The Uncertainty of the Three Star Review: A Thought Piece

Bookish Discussion

Hey everyone!

I haven’t really done a proper thought piece in a while but myself and my friend were chatting about three star reviews a little while ago which inspired me to set up a poll over on my Twitter account asking my fellow book blogers and readers their feelings about what is meant by a three star rating.

I posed the simple question:

When using a five star rating system do you think a 3 star rating for a book is positive or negative?

From a pool of 1,211 votes the results were 87% of readers and reviewers viewing a three star rating in a positive light as opposed to 13% against.

I purposefully did not ask the question if they felt it was a neutral rating because I wanted that gut instinct that people get when an answer has to be an absolute.

My Personal Opinion When I Rate a Book Three Stars

Three star reviews (out of a five star rating system) are always tricky to write because to me they are a positive recommendation of the book.

Reasons for a book getting three stars from me will include one or two of the following:

  • too many stereotyped characters
  • a bland ending that fell too safely into the realm of well-worn tropes
  • writing that was a little perfunctory rather than lyrical
  • overtly obvious attempts to create a plot twist that never surprises
  • an initial book in a series that serves only as a means to sell the subsequent book instead of truly focusing on having its own solid storyline. Note this does not mean cliffhanger endings.

One or two of these issues together is really not that damning and thusly means that I will very much have enjoyed the book.

It also implies that sometimes I am simply not the right reader for this book.

Take for example my issue with books in a series not having a story that I believe is strong enough for that book. This comes from my personal dislike of series books, it is an established fact that my preference as a reader is for standalones whereas I know many other bloggers and readers that love reading series books.

Similar can be said for my love of lyrical prose. What to me is beautiful and poetic is overly verbose purple prose to another.

And therefore, a review and rating of three stars from me can mean that I will direct this book into the hands of the right reader.

Interpreting the Results

I must admit I was surprised to see such a heavy bias for three star ratings being viewed in a positive light because the idea is out there that three star ratings are not that favorable. I had thought that my view of three stars being positive would be in the minority as, for instance, I believe the majority of blog tours would not include a three star post in their tour. The defacto system would instead request that a reviewer who rates a book three stars should either step back from the tour altogether (holding off their review until after the tour has completed), or shine a spotlight on the book in a different manner e.g. author interview, book excerpt etc.

So these results do beg the question that maybe authors, publishers and blog tour operators should feel more positive about a three star rating. I had a number of authors respond to my poll who said they were heartened by all the discussion as they now appreciated that the vast majority of readers and reviewers from my sample pool declared that a three star review was not a damning indictment of a book.

Further Breakdown and Feedback from My Twitter Poll Voters

So many of the people who voted in my Twitter poll were really kind enough to engage further in discussion with me and elaborated on their standpoint. One of the questions I posed to these people was would they read another book by an author that they had rated threes stars to previously, and I also asked if a three star rating from another reader/reviewer would put them off reading that book or any book by that three starred author.

From the three stars is negative camp there were people that told me that they used ratings along the following lines:

  • 3.5 was one person’s lowest rating for a book they would finish, if they were not enjoying the book to that rating they would simply DNF.
  • For me personally, a 3 star is negative. If as many people hated your book as liked it, that’s a negative in my opinion. Ratings are often times skewed and misleading though. Many people throw out 5s and 1s unjustly so everything has to be taken with a grain of salt.
  • 1 – hated it 2 – really didn’t like it 3 – didn’t like it 4 – liked it 5 – loved it; 60% on a test is negative. So is a 3 star rating.
  • As an author I see 3 stars as negative. Basically the reader wasn’t that bothered about it.

A lot of people also replied to me and said that their choice for saying that three stars was positive was a very lukewarm sort of positive. For example:

  • I won’t review anything under 3 stars because if it’s less, I DNF. I would say it’s positive, not great obviously, but enjoyable enough that I finished it. I’ve rated some 3 stars and gone on to read others by the same author.
  • It was okay, I liked it a little
  • 3 is pretty much the lowest rating I’ll to a book I finished. 1 and 2 star books are usually DNF for me. So basically, a 3 star means I tolerated it enough to finish it, but not necessarily a book of recommend.
  • Covers a wide range, from the ‘not bad and I’d like to accentuate the positive’ to the ‘not very good but I don’t want to go as low as 2
  • It really is true neutral. When I give 3 stars, it means it’s a book that was fine to read, and a relatively enjoyable experience, but not one I’d necessarily recommend as it wasn’t the best read possible but certainly is not negative, so I voted positive.
  • To me, three stars is “it was okay”. Two stars is “yikes but had potential”. One star is “get this away from me.
  • A three star review from someone else wouldn’t put me off reading the book and if I give a book three stars it probably wouldn’t stop me reading other books by the same author.
  • For me, a 3 is low balling it… I tolerated the book just to say I finished basically. Anything below that, I really didn’t like it. I would never “not” recommend an author to anyone… what floats my boat may make the next boat sink, or vice versa. As far as reading more from that author, I’d be reluctant, but I won’t ban them from my bookshelf unless I read something else that I hated.
  • 3 to me is an okay; more positive than negative, but has room for improvement.
  • Personally I think I may be neutral but if I see 3 star reviews that others have done that doesn’t automatically put me off a book. Overall I feel 3 is positive rather than negative. Definitely something that divides opinions though
  • Overall, 3 stars is generally neutral/positive to me. Usually it means that it wasn’t my cup of tea personally, but I can understand why other people might enjoy it, and I’ll still recommend it based on that
  • It is average for me. Just okay. Just because I give an author a 3 star doesn’t mean I will never read them again. Every author has an off day or a book that doesn’t resonate with the public. Plus, I just love to read. No need in banishing those books to the slush pile.
  • 3 stars, for me, is kind of a nothing rating. it wasn’t bad enough for a lower rating and there was nothing stellar to give it a higher rating. generally though, i would consider a 3 to be on the positive end of my disappointment spectrum
  • It can be either. It’s where I find a lot of constructive criticism. And not just in reviews for my books either, lol. Before I became an author, I was a blogger, and a 3* for me was where I saw a book had faults but was worth continuing the series to see if it got stronger.

But the majority of people who said they voted that 3 stars was positive came back and told me things like this:

  • I think 3 stars is/can be positive it doesn’t have to always make you feel like you have been taken out of this world… if it made you smile for a bit then that’s great.
  • Definitely positive. I rate books 3 stars if I like them and will recommend them to the right people. It mostly depends on whether or not I was emotionally moved.
  • I think it’s positive! I usually rate a book 3 stars when I enjoy it, but there isn’t anything about the book that stands out to me
  • Positive! 3 stars means I really enjoyed it, but that just something didn’t work for me – it might I found the world building to not quite have enough depth, or I didn’t vibe with some of the characters, but I would still recommend it!
  • Positive. 2.5 stars is neutral, and anything below that is negative.
  • 3 stars for me means I liked it. It didn’t blow me away but there were elements done well and I’d be interested in seeing the author improve.
  • Positive. 3 stars for me means that I still really liked it but there were some flaws I couldn’t get past but would absolutely read something else by this author.
  • I consider 3 stars to be positive. It can be an enjoyable book that wasn’t groundbreaking or not quite to my individual tastes but I know others would enjoy it.
  • I think it’s positive. It can mean that the book was good, enjoyable but not mind-blowing
  • If I see someone rate I book I rated at 5 stars with only 3 stars, I get a little offended, lol. But if I am rating the book, 3 stars is ok. It means I liked it but wasn’t wowed or it wasn’t my personal taste. I think I would be willing to give the author another go if the book intrigued me
  • I rarely give 5 stars, so a 3 is positive. 5 = amazing & I must tell everyone about it at every chance, 4 = I really liked it & it stood out above others of the same genre, 3 = I liked it & most likely would read more by the same author, 2 = it was okay
  • I see 3 stars positively. First, it tells me that the reviewer thought it was worthwhile to finish reading. It’s like a steak lover savoring a good hamburger – sure, the meat has less quality, but sometimes it fits my mood better to just chill out and relax.
  • For me 3 is good, 4 is great and 5 is excellent. Majority of my reviews are 3. Even if I would maybe rate it halfway to a great, I’d put 3.
  • 3 stars for me is “I didn’t love it, but I definitely didn’t regret using my time to read it”. I would definitely read another by the author though. I have found 5 star books and 1 star books by the same author, so I would typically read another book by them
  • 3 is positive for me and means I enjoyed the book enough that I would recommend it to friends and would read the author’s work again. For me, books get 4/5 stars when I get completely invested in the story/emotional and there’s memorable characters/worlds
  • 3 is above half so I think it’s a positive thing. For me it means I enjoyed it but there were may a few things that gave me pause.
  • Positive. In my experience, the real kiss of death is two stars.
  • I believe 3 is a positive for me because I only ever rate a book 3 if I liked it. Else it’d be a 2 or lower.
  • I’d say positive. For me it’s a it didn’t wow me or have me completely hooked but there were some aspects that I liked and enjoyed.
  • 3/5 is more than 50% which means I liked more than I disliked.
  • A critical but fair three star review can tell you far more about your book than twenty ‘Great book, loved it’ 5 star reviews. It means the reviewer liked what they read, but cared enough about it to seek to correct the flaws. Cherish them.

The Final Debate

So from this poll of my twitter followers who are mostly book twitter people it seems that we need to rethink the negative view of the three star review.

And perhaps we should start to appreciate the fact that the reader/reviewer for the most part views the novel as an enjoyable reading experience that is recommendable to other readers and is also an author that they will most likely read another book by.

So dear friends I open the floor to you all for further debate and discussions.

  • Where do you stand on the interpretation of the three star rating in a five star rating system? Do you think three stars is mostly positive like 87% of my poll believes? Or do you side with the 13% who say it is negative? Or are you truly neutral? (I find this stance very difficult to reconcile with as I always think there is a little part of us that will mostly like or mostly dislike something. I guess ambivalence is not in my nature!)
  • And possibly most controversially of all, and the reason I was inspired to organise my poll and write this thought piece, is do you as a reader feel that there is a place for a three star review on a blog tour?
    • Just for a second forget the fact that between author/publisher and blog tour organiser there is a fee. This is purely a thought debate as we can all understand why people in the book business want four and five star reviews for that promotional and hype aspect. But why is the thoughtful three star review relegated to post-blog tour?
    • Why is it on NetGalley that the three star review is said to be I neither liked nor disliked this book? Is it a case of publishers/authors trying to skew our ratings to give falsely high results?? Because if we liked a book then we surely can’t rate it only three stars… can we? But do these poll results not show that we most certainly can and do rate books that we like three stars?
  • And to any of my author friends that are readers of this blog, how do you feel about getting a three star review? If you had engaged a blog tour company to promote your book what is the lowest rating you would feel comfortable with? What about reviews on Amazon or other similar retail sites from readers of ARC copies of your books? Would you like them to only leave a review above a certain rating? Do these comments that I collected from Twitter alter your viewpoint in any way? Or has it been further strengthened?

Please share any and all opinions you have as I would love to hear from all sides of the debate.

41 thoughts on “The Uncertainty of the Three Star Review: A Thought Piece

  1. I really love how you asked this on twitter and then promptly wrote a whole post analyzing the results! (And your decision of not putting a neutral choice is super.) 🥰
    To me, the result was also very surprising. I thought almost everyone would view 3 stars as meh or less than that. I refrain from publicizing my 3-star review on twitter for the same reason, even though for me it means I liked the book. Do you think booktwt is biased? Like everyone is harsher (ummmm) than the average readers who rate because we also write reviews? 🤔
    Ahhh you’re just so awesome for doing this poll and sharing the results with us in detail! Thank you!! ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s been such a fascinating discussion both here and on twiter Hsinju, I’ve loved seeing everyone’s opinions come in.
      About the bias in what reviews are publicised: it all depends on the individual blogger I guess. Some people aren’t comfortable posting reviews for books that they didn’t love and that is their choice.. They don’t want their blog to be a negative space, or they don’t want to detract from the effort the author put into writing the book.
      For me I will post reviews on my blog and on goodreads for every book I read irrespective of the rating. It’s what makes me feel whole as a blogger/reviewer. I enjoy writing my reviews whether they are for five star books, three star books or one. If it’s an ARC review the same thought process goes into it. I will review and rate it publicly irrespective of whether or not the review is positive or negative. However, I don’t post negative reviews of ARCs (less than 3 stars) to retail sites such as amazon. I feel that would be unfair to the author as I don’t want to stop anyone from buying their book…it is their livelihood after all. But if a prospective reader wants to google reviews of the book then they can find mine and I don’t mind because clearly the prospective reader is willing to put in a little time before they purchase.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I do the same thing, Emer!! Writing a review, whether good or bad, is very rewarding since it helps me make sense of whatever book I’ve just read. I post all reviews on my blog, but I don’t tweet about my review if it is equal to or less than 3 stars. I also only post 4- and 5-star reviews to retail platforms such as Amazon, B&N, or publishers’ sites.

        Thank you so much for sharing!! 💕💕

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  2. 3 stars for me is average. I enjoyed it but there are elements to it that I didn’t like/thought the book had flaws. I just posted a 3-star review and it is a mixed review. I think 3 stars does seem to be seen as negative, perhaps because if a reader doesn’t love a book, anything else is an unwanted reaction? I don’t know. I would read another book by an author I”ve given a 3-star review to. Anything below 3 I would probably wouldn’t, though. I didn’t know 3-stars on NetGalley is bad though. :/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment Viki! Yeah the three stars on netgalley rating irks me. It’s you neither liked the book nor hated it and I just find it pointless! I will always tend more towards one way over the other. Couldn’t ever be ambivalent lol!!!!xoxox

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  3. I also feel it positive. For me, when I read a book usually starts from a slightly positive 3 star rating, and then I will adjust up and down if there’s things I particularly liked or disliked. So a three star book can be either there were good and bad things and they sort of averaged out, or it was a nice read but nothing very special. For me, anything 3.5 and up would really stand out.

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  4. Great post, Emer!! I agree there seems to be this general idea re: book tours and review copies that 3 stars is ‘negative’, which is why I left star ratings out of the bookstagram tours I’ve done recently because one of them was a 3/5 star, and I feel weird about putting that in the caption 😂 I definitely would say 3 is a positive one from me, that I generally enjoyed it but I didn’t get so invested that it could kick up to a 4 or 5. 3/5 could also mean that some parts I absolutely loved, but others were problematic or otherwise less enjoyable that the overall rating got dragged down.

    And for sure I’d still be open to reading another book by someone whose book I rated 3 stars previously. This would mostly be down to whether their next book’s premise is attractive, as well as other people’s reviews, and I’d hope whatever niggles I had with the previous one had been worked in in the interim!

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    1. Thank you so much Sabrina! And right!!! There is this weirdly negative connotation with three star reads and I just don’t get it. A three star review actually makes me quite curious to read a book! I don’t know, maybe that’s just me lol!!!! I do wish that NetGalley especially would change their attitude towards three star ratings or at least give us half stars lol!!!! xoxoxox

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This was absolutely a great post. I really think that there’s such a stigma on 3 stars being negative when that’s not at all the case. 3 stars was a book I enjoyed but it didn’t blow me away or there a few things I had issues with. I’m not shy of doing a 1-2.5 rating for books that I dislike. I have also found that over the years, I’ve kind of perfected the type of book that I highly think I will enjoy. I don’t read everything, only the things that I would really enjoy. So, this has me rating a lot of books higher. Also, 3/5 is 60% which is still a passing grade in school. It’s not the best grade but it’s passing. It’s kind of how I see it too, I enjoyed it but I didn’t love it. This is all probably really confusing and rant-y. haha

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    1. Thank you Leslie!!! I love your thought process on this. It is really interesting to me. I’m definitely not shy about giving low 1 and 2 star ratings myself either lol!!
      I’m glad you’ve found your happy place with books though. That you mostly enjoy them now. I can relate to that because I used to read a lot of NA books for escapism ….you know when you just need a gentle book because life is getting you down… well I like romance and I like light reads. So I kept persisting with sports NA books because I thought that’s what they were (light and romantic)… but I usually ended up hating them!!! And my average rating of books plummeted. And then I realised that the type of romance I like is romantic comedy and very much PG13 so I stopped listening to recs from friends about all these sports books and my average rating has been going higher!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes!! I think knowing what you prefer makes a huge difference in ratings. I used to just pick up anything when I was on netgalley to get my percentage going and that was a mistake. I totally cannot get into sport romance!! I get why you struggled there. I think it’s very niche. I’m glad you have figured that out tho, it will help!

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  6. Great post!
    I see 3 stars as “it was fine, probably won’t read again”/”wasn’t for me but I can see why other people would enjoy it”/”nothing new here”.

    It’s not good or bad when I give a book 3 stars. It just…is. Haha.

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  7. Hello Emer, I would generally see a three star review as somewhat positive. I was interested to see ityreads comment that sometimes a five star review would be considered untrue. It seems the whole process is a bit up in the air because of that. I love writing reviews myself but wouldn’t give five stars unearned.

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    1. Sorry for the lateness of reply Elizabeth. It really is fascinating to see all the different opinions isn’t it. I have to say if I saw a book get nothing other than five star ratings myself I would begin to feel suspicious!!! I think that a well thought out three star review can be the one that pushes me to read a book more than a five star one!

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  8. Interesting discussion! I agree with the majority – 3 stars is positive in the sense, I’m glad I read the book. But obviously, I have some criticism as well. If I had high expectations (as I had when starting ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’) 3 stars may be very disappointing, whereas if I didn’t know much about the book beforehand, it might be ok. So I guess, it all depends…

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  9. Such an interesting topic! I was so surprised to see such varying opinions of 3 star ratings. For me, 3 stars is positive, but maybe the book had problems that took me out of the story (for example, characters made decisions that didn’t vibe with their personalities or a plot structure wasn’t believable) or maybe the book is forgettable?? 3 stars definitely means I won’t reread it, but I wouldn’t mind picking up another book by the same author. The blog tour issue… I definitely think 3 stars should be allowed on a tour. Trying to make it look like everyone loved a book is silly to me. 😉

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    1. Thank you so much Dedra!!! It really is interesting to see all the different takes on this. I’m with you that a three star book is most likely one I will not reread (although never say never lol!) And yup, I’m with you in having three star ratings on a blog tour. I think a carefully thought out three star review can make me more inclined to read a book someone rated five stars. :)))) xoxox

      Liked by 1 person

  10. This was a really interesting read! The three star review is a tricky one, luckily this year I’ve been loving so many of the books I’ve read that I’m mostly giving out four/five star ratings and hardly any lower ones! 🤔 It’s so fascinating to read everyone’s different interpretations of what the ratings imply though! Great post 💙♥️💛💜💗

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    1. Thanks so much Christine!!! For me when I read a three star book it’s still one I have enjoyed and an author I would read again. And right??? SO interesting to read through all the comments and different opinions on this one. Sorry I’m so late replying my friend… spoonie struggles! xoxoxox

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  11. I loved this post! I definitely see 3 stars as a positive review. Many books I find okay or whatever end up as a 2 star or lower. 3 star reviews to me are yeah it was good/ entertaining but could use a bit of work or just didn’t fully work for me.

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  12. Oh goodness, there were so many typos in my response 🙈. Thank you so much for this post. It was a very enlightening read, and it actually might help me rethink my personal opinions on the 3 star rating! Now I’m inspired to write my own post discussing my own rating system 😁

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  13. I also seem to have the mainstream opinion here 😂 I will rate a book three stars if I liked it, but nothing really special stuck out to me (you know, the kind of book where I am pretty likely to blank on all character names if you ask me 6 months after I read it 😅). I also rate books three stars if I really liked them but they have issues I can’t really see past, like unpolished writing, flat characters, gaping plot holes… But overall, three stars is more positive than negative!
    As to your blog tour question – I actually have a rather controversial opinion 😁 I am extremely skeptical of books that only have positive ratings (it makes it seem like what the author says is so bland that no one can possibly take offensive to it, or that they are deliberately trying to hide the bad feedback). I LIKE also seeing bad reviews before I decide to pick up a book! And, I’m not gonna lie – sometimes a one or two star review makes me so curious as to what could possibly be wrong with the book that it makes me want to read it even more! So I think if I were an author, I actually wouldn’t put any restrictions on what kind of reviews can be posted in a blog tour 😉 Negative feedback is good publicity, too!

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    1. I blank out character names five minutes after I finish the book…………. MY MEMORY IS SO BAD NAEMI!! I’m very much in agreement with you about the overall positive nature of a three star read.
      And I don’t think your opinion about books that only receive high ratings is that controversial at all. Maybe because I am inherently suspicious too, but it just doesn’t make sense to me when EVERYONE likes a book lol!!! I have no interest in reading bland five star review after five star review. I like a review that is a little more critical. That breaks things down into finer points… that actually makes me want to read a book even more than the completely fangirling five star ones!!! xoxoxo

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I’ve always thought of it as pretty good & enjoyable but I didn’t LOVE it. Yes, there might be some issues with the book or things I didn’t care for but mostly it was good. Looking at my Goodreads breakdown, almost HALF of the books I’ve rated on there are 3 stars.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. An interesting article – food for thought in this one! I consider 3 stars positive. I rarely review books as 2 stars as they’re often DNF’s except where I promised to review the book and it just had too many issues. It’s been a long time since I’ve rated a book 1 star. I don’t read books that I know I’m going to hate which means I also avoid super controversial and “click-bait” type books that receive a huge amount of negative press. I read for fun and want to discover new, fun reads and share those with people not get angry or sad about truly terrible books.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. “3 to me is an okay; more positive than negative, but has room for improvement.”

    This is how I feel! It’s a book where I can’t forgive a few glaring errors, or was too slow paced, had annoying characters etc, but I would seriously consider reading the sequels / author’s other books.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly right Vee!! (Sorry for the delay in replying my friend, been so unwell and replying to blog comments just was too much for me). But yes, there is so much validity in a three star review. I really wish that more publishers/authors/blog tour companies realised that we can still recommend books that we rate three stars. That we still enjoy them!!!! :))))) xoxox

      Liked by 1 person

  17. It won’t let me like it from here so I’m hunting this down in the reader. Anyway! I saw my tweet response to this and realized typo 😬 but I loved this post. I loved seeing everyone’s thoughts as well.

    I’ve been in various tours and they’ve all been 3 stars or higher. I think there is a stigma that having only high reviews in a tour means bloggers are lying which isnt accurate. Could some of them be lying sure but that doesnt mean that they are at all. I think that one comment you included about how 3 star reviews tell you more about the book than generic 5 star ones and i think thats so true!

    Thank you for sharing this with us! I hope that some authors and bloggers who think 3 stars are negative get a different perspective after reading some other opinions.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. So sorry for such a delay in replying to you. I’ve been very unwell. But thank you so much for this lovely, considered comment. It’s really interesting hearing everyone’s take on three star reviews. I definitely think that they aren’t as negative as the perception that publishers, blog tours and authors have of them. There is so much to value in a carefully considered three star review imo :)))) xoxox

      Liked by 1 person

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