The Cause and Effect of Self-Publishing on Your Career

Mary Keeley

Blogger:  Mary Keeley

This past week I had an ongoing exchange with a writer about the potential benefits and cautions of self-publishing when there is no offer of a contract from a traditional publisher. Of course, I advised him the all-important factor to consider must be the long-term effect this decision may have on his career.

I offered him a hypothetical situation as an example:

Ann is a debut author with a well-crafted novel or nonfiction manuscript. She invested in a professional edit; it’s publication-ready. However, traditional publishers think something in her book is too far outside their comfort zone and don’t want to take the risk. Or, the timing isn’t right. She is getting rejections because publishers’ calendar slots for her specific genre are filled for the next two years. Or, a multi-published author has just released the first book in a series that is too similar to hers. Editors at all the traditional publishing houses know her book won’t sell well against that level of competition.

In this case Ann has a decision to make. She could set the manuscript aside and start over on another book. That’s a painful choice. After all, she invested many hours, much passion, and money in it. Still, when she looks at it from a long-term career perspective, it might be her best option in the current market.

The other option is for Ann to consider self-publishing her book. Disclaimer: I’m not advocating one option over the other because every author’s situation is unique. But if Ann leans toward taking the self-publishing route, there are important factors I’d advise her to evaluate first:

  1. She needs to do thorough research with self-publishers and get recommendations to find one that doesn’t require a large upfront fee. That might not be a problem for a high-profile author, because he or she has an established audience and sure book sales. But a new or relatively unknown author like Ann won’t have that assurance, making it unlikely she’ll recoup her financial investment. Most small self-publishers don’t offer multiple marketing and distribution streams to promote books.
  2. She can’t assume she’ll sell boatloads of her book among the sea of books and eBooks on Amazon. How will potential readers know to look for her and her book? I’d suggest she take inventory of her social media strength before making any commitment. Rather than giving upfront money to a self-publisher to get her book published right away, she might be wiser to invest it in a social media expert who will help her maximize her online presence. Such an expert would advise her how to design her website and focus her blog and social media to attract a larger, growing audience for her book and her brand. This may feel like a step backward. But in the long-term view it could be the best choice for Ann.

Because good sales are key to getting your next contract.

I have received many interesting proposals listing previously published and self-published books that, sadly, had poor sales. Unfortunately, it will be difficult to recover and attract an agent or editor in the future.

Still, it isn’t impossible. I want to end on an encouraging note: “…but with God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). I don’t know what the writer will decide to do, but I hope I armed him with information that will help him to make the right decision…for him.

What do you think you would do if you were in Ann’s situation? If you experienced something similar, what did you learn from the occurrence?

56 Responses

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  1. Jeanne T says:

    Wow, there is so much to consider. Without taking a lot of time to think through every aspect of Ann’s situation, I think, if I was an author without a platform, I would take a lot of time to figure out the long term impact of self-pubbing or going the traditional route. I might be willing to set the first book aside in favor of writing a different book a publisher was interested in and save the current baby for a future time when I either had more of a reader following or there’s more interest. Of course, I’d also be doing what I could to establish an online presence. Does this make sense?

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Absolutely, your take on it makes great sense, Jeanne. In the hypothetical, Ann did everything right in preparing her manuscript for submission, but she may have neglected the business side of publishing that resulted in one or more of the possible reasons for rejections.

  2. Rick Barry says:

    Right now I have a novel manuscript in my files that cost many hours of my life. None of the editors who saw sample chapters were enthusiastic. So there it sits. Sure, I could spend the next 10 or 15 years tinkering and fiddling with it, but I’m not going to do that. I’ve moved on. I’ve sold other projects (both short and long) since then. Possibly someday I’ll go back to that story and try revamping it using the new knowledge and improved writing techniques I’ve gained since I wrote it, but for now I consider that manuscript part of my apprenticeship in the trade. It was good practice, but looking back even I see that it wasn’t ready.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Rick, thanks for sharing your experience. It sounds like that manuscript was learning curve material in your early writing. Therefore, it has value. Having grown in your craft and getting published since then, it might be worth taking a fresh look at it and giving it new life, if you still have a passion for the story and can make it marketable for today.

      • I appreciate your perspective, Rick. I have two books behind me, one definitely unpublished and one still out. But I’m moving on to the next one. They both provided tremendous learning experiences for me. But I’m glad to hear your input, Mary, about resurrecting those manuscripts in the future. I still love the ideas for both of those books and hope that, in the future, they could be marketable with new life.

    • Rick, that’s the conclusion I’m coming to with my first manuscript. Now that I have a second one, I am realizing just how much that first one was practice, a learning ground for future projects. I try not to think of it as a waste of four years but of four years of intense learning!

      • Rick Barry says:

        Jackie, love the phrase “four years of intense learning.” Most of us have to work through the unpublishable stage before we learn to refine the gold.

        Yes, some day I might revisit that tale, but right now I’m 15,000 words into an adventure that captivates me much more!

  3. Tough situation for sure! I really want to be traditionally published, so I think I would set the book aside and possibly try to have it published later, when some of the things mentioned might not be so much of a factor (especially if the idea is marketable, but the timing just isn’t right).

  4. I agree with Lindsay. If the timing were right further down the road, that would be great. But in the present, I’d probably set the book aside and start a new project – especially if it gives me the chance to still publish with a traditional publisher.

    This is an interesting post because I had a conversation with some writer friends about this topic recently, and what traditional publishers would think of low sales with a previously self-published writer. And what about an author who had self-published under a pen name in a different genre. Would they still have to disclose those sales?

    Just thoughts. Anyway, it’s hard to let go a manuscript you’ve worked so hard on but if we can take what we’ve learned from that one and apply it to a new project, then hopefully the timing will be right for that new one and you can still go the traditional publishing route.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Good question, Cindy. An author who self-published in another genre under a pen name doesn’t need to feel obligated to disclose that title and its sales on a new proposal in a different genre using his or her real name.

      Thanks for sharing your positive perspective.

  5. Larry says:

    I think the author might have to consider a few other factors:

    1. Why did they write the book?

    2. What do they want from their publishing career?

    If they are satisfied that they meet the reasons for writing the book and are able to shelve it for being published another day, they might want to consider doing so.

    If they are feel that shelving the book will not satisfy the reasons for writing the book (they feel they have something to share, and that people who need to hear that should not be kept from hearing it due to the nature of the publishing industry) they might want to consider self-publishing.

    If they do not want a writing career, then by all means self-publish. If one does not want a career, do not let the absurdity that people in the industry have to put up with keep you from finding happiness with your writing.

    If they do want a writing career, the question is do they want to go the traditional route with all their books, do they want to go full-on into self-publishing, or do they want a mixture of the two? There are different criteria for each choice, so as Mary said, they should be aware of what is required for whatever they choose.

    • Larry,

      I appreciate your thoughts and I agree. Defining your goal(specific, not generic) and knowing why you are writing helps make decisions less complicated, even if/when the choice is difficult.

      Have a “tea-riffic” weekend!

  6. Excellent questions to consider, Mary, and I think I would wait in that situation. I appreciate the caution you’ve voiced, especially as someone in the position to accept or reject manuscripts. I would wait — and pray for patience.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Right, Meghan. Another important factor: the necessary grace to be patient. If we view patience as a forward strategy, active rather than passive, it might be more palatable to implement.

  7. If I were Ann I would:

    1. Define my writing goals
    2. Define my career goals for writing
    3. Thoroughly research self-publishing companies
    4. Thoroughly research ebook vs print publishing
    5. Definitely build an online presence~with either choice this is a MUST.

    While writing my first WIP my precious mother–in her mid 80’s– continuously bombarded me with the proverbial question, “Are you finished with your book yet?” (I wondered if she wondered if she would ever see my “book” in print.)

    Finally, one Christmas I did a Blog2Print book for her. Happy day. She held in her hands not only my words, but photos. My mistake was sharing my idea for another manuscript.

    And now…she’s on the prod again…I don’t think another “blog boook” will satisfy her.

    One of my writing goals is to hand my darling mother a traditionally published book…(She’s just not into the Kindle thing!)

    Happy weekend.

  8. Decisions. Decisions. They are never easy. 🙂

    I’m not as afraid of self-publishing as I used to be, but I still don’t see it as a viable option for me, so I would put the book on the shelf and hope one day there would be more interest. Promoting books in this economic climate is tough even for some better known authors, never mind me trying to publish a book on my own and promote it all by myself. Besides, I might not have the proper skills to make the correct decisions for my book, which could lead to costly mistakes.

  9. Susan says:

    What are “poor sales” for self-published books that would supposedly put-off a traditional publisher? What number would be good enough to not put-off a traditional publisher or agent?

    I wonder if a lot if this discussion is focused on the past, rather than the future. It seems to me that “traditional publishing” may be going the way of the dinosaurs, sometime over the next twenty years or so. So many things to consider …

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Susan, before the economy hit the publishing industry hard in 2008, publishers found sales numbers around 20,000 acceptable. In the current economy, however, they are satisfied to get 7,000 – 10,000 copies sold.

      Rather than going away, traditional publishers as we’ve known them will make the adjustment to a new form of traditional publishing. They won’t go away, and we don’t want Christian publishers to go away. They are our safeguard to getting Christian content to readers.

      • Susan says:

        I don’t necessarily want traditional publishing of any kind to go away. But I don’t know that what we want make much difference. I may be totally off base, but I look at young readers and I believe the future is in eReaders and eBooks with print copies being novelty items (with certain exceptions like photography books, etc.). If that happens, the entry cost goes way down — the costs of eBooks are a pittance compared to hardcopy books.

        On the other hand, that also means that breaking through the noise of all the published books gets harder and harder. Readers will start looking for new gatekeepers to review and tell them what is worth their time and what isn’t (a jet role of the traditional publishers and agents). That doesn’t have to be “publishing” companies – but some organized structure will take its place to be and may be the same people in the end.

        Anyway, thanks for your comments! It is an intriguing question as to whether or not to self-publish …

  10. Good points.

    I think a writer takes a risk when she chooses to self-publish, but she might have bad sales when she publishes traditionally, too. No matter how you publish it’s important to come out strong. I was just at a conference where I heard sad tales from mid-list authors who couldn’t get contracts.

    Mary, do you think poor sales on a traditionally-pubbed book will hurt an author more than bad sales on a self-pubbed book? Or are both equally harmful?

    • Mary Keeley says:

      “No matter how you publish it’s important to come out strong.” So true, Sally. Mid-list authors are a good example. Say one of these authors had a 3-book contract with a traditional publisher. Sales may have been good on the first book, mediocre on the second, and not enough to cover the cost of production on the third. She won’t get a new contract from that publisher. When she sends a new proposal to other publishers, they will look at her sales track record and not take a chance.

      Poor sales on a traditionally published book reflect directly on the author’s writing, his or her efforts to promote the book, or a combination of the two. A new author’s agent might be able to explain poor sales for self-published book to a traditional publisher, but not a mid-list author’s because why would a mid-list author self-publish except that she couldn’t get a new contract with a traditional publisher. If her self-pub sales are also poor . . . well that pretty well closes the door.

  11. Craig says:

    I faced this decision, as well, and decided to self-pub my last book while I market my current manuscript. While yes, like others I dream of hitting it big-time, I also want to get my writing into the hands of readers. Can’t do that while the manuscript is sitting in a drawer.

    Two things have come of this that I feel are making me a better writer and author. (1) I’m learning an awful lot about social media and marketing that I wouldn’t be learning by simply sending out query after query; and (2) I’m getting actual feedback on my writing. Not from friends, family or co-workers, but real people I don’t know. I believe it will only make my next novels and my outreaches to agents better.

  12. AWESOME post! I too have been contemplating on spubbing for similar reasons. I actually always wanted to do both. Still waiting. Still praying.

    Whatever God has in store for me is all I care about but sometimes it is hard knowing what is meant to be when decisions are up to us. 🙂

  13. Ashley Bazer says:

    I am a self-published author, but thankfully I didn’t pay a dime. I won a writing contest that led to publication with this particular company. I am grateful for the opportunity and the exposure, but I don’t wish to self-publish again. It’s a very expensive process for those who do have to pay for it.

  14. Stephanie M. says:

    I guess it would come down to this, if you were going to die next week, would you breathe a sigh of relief your ms was still stashed away since you couldn’t find an editor that liked it, or would you be happy to have had something published and let the world decide. I mean, really, how many traditionally published authors have “big” sales??? If editors are going to turn their back on you b/c of sales, whether you’re self or traditionally published, then what difference does it make?

    I think most authors are quite content with modest or even low sales, so long as it’s selling… not sitting.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      You have a point, Stephanie. But full-time authors, or those who want to be, need to sell enough books to make a living. It’s good that authors now have the self-pub option, especially when they have a great book but can’t get a traditional publishing contract. Generally speaking, traditional publishers still offer better marketing and distribution channels to help sell books, which gives authors a better chance to get good sales. But authors cannot coast along in this publishing environment. They have to continually improve their craft, grow their audience, monitor trends, and present stellar manuscripts and book proposals to remain competitive.

  15. It is so weird you posted this article today. I just posted an interview with a friend about the book she decided to self-publish for timing reasons. She wanted it to be “out” before the reality-show fervor ended completely. Her book is a great read, so I’m glad she didn’t table it.
    Because of her and other friends who’ve self-published for other reasons (ie. Re-issuing backlists and publishing books that fall through traditional cracks) our website has decided to run a series on authors who’ve decided to go this route and the reasoning that led them to it, starting November 12th.
    So far, I do not fall into any of the categories I deem worthy to try self-publishing, so I have chosen to continue on the traditional path. For me, it is an important one which I hope will help me hone my craft and learn the business better.
    Each writer needs to evaluate all the pros and cons and see how they fit the various options. However, authors need to be careful not to choose it because they think it’s easier. In fact, under the wrong circumstances, it seems the more difficult route. Especially since what you put out there will be an example of your work for others to evaluate. If it doesn’t meet the standards of what readers expect of books worked on by teams of experts, it could turn off readers for the long run.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Connie, your friends have sound reasons to self-publish, and your series on the topic with be helpful. Great advice for writers evaluating the pros and cons. Either route they take, the quality of their work has to be high.

  16. Karen Cioffi says:

    Great conversation. And, funny I was just asked this question last week. The post and comments cover the topic. The author needs to decide what’s best for her. I’m self-pubbed and traditionally published. It is a bit more comforting having a team behind you.

    Authors who aren’t sure what they want to do, or aren’t sure if they can ‘sell’ on their own, might test the waters with a self-published short story.

    And, Connie brought up a good point. If you’re self-publishing, you do need to produce a quality product, one that’s properly edited and polished. Whatever you publish is a reflection of your writing skills.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      “It’s a bit more comforting having a team behind you.” Good point in favor of traditional publishing, Karen. And I like your idea about testing the waters of self-publishing with a short story.

  17. It’s tempting for an author without an agent to look into self-publishing, but without a strong following, it could be a terrible mistake. Thank
    you for reminding us of this, Mary.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      You’re welcome, Dale. A new author who is tempted to self-publish without having first developed a strong following and benefited from the help of a critique group or a professional edit of her manuscript is looking through a short-term lens. Decisions need to be made from the view through a long-term lens if you want to make a career of writing.

  18. Thank you, Mary, for this thought-provoking and challenging post. I have to admit that I found the list of reasons for the rejection of a quality manuscript discouraging. Although I’ve heard them before, seeing them in one paragraph just highlighted for me how very hard it is to succeed in getting a book published the traditional way. Thank you for the reminder that “all things are possible with God.”

    To a degree, I’ve already put aside a cherished adult novel and switched to pouring my energies into another book, a different genre, for business reasons. After becoming aware, through this blog, that I would need to have not only a second, but a third book in process if I got a call from a literary agent, I did some reflection and some hard thinking about the two novels I was working on. I put aside the one I had been working on for years and which I felt totally invested in and began to focus entirely on the YA fiction novel I had started to write as a way to take a break from my intense adult novel. I’ve mention this already this week on the blog, so briefly, there was more of a market for the YA book and I felt I could develop a brand based on it, but I didn’t think I could do a quality job trying to write another novel like my adult psychological mystery. Based on that experience, I would say that if I were Anne, I would put the cherish manuscript aside and start on another more marketable story. The tricky part is the timing. Would the “more marketable story” still be marketable by the time I finished the new manuscript or would it end up being one that publishing houses had two years worth of manuscripts in the same genre? Focusing on questions like this could make a writer crazy and discouraged. So the only solution I can see is to write for the joy of it and let God worry about the timing. Perhaps part of the way through working on the new story, I would find that the market had changed and the original manuscript had become salable. As you said, the business of writing takes patience. It also takes perseverance and faith.

    Have a blessed weekend.

    And for anyone who lives in the Northeast U.S., you are in my prayers for safety should Hurricane Sandy follow the current forecast track.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Christine, I believe you came to the right conclusion: write what you are passionate about, what you feel God has put on your heart to write. That’s where your writing will be at its best.

      If possible, attend at least one writers conference in the next year where you can introduce yourself to editors and agents, learn what they are looking for, attend sessions on craft or pay for a professional critique of your manuscript, and hear about trends in the industry. You’ll come away inspired and informed.

  19. Darby Kern says:

    I wrote a book in college and it sat on the shelf like a plate of refried beans. I liked it and thought it could find a market, but was never able to find an agent. About 8 or 9 years ago I dug it up, dusted it off, updated the references (and weaponry) and submitted it to a small publisher of crime fiction- the genre that it fits into. The book no longer reflected me or my values as a Christian, but I thought I might be able to get some dough out of it. And my wife was pregnant at the time.

    The publisher passed on it but gave it some kind praise and wished me the best of luck with it. It was clear from his letter that he read the whole book, which I took to be a good sign. I still didn’t have an agent or the prospects of any, and like I said, this wasn’t what I wanted to be known by anymore. So I found an online self publisher that would list the book with Amazon.com and their own website that specialized in online distribution. I put it under a different name, an anagram of my own and sat back to watch the money roll in.

    $14 in two years.

    Times have changed and I have a wonderful agent now who suggested it wasn’t worth having the book out there since it wasn’t my “brand” anymore. Great advice. I did and I haven’t missed the next $14 to be made.

    The point is, the book was out there- self published, either as a download for kindle or on demand printing. Sounds awesome, but you need to know how to market it or nobody is going to find it. I had a clever cover and good back copy, a pretty good description and a plug from the publisher that turned it down. So what? I still didn’t have the time to do the branding of it. Now I’m not gonna say that when I sign with a publisher it’s going to be any different, but I now have the ear(s) of someone who knows so much more about the market and marketing than I do and they also have my best interests in mind.

    It was a fun experiment but I don’t want to do it again. This is where God has lead me and I wouldn’t go back.

    Besides, my Bookie family has been such an inspiration and blessing to me. Why would I want to?

  20. John Brewer says:

    This is a really difficult question. First of all, how do you know your book (or books) is any good? Having written four books in the last decade and received really good feedback from readers, I was at least convinced that I wasn’t writing crap. While this information is not of value to agents and editors, it is nice to hear from people you don’t know that they really enjoyed your work.

    However, I’ve not had any success finding a traditional publisher. It’s going on 13 years now, and though I continued to get excellent feedback, even from freelance editors, I had no interest from agents. Actually, I have had interest, a good bit of interest in fact, but the fact that I write primarily for boys has killed me every time. I am not assuming this but have been told it, directly, by agents such as Tina Wexler who liked my work but lamented that the main character wasn’t a female. These days it doesn’t help being a white, male, conservative, southern, evangelical either. I think that’s five strikes against me!

    A year ago a colleague and I decided to go with a small press in Ohio that was only a small step removed from self publishing. I will be the first to admit that sales have been difficult. Connecting my book with a potential reader is hard. Separating that reader from his cash is even harder. I’ve had several hundred sales on my first book “Multiplayer” for teen boys, and my thriller hasn’t been out long enough to get much data on yet, but it’s slow. In short, I’m not really making any money. And I’ve lost a lot of sales since people couldn’t walk into B&N and buy it off the shelf, regardless of the fact that it is on every bookseller’s website. However….

    Jumping in with both feet has forced me way, way outside my comfort zone. I want to be a successful author so I’m suddenly doing things I’ve always been afraid to do and it is having results. I have some middle school visits pending – my first ones. I am getting into some Indie stores. I’ve done some book signings. In short, I’m learning and gaining experience. I’m learning a lot. A lot about the industry, about distribution, about how money is made. I still hope for a traditional contract some day and I remain confident that my work is on par with anything out there. But rising above the noise these days means becoming much more savvy on the business side. I love writing but in the end, it is also about making money, and if you don’t know how to do that with your book, not even a traditional contract is going to help you much. All authors do most of their marketing these days and going with this micropress is teaching me to do it.

    So, if you want to make money and sell a million books, self-publishing is probably not for you. However, if you want to be forced out of your comfort zone, learn to market, learn the industry, and can accept that you aren’t going to be the next Tom Clancy this way, give it a go. At the very least you’re going to learn all about the different file formats, how covers are made, who the distributors are and why they are important, and like me, you might discover exactly who your audience is – because it probably isn’t who you think it is. Then, when you go to write that proposal down the road, you can give informed answers that don’t make you sound like you are guessing.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Wow, John, you eloquently articulated the “If you take the risk and jump into the deep end, you have to learn how to swim quickly” story. Thanks for sharing your publishing journey and the lessons you learned.

  21. Peter DeHaan says:

    I want to self-publish my dissertation. I’m not expecting many sales and not planning doing much to promote it. I simply want it to be available for research and those few people who want to read an academic book on the subject.

    Do you think this will hurt me later on when I seek representation and a book deal for my other projects?

    • Mary Keeley says:

      I don’t think it will hurt your future projects, Peter. And I don’t think it’s necessary to disclose it on future book proposals unless you write non-fiction and your topic is closely associated with the subject matter of your dissertation. In that case you or your agent can give an explanation for the dissertation’s low sales.

  22. A friend of a friend actually went through this several years ago. She had written a children’s book that was rejected by multiple publishers, so she and my friend decided to self-publish it. For this particular person/book it was a bad idea to self-publish, mostly because it was her first book and they didn’t have an editor look at it. I think this is the case with many (but perhaps not all) self-publishers: they’re so convinced that their work is amazing that they don’t take it seriously when they’re rejected. Many writers are also too hasty in their decisions, opting for the immediate satisfaction of seeing their work in print or online rather than taking the time to create something that will sustain their careers.

  23. A lot to think about.

  24. If Ann and I aren’t good friends, I tell her everything you all have shared and wish her well in whatever she decides.

    If I’m Ann’s critique partner, I tell her that’s a shortcut that can hurt us more than help us if we’re career-minded authors.

    I’ll remind her that I’ve thought about myself so many times when that manuscript that’s won so many contests can’t quite make the jump to representation. Agents love the writing, but don’t care for the setting, or such a young protagonist in the early chapters. I tell myself this is an important novel that needs to be out there for God to use to change lives and why not be part of the e-book, self-pubbed, taking back the process revolution? Others are doing it and it’s working for some of them.

    And then I remind myself what goes through my head when I’m considering a book purchase and see a publisher that isn’t a traditional house. Right or wrong, that’s what happens.

    That gives me the peace of mind to go right back to writing and learning. I’m on the third manuscript now and what makes it my writing is the same in all three of them–strong heroes and a story that resonates long after the last page. My plan is to keep writing books until I sell one. For me, and maybe for Ann if she’s really honest that she’s just grown weary of watering and weeding without seeing the blooms (that analogy courtesy of Caleb Jennings Breaky) it’s more important to be a traditionally-published and prolific author than to have our book out there any other way. That’s the dream when we started this, and for me it’s worth working toward no matter how long it takes. I’ve got a big hard-drive. 😉

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Nancy, you illustrate what may be the tipping point for many writers as you face this decision: Your big dream is to be traditionally published, and that dream determines the course that is right for you. It sounds like you are content with that decision and determined to stay the course until you reach your goal. I hope you achieve it.

  25. Michelle Lim says:

    So many people ask me about this issue, Mary. Thanks so much for your thoughts. It gives me some great information to share with others!

  26. Susan Craig says:

    My writers group is in the process of self-publishing a Christmas anthology with any proceeds going to a charity that promotes literacy. We have learned an immense amount, increased our individual social media presence, and had a great time.
    Will we sell a goodly number? Maybe not, but our marketing efforts are in place and I believe the experience itself has been very worthwhile.
    Will I self-publish any of my trilogy of novels? I still haven’t decided, but this post and comments have given me a great deal of useful information to consider. Thanks to all!

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