. I gave up the amps when I returned to writing, but now I have a loft full of really heavy equipment I don't use, too expensive and rare and wonderful just to trash it, and I basically play my music through a pair of electrostatic earphones (only about 650V on them), often from my computer, at most through a small (by tube standards) amp that one man can lift. The huge single-ended tube amps, the horns and panels, nothing from my music room is in use. My netsite from those days is still up.

message 23: by J.A. (new)

J.A. Beard (jabeard) Was that the activity that got that weird-ass stalker flying across the Atlantic after you? Some sort of forum beef about components, or was that something else?

My other main hobby growing up was computer programming. Didn't require as much storage space and all.

message 24: by Andre Jute (last edited Feb 11, 2014 01:05PM) (new)

Andre Jute (andrejute) | 4851 comments Mod
A transformer winder and his gang of bully boys who wanted me to specify and recommend his Mickey Mouse transformers. Instead I used and recommended proper transformers designed and made for me in Sweden, The Netherlands and Canada, which were later catalogued and sold to the general public. Those people promised to ruin my life, and tried viciously to do exactly that; when I stopped laughing, I showed them how a professional does it.

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