22 Years Ago This Week – My First Attempt At Getting Published

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Remember 1991? I do.

My soon to be 23 year-old son was still in diapers. I was a very young man in the military, though I’d already been serving for more than five years at the time.

And I was writing. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing  mind you, but I knew it was something I had to do. I’d never tried something so ambitious as to write a novel – instead I tinkered with short stories with horrible titles like Gore Town.  (I won’t be resurrecting this story any time soon, by the way. It’s just terrible.) As a young father, though, I wanted to write stories that I could tell my then nine-month-old son when he was old enough to understand what the hell I was talking about. So, in the fall of 1990, I sat down at my brother electric typewriter and penned a children’s story (picture book) that sort of fell out of my head and onto the page.

Written in verse, it’s a nonsense story about a hapless father who can’t cook if his life depended on it. The only problem is that he’s the world’s greatest chef in his mind. Its original title was “Cooking … with Dad!” later renamed “Rutabaga Swish” and after a few revisions, I decided that it didn’t suck on an epic scale. I even spent that Christmas wondering if I might actually try to get it published. But how the hell do you get a children’s story (or any story) published in those pre-Internet days, right? My first stop was the library. I talked with a very helpful librarian at the Village Square library in Calgary and she’d managed to have a few short stories published in a couple of anthologies. She told me the borrow The Canadian Writer’s Market and a handful of other books. I spent January 1991 reading up on the process of getting published which nowadays looks like ridiculously labour intensive process:

1) Type your manuscript on really damned good paper that publishers won’t immediately toss in the trash.

2) Type a query letter on the same damned good paper.

3) Insert query letter in a business envelope along with a self addressed stamped envelope for the publisher to write back telling you to either send more or burn your story because it’s just that bad.

4) Wait impatiently for up to a year to hear back.

That was it. Boom.

The waiting process can still be just as long but at least in 2013 you can use MS Word which makes writing a breeze. You can also email your query which saves on the cost of paper, stamps, envelopes and frustration.

I queried all over the place – anyone who published children’s stories in Canada received my query. After a long two years of querying, I received the loveliest rejection in the world from Coteau Books in Regina, Saskatchewan which I still have. It’s my most cherished possession as an author because it was written proof that I didn’t suck and that I might make a go of this whole writing gig. They’d rejected the story with a standard form letter but the following was hand-written at the bottom of the query letter:

“Cooking … with Dad! was being seriously considered by our readers until we changed our focus. It should go far.”

At any rate, that was some seriously cool validation in my then 25 year-old mind. It took nearly two decades until I actually got to hold a book I wrote in my hands. (Shade Fright – published by Snowbooks in 2010)

The moral of my story is quite simple: your path toward publication requires two things. Write all the time. Keep pressing on.

That’s really my best advice to anyone. It may take nearly two decades, it might not. But you just have to write and keep trying to get better. You must believe that being published will one day happen and you have to hone your craft. I’ll mark this little anniversary by posting that first children’s story below. I hope you get a kick out of it:

 

Cooking … with Dad!

By Sean Cummings

 

My name is Beth and I’m sick as heck, my Dad is home

today.

He’s cooking supper, here! Tonight! I wonder what mom

will say?


It’s not that he can’t cook because my Dad is very

smart,

Every time he bakes a cake my mother calls it “art”.


He keeps peculiar recipes for foods too strange to eat,

Funny things, like garlic rings or pickled lobster feet.


Last summer we went picnicking out by Ramsey Creek,

Dad brought his home made spinach pie, YUCK! It

looked terrible to eat!


It was green like swampy crabgrass and it oozed

inside the crust,

Dad wanted everyone eat to it but that meal we

couldn’t trust.


“My home-made spinach pie!” he chimed as he went to

take a bite,

 

Mom and I turned away, we couldn’t bear the sight.


“Slurp, munch… hey, phooey! Yuck!” Dad cried. I

guess it wasn’t good,

“That’s the last time I make spinach pie, the last

time anyone should!”


Last week he made a special meal called “Brussel

Sprout’s Ole”,

Dad tasted some, his face turned red and then I

heard him say… 

 

“I need a glass of water.”  

 

“What’s wrong?” I asked. Dad looked at me while

sipping on his drink.

He sighed, “Why don’t we take this awful stuff and

pour it down the sink?” 

Last month he cooked a casserole called “Rutabaga

Swish”.

Plop! It made a sticky sound when it landed in my

dish.

Dad tried a mouthful, he wrinkled his nose… then his

eyes began to roll.

“This meal is bad, it’s terrible! We should bury it

in a hole!” 

On Mother’s Day a breakfast feast for everyone to

try.

 

Onion jam on whole wheat toast and banana pepper

pie. 

Dad served it on a silver tray. Mom looked at him

and said,

“This breakfast looks quite ghoulish; I’m going back

to bed.” 

 

Two weeks ago, a Sunday brunch of creamy turnip

stew.

Mashed potato crunch in a bowl, and radish curdle

chew.


Dad served the meal with crackers and hot napkins on

the side,

The smell was pretty bad that day; our dog ran off

to hide. 

 

Of course he also cooks… 

 

Spicy lemon sausage rolls, peanut butter soup.

Roast broccoli in barley sauce, beet and kiwi goop.

French fried eggplant, zucchini quiche, macaroni

strudel!

Marinated mushroom buns, bologna steaks and

noodles! 

He cooks and cooks and cooks and cooks! I wonder

when he’ll stop?

It’s not like everything he tries to make won’t

surely somehow flop. 

Last Christmas it was sauerkraut-asparagus soufflé.

He topped it off with carrot glop and tuna fish

paté

At Thanksgiving we had turkey taco and pineapple

ketchup cake.

There was steaming spicy head cheese salad, and

Cornish liver bake. 

Hot pepperoni cookies, oyster soup surprise

Easy barbecued pumpkin seeds, unusual tarts and

pies. 

Sweet potato goulash, bell pepper custard squares.

Parsnip relish, deviled beans and cheese, tangy

shrimp éclairs… 

 

“Beth, it’s time for supper!”  

 

“Oh no!” I take my seat, it’s time to eat. I turn

and face my plate.

“I’m glad to see you’re here,” Dad says, “I was

worried you’d be late.” 

“Something smells good”, my mother says. Dad smiles

down at me.

“What exactly did you cook, what in heaven can it

be?” 

Dad places a pot in front of me, then gently lifting

up the lid,

Steam billows out and fills the room. Dad giggles

like a kid. 

He clutches a pair of tongs, reaches deep inside the

pot.

“Be careful now,” my mother says. The meal is piping

hot. 

Then Dad pulls out what looks like…

 

A hot dog.

 

“Hot dogs?”

 

“That’s right!” 

“No more alphabet buckwheat pancakes, no more bacon

and squash supreme.

No more backyard skillet stroganoff or wilted

lettuce cream.” 

“No more deep fried ice cream sandwiches or zesty

oxtail curry.

No more carrot cashew suppers that I whip up in a

hurry!” 

“I’ve decided to cook hot dogs and that’s all if you

care to look.

I will boil or fry your hot dogs until the day I

learn to cook!” 

Well, now we eat a lot of hot dogs.

Hot dogs, hot dogs, hot dogs … what are we to do?

It’s either wieners on a bun to eat or Dad’s awful

mustard stew!

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International Please Don’t Pirate My Book Day

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One of my fave authors, Chuck Wendig has a fantastic post over at his site Terrible Minds. He’s wanting to make February 6th “International Please Don’t Pirate My Book Day” and is encouraging all authors to share their thoughts on the subject. So here’s mine.

Thank you book pirates.

No, seriously. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for stealing my book.

Thank you for taking something I slaved over, lost sleep over, fretted over, cursed at, pulled my hair out over and threw out to the universe for approval or disapproval.

Thank you for keeping me working a day job because every cent I earn from my book that you just pirated could have helped pay my bills so that I might one day write books full time.

Thank you for being so awesome as to just LOVE LOVE LOVE my book SOOOOOOOO MUCH …. that you had to steal it. (That’s love baby. Nothing says love like stealing something you want more than anything.)

Thank you for keeping the economy mired in the muck when your ten dollar donation had you bought my book might contribute to the wages of the people who helped produce it.

Thank you so much for justifying your thievery by stating that my book isn’t a book at all, but content. (Because you know that book stealing is bad but downloading content is socially acceptable  You are so awesome book pirates – your ability to reason through your actions is a sight to behold.)

Thank you for not supporting your local library where you could get the book for free with a cover and everything. I know, it sucks to get up off your  ass long enough to wander down to the library and borrow it. But then you’d have to return it which would necessitate another painful trip down to the library when you could be resting your butt cheeks in your ass groove on your couch, surfing the latest ebook piracy websites.

Thank you for diminishing the worth of my efforts. It means so much.

Thank you for not supporting your local book store which is probably closing or in the process of going broke.

Thank you for taking a principled stand on why everything that appears online should be free. I’ll remember that when I break into your house and take your 52 inch flat screen that you saved up for a year to purchase. I’m going to take it because you don’t really need it – you’re too busy on your laptop looking for my fellow authors books to download for free. Your principles are so important to me that I just had to break into your house to take your TV – I want to go online and download content, too. I just want to do it on a bigger monitor.

Okay, that’s enough thank you stuff for now. You all get my point. Look – it’s stealing. Period. My books are works that I sweated over – that I produced by getting up at three in the morning to write before I went to my day job. If you illegally download my book then I hope you get a weird disease that causes your #$!$ to fall off.

That is all.

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Dear Failing Newspaper Book Sections – Bloggers are your salvation

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One of Canada’s two national broadsheets, The Globe And Mail last year cut back on its Globe Books section and yesterday we learn they’ve let two literary editors go.

While I disagree that literary criticism is in crisis in Canada or anywhere on planet Earth for that matter (more on this in a moment) this is another example of the death by a million cuts hitting newspapers these days. It is no bad thing either. (Yes, I suspect this statement has now officially ticked off literary purists out there. Good.)

What strikes me is the statement by outgoing Globe Books editor Martin Levin:

“The literary venues are drying up, ” says Levin, “which is a problem when you consider how important they are to our cultural identity. I suppose that blogs will take over now, but they tend to appeal to people who are already in line with the blogger’s viewpoint.”

I disagree. The literary venues are far from drying up – they’ve just moved online and are working hand-in-hand with social networking. Anyone with an Internet connection can now review a book either on a blog or a site like Goodreads (10 million members) , Shelfari or LibraryThing. Not only are they reviewing on these sites, they’re putting their reviews on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Chapters/Indigo (who are on my sh@t list because they aren’t stocking Strange Chemistry Books titles. Boo, hiss … you suck).

I’m also not buying the whole cultural identity thing either. I live in Canada. If you’re not from Canada, whenever someone from the Canadian book world invokes the term “cultural identity”, it’s actually code for “government should subsidize Canadian publishers because without subsidization we can’t compete“.  (Hey look – here’s a blog post specifically about that issue.)

So if Goodreads has 10 million members and there are 2,530,000,000 search results on Google for “book blog”, it stands to reason there might still be a place for literary criticism on the pages of newspapers in Canada and abroad. Surely there must be some serious literary criticism that might elighten readers among 10 million or so members on Goodreads. Many of those members are cross posting there from a blog they’re running.

Dear failing newspapers – bloggers are your salvation! A good blogger has a built-in audience they can bring to your paper’s book page. I repeat … a good blogger has a solid social network!! in 2013, money can be made from social networking! Who knew? If The Globe Books is going bye-bye because there’s no ad revenue, it’s entirely possible new ad revenue can come in if The Globe Books can show serious numbers of people reading there each week. Bloggers can and will kick that door wide open and bring a global readership to a national or even local newspaper.

Know what I mean, jellybean? Levin is dead wrong in his assessment of book bloggers. Anyone who shares his view that those who read book blogs do so because they appeal to a particular blogger’s viewpoint hasn’t read many book blogs. The very BEST criticism with vigorous debate about books is happening via book bloggers and all the social networking tools they carry with them. A smart newspaper would, I don’t know, tap into that potential. Maybe contact some bloggers who possess serious readership and offer them a freelance gig! I suspect they’d do it in a heartbeat. And that newspaper would be exposed to all those followers of that blogger.

There you go – I just saved the book section of every struggling newspaper that’s out there. It’s a no-brainer: get book bloggers writing reviews!! They won’t let you down – they have a passion for books that knows no bounds and they have a readership many newspapers can only dream of. Also, open up the book section to works that aren’t just literary fiction, non-fiction, cook books, etc. Genre fiction is what most people read – get it reviewed. It ain’t low brow. A bajillion people read 50 Shades of Grey (which I hate but still..)

See where I am going with this? Book bloggers are the next logical step if newspaper book sections are going to survive and thrive. Editors like Levin might want to consider starting a book blog of their own. It’s not rocket science – it’s social networking. Word of mouth has always sold books – it’s just moved online.

…. or are only serious literary critics allowed to review books in the paper? You decide Globe Books and others in the same boat. There’s money to be made out there. New readers to connect with and new subscribers to your paper. Hit up the book bloggers – they won’t let you down.

 

 

 

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4 things that will determine if you’re gonna cut it as an author

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Lists, lists, lists – we love lists! They simplify our lives. Lists give us a hierarchical structure to things and the best part about lists? You get to check them off! Who doesn’t love checking things off a list – from grocery lists to Christmas lists! In the spirit of listy goodness, I’ve compiled my own list that will help you know whether you have the chops to make it as a published author.

1)You know why you want to be published.

Do you know why you’re trying to get published? Have you put any serious thought into what a possible end game might be? For me, it has to do with the fact that I’ve been writing all my life and it seemed reasonable that I should see whether the stuff I was coming up with might possibly be something that others should care to read. That’s pretty much it. But the reasons why are important because I think those reasons have much to do with your capacity to grow as an author. If you want to be published so you can see your book on a shelf next to Stephen King, you’re doing this for the wrong reasons because chances are that you won’t be shelved next to him unless you’re a writing rock star.

2) You feel a burning need to share your stories.

Unlike a burning need to, say, share your latest artisan home brew with your best buds, there’s got to be a fire in your belly. It just has to be there and if it’s not – if you have mixed feelings about whether you’re good enough to find an agent and publisher, you very likely don’t have the chops. Don’t take it personally, okay? Listen, every author I know has a blast furnace of desire that fuels them to continue on this journey. They can visualize what their own personal definition of authorly success looks like. They can see a book as a bestseller one day – it probably isn’t even written yet. Hell, it probably hasn’t even been conceived yet for that matter. But you push yourself. You push and discipline and regulate your capacity to become a better writer. Very simply, your desire to succeed in this crazy business ins encoded on your DNA. If that exists, you have the chops. If it doesn’t, I don’t know if it’s possible to light that fire in your belly.

3) You can take criticism and you don’t whine about it.

Yeah – that’s what I’m talking about. Look, throwing yourself out to the universe in hopes of becoming published is a hell of a thing. Writing is a deeply personal act that you’ve invested days, weeks, months and years of your life as you strive toward your goal. You finish your third draft, you think it’s good enough to start querying and baby, let me tell you, if you have thin skin you are soooooo not going to make it in this biz. (Google “author meltdown”. Lots of stuff there that will make your eyes bleed.) It takes courage to present something that you’ve invested so much time into with the full knowledge that someone is going to critique the living @@#$ out of it. An agent might write back and say “not for me”. That’s a kind agent. Some agents will tell you precisely why your book sucks and have no compunction whatsoever against bursting your lovely visualization of success bubble. Someone on Goodreads might post an arseholish “Look how ironic I am – I’ve added animated gifs! Aren’t I clever!” review about your latest book (assuming you actually get published).  You cannot take that stuff personally and many authors do. If you take it personally you might lash out publicly and your name will be added to the ranks of author meltdown incidents currently being collected by the Internets. You’ll be ripped to #$%% shreds on every blog that’s out there because let’s face it, who doesn’t love to watch a dog pile when someone commits self-inflicted public humiliation? Very simply, your book might suck. You might not even get published because your manuscript just doesn’t have what it takes. If you whine about this stuff, it means you’re unable to grasp the very subjective nature of the book biz.

4) You don’t take editorial advice personally during the editing process.

For crying out loud, be very particular about which sword you wish to fall on. There might be 100,000 words in your manuscript and each one is a sharp, shining steel cutlass for you to potentially throw yourself upon as you make your last stand for your story’s so-called integrity. Guess what? Your agent will tell you to change things. If he/she sells your book, your editor will too! And the thing is … they really @#$% like you, okay? They like your writing, they think you’re cool, they’ve got their integrity on the line too and for crying out loud, you gotta realize their on your flipping side!!! They want the book to succeed! They also have been doing this, you know, for years even! To pay their bills because they have mortgages and car payments and kid’s ballet lessons!! They have a financial interest in your success! So when they make a suggestion, it’s for a freaking reason!! They’re not attacking you or your manuscript – they’re trying to wring out every last drop of awesomeness that you might have missed because you’ve done umteen-thousand revisions on that story. But they’re a fresh set of eyes and you need that objectivity if you’re gonna make it. If you can’t handle this, you’re not cut out for this. End of story.

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Ten Truths About Book Promotion

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It’s written into a lot of book contracts these days – authors are expected to market their books. But how do you market something you’ve written when publishing is such a subjective business? That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? Marketing at the best of times is really a form of voodoo science because consumers are very fickle characters in their buying habits. And mea-culpa time – I basically suck at book marketing but I’m going to share my observations and a little bit of what I’ve learned over the past few years.

1) Most book buyers aren’t book bloggers.

I love book bloggers. Love, love, love, LOVE ’em. They champion your work, they’re connected with other bloggers. They’re industrious Twitter users and post their reviews all over social media. BUT … they’re not the market. They’re a slice of the market and their influence is probably limited to their social media circle. Yes, there are some bloggers who review for the industry in Kirkus, for example, but the average book buyer out there doesn’t blog, doesn’t Tweet, they might be on Facebook and that’s about it.  When an author has a book coming out, it’s simply expected they will arrange for a blog tour, do interviews and giveaways. That’s standard operating procedure – but those authors are marketing to the converted, if you will. Book bloggers are book lovers who’ve taken their passion to the Interweb via social media, but I’ve not yet seen a study that shows a direct correlation between book blogging and serious sales of books.

2) Book signings are a crap shoot.

I’ve done book signings in England (which was great fun – go Blighty!) in Calgary and here in Saskatoon. The bookstore can put up a poster with your smiling face and cover art for your latest novel, but you just never know if anyone is going to show up. Now – if you’re an established brand like LKH or Kelley Armstrong, yeah – people will come. But if you’re just starting out or if you’re  a mid-list author, you’re still the author that nobody has ever heard of so it’s going to be a serious crap-shoot if anyone comes to your signing or your reading. (You know, outside of family and friends.)

3) Facebook, Websites, Blogs and Twitter

Every author I know has a website, a blog, an FB account and they Tweet furiously. That’s expected – but again, unless you’re an established brand, there’s no real way to measure whether your online marketing efforts (giveaways, giveaways, giveaways, author interviews, interviews, interviews) are going to translate into actual book sales of note. Actually, you can flood your Twitter feed and become an annoyance if all you Tweet is a snippet of a review for your book. Chances are the people following you aren’t the market you’re aiming at in the first place. In most cases, your friends and followers are bloggers, fellow authors, agents and publishers. Again, LOVE YOU ALL … but they’re not the market.

4) Benefit over Price equals Value.

That’s what I call the Consumer Buying Equation. There has to be a whole lot of “what’s in it for me” in order for someone to part with their hard-earned dollars. They’ll only buy if they see value in what you’re putting out there – it could be everything from grommets to shoelaces to books. It’s exceedingly hard for any author to answer the consumer buying equation because there are just so many books published each year. And your market share (assuming you have one) is shrinking because of self-published books that appear every single day on Amazon.

5) Product Placement!!!!

But that product placement is reserved for the established brands from the large publishers. If you have a steamer trunk full of money, you can experiment with getting your product placed higher online venues but you won’t have a ghost of a chance in a brick and mortar shop – so your market is once again, online. And even with Borders closing almost two years ago and Barnes & Noble on the brink of going bye-bye, most people still shop for books at bookstores. If you’re mid-list or just starting out, your best bet is to create the mother of all book signing events at your local store and hope that it’s such a hit that other stores might want to take you up on doing one in their venue.

6) Chances are your best efforts will yield little

Sorry – but that’s just how I see it. Unless you can somehow tap into the mainstream consciousness with your book, you’re really going to be marketing to the converted.

7) You might go viral

Because you just don’t know what the hell is going to happen once that book gets published. It might wind up being slammed by every book blogger on the planet. Similarly, you might catch the eye of someone with media influence and suddenly you’re on Ellen and your book rockets to the top of the bestseller list. You might also go viral if you make a YouTube video of yourself in a drunken rant about how hard it is to get noticed enough for someone to spend ten bucks on your epic tome. I recommend against online rants because someone will do a big time smack-down on your sorry ass.

8) Author “Group” Blogs Are Great, but …

You’re preaching to the converted already. The market isn’t blogging – it’s at home watching reality TV, working two jobs, raising kids or playing with a PS 3.  I’ve run a group blog – Dark Central Station. It was a fun project, we all blogged regularly (Nancy Holzner, Wayne Simmons, Thomas Emson, Christina Henry, Gary McMahon, Linda Poitevin, Erin Kellison and a few others …) AND … well, the blog no longer exists. Why? Because we have books to write, revisions to do, day jobs, night jobs, children to raise & book promotion on a variety of other online venues that take up our time. We ran that blog for almost three years but we didn’t hit critical mass and that brings me to my next point …

9) Critical Mass – WTF is that, anyway?

Critical mass occurs when the publishing stars are aligned, something miraculous happens and you actually get noticed by the mainstream book buying public who don’t blog, don’t tweet, don’t live on Facebook or Pinterest or Tumblr and who happened to hear about you through the mainstream media like USA Today and you wake to find yourself to be a publishing phenomenon. I mean, I think that’s what it is. I’ll let you know what critical mass is once it happens to me. If it happens to me. Will it happen? Beat’s me …

10) Psst … even BIG book publishers haven’t figured out book marketing

No, seriously, they haven’t. It’s why the focus is to push the established brands and to treat newcomers as a risk. And rightly so … they have to spend the money to get product placement in brick and mortar shops. But it’s still a crap shoot – even for Random Penguin or the other big publishers. Which brings me to my final point – I am responsible for a great deal of marketing in my day job and here is what I know. Marketing is a PROCESS … it’s not an EVENT. Unfortunately in publishing, every book that comes out is an EVENT and more often than not, there’s no process in place to convince consumers that a book is worth their hard earned money. Add to this is the fact that we live in an immediate gratification society when it comes to consumer spending and books are not immediate gratification products. People value TIME over MONEY and to read a book … well, it takes an investment of time to garner that sense of gratification and that’s ASSUMING the reader liked your book.

Perhaps the reason book promotion/marketing is so difficult lies with this simple truth. A book is not an iPhone. Know what I mean? A book is, well, a book! It’s 70K-100K words. It doesn’t go beep! It doesn’t have ringtones or apps or 4g wireless. It is paper, bound together with glue. It has a nice cover (in most cases) some things authors have written about the book, but at the end of the day it’s a book. How can any author starting out be reasonably expected to compete with things that go beep and have flashy screens, etc?

All of this points to the larger problem of declining readership and the wholesale devaluation of the written word, I think. And it’s here where solving the riddle of book promotion must begin: get people reading. Get people talking about reading. Get people talking about books. Get into the schools and get the books into school libraries. We used to have a culture of reading in North America, now we have a culture of reality TV shows where Honey Boo-Boo is top of mind. 50 Shades is top of mind, but I don’t think even the author had an inkling that her book would be in the right time at the right place to hit critical mass and become a phenomenon.

So we authors will continue to slog away at promoting our books and hopefully someone will invent an app that will flash onto people’s smartphones with a subliminal message: BUY THIS BOOK!

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