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Former Boston Review Editor Gail Pool has been involved in literary journalism for three decades. She has been a magazine editor, a review editor, a critic, a columnist, and a freelance journalist. Her columns, essays and articles have appeared in publications such as the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Houston Post, the San Diego Union-Tribune, the St. Petersburg Times, the Kansas City Star, Columbia Journalism Review and the New York Times, among many others. She has also written about reviewing for the Women’s Review of Books, Boston Review, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Pool is the author of Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America, published by the University of Missouri Press. For her impressive compilation of articles and essays on book reviewing, visit her website.

Thank you for being my guest today, Gail. Why don't you start by telling us a little about yourself?

I’ve been involved with reviewing in one way or another for about 30 years. I started out as a reviewer at Boston Review, where I later became an editor, assigning essays and reviews. Since then, I’ve been a reviewer, columnist, or review editor for publications ranging from the Christian Science Monitor and the Cleveland Plain Dealer to the Women’s Review of Books, the Nation, the Radcliffe Quarterly, and the library press. I really feel I’ve seen the field from many angles.

What constitutes a good review?

Well, I think there are many ways of writing a good review—I don’t think there’s a formula. But a good review should include an accurate description of the book that places it in a meaningful context and an assessment of whether or not the book succeeds in what it set out to do and why. As an article in its own right, a review should also be well-written and interesting to read.

What is the difference between reviewing and criticism?

There are different kinds of criticism, and reviewing is one kind. Historically, reviewing has referred to the criticism of new books. This means the reviewer is writing for readers who haven’t read the book—which is why an accurate description is so important. And it also means that critics haven’t discussed the book before, so reviewers are on their own in forming their opinions. This is one of the reasons reviewing is so difficult.

Do you see a review as an opinion or as a critique of someone’s work?

I see a review as a critique of a work. It contains the reviewer’s opinion about the book, but it goes beyond expressing an opinion: it explains how the reviewer arrived at his or her opinion, providing reasons from the book. I think of a review, even a short review, as an essay explaining a response to a book.

Do you keep the author's feelings in mind when you review?

I focus on the book when I’m reviewing, and I try to respond to the book. My job is to write about the book, after all, not the author. And I’m writing for readers, not the author. Still, I’m aware that the author does have feelings, and I don’t see the need for nastiness. I don’t think criticism should be personally hurtful.

In your book, Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America, you refer to book reviewing as a ‘troubled’ trade. What has gone wrong with reviewing?

Reviewing in America has always been a troubled trade. Since reviews first appeared in this country, people—even reviewers—have been complaining about them. You should read the insults heaped on reviewing in the 19th century! And many of the complaints, which have remained remarkably similar over time, are justified. Too many good books are ignored, too many reviews are hype. But there are many reasons reviewing hasn’t been better, including the fact that the field has never received financial or cultural support. The reviewing community hasn’t resolved those underlying problems.

How has book reviewing changed during the last 10 years with the rise of so many online review sites?

The main change has been the increasing number of self-published reviews with no editorial oversight. We’ve always had many amateur reviewers—unpaid reviewers writing for newspapers or literary magazines, specialists reviewing in their field. But in the past there were review editors, whose job was to choose worthwhile books, match them with knowledgeable reviewers with no conflict of interest, and edit the reviews for coherence and clarity. I see this role, if it’s well done, as important, partly for the integrity of the review, and partly for quality. In my experience as a writer and editor, writers need editors.

You also state that bad reviewing happens despite good intentions and that many intelligent people who love books can sometimes say unintelligent things about them? Would you elaborate?

What I meant is that reviewers set out to write good reviews, but constraints work against them: deadlines can force them to read and write quickly, a lack of space can force them to leave out important points, low fees limit the time they can devote to a book, the pressure to be “lively” too often leads to snappy rather than thoughtful writing. In the end, whatever reviewers’ intentions, reviews are often poorly written, poorly argued, filled with clichés and overpraise.

Do you think there's a lot of 'facile praise' among online review sites as opposed to print publications? If yes, why?

I think there’s a lot of facile praise both in print and online, and on the whole I believe the reasons are similar. One central reason is that we tend to think that being “fair” means being kind to the author rather than honest to the reader. The tendency to praise too highly is a tradition firmly embedded in American reviewing. I think it’s embedded in American culture.

There are some bloggers out there who have acquired fame as tough reviewers
because of their harsh, nasty, mean reviews. What, in your opinion, is behind their philosophy?

I think they’re trying to show how smart they are, especially how much smarter than the author whose book they’re writing about. These reviews seem to me more about self-promotion than criticism. But this isn’t limited to bloggers. Nasty reviewing has a long history in print, and there some good satirical essays mocking this kind of oneupmanship.

If a book is terrible, do you think a reviewer should write and publish the
review, or should she decline to write it?

If a reviewer finds a book so poorly conceived and written there’s nothing of interest to say about it, I don’t think she should review it. But to some degree the decision depends on the book and the aims of the reviewer or publication. Some books are bad in significant ways—they reveal a trend in writing or thinking that’s worth discussing. And there are weak books written by well-known authors that readers will want to know about, good or bad—but they need to be reviewed honestly: the reviewer has to guard against being intimidated by the famous name.

In your opinion, how influential are reviews on the consumer?

This has always been a hard question to answer because influence is difficult to measure, but I think reviews have an impact on sales and also on reputation. Reviews may not create bestsellers as Oprah does—although the New York Times Book Review has quite an impact—but the Amazon ranking for a book certainly rises after almost any review, so they do sell books. Reading groups use reviews in selecting books. Award committees use reviews. Bookstores and libraries rely on reviews in trade publications, the Times, and local papers. Directly or indirectly, reviews bring books to a reader’s attention.

Can the average reviewer review a friend's book and keep her objectivity?

No, I don’t think a reviewer should review a friend’s book. The relationship is bound to interfere with her response to the book.

Amazon and many other online retailers and review sites rate their books. Do you think this is a good thing? Is rating books fair? What should people keep in mind when looking at these ratings?

I find the rating system too crude to be useful. Reading a review, we learn not only about the book but also about the reviewer’s viewpoint and can judge for ourselves whether we want to read it. A rating accompanied by a few comments tells the reader almost nothing. Especially since reviewers apply these rating so differently. One reviewer will praise a book, with no criticism, and give it 3 stars, while another will call a book poor and also give it 3 stars. How do we interpret this? The visual impact of these stars is hard to ignore, but I think readers should be cautious in using them.

Do you think a review written by a reader has less value than one written by
a professional reviewer? What defines a true 'reviewer'?

It depends on the reader and the professional reviewer. Since reviewing began, readers have become “professional” reviewers by reviewing. There aren’t credentials or degrees. But those readers who became good reviewers had critical skills, writing skills, and they did the necessary work. And it does require work to write a good review. The reviewer has to have the background knowledge to assess a particular book and the ability to articulate his or her views on how and how well the book works. Ideally, the professional reviewer has devoted time to learning his subject field and how to write about books, and if he has, this gives value to his review. The reader, if his review is to have value, has to do this as well. It takes time and skill, which is why I’d like to see reviewing as a vocation.

Do you think a reviewer or site that receives payment for a review from the
author or publisher can be honest and objective?

I think it’s a bad idea in many ways to pay for reviews. There’s a potential conflict of interest that’s best avoided. Just as important, I think, it means that books are selected for review because publishers or authors can pay, not because they’ve been judged worth reviewing. And with so many books, we need to give attention to those that are worthwhile, not those that are best funded.

Do you see true good reviewers as endangered species?

I think that good reviews have always been an endangered species. But I do think the field is in transition right now. The danger is that the very concept of a good review will be lost amidst the mass of ratings and “comments.” But it seems to me that there will always be people with critical skills who will want to critique books well. And as some of our best critical magazines, bloggers, and online web sites show, they’ll find a way to do that.

What advice would you offer aspiring reviewers?

My advice is to read widely. Read literature from the past as well as the present, to develop a feel for good writing and a context for understanding and appreciating what’s being written now. If you’re interested in a particular field, read in that field, know the background. In reviewing, I suggest reading carefully, writing precisely, and being brave as well as thoughtful. We need critics who will say they think something is good when it’s being ignored or that it’s weak when it’s being hyped as the new great thing, and that takes courage.

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slippery_small(Kingsport, TN – May 15, 2009) — We are pleased to announce The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing, written by Mayra Calvani and Anne K. Edwards, is a 2009 Next Generation Book Award Finalist.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

PRLog (Press Release) – May 15, 2009 – The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing was written not only with the aspiring reviewer in mind, but for the established reviewer who needs a bit of refreshing and also for anybody-be they author, publisher, reader, bookseller, librarian or publicist-who wants to become more informed about the value, purpose and effectiveness of reviews.

The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing is a one-of-a-kind book written to compile as much information on book reviewing as possible in one place for the convenience of new and experienced book reviewers. Written to serve as a guide, it is also an amalgam of resources for those aspiring reviewers who wish to have their reviews published in print and online.

A Foreword Magazine’s Best Book of the Year Finalist, EPPIE Finalist, and US Book News Finalist, The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing is currently required reading at Loyola College, and Kent and Claremont Universities.

The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing is the product of Mayra Calvani and Anne K. Edwards’ tireless research on the subject and written in an informal language to make it easy to understand for anyone aspiring to become a book reviewer. It will be updated periodically to include new information on reviewing as it becomes available.

This book is available through all book sellers online and may be ordered from brick and mortar bookstores as well.

Sample of content, blurb, reviews and authors’ bios can be found at http://slipperybookreview.wordpress.com.

Contact: Lida Quillen, Publisher, at Publisher@twilighttimesbooks.com

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Anne K. Edwards gets interviewed on Advice Radio on the slippery subject of book reviewing. Listen slippery_smallto the live interview here.

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Cheryl C. Malandrinos is the Editor of The Book Connection, a blog focusing on reviews, author interviews, and on hosting virtual book tour guests. She's also a reviewer for The Muse Book Reviews. Cheryl is currently looking for more reviewers to join her blog, especially for those who review ebooks. A virtual book tour coordinator for Pump Up Your Book Promotion, Cheryl sees a bright future for review bloggers and calls the Internet a 'huge promotion playground' for publicists and authors. 

Thanks for this interview, Cheryl. How long have you been reviewing?

Hard to believe, but I’ve been reviewing books for two years now. I began by reviewing books for my own enjoyment at my Aspiring Author blog. Then I joined The Muse Book Reviews in 2007. In July of last year, I was interviewing so many authors and reviewing so many books that I began The Book Connection — which is where I post all my reviews now.

How many books do you review a month?

This all depends, because in addition to reviewing and interviewing authors at The Book Connection, I am also a virtual book tour coordinator for Pump Up Your Book Promotion. In addition, I’ll review just about anything and some months I have more children’s books—which can be read quicker than novels. So, it can range anywhere between two and ten books a month.

Are you currently recruiting more reviewers? If so, what are your guidelines?

This is something that I’ve considered for a while now, because I would like to grow the site and offer more to my readers. If anyone is interested in reviewing for The Book Connection, he or she can contact me at cg20pm00(at)gmail(dot)com. Place “The Book Connection” in the subject line and include a copy of a recent review, any publishing credits, what genres he/she is interested in reviewing, and if he/she accepts eBooks.

I encourage anyone who is interested in becoming a reviewer for The Book Connection to view the site and see what types of reviews are there. While I don’t expect everyone to write in a similar style, I expect a review to provide enough information to the reader to allow her to make an informed buying decision. A synopsis and three sentences doesn’t cut it.

How should an author contact you about a review request? Do you review e-books as well?

Authors may contact me at cg20pm00(at)gmail(dot)com with “Book Review Request” in the subject line if they are interested in having The Book Connection review their book. The only thing I don’t review is pornography. I don’t accept eBooks any longer. These books tend to get buried at the bottom of the “to be read” pile. After spending eight to ten hours a day on the PC, I don’t really want to subject my body to reading a 200+ page book on it. Besides, I read in the tub to relax before bedtime, and I haven’t found a PC or eReader that can work under those conditions. This could change, however, if additional reviewers come onboard.

How do you select the books you review? How do you determine which reviews to post on your site?

Everyone has their own personal tastes, but I consider each request by the synopsis sent to me. If the author’s website is listed in the email, I will go out to the site to find more information and an excerpt. I always post a review at my site—good or not so good. I have a fancy for Christian and inspirational fiction and non-fiction, memoirs, romance, children’s books, and historical fiction. I enjoy reading about the American Civil and Revolutionary wars, so books set during these time periods are ones I make a point to look for.

Do you think there’s a lot of ‘facile praise’ among many online review sites? What is your policy when it comes to negative reviews?

I believe this comes down to some readers being easier to please than others. I’ve gone to review sites and thought, “Does she like every book she reads?” But I’ve also gone to review sites and thought, “Does this person like anything he reads?” No book is going to be all good or all bad. There are going to be things you like and aspects you don’t really care for. A good reviewer can combine those things and provide a reader with a basis for a sound buying decision. As for negative reviews, I’ve had to write them; but once again no book is going to be filled with flaws and have not even one redeeming factor. I mention both in my reviews and I do so without being brutal. I’ve read some reviews and wondered if the reviewer is a sadist. Nothing is served by ripping an author’s book to shreds. Give readers some credit; they don’t need biting marks from a reviewer to learn the areas where the book failed to meet a person’s expectations.

There was a lot of controversy last year between print publication reviewers and online bloggers. In your opinion, what defines a ‘legitimate’ reviewer?

A reviewer is a reviewer. Now, some might carry more weight than others, but a review that highly recommends an author’s book, whether it comes from the New York Times or an online review site, is still a feather in an author’s cap.

What is your stand on paid reviews?

I don’t know how sites get away with this. There are so many book review sites out there that review books for free. Why would an author pay for one? Do the words, “I highly recommend this book,” sound better coming from a paid site than a free one? I don’t believe the reader cares one way or the other as long as she doesn’t end up wasting money on a book that isn’t what she expected.

Do you think it’s okay for reviewers to resell the books they review? What about Advance Review Copies?

This is basically getting paid for a review and I think I’ve made my thoughts clear on that one.

What are the most common mistakes amateur reviewers make?

Giving away too much of the story or not providing enough information for the reader to make a sound buying decision. I’ve actually almost done the first one myself. When I get excited over a book I’ve just read, I want to tell the world about it. But a few times I’ve looked over my review again and said, “You can’t tell them that!”

With so many major newspapers getting rid of their book review sections, how do you see the future of online review sites?

Since online review sites are a big part of the virtual book tour business, I say that these sites are going to become more and more important to publicists and authors in the future. Publicists and authors are really in tune with how to reach a wide audience, and therefore, the Internet has become a huge promotion playground for them.

Do you keep the author’s feelings in mind when you review?

Not really. I mean, I don’t write scathing reviews, but only because I don’t believe they serve a purpose; not because I’m concerned with hurting the author’s feelings.

What promotional opportunities does your site offer authors?

The Book Connection also interviews authors and occasionally has guest bloggers. When I have time, I provide updated news about some of my former clients from Pump Up Your Book Promotion.

What is the most rewarding aspect of being a reviewer?

I am given the chance to discover many talented writers who I never would have found otherwise. I look forward to following their careers.

Is there anything else you would like to say about you or The Book Connection?

The Book Connection has grown a lot in the past year. I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished. I encourage readers and writers to check us out and see what we have to offer.

Thanks, Cheryl!

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Hi all,

I was recently interviewed by Dorothy Thompson for Blogcritics Magazine.

You may read the full interview here.

Cheers!

Mayra

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Hi all,

slipperyThe Slippery Art of Book Reviewing garners another rave review. This time from Lillie Ammann’s blog, A Writer’s Word, an Editor’s Eye.

Best,
Mayra

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Andrea Sisco is the co-founder of Armchair Interviews and the author of the forthcoming mystery novel A Deadly Habit, to be released from Five Star in 2009. Started in 2005, Armchair Interviews now has about 100 staff reviewers who review an average of 200 books a month. This popular review site receives about 2 million hits a year and has been named by Writer's Digest one of the Best 101 Websites for Writers for three years in a row. Armchair Interviews has a lot of offer authors and readers, from audio interviews, to audio blurbs, to contests, to ads, to a whole range of resources on books and writing. It also publishes a monthly newsletter. Sisco is always on the lookout for quality reviewers. Just drop her an email at Andrea@armchairinterviews.com and she'll get you started. Armchair Interviews reviews most type of books in about 43 genres, with the exception of ebooks. In this interview, Sisco talks about the challenges of running a big review site, and about her forthcoming novel, among other things.

Thank you very much for this interview, Andrea. Tell us a bit about Armchair Interviews.

Our knowledge of books and our excitement and passion for the idea of Armchair Interviews was the beginning of creating a great site. We placed ourselves in the able hands of Paul Larson of Creative Arc in Minneapolis and he patiently worked with Connie and me to design an attractive, user friendly site. We then began to add other things like audio and written interviews, contests, a reader's page, an author's page, etc. for our visitors.

But it's the reviewers. They're passionate about the written word. They're good writers, responsible people and oh so much fun. They work hard. They work with us, not for us and that's the difference I think. They are Armchair Interviews. And we've gained new friends from around the United States and the world through Armchair Interviews. They simply are the best. Check out our site and then other sites and you'll see what I mean.

What is the most challenging aspect of running a review site?  

Time. It's primarily two people (Connie and I) running Armchair Interviews with some help from Paul Larsen (our go-to guy for web help) and Jeff Foster who does some marketing for us. Connie has a business (that pays the bills) and must give that time. I am a writer, I travel a great deal with my husband, we live in MN and AZ (which is a time and logistic challenge) and we have numerous children and grandchildren I want to spend time with. Connie and I always want to do more and wonder where we'll get the time.  

But money is another important aspect. It takes money to create a good site and money to maintain and improve a site like ours. Authors often don't like paying for ads, interviews, etc. The problem is, if the site isn't paying for itself, it goes away. They don't understand the number of people we reach and what it costs to maintain a site like ours. Some authors are appalled that sites like ours would charge to promote their titles. Hey, think New York Times, People, USA Today… We may be small, but like them, we have to have revenue to survive. I can never understand why they don't blink an eye at the idea of a magazine, television or newspaper ad, but believe that the internet should be free.

Note: We don't charge to review a title.  

How should an author contact you about a review request? Do you review e-books as well?  

An author should go to www.armchairinterviews.com and click on our FAQ for review submissions and follow the directions. You'd be amazed how many people don't think the rules apply to them. Often though, they read? the directions and send me an email and a link to their web site so I can gather the necessary information myself. That will not get an author a review. Time is short; we have about 400 submissions a month and can't fill them all. It's easier to go with the people who follow the directions. So read the FAQ and follow the directions! How to get that review or interview is another Q & A interview and one every author should hear if they want review coverage. But that's for another time.

Do you think there’s a lot of ‘facile praise’ among many online review sites? What is your policy when it comes to negative reviews?

Criticism is okay. And we criticize books. But we will never, ever trash a book or an author. We want to celebrate authors and their work. If a book (and unfortunately it's almost always self-published) is so awful (poorly written, edited, etc.) we won't review it at all and inform the author of the issues. But we'd like authors to remember: A review is one person's opinion.

In your opinion, what defines a ‘legitimate’ reviewer?

I'm not sure I can give you a definitive answer. It's like art; I may not know what good art is, but I'll tell you when I see some. Peruse the sites. What do they look like? How many titles have they reviewed? Do they offer anything besides reviews (nice for building traffic and authors want traffic)? If you contact them do they respond in a timely manner and are they professional in their responses? Ask them how long they've been in business and what their stats are.

But the bottom line is: Print publication continues to reduce their coverage of books. Internet is the coming wave and is even now, becoming the place to go for learning about new books. If I had a small promotion budget, I know I'd get more bang for my buck with Armchair Interviews than with a magazine or newspaper. Why? Because other than USA Today, most newspapers are local or regional. And I could never afford USA Today. Magazines? Well most are out of the price range also. Television and Radio are usually local (budget restraints). That leaves the internet and it is huge!

What does your site offer readers?

Armchair Interviews offers readers well-written and comprehensive reviews in approximately 43 genres. What’s really nice is we have ‘experts’ reviewing for us. Authors, engineers, medical doctors, veterinarians, professors/teachers, you get the picture. So if we have a book that fits into a particular field, we can usually find someone who is ‘in the know’ about the subject matter. And for fiction, well, we have some well read, talented writers who can give a ‘spot on’ critique of the book. Without our reviewers, we couldn’t exist. They are simply the best in the business.

Armchair Interviews also provides readers with written and audio author interviews. We’re branching out in our interviews and including industry professionals such as publicists, editors, agents and the like. While contests and give aways are not a big part of the site, we also do a number of those yearly. We try and keep up with and report industry news and let people know who has won the various writers’ awards.

But most importantly, we have grown to a point where our site is filled with information for readers, but it’s also a great place for author’s to be seen, because our readership continues to grow.

What promotional opportunities does your site offer authors?

We offer ads, audio author interviews and written Q&A interviews. They are really reasonable in cost, given our audience. We can provide an author with tailored packages to fit their needs and pocketbook. Connie and I are very conscious to remember that most authors do not have a huge promotional budgets. Contact us for promotional information.

We have authors, publishing houses and publicists that regularly work with us to promote their authors. Oh, and sometimes, for fun and to help, we'll do a give away for an author we feel strongly about. That's a freebie in conjunction with the author or publishing house.

Tell us about your new 'Audio Blurbs'. What are they and how can they help authors and publishers?

Armchair Interviews wanted to do something different to help promote authors. After some thought, Connie Anderson and I decided to record audio ads. This is like a movie trailer, but with the audio only. They are approximately one minute in length and if the audio interests readers, they can click on the book cover icon and purchase the book.

It’s simple, fun and unique. We’ve just enlisted several professional actors to help with the voice work.

I understand you're also an author with a mystery novel coming out soon. Tell us about that and how you find the time to write while maintaining such a demanding review site.

Yes, my agent recently guided me through the first time novelist contract. I am so happy that is done. Now I’m in edits. And I’m happy to report they were miniscule, but still demanded time. A Deadly Habit will make its appearance in 2009 and will be published by Five Star (a part of Cengage Learning).

I don’t know how I find the time to do all that I do. Perhaps I’m overly organized. But let me tell you, living in two different parts of the United States, having a large number of children and grandchildren, traveling, running Armchair Interviews, writing a mystery series and now coauthoring a Young Adult Fantasy series with romantic comedy author, Kathleen Baldwin is like negotiating a mine field, time wise. Frankly, I do what I can and to the best of my ability.

There is one thing I know for sure; there will not be a second Penelope Santucci mystery published exactly one year from the publication to A Deadly Habit because I’m just plotting it now. I also think that it is helpful to have a supportive and understanding husband (Bob Pike). He is the author of 21 business books, a professional speaker, runs our family consulting business and is the chairman of a non-profit faith organization, so he knows what a full schedule is and he pitches in and helps when needed.

I also have some great kids and in-laws. They’re helping with the promotion of A Deadly Habit. My actor/screenwriter son, Guy Wegener is producing a video trailer of A Deadly Habit. Not the still shot videos one sees, but a real ‘movie’ video trailer. And my son-in-law, Alan Pranke is building my personal author web site, www.andreasisco.com. It will be up sometime in late summer of 2008.

And Connie Anderson, my best friend and co owner of Armchair Interviews feeds me info, helps out when I’m on a deadline and keeps me sane. I could go on, but you get the picture. I’m blessed to have wonderful people in my life who want me to succeed. Oh, and I don’t watch a great deal of television and I don’t sleep a lot. But at my age, I’ve heard we need less sleep. I love all the things that I do and they are so exciting. I don’t want to let any of them go. I might miss something.

Anything else you'd like to say to our readers?

We'd invite you to check us out. We've got almost 3000 reviews, numerous audio author interviews (they change all the time), contests and a lot of scrumptious information. And the newest thing is: We have a member's only site. For a very small amount of money monthly, we have a place where members can go for 'stuff' that's not on the regular site.

Thank you, Andrea! I appreciate your time!

 

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