Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Lessons from the Publishing Revolution

Jerry Stratton, December 31, 2002

Get your own house in order first

You are not as good an editor as you think you are. But you are also the only editor you can trust. You are a self-publisher. Everything about your book is your responsibility. You can--and should--delegate tasks to people who are better at it than you, but in the end you’ll end up having to check over their work. Checking over an editor’s work is itself editing.

Learn the quirks of your word processor. Whenever you see an error, consider that you didn’t make the mistake (you probably did, but it helps to be sure), and check to see if your Word Processor did it. I use Microsoft Word, and I discovered--after sending the manuscript in--that Word makes two mistakes often. It puts spaces in front of paragraphs, and it puts opening curly quotes at the end of dialog. When I finish my next book--and every time before I submit it--I now have a checklist of items that includes doing a “find” on spaces at the beginning of paragraphs (“^p ” in Word) and on open-quotes at the end of lines (“"^p” in Word).

And do the same for yourself. If there is an error that you are making often, use your word processor’s search function to find all occurrences of that error. Don’t expect to find all of them simply by eyeballing the text. Use your computer to get rid of as many errors as possible, and save the eyeballing for the errors that the computer can’t fix.

Every book has typographical errors in it. Self-published books, unfortunately for good reason, are stigmatized as having more such errors. It is expensive to fix errors after submission, even when using print-on-demand as most publishing services providers use. Before you send your manuscript in, you must fully edit your book. If you are not a good editor, find someone who is. But whether you are a good editor or not, you should be the final person to edit your book. Read it backwards, last page to first page, all the way through. Then, read it forwards, page by page, all the way through. Then, read it backwards again. When you can read it two passes--backwards and forwards, or forwards and backwards--and not find a single error, it is then ready for submission. There are still errors in it, but they are fewer in number.

I cannot stress how important that process is. You must bring the number of errors in your book down to a level no greater than, and preferably less than, a professionally-edited book. Read slowly, and read everything. Read backwards, and read more than once. Do not rush the editing process! If your book falls into the stereotype of poorly-edited self-published books, it will be that much harder to escape the self-published ghetto.

Infinite Editing Loops

While you are editing your book, you will undoubtedly also make non-typographical changes. You’ll decide to word some passages differently purely on esthetic grounds, or you’ll let one character say different things, or you’ll make some other change that isn’t fixing an error. This is natural, and if it makes your book a better book, it’s a good thing. But unless you’re “fixing” something bad, don’t count these against your errors, or you’ll never finish the editing process. Whether the things you’re changing are ‘bad’ or not is up to you. Basically, if you would have been embarassed if your book went out like that, it was an error; if it was originally just fine and you made it better, then it wasn’t. You have to fix your book in stone at some point.

Perhaps someday Print-on-Demand will deliver on the promise of easy updates, letting you continually hone your book for years after you’ve started self-publishing. But for now, Print-on-Demand is limited in the same way as normal publishing in that respect. Be merciless when it comes to errors, but do not get caught in an infinite loop of non-error editing.

Choosing a Publishing Services Provider

I talk a lot more about this in “Notes from the Publishing Revolution”. I’ll only repeat the basics here. Before you choose a publishing services provider, make sure you know or do the following, before you hand over any money!

  • What will your book cost bookstores?
  • What will your book cost consumers?
  • Where will your readers buy your book?
  • Order at least one book from your final choice, preferably two, on two different occasions, and use the method you expect your readers to use. Be careful of any provider that denigrates the sales outlets, especially on-line ones like Amazon, that consumers use.
  • Always read the contract beforehand, and do not give up any rights.
  • For God’s sake, keep a record of every transaction. Wherever possible, maintain all contact via e-mail or normal mail, rather than by telephone or in person. You want to keep a detailed paper trail. Be very careful of any potential services provider that avoids putting what they say in writing! I’ve even seen one services provider write that it is “unfathomable” why some on-line writers were worried about conflicting statements between what they were saying privately and what was on their web site!

Do not give up any rights! Never think of your services provider as a publisher. They are your printer and your distributor. Choose a good printer and a good distributor. If they promise more, walk carefully. If you pay someone who claims that they will act like a publisher towards you, they probably will: they will treat you as if they are doing you a favor; they will ignore your book in favor of others that they think are more commercial; and/or they will drop you when you complain. If you are paying them, you are hiring a service. No more, no less. You are a self-publisher, hiring out services to print and distribute your book, and you should choose a services provider who recognizes this.

The Publishing Services Relationship

There are a lot of horror stories out there. People whose books don’t come out for a year, whose books are unorderable, whose books are poor quality, whose services providers went under after hundreds of dollars down the drain. These are all valid concerns. Many of these companies appear to be fly-by-night operations designed to suck money from writers. The rest are “mom & pop” operations: a single individual or a small group of individuals who went into this business for whatever reason. If they’re bad, they can really screw over a writer. If they’re good, they’ll get swamped through word of mouth, because there are a lot of writers out there. If they’re not well-organized businesspersons, they’ll end up accidentally screwing over some writers anyway just by being swamped.

Always remember that your services provider is a services provider. They are not your publisher. If you expect them to act like a publisher, you will be disappointed. Keep an eye on them. Don’t rush them, and don’t hound them, but if they promise that one stage of the process will be completed after a set period of time, then by all means get in touch with them if they do not meet their own deadline.

Stay on-line. Keep your ear to the street so that you can know if others are having any trouble with your provider, so that you can better know how to handle any potential problems that arise.

Once you choose your provider, be patient but firm. Be patient, because they will not get your book ready on time. There’s no point in arguing about it: they won’t. Any good publishing services provider is going to be swamped with work. On the other hand, you do have to be firm. If they set a deadline for when some piece of your work is done, they need to get back to you when they fail to meet that deadline.

I made the mistake of being patient and not firm. Being patient got my work sent to the back-burner, and being over-patient got it lost behind the stove. I sent my manuscript into my provider in December of 2001; it was not ready for ordering until December of 2002.

The corollary to staying on-line and listening is to stay on-line and talk. Be public about your troubles once you are sure they are troubles. If you aren’t sure that they’re troubles, but you don’t know what to do, then request assistance from others. Be honest about what has happened, what you expected, and ask what your options are. It might help your provider get on the ball, and it will definitely help other writers who are in the process of choosing a self-publishing services provider.

If someone screws you over, it is your duty to describe how. Don’t get angry, don’t call names, just describe what happened to you or is happening to you. It might be that you’re expecting too much, and you’ll be told if that is the case (and if you didn’t point blame or call names, no one has any right to get angry with you over it). Or it might be that others are having similar troubles, and you can start making plans to minimize the damage to your book and your pocketbook.

And if your provider has done a great job, let the self-publishing community know that as well. In fact, I’d like to see every self-publisher write about their experiences. It would aid new self-publishers immensely to see such wisdom before them.

Start Marketing

Get your web page up months before your book is available. When people do a search on your book title, you want them to find your web page. It takes months for search engines to collect new web pages into their databases (no matter what the spam you receive on a daily basis tells you). If you are going to attract customers with related content, get that content up as soon as possible. If you already have a steady stream of visitors when you finally announce that your book is available, you’ll find it much more effective than if no one is visiting your site because it only went up yesterday.

My Publishing Services Diary

This is a diary of my experiences with my publishing services provider, PageFree Publishing. Now that the process is over, I have to say that they’ve done a decent job. The road to that decent job, however, was a rocky one, and I’d like to share some of the lessons I’ve learned on that road.

September 2001

I first heard about PageFree in September of 2001, from an author who had some good things to say about them on the Yahoo Print-On-Demand group. They had just about everything important on their web site, a very good sign. But their web site was hard to understand and didn’t always work. However, an e-mail describing these problems brought a very quick return e-mail explaining what I didn’t understand. They also fixed the errors on their page.

When I say “they”, I mean Kim Blagg. PageFree then, and I suspect to a large part now, is Kim. They’ve said that they’ve had to ramp up their employee count to meet demand (when a publishing services provider gets good reviews from writers, other writers swamp them), but all public and private messages still come from Kim.

Tuesday, September 11, 2001

We all know what happened today. But it has a special significance for me, as I wrote a book about how we are creating a culture where things like this happen more and more often. It’s horribly ironic: my story begins with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing before turning to the serial killer who terrorizes DC and Northern Virginia.

I had been looking at XLibris as a publisher, but they drastically raised their prices and seemed from my perspective to deliberately mislead potential customers. Then FirstPublish, but they cost a lot and their paper is not easy to read from, and before I can make a final decision they go out of business.

Now I feel I really need to make this book available.

Wednesday, October 31, 2001

After a few minor queries to Kim about the layout of the PageFree website, I went to Barnes & Noble and ordered “Driving With Ace,” a comedy by Dennis Latham, printed by PageFree. (You always want to order a book through normal channels. I also ordered “If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears” by The Mamas and the Papas in order to receive free shipping.)

Friday, November 2, 2001

Barnes & Noble has just notified me that my order has shipped. This is quick service. When the book arrives, I dislike the author’s choice in over-size font, but the book itself is printed on good paper and holds together when I fling it around my apartment.

Thursday, November 8, 2001

Some layout options in “Driving With Ace” did not match any of the layouts in the PageFree website, so I wrote PageFree asking about title alignment, first word all-caps, and fonts. Kim wrote back almost immediately that these are all optional for the author, who can either choose a standard template or note their layout choices on the order form.

Thursday, December 20, 2001

After working with my graphics artist (who did some absolutely wonderful artwork for my book; you can see samples at the book’s web site), and proofreading the book both on the computer and on paper, I feel that I am ready to send it off. However, going over the form there seems to be a problem with the hardcover option in the menu of options for the book. Kim confirms this is a problem on table’s alignment, and says that there is an $85.00 charge for a dust-cover hardback and a $40 setup charge for a stamped-cover.

I send off the form and a CD with the text of the book and the graphics. While filling out the form, there doesn’t appear to be a way of setting up the hardcover option for the book. I send PageFree an e-mail asking about this, and asking how difficult it is to add that option later? (I’ve specifically chosen a format that is usable for both paperback and hardcover.) Kim writes back (within two hours) that hardcover is not an option, it’s a completely different book, for which a completely separate setup fee is required. She acknowledges that the web page is confusing, and (since the layouts would be the same), offers to look into a possible “bundle” price for both paperback and hardcover. In the meantime, I pay for the paperback version by credit card.

Lesson: I have an extremely hard rule about what to do in situations like this. Back out. When I go to a store for what I think is an advertised product and they don’t have it, I don’t buy anything. It doesn’t matter if it was purely a misunderstanding on my part, it still means that I haven’t fully thought out the purchase. I should have done the same here, and completely restarted my search for a publishing services provider. But I’m anxious to try out publishing services, and I’m anxious to get “It Isn’t Murder If They’re Yankees” printed. I don’t plan on doing anything with a hardcover anyway, it was mostly just to have a few hardcovers for my graphic artist and perhaps my parents. I decide to go ahead with a paper-back-only version.

Wednesday, January 16, 2002

It’s the holiday season, so I’m not too worried that I haven’t heard from PageFree yet after sending my CD out just before Christmas. But I pop off a message asking if they’ve received the package yet. They write back the next day confirming that the CD has arrived, and offering a “bundle” price for the hardcover version of an additional $415. That’s far too much for my purposes, so I decline.

Tuesday, February 19, 2002

The PageFree FAQ mentions a two to four week wait from them receiving the CD to the author receiving the first proof. Having done a lot of research before sending out to PageFree, I never expected that quick a turn-around from anyone, but I’m a little worried that I haven’t heard back. I write “I'm just dropping a line to see if there were any issues I need to know about with regards to my book I understand if there are delays, I just wanted to make sure that there are no issues I need to be dealing with.”

Wednesday, February 20, 2002

Kim writes back that “Everything is fine - just a bit slower than we anticipated. Your book is second in line so you should see a proof VERY soon” and thanks me for my patience.

Saturday, February 23, 2002

I never stop writing. (That’s why I have so much junk on my web site.) Between December and February, I have made changes to the book; I figure if my book is being delayed I might as well take advantage of it, and write “if what the above means is that you haven’t started on it yet, I’d like you to replace the Word file you have with the word file [at URL]. If you have started on it, don’t worry about it.”

Sunday, February 24, 2002

“No problem, I’ve downloaded the second file and will be sure to use it.”

Friday, March 1, 2002

Kim writes that they’ve started on my book, and that they have a new option for hardcovers. Their new combo deal doesn’t cost nearly as much, and also includes an e-book option. I authorize the credit card charges for the combination addition to the services I’ve ordered.

Wednesday, March 6, 2002

I receive a “partial proof” to verify that the layout is working out. “If this look is a ëgo’-then I’ll finish the layout and have the proof to you late tonight or tomorrow.” Unfortunately, the PDF file doesn’t contain valid formatting codes, and appears as jumbled letters. Also, they’ve replaced the standard Adobe handwriting font I chose (Legault) with a calligraphic script font (FrenchScript), which completely changes the character of the “author” of the story. I let them know that the body of the text isn’t readable, and offer some other options for a handwriting font since they don’t have Legault, requesting that no handwriting font is better than one that is too calligraphic or too clean.

There appears to be a “tracking problem”, and on March 8, she writes that “I will get this proof done today one way or another, I'm just hoping you're around to okay the partial sample.”

Tuesday, March 12, 2002

I receive the full proof today, and acknowledge that I’ve received it. (I didn’t really expect it on March 8; she said she was moving over to Windows. That always takes longer then you think.)

Wednesday, March 13, 2002

The subject is “Quick!” and the message “can you send me a quick blurb on the book for the catalog please?” No problem! I’m looking forward to seeing this book come out, so I send the quick blurb the next day.

Sunday, March 17, 2002

I send the proof back. There were a lot of problems. Frankly, I was somewhat relieved that PageFree made so many errors (pages missing, pages misaligned so that half of them were off the paper, one chapter completely gone, paragraphs misaligned, they didn’t use the new version they downloaded in February), because it turns out that I had made too many typos also.

Lesson: always, always, proofread one more time. I did not follow my advice above under “Get your own house in order first”--I learned that on this project. If I ever do this again, I’ll be providing much cleaner copy. Because of the quantity of errors in my text, I’m expecting to pay about $40-$50 extra for fixing my errors (and I’m quite a bit pissed off at Microsoft Word, as a significant number were introduced by Word’s stupid attempts at being smart). There were an equal number of errors from PageFree, so you have to be very, very careful proofreading the proof you receive from the printer also.

Sunday, March 24, 2002

I haven’t heard back yet; given the magnitude of the layout problems in the proof, I wasn’t expecting a quick turn-around, but I am worried that I haven’t heard anything. I write a quick note to “verify that you've received the corrections I sent last week”.

Monday, March 25, 2002

“Yes, received corrections (whew! a bunch!) You’ll get a follow-up proof this week.”

Wednesday, April 3, 2002

In November, when I decided on using PageFree, I went in with a couple of other authors to display at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, figuring that if I could get the text in to PageFree by December, I’d have no problem having a box of books ready by the end of April. Now that’s looking decidedly unlikely. I need to plan ahead, however, so I write to PageFree asking whether I’m likely to have books available by then. “What is the possibility of my being able to have books in hand by the end of April (for the LA Times Book Festival)?”

Thursday, April 4, 2002

“We will do our best, but can’t commit. The upcoming portion will be in LSI’s hands.”

I’m not disappointed, as I didn’t expect it--but it’s nice to think that they think it might be possible. My book will at least be in Lightning Source’s hands by the end of the month, right?

Monday, April 8, 2002

It’s been two weeks now since I was told I’d get a proof “this week”, so I write back asking if anything’s wrong:

since it's been well after the above-mentioned week and I haven’t received the proof, I wanted to make sure that you’re not waiting on something from me right now, or that you’ve sent it but I haven’t received it.

Monday, April 15, 2002

“You should see the return proof before Wednesday. Sorry for the delay--I appreciate your patience.”

I’m a little more worried about the week it took to get back to me than the added delay. I want my book to be done right, not hurried.

Thursday, May 9, 2002

Well, it’s a little after Wednesday, but I’m still showing some patience; but I thought I’d better write in to find out if anything’s up. I respond to a bulletin-board posting by Kim in the Yahoo Print-On-Demand group, asking “What’s up with It Isn’t Murder If They’re Yankees?

Monday, May 27, 2002

Today I send off two messages. One to PageFree, asking “Kim, it’s been two months now; what’s wrong?” And a second to a mutual acquaintance on the discussion group asking if anything was wrong at PageFree.

Tuesday, May 28, 2002

Excuse 1: A semi-paralyzed arm. “But we’ve hired a new book designer Thank you very much for your patience, I will be back with you this week.”

Wednesday, June 26, 2002

Nothing since May. I write asking for “a more reasonable estimate” of when my book will be available.

Wednesday, July 17, 2002

After writing again to the third party, I receive a note that not only is the book behind schedule, it hasn’t even been started; I need to forward the corrections to PageFree again. I do so immediately.

Friday, August 16, 2002

I’ve heard nothing from PageFree, so I write again: “Are there any status reports on when the next proof for It Isn’t Murder If They’re Yankees will be available?”

Monday, August 19, 2002

I receive an apology and a promise that they “will respond shortly with amended proof.”

Tuesday, August 20, 2002

The proof arrives. Looks basically okay; most of PageFree’s layout problems are gone, although they still use FrenchScript for the title font. (“Just type spec it for me and I'll make sure that's what it is.”)

Monday, August 26, 2002

More Word errors--my fault, I should have caught them. The most egregious is Word trying to put open quotes at the end of lines if it follows an m-dash. I send off the corrections. “Thanks. This was very good. Most of the errors this time were my own, so make sure you let me know what I need to do for them.”

Lesson: Always proof the exact final copy that you are sending, or you never know what your word processor is going to add to the text.

I also recommend Garamond Bold for the chapter titles, instead of FrenchScript.

On the next day I receive an acknowledgement.

Monday, September 16, 2002

The next proof arrives. It is mostly okay. It still uses FrenchScript, and there are two other corrections that were not made. Nothing major.

Tuesday, September 24, 2002

Besides running over the list of corrections I’d sent earlier, I proof-read the whole thing again, just to make sure it’s okay. It is, and I send it off to PageFree. Things are getting on track again.

Friday, September 27, 2002

I receive the final proof today.

Tuesday, October 1, 2002

All corrections have been made, and I notify PageFree of this. “What’s next?”

Wednesday, October 2, 2002

Next is to approve the cover: “ we’ll shoot over a cover and get this puppy out the door. You’ll be available well in time for Christmas sales.”

Monday, November 4, 2002

I haven’t received the cover yet. I probably should not have waited so long to ask them what was up with it, but today I ask if Christmas sales are “still likely?”.

Friday, November 8, 2002

No response yet, so I send off another e-mail. “Has there been a problem?” I don’t receive a response to that message, but I do finally receive a response to the earlier one: “Absolutely. If you will have time over this weekend to proof the cover, I will send it over this evening and it can go to print on Monday.”

Later today I receive the cover proof.

Monday, November 11, 2002

The cover is extremely important, so I proofread the cover text numerous times; there is only one error. However, this is clearly a low-resolution version of the cover, and I request a higher-resolution version to ensure that the images are correct. One of the errors supposedly corrected back in February was that the image we’re using for the cover had an invisible word on it (“MAIL”) that only showed up with an extremely high quality printing. I didn’t even notice it in the previous proofs, but only when I printed a poster for the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Remembering the problem earlier of them forgetting to use corrected files, I want to be absolutely sure this is the correct version of the images.

Another image used for the book, for the icon on the spine, is just plain ugly as presented. I edit the original in Photoshop and send it back. It had originally been sent merely as a source, not as the final.

Lesson: do your cover yourself, or at least each of the parts. You can’t expect your services provider to produce a good design unless you already have a good design.

I also provide the text for the inside flaps of the hardcover.

Monday, November 18, 2002

I receive the cover proof today that is supposed to be the high-resolution version, but it’s the exact same file as I’d received previously, down to the same spelling errors. Even the file size is exact, and the Adobe PDF last-modified date is the same as the previous, low-resolution version.

Lesson: I’m afraid that if you’re going to use publishing services today, you’re going to need some technical savvy, so you can recognize when things like this happen.

PageFree gets me the real high-resolution version later that day, and sure enough it uses the uncorrected version of the front cover image. I have no idea whether or not the error would have shown up on the printed cover, but if their covers are quality covers it probably would have.

Lesson: Check everything, and check the actual copy that is going to the printer, not a copy that’s easier to send by e-mail!

Tuesday, November 19, 2002

Today, I receive the proof with the corrected image. It looks great, and I approve it. Kim says the book is now off to the printer.

Wednesday, November 20, 2002

The proof for the hardcover version of the cover arrives. There are four errors (including misspelling the book title in the flap!), but they are all corrected by the next day.

Saturday, November 23, 2002

Yesterday I received the final proof for the hardcover’s cover, and it was fine, so today I approve it.

The proofing is completed. Now it’s just a matter of waiting for the book to show up on the on-line bookstores.

It has now been nearly a year since I started the process. On the bright side, I’ve never been charged for the additional error correction that was my fault, probably because of all the trouble that PageFree caused in getting this book to print. Still, I would have preferred to pay for my mistakes and get the book out nine months earlier.

Friday, December 13, 2002

Surfed over to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Booksamillion today, and Booksamillion has my book up! It’s not available yet, but it’s there.

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

Today, it went up at Barnes & Noble. It also states that the release date is December 29. (No, I never really expected it to be ready to order in time for Christmas.)

Friday, December 20, 2002

And today it went up at Amazon. Not available yet, but it’s up.

Monday, January 6, 2003

Before I start pushing my book to others, I wanted to make sure that ordering it is reliable. Today I ordered a copy of my book from Amazon (along with Serious Black’s “Barbican” CD in order to push the total up above the “free shipping” minimum).

Wednesday, January 8, 2003

Amazon breaks the shipment into two parts, and ships Barbican first. It’s a nice CD. But obviously not the draw of this order!

Sunday, January 12, 2003

Amazon informs me that my book has shipped today!

Friday, January 17, 2003

The book arrived at the office. The cover is absolutely beautiful. Triska’s artwork is perfect. The interior is fine, although the inner margin is much too small. My friends and I are already heading out to the bar tonight, so this is perfect. I pop it into my car before leaving for Normal Heights, and I have my fifteen seconds of fame. I get a round, I buy a round, and then we leave the bar and go back to my friend’s (they’re in walking distance) for various embarassing and hip drinking games.

Lesson: Celebration is a good thing. And in the future, I’d recommend getting an actual printed proof so you can see exactly what it’s going to look like. Widening the margin, however, would have increased the page count, raising the cost of printing significantly, probably raising the final price of the book to $25.00.

February 13, 2003

You know, I don’t know what the lesson is here. Sometime between when I paid for the service and today, PageFree raised their printing costs, reducing my profit per book by 37%. The real problem, as always, is communication. Printing costs increase; that’s an unfortunate fact. But customers (that is, me, I’m the one paying for the printing) need to be notified when this happens, as it drastically affects their profit. I’ve no record of any e-mail describing this price increase, and the PageFree author’s web page (for which I only received the password today anyway, and only after asking for it) doesn’t mention it. I’ve asked whether there is another news page for authors that has this information.

On the bright side, while I haven’t set my marketing plan in motion, there were two copies of my book ordered in January. I know who ordered one--that was me, checking out how quickly copies arrive from Amazon before I start advertising. I have no idea who ordered the second copy.

February 17, 2003

“The Book Pricing Schedule mentions that prices can change at any time without notice.”

Obviously, prices increase. But a publishing services provider needs to provide timely information about something as basic as the cost of printing the book. (Incidentally, the new book pricing schedule says that--but the old one doesn’t.)

However, it’s possible that PageFree is grandfathering in previous contracts, as their e-mail said that only the author price has changed, not the distribution (i.e., Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Ingram) price. I’ve asked for further clarification.

February 18, 2003

No, the distribution prices have also changed for everyone; but they changed last December and they forgot to mention it to their authors then too.

They have shown interest in an easy-to-setup content management system which they can use to both keep their authors updated and to display sales and “royalty” information for individually for each author. I’ve suggested a possibility.

February 26, 2003

I’ve volunteered to set up the Geeklog CMS (weblog) for them, in exchange for three hardcover copies of my novel. I’ve got the CMS set up on their web page now, so hopefully things will change for the better in the future.

March 13, 2003

Big surprise! The three hardcover copies arrived today. Triska’s and Casey’s cover art really is wonderful. (I’ll be giving them one of these the next time I see them.)

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