2014 Event Write-ups - The Literary Consultancy

2014 Event Write-ups

We commissioned a few TLC assessors to write up some of the panels and talks which took place over the 2014 three-day conference. We will be uploading these over the coming weeks and hope you enjoy reading and catching up on the latest from the weekend. You can also follow the #TLC14 thread on Twitter.

Keynote Speech Podcast with Cory Doctorow

by Alex Peake-Tomkinson

Cory Doctorow is a science fiction author, activist, journalist and blogger. His keynote, which launched the entire Literary Consultancy conference this year, centred on Digital Rights Management. Digital Rights Management is a complex issue but basically, when you publish an ebook you can put a lock on the content to prevent anyone from stealing it and copying it – this lock is called Digital Rights Management.

Doctorow kicked off his keynote speech by saying that the internet offers limitless ways for readers to connect with one another and for writers to connect with readers and whilst there’s no right way of connecting and using the internet to be published, there are some wrong ways. He then introduced Doctorow’s Three Laws.

1. Anytime someone puts a lock on something that belongs to you and won’t give you the key, it’s not for your benefit.

He is adamant that DRM does not make piracy impossible as pirates are still able to access your work when DRM is applied. Furthermore, he maintains that DRM has not yet ever prevented piracy but it is still awfully useful for the DRM company (Amazon, Apple, Google, Kobo etc) as it transfers key decision-making power from the publisher to the DRM vendor.

He then proposed his second law:

2. Fame won’t make you rich, but you’ll have a hard time making any sales if no one has ever heard of you

Here, Doctorow quoted Tim O’ Reilly (who established Tools of Change) arguing that for most creators, obscurity will be more of a problem than piracy. This doesn’t mean that if you’re famous, you’ll end up rich but nonetheless, if people haven’t heard of you, they can’t give you any money.

At this point, he highlighted some parallels between book publishing and music publishing, flagging up that there are now only five major publishers, four major labels and five major recording studios meaning that there is less competition between these power players and they can therefore afford not to offer competitive deals to creators. He also pointed out other ways in which the options for creators have got worse, such as the fact that advances have remained static whilst inflation has escalated. He went on to mention an intriguing anachronism in the music industry: if you’re a musician, a deduction is still made from your royalties for notional breakage i.e. the breakage of vinyl whilst being transported. This deduction continues to be made even on digital music sales.

Lastly, we moved to Doctorow’s third law:

3. Information doesn’t want to be free but people do

He identifies here that the idea of information wanting to be free is nonsensical, not least because information is an abstract idea. He describes the internet as “the nervous system of the 21st century” and posits that the internet’s integrity has been the collateral damage of copyright wars. He points out that just as Chekov said “If a gun is on the mantlepiece in the first act, it must go off in the third”, it also follows that if you create an easy means of censorship, it will fall into the hands of censors.

Doctorow finished with an impassioned promise that although he makes a living from being a writer, he would rather sacrifice this than sacrifice free speech i.e. speech free from censorship and control. Ultimately, he argued that the way you make people free in the information age is with transparent, robust technology.

You can listen to the full podcast by clicking on the image below.

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#TLC14 Industry Snapshot

Full write-up in The Guardian here

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Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall

by Kavita Bhanot

With a conventional publisher and a champion of self-publishing on a panel together, talking about the author-publisher relationship, it was bound to be a lively discussion. At one end of the spectrum was Alexandra Pringle, who has spent most of her career in in publishing – as a literary agent and editor – and is now Editor-in-Chief of Bloomsbury. On the other end was Alison Baverstock, course leader for the MA in Publishing at Kingston University, and author of the seminal online self-publishing text The Naked Author. Taking a middle stance, but partial perhaps, towards the conventional publishing model and defending, in particular, the role of the agent in the process, was author Rebecca Abrams. The discussion was chaired by Claire Squires, Professor of Publishing at Stirling University.

Speaking from her own experience, declaring her promiscuity over the years, having had a different editor for each book and sometimes more than one as they moved companies or left their jobs, Rebecca spoke of the romantic lifelong author-publisher relationship as a thing of the past. It is, Rebecca told us, having had the same agent for the last ten years, her relationship with her agent that has given her stability, long-term support, friendship. She talked too of the editing role that her agent plays, which has been invaluable for her.

Alexandra Pringle agreed that writers increasingly look for the continuity of having an agent that was once a part of the writer-publisher relationship. Talking of her own experience, she explained that editors leave their jobs for many reasons, but primarily in search of job satisfaction. For Alexandra, the family is the model for a publishing company – which is an organic, alive thing. Taking on a book, she explained, is largely about blind faith since you don’t know what its fate will be; a great deal of emotion and affection is entangled in the process of publishing a book. She personally sees her writers as a community, taking care of them at literature festivals, or out for meals.

While Alexandra insisted on the human aspects of a corporate publishing company set-up, Alison was less convinced. Referring to publishing as a ‘dark art’, she described a situation where an incestuous gate-keeping community have clothed their trade in secrecy for many years, and treated authors with disdain. She sees online self-publishing as a revolution of sorts – in which writers learn the secrets that have hitherto been inaccessible to them. This is an environment in which anyone can publish their work – from children to people simply writing simply for friends and family. She also spoke of the bland, impersonal nature of publishing companies who rarely share their own histories – so authors have little sense of engaging with a heritage. She talked of the perception of the industry as not being author-friendly, of authors being marginalised by their publishers, of a secret, ‘polite’ language that can make publishers hard to read, so for example, ‘good luck’ in a rejection letter can be taken literally as carrying an element of investment in the future of the rejected manuscript.

The industry, with the reluctance of its ‘experts’ to share knowledge, and the sense of jealousy and rivalry that it creates between published authors, as well as the ‘us and them’ mentality between the published and unpublished as a club that you do or don’t belong to, can be contrasted with the almost infectious sharing, generosity, support between online self-published writers, she argued.

What, if anything, the chair asked, taking the conversation further, is the function of such a gate-keeping role that publishers play? Alexandra talked about the reliability of a brand, which signifies that time and effort has been put into a book, that it is worth reading. Meanwhile Rebecca, decrying the (overly) democratic nature of online publishing, said there was no guarantee of quality: ‘you end up competing with bad writers.’ Her view was that the publishers’ role was to gatekeep quality. Questioning this, Alison argued that publishers don’t just publish the best writers, but the most promotable ones. According to Pringle however, promotability was simply an added bonus; quality was the most important thing. Meanwhile, to Rebecca’s complaint of the pressure that she, as a writer, faces, and increasingly, contractual obligation, to promote herself, something that doesn’t come naturally to her – Alexandra reminded her, with a wry smile, that everyone has aspects of their job that they don’t like, and that for better or worse, times have changed. It’s clear then that the author-publisher relationship is one still very much in a process of evolution and change.

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Funding for Writers

For funding opportunities from our speakers for this panel, please see:

The Society of Authors

The Writing Platform

ACE Arts Council England (Grants for the Arts)

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The Age of Possibility

by Shelley Weiner

As writers we like to believe that our stories can enchant or amuse or – at their most powerful – move readers to tears. Wouldn’t it be a great and noble thing, though, to use our narrative ability to help readers stay fit?

This is what the creative and technologically adept team behind an ‘ultra-immersive game and audio adventure’ called ‘Zombies, Run!’ have managed. They claim that more than eight hundred thousand runners at all levels are madly resisting capture by spirits of the dead – while the far-sighted creators of the app are probably trotting to the bank.

‘Zombies, Run!’ (don’t forget that vital comma) was one of the inspiring instances of how new business models and technologies are pushing at traditional storytelling boundaries. The writer David Varela was among the key publishing visionaries who intrigued the conference audience with descriptions of various projects in which he has been involved.

As well as the Zombie game, devised in the spirit of audio drama in collaboration with the writer Naomi Alderman, David spoke about a venture called ‘The Live Writing Series’, in which seven writers in seven venues were impelled to improvise stories under pressure. This sounds as terrifying as being chased by Zombies.

Other projects described by David include ‘The Sherlock network’, an interactive adventure, and ‘Balance of Powers’, an episodic thriller.

Frances Bickmore, Publishing Director of Canongate, is an inspiring example of how a traditional publishing company can push the boundaries of narrative.

‘Stories are spells,’ he told the conference. ‘Readers want to be enraptured. The publisher’s challenge is to entice them into the world of the book.’

A vivid example of how Canongate meets this challenge is Nick Cave’s The Death of Bunny Munro, which has an eight-hour soundtrack that can be listened to while reading the novel. The novel S (conceived by J J Abrams and written by Doug Dorst) is published in the form of an annotated 1940s library book.

Frances made it clear that not every book had the capacity to lend itself to the kind of ‘enhancement’ described in his presentation. ‘It depends on the content of the book,’ he said. ‘And it has to suit the author.’

The third panellist to show how the dissemination of stories could transcend conventional publishing models was the writer and publisher John Mitchinson, co-founder of Unbound. This venture is the UK’s first crowd-funded publishing house.

‘We try to find the true fans who will back up the books they want to read,’ he said. And he’s reeling them in – or at least the books are. Jonathan Meade’s Museum Without Walls, for example, was rejected by conventional publishers but was enthusiastically backed by Unbound readers. In ten months, more than £19,000 was raised (far exceeding the £12,500 needed) to bring the book out.

As John pointed out, Unbound is not an open platform. ‘We select the books we think will succeed,’ he said. ‘The important thing is to be able to communicate an idea and to make it compelling.’

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The Writer in the Machine

by Kavita Bhanot

Rebecca Swift introduced ‘the dynamic quartet’: Orna Ross, founder of The Alliance of Independent Authors, author and marketing guru Joanna Penn, and self-published writers Rachel Abbott and Polly Courtney in an in-depth discussion about the process of self-publishing – which seems formidable but can, the panel concluded, be learnt fairly quickly. Through the doing, it becomes routine. The session focussed particularly on marketing, which the panel agreed is often seen as a dirty word. The general consensus was that marketing could be seen as a creative process; as an extension of the writing itself.

In Orna Ross’s opinion, every writer should be an ‘independent’ author, taking control of their books and publishing career, not necessarily by self-publishing, but by having an understanding of what publishing is, how it works, how to reach readers. Novelist Rachel Abbott meanwhile, a late starter (having written her first book at 59) declared that it was never too late to start writing. The beginning point for her was a strong strapline and concept, and indeed, her strategy with self-publishing has been to use the principles of selling, which she had learned in her career, to market her book, including making a business and marketing plan. In line with this, she shared some of the management style acronyms that she applied, including AIDA – (Awareness, Interest, Desire and Action). Polly Courtney’s approach is similarly focussed on the ‘basics’ of good cover design, good product, good blurb, good presentation. She puts her energies into identifying her core audience and how she can reach them, online and in the media, pitching her story in a way that this audience can relate to, as well as developing relationships with designers, editors, PR people.

Joanna Penn emphasised the need to think about rights, about multiple outlets of the book, including ebook, print, audio, translation. She shared a map that highlighted the countries in which her books are read, talking about the ways in which online publishing can allow you to target readers across the world; Amazon, for example, is active in 170 countries. She also talked about the ‘series effect’ and the way in which this allows readers to discover books by following a series or box set. Although they are not seen as publisher friendly, short stories can easily be published on the internet, and used as a marketing tool to showcase writing at little or no cost, just ahead of publication.

There was some discussion over the role of the agent when self-publishing. Abbott, who found an agent after self-publishing and proving herself, valued the role of her agent, who encouraged her to engage with her future, seeing her as a ‘best friend’ guiding her, in particular helping to sell foreign rights or right for TV and film. Orna Ross meanwhile, warned against some agent-assisted self-publishing, seeing the relationship as exploitative, taking over some roles that writers could easily fulfil themselves. Self-publishing, it was argued across the panel, gives the writer the freedom to focus on what they want, whether this is a large readership, or the production of a beautiful product, rather than getting lost, as we have in the last century, in the supply and demand chain.

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Keynote by Piers Alexander, with epubli

by Jude Cook

For many an aspirant writer, the experience of being unpublished is akin to that of being a terminally single man. Why, both ask themselves, can’t anybody recognise my vast reserves of literary/ romantic potential? Why, when I’m pedalling a sound product (a cracking debut novel/ an unblemished soul/ an astonishing bedroom technique) can’t I get any action? Why, in a publishing marketplace hungry for thrusting, good-looking young authors – or its dating equivalent, Guardian Soulmates – do I have Twitter followers by the thousand, but nothing on the shelves of Waterstones/ my heart?

Questions such as these undoubtedly once passed through the mind of the tall, confident, disconcertingly articulate and witty Piers Alexander (winner of 2013’s Pen Factor Competition), who came along to TLC14 to give Saturday’s Keynote Speech. He was also there to plug his independently published debut novel, The Bitter Trade. And plug it he did, relentlessly; though in such a graceful and effortless fashion, his attentive audience were unaware they were being plugged. Or they didn’t mind that much. And anyhow, shifting copies wasn’t really his objective: it was to explain in Byzantine detail his adventures in the world of books over the past year, or, as he delightfully coined it, ‘The Seven Learnings of the Publishing Tenderfoot’.

He began by describing these adventures as a ‘long and painful story involving a flying dog, a penis, and an 80s rock band’. Our attention duly grabbed, he elaborated on the genesis of the book; how it involved ‘lighting a candle, unplugging the internet and floating away’ on the transport of the imagination. Possessed of a passion to tell stories from a young age, Piers had abandoned this ambition to get a proper job, only to find himself a dissatisfied adult with an itch to write. And then came along the character of Calumny Spinks; a story of intrigue hinging around London’s seventeenth-century coffee houses; and the significant historical locus of 1688. He never looked back. 250,000 words later he found himself submitting to ‘a 30-month editing process’. And this was the enjoyable part, as it wasn’t long before he found himself agented, but with the publishing houses ‘not biting’; even after the manuscript had undergone no less than four prunings by Sarah Waters’ editing whiz. He had, he admitted, hit a brick wall. Initially adamant that self-publishing was not the route, a decision reinforced by his 2013 Pen Factor win, he eventually capitulated and went ‘indie’(and it’s significant that the term ‘self-publication’ morphed into the more robust ‘indie-publication by the end of his speech – perhaps it was the echo of ‘self-flagellation’ that precipitated this). However, the question we were all asking was, why, with so much industry support and a cracking debut novel, did he go indie? Well, like most things, he explained, getting published is harder than it looks. You can grow old trying. He revealed his agent had told him in no uncertain terms to ‘put the book in a drawer and start another one’. ‘But how can you do that,’ he blinked at us plaintively: ‘When your first novel is your first album?’

It was at this point that Piers hit us with a barrage of slick, motivational-speaking jargon, reminding us he was also a businessman and PR, as well as a novelist; making us feel we had temporarily developed ME. With phrases such as ‘search-engine optimisation’ and ‘buzz-feed traction’, he told us how he had decided not to grow old trying, or put the book in a drawer, but to publish it himself. With the help of epubli (whose Sophie rounded off Piers’s speech), and a year spent investing in a website, a high-quality print-run, and editorial excellence from the team that had initially tried to publish him conventionally, he was ready to launch The Bitter Trade on an unsuspecting public. With an actual launch event too – not all ‘properly’ published authors get one of those. Holding up the handsome paperback for a final time, he wished our own publishing journeys to be as ‘rich and adventurous’ as his; finally adding, ‘never stop believing’, and so reminding us of the promised 80s rock band. The penis had mercifully been forgotten, or perhaps I looked away at the moment the slide appeared. It was also unclear as to whether there were strictly Seven Learnings, or, indeed, many more.

In the end, Piers left us in no doubt that, in publishing terms, you don’t have to wait around like a wallflower to get plucked by the industry – you can do it yourself, punk-rock style. He was no longer the terminally single man: he now had his novel to accompany him into posterity. And the hard-sell must have worked: on leaving the hall, I bought a copy of his book – the highest form of approbation from a fellow novelist. Signed by the author, of course – in a majestic hand that showed suspicious evidence of practice.

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Whose Opinion Is It Anyway?

by Shelley Weiner

Once upon a time a writer wrote a book that somehow found its way to being published and then, miracle of miracles, was among the minute percentage that was chosen for review. In awe and terror, said writer waited for the august verdict from on high. Would the venerable Telegraph reviewer, for instance, give the thumbs up, or not?

That has changed now. The venerable Telegraph reviewer still exists, but Joe Public has online licence to stick his oar in, to argue and endorse for better or worse. Not only that: populating the blogosphere are vast numbers of book reviewing sites – lowbrow, highbrow, specialists on particular genres, those who know and love books, and those who simply simmer with hate or lust.

Which made the question posed in this conference panel on the current state of book reviewing (‘Whose opinion is it anyway?’) particularly apt. Whose opinion indeed?

First of the trio whose brief was to consider the range of reviewing options was Sam Leith, prolific writer and reviewer, and former Literary Editor of the Daily Telegraph. ‘What is criticism for, who is it aimed at, and who is to be trusted?’ he asked rhetorically. We sat forward in our seats. The average newspaper review, he declared, was ‘middlebrow stuff for interested readers, not academic criticism’. Reviewers aimed to entertain, to distinguish whether a book was ‘worth reading’ and whether it succeeded in doing what it set out to do.

Less clear about her mission – or perhaps less doctrinaire – was the blogger, Lynne Hatwell. ‘While a book review should be objective and unemotional, I have licence to throw myself into the emotional deep end of a book. I write about how a book makes me feel, and only choose books I enjoyed.’

Lynne’s blog, ‘dovegreyreader scribbles’ was established in 2006 and has grown into a strong online community in which news of a good book can spread around the world in minutes. This ‘grass roots’ championing and popularising of a work can have an effect on sales that is more important than the approbation of old-school reviewers.

This impact of blogging on sales was endorsed by Mark Thwaite, Head of Online at Quercus Books. In addition to his Quercus post, Mark is the founder and managing editor of literary website ReadySteadyBook. ‘I aimed for an online renaissance of literary criticism,’ he said. ‘This has not happened.’

The Times newspaper, however, has endorsed ReadySteadyCook as ‘one of the best places on the web for clever, wise, sparky book-related discussions and reviews’. This may be a case of the printed press licking the hand that might be destined to feed it – or something like that. Whatever, the answers given by the panel to the question posed by its chairman, bibliophile Paul Blezard, were gloomy indeed.

‘Is print reviewing dead?’ Paul wanted to know.

‘Not quite,’ pronounced Sam Leith. ‘But the patient is looking peaky.’

While it was agreed that the rise of the blogger had impacted on the power of the professional reviewer, a note of caution was raised about ‘amateur reviewers’ who, under the cloak of anonymity, could be dishonest, disreputable and/or ill informed.

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Bonus Day

by Claire Houghton-Price

The Literary Consultancy’s annual conference, Writing in a Digital Age, is in its third year and, with TLC always on the hunt for new exciting opportunities for writers, it is no surprise that they have made this year’s conference bigger and better than ever by adding a brand new bonus day to the programme.

The third day saw people from all walks of literary life taking over Farringdon’s Free Word Centre, with Kobo Writing Life’s Diego Marano kicking the day off with an informative introduction to Kobo and its continued support and schemes for writers.

Thanks to the Royal Society of Literature in association with the Booker Prize Foundation, upstairs fourteen lucky writers took part in an intimate three-hour masterclass with award-winning novelist and poet, Bernadine Evaristo. During the session, entitled ‘On Character’, Evaristo divulged her secrets in the art of character building, from how to write complex, interesting but credible characters that can hold an entire novel, to using them effectively to create powerful, emotional impact.

It is arguable that it is impossible to be a great writer if you are not also a great editor. Luckily professional copy-editor and proof reader Richard Sheehan was on-hand all day to showcase the different types of editing, indispensible advice for any author, be they published traditionally or independently.

Meanwhile the main theatre was transformed into literary X Factor. TLC’s Rebecca Swift and Aki Schilz took Dermot O’Leary’s seat, hosting the Kobo Writing Life sponsored Pen Factor Writing Competition pitching session. Fifteen brave Pen Factor entrants, including this year’s winner Guinevere Glasfurd-Brown, read from their opening extract to a panel of top London agents: Hannah Sheppard (DHH Literary Agency), Heather Holden-Brown (hhb agency), Tom Witcomb (Blake Friedmann), Chris Wellbelove (Greene & Heaton) and Lorella Belli (LBLA). The sessions provided the writers with the rare opportunity to pitch directly to the industry ‘gatekeepers’ and walk away with detailed bespoke editorial advice and an invaluable insight into the mysterious mind of a Literary Agent. And it was clearly not just the readers who were benefitting, as each discussion was accompanied by the soundtrack of scrawling pens and scurrying fingers over keyboards coming from the rapt audience.

In the main hall, the Writers’ Fair was in full swing with representatives from TLC, Alliance of Independent Authors, Amazon KDP & CreateSpace, Completely Novel, ePubli, Kobo Writing Life, Liars’ League, and the Royal Society of Literature, each offering both one-to-one and drop-in sessions for writers throughout the day.

From agents to Amazon, from debuts to backlist, from digital to live fiction, the TLC’s bonus day showcased the plethora of options available to writers, both new and established, and taught us all that the Digital Age is not about one right way of publishing but about multiple opportunities and platforms waiting to be explored.

PEN FACTOR Live Pitching

Session 3, by Patsy Trench

The last five of fifteen shortlisted Pen Factor writers pitched their books, ‘Dragon’s Den’-style, to a panel of agents comprising Lorella Belli, Heather Holden-Brown, Chris Wellbelove (Greene & Heaton), Tom Witcomb (Blake Friedmann), and Hannah Sheppard (DHH).

First up was Anma Boheim, whose book The Silent Children she described as a ghost story and ‘a homage to Vienna’. It opens with the nervous central character being encouraged by a therapist to talk about ‘your mother’s death’, and the extract ends as he prepares to ‘begin’ with his mother’s letter. The panel praised the opening but said it gave little hint of being a ghost story and could do with more seeds of mystery, though word pointers such as ‘It will take more than one session’ gave a good sense of the central character’s trauma.

Lucy Yates’s From the Mountains Descended Night (runner-up in the competition) is a historical novel about an 18th century scandal. Written in the form of a journal her extract described the central character’s experience of being mysteriously ‘cut’ by old friends on a visit to White’s club. Questioned as to its relevance to contemporary life Lucy said the essence of the book was regret. To Heather Holden-Brown, contemporary relevance was less important than a good story, and she praised the sense of era and place.

Deborah Arnander’s The Cinderella Watch features three generations of one family, and her extract featured a girl and a boy breaking into an army hut and beginning to make out. Chris Wellbelove could see no sense of the three generations in this opening extract, and Heather Holden-Brown, while praising the writing, questioned the complexities of setting a family saga in different eras. ‘Think about the reader’ she said. While people are always on the lookout for ‘a new Rosamund Pilcher’, family sagas are usually written chronologically.

Nizami Cummins described his Light as ‘a shamanic thriller for the digital age’. His extract read like a stream of consciousness: fragmented memories zipping from Edinburgh and Elephant and Castle to Thailand and Japan. Tom Witcomb liked the writing and the pitch and asked how sound was the science, to which the answer was the book was about an illness triggered by words; well researched. Lorella Belli found it clever but confusing, and missing a sense of humanity that draws the reader to the central character.

The pitch session ended with Sylvia Moody’s self-published ‘psychological thriller’ Journey into the Interior – already self published to five star reviews. The book features an isolated woman visited by neighbours. She communicates with objects and supernatural companions, all of which are parts of herself. Her opening extract was about writing journals. The panel was divided here mostly by gender – the men questioned the book’s description as a thriller; Heather Holden-Brown considered it had a tangible market, Lorella Belli thought the first person element limiting. The discussion of genre definition was challenged by Rebecca Swift, from the audience, who praised the book’s idiosyncrasy, beautiful prose and positive, if minority, appeal. If this panel is anything to go by ‘genre description’ is a mostly male fixation. As Sylvia Moody explained it was partly agents’ telling her her book would be ‘hard to place’ that led her to self publish it in the first place. An insight perhaps into still-existing gender archetypes in terms of what readers (and agents) look for? The conclusion: choose your agent carefully.

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