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The best of all possible worlds?

In the 8/16/10 issue of PW, I read a brief obituary of agent Elaine Koster, which noted, among other accomplishments, that “in 2002, she took on Khaled Hosseini, who had been previously turned down by 30 other agents. She sold his book, The Kite Runner, to Riverhead Books in a pre-empt; it went on to sell more than 21 million copies.” This is a beloved publishing trope (see J.K. Rowling, who found an agent easily enough but was rejected by twelve publishers before being signed by Bloomsbury), meant to cheer on the discouraged and to allow the enlightened to shake their superior heads sadly at the many, many ignorant people unfortunately making publishing decisions.

But, really, how do we know? Would a different agent have had the same success with Hosseini? Had Harry Potter been published by some other house, might it have flopped? (Wow, imagine what publishing today might look like had that happened.)  I’m sure I’ve talked here before about my discussion with an editor who turned down a book that would go on to win the Caldecott Medal. She expressed no regret, saying “had I been the editor, it wouldn’t have won.”

Has anyone read the late Olivia Goldsmith’s The Bestseller (which I don’t think it was)? It was about the fortunes of five books on a publisher’s list–what hit, what flopped, what surprised– and the attendant personal drama among the authors and editors. Pulpy but engrossing, it showed me how much luck goes into the whole business. Or am I naive?

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. Gregory K. says:

    >This is kind of publishing's equivalent of baseball's "fallacy of the next pitch." Take a ballgame with your team trailing by two with a runner on first base. The runner tries to steal second and is caught. on the next pitch, the batter hits a home run – if that runner had been on, the game is tied!!!! Ahh, but would that event have happened with the runner on first? The pitcher would've thrown from a windup, not the stretch; the catcher wouldn't be calling a pitch based on the runner being on; the batter wouldn't be thinking of hitting behind the runner to advance him….

    So, I think you're right: other agents or editors or publishers might have had different results for a whole slew of reasons. This doesn't diminish from the achievements we make, it just means those achievements aren't predetermined and we were lucky enough to get in the way.

  2. Michael Grant says:

    >Alternate interpretation: a lot of agents and editors don't know what they're doing.

    I wonder if any of the 12 who turned down Harry Potter were fired? They cost their companies potential billions. Billions of dollars because they didn't see the potential of the biggest phenomenon in publishing history? And that's passed off with a shrug and a "No regrets?"

    I suspect in publishing the accountability is all on the negative. You might be punished for buying too many flops, but is there a punishment for missing a hit? While we're at it, why shouldn't editors be rewarded for spotting the successes with a little taste of the profits?

    Publishing is so 19th century. Which would be cute, if they weren't on the verge of losing their business.

  3. Andrew Karre says:

    >It's a beloved trope and it's a slightly silly one. I have rejected books that have gone on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. I'm sure I'll do it again. If I felt bad about this, I'd be insane by now. And I don't understand why the story of 30 agent rejections for Hosseni is particularly remarkable (at least it shouldn't be for PW's readership–no disrespect to Koster intended).

    I think your question about how a house other than Bloomsbury or Scholastic might have handled Harry Potter is apt.The editor and the house are very big variables in this process, especially for debut fiction.

  4. Elaine Marie Alphin says:

    >Loved The Bestseller, for all the pulp. Success and awards may be a matter of how a publishing house handles a book or a series, but I believe that a good book will draw its readers to it. I avoided Harry Potter because of all of the hype – it wasn't until the Science Fiction Book Club offered a bargain deal on Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets that I decided to give the series a try, and I was hooked. And one of my books that hasn't sold as many copies as other titles has netted me the most passionate reader correspondence. It took someone (a wise editor) to get that book into print, but it's the book itself that drew the readers, just as HP drew its readers, and The Kite Runner drew its readers. Luck is involved in getting the book to the right editor and in determining what that editor's house does with it, but I believe the book itself will find its level in the end.

  5. J. L. Bell says:

    >If profit-seeking publishers knew which books would be huge successes, they wouldn’t bother with anything else. After all, lesser successes and noble failures simply drag the numbers down.

    So almost all of us authors have to be grateful that professionals don’t have all the answers.

  6. Kristin Cashore says:

    >Of course it's about luck. And I respect that editor who had no regrets for passing on a future Caldecott winner. As a writer, I wouldn't want an editor who didn't care for my book working on my book. Frankly, that would be terrible.

    I agree that the question of how a house other than Bloomsbury or Scholastic might have handled Harry Potter is apt — and fascinating. How many phenomenons never happened because books went to the wrong editor or house?

  7. Michael Grant says:

    >Guys, you realize publishing is a business, right? And the difference between an imprint or house surviving or failing or being absorbed by one of the Big 6, is the profit generated by its employees. So when an editor makes a decision she can actually affect whether her company lives or dies.

    Because 12 editors missed Harry Potter, 12 companies most likely ended up laying off employees. Maybe even went out of business. Multiply those kinds of bad decisions and you see why it's the Big 6 and a handful of munchkins.

    Writers are also businesses. I know we're all supposed to pretend it's all about the art, but we are running businesses, too. We're running businesses that rise or fall on the judgment of editors and agents.

    The last time I consulted an agent the agent gave me advice that would have killed just under 2 million dollars' worth of work. Neither the verb nor the number is an exaggeration. If I'd been a newbie I would have destroyed my career. Fortunately I don't listen much to agents — I use a publishing lawyer.

    Were people this glib about failures of judgment in banking? How about when their doctor makes a teeny little mistake? In what other business do you get to make a billion dollar mistake without consequences?

    The whole publishing business is a deer staring at the bright lights of a Mack truck. I think a big part of the reason is the indulgent attitude they have taken toward their business. It's not a hobby, it's a business, and mistakes have consequences.

  8. Andrew Karre says:

    >Michael, I think all the commentors realize publishing is a business–a complicated business.

    I must respectfully disagree with your supposition about the 12 editors. You're reducing the book business to something more simple than it is. Sure, those hypothetical 12 editors could have put Harry Potter between cardboard and gotten it onto shelves (though the number of shelves and which shelves would have varied significantly). But to say they would have gotten 12 similar results is naive. Any house probably could have published Harry Potters 2 through 7 successfully–the pattern was clear at that point. But launching that first book took a lot more than any one editor's judgment that the manuscript was good. An editor can look at a manuscript and think: "This is quite good and could sell well, but I also know we have two similar books already under contract already; I know we have a track record of recent fantasy flops that will scare off buyers; I know we've spent three years emphasizing upper-level realistic YA in all our marketing; etc., etc., etc… I'd better not take this." That's editorial judgment just as good as that of the editor who makes the offer. It's certainly not failure.

    Publishing, like all businesses, is full of mistakes–mistakes with consequences as you say. I wouldn't be too quick to count passing on a future bestseller among them, though.

  9. Moira Manion says:

    >The one element –in my opinion, the most important one– which isn't being considered is the public, any book's potential readers. Readers determine what will be a commercial success.

    What if the Potter books had been published at another time? Two years before? Three years later? Would it have found the same market? How much of its success, of any book's commercial success, is effected by the moods and tastes of the time in which it's published?

    When I was 10, in 1970, I could only find one run-down copy of The Phantom Tollbooth in a dark, dusty back room of Curious Books in East Lansing, MI. I only heard about the book because, being a young cartoonist, I'd heard that cartoonist/animator Chuck Jones had done an animated film of the book. Which had promptly flopped. But the idea of the book intrigued my mother and I, so we went hunting for a copy.

    I tried to convince my 5th grade teacher to read The Phantom Tollbooth to our class. She said the book was too complicated for 5th graders, too weird, and unknown.

    I didn't start seeing copies of the book in stores until years later. Now it's a "modern classic."

    It's the same book now that it was in 1970. But back then, there wasn't a big enough audience for it. Somewhere between '70 and '80, it's quality was discovered and an audience developed.

    Whenever I sit down to write, I go through the "OK, let's say I never find an agent…OK, let's say I get an agent, but I never get a publisher…OK, let's say my book is published, and vanishes into the mists of Forgotten Remainders in a year…." By that time I could be pretty damn depressed. So what I then say is, "What if I write a book, and it never finds an agent, a publisher, or a large audience, but my friends and people whose opinions I respect consider it to be damn good? I can live with that." (considering I've just started writing a book, I'm going through this process right now)

    It's not necessarily a mistake if an agent or editor doesn't accept a book. It's impossible to guess whether a book will find an audience or not. (One of my favorite books is The Forgotten Door by Alexander Key, and I've never met anyone else who's ever read it.) If we could look into the future and know what will be a hit and what won't, publishing would be a breeze.

    I might be pissed or hurt or confused if someone rejected my work (been there, done that), but, should my work later do well, I wouldn't want to rub the rejectors' noses in it……well, yeah, I would, but hopefully I'd restrain myself.

  10. Moira Manion says:

    >Elaine, I avoided the Potter books because of the hype, too! For me, it took Rebecca Marjesdatter, poetry editor of Tales of the Unanticipated, to convince me to give it a try. If it hadn't been for so many adult science fiction and fantasy fans discovering Harry Potter, when most adults would never touch a "children's" book, I wonder how big a hit the books would have been?

  11. KT Horning says:

    >I, too, think timing was important for the Harry Potter success. It came out right as the masses were getting online in a big way (especially kids) and word of mouth spread like wildfire through the Web. But the Web was still relatively quiet then, so it didn't get lost in all the noise.

    I remember a time when I could actually keep track of all the web pages devoted to Harry Potter, before Scholastic and Warner Bros launched their own sites. There were about 12 Potter fan sites, most of them created by kids.

    Does anyone else remember when Warner Brothers tried to quash all the HP fan sites? There was one 11-year-old kid who stood up to them, called them He Who Shall Not Be Named, and made them look ridiculous so they backed down quickly. This was about the time corporations began to realize they could use internet-savvy fans as an unpaid promotions staff.

    Harry Potter was one of the first things to go viral. If Rowling's agent had sold it sooner, that might not have happened. It's hard to say if it would have had the same impact without the buzz from early readers.

  12. Anonymous says:

    >"I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."

    Nothing new under the sun here.

  13. Moira Manion says:

    >KT, just two days ago I watched a (not very good) documentary, which focused in part on the young girl whose page, The Daily Prophet, was sent a Cease and Desist letter from Warner Brothers, and who then began an international boycott of all HP products, except the books. The huge response in her favor apparently caused Warner Brothers to reassess their attitude towards fan pages.

    The documentary is We are Wizards. I rented it from Netflix, but it may be available elsewhere. (Personally, I don't think it's well done at all, but your opinion may be better than mine.)

  14. KT Horning says:

    >The young girl wasn't the only one who was sent a letter. She was just the only one who refused to Cease or Desist.

    It's interesting how often it's a adolescent girl who takes a stand, something that struck me in Susan Campbell Bartoletti's book "Kids on Strike." The same is true in a lot of school censorship cases, such as Tinker v. Des Moines Public Schools.

  15. Elizabeth Law says:

    >To J. L. Bell, I agree with much that you say, and I’ll even raise you one. I don’t think *anyone* has all the answers about what will be a hit. I’ve been in the business for more than 25 years and am at my third children’s house, and my philosophy remains consistent. My colleagues and I acquire books we adore that we believe we see the audience for, we do our utmost to publish and promote them well, and then, if one starts to really take off, we run with it with everything we’ve got. You are absolutely right that somewhere up the executive chain, there’s often someone who points out that “little books” don’t make much money, aren’t worth our time or investment, etc. But…a lot of books that our industry has projected small to moderate things for have become iconic, and that’s what we always remind them. (Except we use business lingo. “This book has a huge upside.”) The first printing of the Giving Tree was 500 copies, and at Viking, our first printing of The True Story of the Three Little Pigs was a then medium-sized 12,500. Etc. Etc.

    I have often talked about writing a reader’s report as a young assistant at Viking that recommended we pass on Owl Moon. I now realize that’s because I don’t understand poetry at all, and now I would be smart enough to say “this isn’t my thing, someone else should take a look.” BUT, as I have told Roger (and discussed with Jane Yolen), our brilliant art director did not know the work of John Schoenherr, and Patty Gauch, Owl Moon’s editor, did. Had we acquired the manuscript for Owl Moon at Viking, we would have selected a different artist. And that’s why it would not have won the Caldecott.

    Re. Harry Potter, I remember the auction in the US, and I can tell you it was heated, though of course no one had any idea at the time how far the book would go. Still, people could tell it was a great read. So in the US, this was not a book that got rejected! And because I know the publisher who lost the auction and they are brilliant and have a great track record of bestsellers, I do believe the publisher would have gotten the book to kids, in the early days, quite effectively. And I agree with K.T. that that’s how it all grew.

  16. >Moira,
    You are not alone. I loved The Forgotten Door when I read it as a kid. We still have a copy at my library.
    Irene Fahrenwald

  17. Anonymous says:

    >Oh, yeah, Moira, me, too! I've collected several beaten up paperbacks of The Forgotten Door at library booksales. The best thing about the internet is finding out how many people have read that book you thought only you knew about.

    It's my understanding that every time one of these big conglomerates buy up a publisher and expect it to run like a real business . . . they lose money. Maybe publishers don't know how to run their businesses, but nobody else seems to, either.

  18. Anonymous says:

    >Oh, yeah, Moira, me, too! I've collected several beaten up paperbacks of The Forgotten Door at library booksales. The best thing about the internet is finding out how many people have read that book you thought only you knew about.

    It's my understanding that every time one of these big conglomerates buy up a publisher and expect it to run like a real business . . . they lose money. Maybe publishers don't know how to run their businesses, but nobody else seems to, either.

  19. Elizabeth says:

    >I am so glad you guys reminded me about The Forgotten Door! My copy went the way of a lot of my old paperbacks, but I'm going to hunt down another and reread. Thanks.

  20. says:

    >Yup–Viking was one of five publishers to pass on OWL MOON, mostly citing it as "too quiet." But as Liz rightly points out, no one else even had Schoenherr on their radar. He'd never done a picture book, had basically walked away from doing books at all, content to paint large animal paintings that sold very well to collectors. And further, Patti Gauch bought OWL MOON as her first purchase as an editor. Finally, having been a teacher who taught English lit to Schoenherr's kids, she knew his work and. . .well, the rest is history.

    Jane Yolen

  21. Anonymous says:

    >I recently had dinner with an editor in the adult world, and mentioned to her a book I had just read and loved. She said that one of her colleagues was fired for rejecting that book (and one or two other hits). I was shocked to learn that on the adult side, editors actually do get fired for passing on bestsellers.

  22. Moira Manion says:

    >Yay, The Forgotten Door's not forgotten!

    I would love to see a good movie adaptation of that story. But I'm terrified what a studio might do to it.

  23. Anonymous says:

    >Michael wrote: "Were people this glib about failures of judgment in banking? How about when their doctor makes a teeny little mistake? In what other business do you get to make a billion dollar mistake without consequences?"

    I had to laugh. The banker monsters got away with EVERYTHING. Greed, destruction, and their mega-bonuses to boot.

  24. Michael Grant says:


    Sure. But they're mostly criminals.

  25. Roger Sutton says:

    >I think the point is, Michael, that those editors weren't necessarily making mistakes. Not every book is right for every house at every time. Firing someone for rejecting a manuscript that went on to success someplace else sounds like very feeble management.

  26. Michael Grant says:


    I think these are rather poetic arguments in what is after all, a business.

    Harry Potter was a good book. It was also a product. Scholastic did a great job with that product in the US. But could Harper or Disney or Random have done as well with that product? Very likely. And the evidence I'd submit is the fact that it did so well all around the world in the hands of different publishers.

    Publishing is like two very different systems operating simultaneously in the same space. Seven Sisters MFAs who love books, businessmen who love profits, and somehow the result is a system that clogs shelves with vampire stories.

    The system also destroys a lot of good books. What if 13 had not been the charm for Ms. Rowling? Would everyone still be so glib about the failure of a dozen professionals to recognize the merit of the book? Well, of course we wouldn't know, would we? Because Harry would never have been published. And somehow no one would be to blame for that.

    With great power comes great responsibility. (That's right, I'm quoting Spiderman's uncle.) You can't take a job where you hold other people's lives, and the health of literature itself, in your hands and maintain that you bear no responsibility for the results.

  27. Anonymous says:

    >I wonder what the effect of firing editors who missed a bestseller would be on the field? I suspect more fear in publishing houses, more copycatting, and less discovery of the sort of authors and works that stand the test of time and make their publishers a great deal of money over the long haul. In other words — how can I say this with a minimum of poetry? — I think that as a hard-nosed business decision, that policy would suck.

    I once mentioned a high profile, best-selling, award-winning title to an editor who replied, simply and without regret, “I don’t know if I would have published that.” He had published plenty of other high profile, best-selling, award-winning titles already. I don’t think the two things are unrelated. His success — artistic and financial — came about because although he recognized the field is a business, he also recognized that if you want to excel in it, it can’t be treated only as a business. If you want to be the editor who makes a hit out of what twenty other people have ignored, then you’re also going to have to be the editor who ignores what someone else might love. Judgement calls, personal taste, and hits and misses are part of the price of entry in this field.

    Frankly, if anyone is in this field only for the business side of it, if someone wants to be in this line of work but to strip all the poetry out of it, I don’t know what he’s doing. There are better ways to make money.

  28. Kristin Cashore says:

    >@Anonymous 11:19: Well said.

  29. Roger Sutton says:

    >There was nothing about Harry Potter the First that screamed bestseller, and the idea that an editor failed to recognize its obvious bestersellerdom is an observation only made resonant because it was a bestseller. We can't know what would have happened otherwise–this isn't Fringe where we can see how alternate choices beget alternate worlds. Monday-morning quarterbacking, in other words.

  30. Kristin Cashore says:

    >Oops! I meant my "Well said" for Anonymous 1:27. There was no Anonymous 11:19.

    Blame it on sleeplessness. IOW, blame it on Mockingjay.

  31. Michael Grant says:

    >I don't mean to drag this topic out forever, but how about a little pity for the writers — maybe thousands of Rowlings — who didn't have her persistence, who wrote great books and were dismissed by editors and agents and a schizoid system where we're all supposed to pretend it's not about money, until it is?

    I once asked an editor (nameless, big kidlit house, and not one of my editors) whether she didn't feel a bit bad crushing the hopes and dreams of aspiring authors who might have spent years on their work. Nope. Not even a little. Never entered her pretty little head.

    Why did she feel no concern? Arrogance. She assumed that anyone who was rejected did inferior work.

    I should have asked her how she'd have felt if, because of her decisions we'd never known Rowling or Dahl or White, or pick a name.

    What editors and agents ask for — and to some extent receive — is power and absolution in one neat package. You know who doesn't get that kind of deal? Writers. When we fail we do lose our livelihoods, we do suffer the consequences.

  32. Anonymous says:

    >Michael, your misogyny is showing. You should shut up now.

  33. Moira Manion says:

    >Michael,let's say editors who reject manuscripts which other houses later buy and turn into bestsellers are fired. Firing is apparently meant as punishment, and to set an example, the lesson being, "Buy manuscripts which will be bestsellers, or else."

    So, how, exactly and specifically, can one identify a guaranteed bestseller?

    If you fire all the ms readers/screeners and/or editors who pick incorrectly, who's left?

    This would create tension and paranoia. "Aw man, if I reject this manuscript, and it sells big someplace else, I'll be canned. But if I buy it, and it fails, nobody will be happy. It's a lose-lose situation."

    That would make for really great judgment when reading manuscripts. "The plot and characters in this one stink….but so do the plot and characters of that book that was turned into a hit movie and merchandising franchise (*coughsparklyvampirescough*). So even though my personal and professional standards tell me to give this a pass, my need to support myself says 'Buy it!'"

    And it's just so easy to guess correctly. There's a whole scientific system out there for making certain to back the right horse. With the threat of unemployment over their heads, editors are sure to never miss a future bestseller again.

    Let me be a bit brutal myself. As for those writers who, you say, have their hopes and dreams crushed due to rejections, they should do what so many writers who are torn up by rejection do: Never show their manuscript to anyone except friends and family who will praise it. I know plenty of writers who, after one or two rejections, never attempted ever again to be published. I seem to always be seated next to them at conventions, where they whine about how no one gets published unless they "know" someone in publishing (Biblically or otherwise), or if they're already famous.

    A friend of mine who's a film actor once gave me a quote from the book, and movie, Primary Colors: "They love you, and then they stop loving you." Sometimes, they never love you. Then you, the writer, have to decide whether to keep trying or not. Maybe you'll reexamine your work and decide that it needs more work. Maybe you'll stick it in the drawer and start something else.

    What you shouldn't do is blame whoever rejected it for crushing your hopes and dreams of becoming a bestselling author. Because if your hopes and dreams are that easily crushed, you need, as my actor friend says, to get a job with no chance of rejection. And once you find it, email me and tell me what it is.

    And yeah, "Never entered her pretty little head" brings to mind a word you yourself used. Arrogance.

  34. Anonymous says:

    >What is your argument, Michael? That editors shouldn't reject any submissions? That they should feel awful when they do? I once read that this was a business. Now you want pity for every hack who ever sent in a story. Which is it?

  35. Kristin Cashore says:

    >I'm also not following your argument, Michael, though it might be because all I've got to reason with is a pretty little head.

  36. Anonymous says:

    >My mistake. Michael, I shouldn't have told you to shut up. I typed before I thought and I was rude. Believe it or not, it was advice well meant, but I know it didn't sound that way. I'm sorry.

    Roger, sorry for being nasty on your site.

    Anon 11:13

  37. Roger Sutton says:

    >Don't worry your pretty little head about it, anon 11:13 😉 And, Michael, between castigating the Seven-Sister MFA types for unleashing the scourge of vampires, and railing about the pretty little heads of clueless editors (and, really, which way do you want it?), you're being kind of a dick.

  38. Anonymous says:


  39. Michael Grant says:

    >Let me make two things clear: I'm not being autobiographical when I talk about having hopes crushed. I'm the author or co-author of just over 150 books. I've been very lucky.

    Second, you all leap rather quickly to the assumption that "pretty little head" is misogynistic. You're looking for an excuse to dismiss me as a bad person. In fact, she was a pretty young woman. Had the editor in question been a guy I might have referred to him as a "buff young dude," or whatever other, sneering descriptor came to mind.

    I am fascinated but not at all surprised really to discover in most of you this prejudice in favor of a system that routinely treats writers like cattle.

    The system as it exists requires us — the writers — to toady and flatter the editors and agents. Generally that's what we do because most of us live in fear of editors and agents. It's their table and the aspiring writer is the dog hoping for a crumb.

    I happened to watch an agent's panel a while back. The agents involved – several of whom had pretty little heads, and some less pretty or little — seemed to be vying to top each other with stories about how long they had tied up a manuscript, how many rewrites they had demanded.

    I was watching with a couple of other established, successful writers and believe me when I say that our dominant emotion was not admiration. But of course the conventions require that we pretend to think it's just swell that some egomaniac agent tied up a novel for a year while the writer went hungry.

    There's a reason why neither my wife nor I use an agent anymore. They've never been anything but a waste of time and money. And the reason for their importance in the system is that publishers have decided to improve their profits by outsourcing the slush pile and passing the cost of screening along to writers.

    As for editors, I've done business with more than most. Many have been great. Many have no idea what they're doing. And yet, they still get to dump on some poor aspring author who spent 10 years pouring his heart onto the page while enduring the taunts of his family and friends.

    When that writer produces A Confederacy of Dunces — to pick an obvious example — and is rejected by some 20-something fresh out of college, yes, yes I think there should be guilt and self-doubt and maybe even (gasp) consequences. A shrug and a la-di-da is not enough.

    Roger, it's your blog, and I am no doubt a dick. But what I'm saying is nothing but what most writers would say if they were lucky enough not to need to toady anyone. Don't forget, you're one of the people we are obliged to toady. Bear in mind that you may not always hear the unvarnished truth.

  40. >I wonder how many editors will want to work with you now, Michael Grant. Stay classy!

  41. Michael Grant says:


    I am at present working with editors at three major publishing houses.

    None of them seems to be horrified by the notion that they are merely human, that their colleagues may be even more human, that responsibility should be taken seriously even when it means feeling regret, or that bad decisions should perhaps be associated with consequences. They are grown-ups.

    You will note that unlike you I make myself readily recognizable. Kind of think that is classy, actually.

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