Monday, June 29, 2009

Announcing the "Really Bad Literary Agency"

Steve here:

The other day Chris and I were having lunch with some writer friends when somebody made the joking comment (I forget the exact context), "just so you don't hang up a shingle and become an agent!"

Which got me to thinking. Why the heck not? I mean, I'm qualified, or at least as qualified as many of the so-called agents out there. More so actually.

Now, am I qualified to be the sort of agent I'd want to have? Probably not. But I'm plenty qualified to be the sort of bad agent that most people desperate for an agent are going to end up with.

First of all, let's look at the basic requirements of being an agent:

Okay, drawing a blank here. That's because there pretty much are no qualifications. One editor I know has reportedly said, "You know what you needed to be an agent? Stationery."

I'd qualify that, because we live in the age of computers, laser printers, email, Facebook, and Twitter. You don't even need stationery any more. In fact, if she could type her name into the computer, my cat could be an agent.

Yes, that's right. Anybody can call themselves a literary agent. There's no license required. No certification. No required training. No required degree. No test. Simply the willingness to call yourself an agent.

Of course, good agents are better qualified. They have extensive knowledge of business, contracts, and the publishing industry. They're skilled negotiators and have a gift of salesmanship.

But that's not what we're going for here at the Really Bad Literary Agency, so it's really lucky for us that most agent-hungry writers out there would never think to ask about their agent's qualifications and experience. The agent might be insulted and fail to sign them up, and as we all know, having any agent is way more important than having a good one.

This, of course, simplifies the first apparent obstacle (though less-so than you'd think; read on) in starting the Really Bad Literary Agency: getting clients. Beginning writers are desperate to get an agent, because they've bought into the double myth that you can't possibly sell (or even submit) a book without an agent, and that if you do have an agent, your book will automagically get sold.

They don't know that there are many alternate ways to reach editors (queries, professional networking, pitch sessions at writers conferences, just to name a few), and lets not educate them, shall we?

And they don't realize that sending something to an agent is no assurance in itself that they'll do anything to market your work, or that they'll even send it out at all. And just between us, a manuscript submitted by a really bad agent may get no warmer a reception than if you'd just submitted it yourself cold. In fact, being submitted by a really bad agent can even prejudice an editor against you. But that's just between us.

Okay, how else am I qualified to start the Really Bad Literary Agency? Well, for one thing, I don't live in the New York area where most of the publishing industry still lives. Sure, there's the phone, and the internet, but publishing is still a small, tight, industry that runs on lunch-meetings and handshakes. In fact, I live right on the Pacific coast, about as far from New York as you can get and still be on the mainland. In fact, I'm not even close to Hollywood. Or any major city for that matter. I've got to drive more than a hundred miles even to get on an airplane.

Not that you heard that from me. If anyone asks, "I'm just a train-ride away from Manhattan." Of course, that train is Amtrak's Empire Builder, and it will take me at least three days, and I'd never do that anyway, but never mind that. Anyway, it's sixty miles to the Amtrak station, and I'd have to take another train to Seattle just to get on the Empire Builder (which only goes as far as Chicago, but...)

Okay, let's go with the personal qualifications. Let's see. I'm an introvert who doesn't much like dealing with strangers. I'm uncomfortable at parties, and don't mingle well. I don't like telephones, and in fact, I'm kind of phobic about phone calls. Really, I'm not a people person at all.

My idea of dressing up is a black tee-shirt with something printed on the back instead of a plain one. For a special occasion, I'll throw a Hawaiian shirt over that.

I hate those award ceremonies, trade conferences, and other places where industry people mingle. In fact, I'm not that crazy about traveling at all. I'm comfortable here at my little house in the boonies.

So, in terms of starting a Really Bad Literary Agency, that's check, check, check and check!

What else? Well, I've never sold a book for anybody else. Fortunately, that's another thing people don't talk to agents about. There's the myth that agents (any agent) have a mystic ability to sell books. But how do you know unless you ask? Fact is, even with good agents, they end up representing a lot of books that they did little or nothing to sell. A lot of prolific authors I know have never had one of their books sold by their agents. They were all sold, through one means or another, sold directly by the author (or because the publisher approached the author about the book). Simply because an agent has a book on their resume doesn't mean they actually sold it. Just because they have a name for a client doesn't necessarily mean they've sold anything for them either.

Speaking of client lists, here's a little something we really bad agents like to keep quiet: once you've handled a contract with an author, you're with them for the life of that contract. Even if you screwed up. Even if they hate you. Even if they've fired you and you haven't handled any of their new work in years. As long as the book is still in print, as long as the contract is still active in some form, they're still technically your client, and you can put their name on your web site as honey to attract wanna-be writers. Shhhhhhh!

Now, you may be saying, "Steve, if you don't have any clients, and aren't selling any books, how can you stay in business?"

Well, define "staying in business." As a really bad agent, I don't have much overhead. I don't live close to New York so real estate is cheap. I don't have an office (devoted to the agency anyway). My one employee works cheap (see line item: cat food). And this is most important, I don't make my living as an agent.

That's true of a surprising number of us in the bad agent community. We're supported by spouses, or trust funds, or we're retired, or this is the really good one: we have a day job! Yup. You've heard of hobby-farms. Well, there are also hobby agencies. No crime in this, exactly, except you really can't expect to be your agent's top life-priority, ever.

Fortunately, that's another question most people wouldn't never think to ask of an agent. Is this your primary source of income? Nah, that would be rude. Ignorance is better. Ha!


Did I say shhhhh yet?

Anyway, money is no problem. I have a business plan. As I've said, there's no shortage of eager, would-be clients out there. It might be difficult to reach them, considering my anti-social tendencies, but for once, I'm willing to make an effort. After all, properly -- uh -- exploited, literary clients are gold, baby!

Heck, they don't even have to be clients. We've got this nifty scam -- uh -- revenue stream, called reading fees. Yes! That's right. Non-clients can actually be asked to pay a fee to reject their stuff! Man, it doesn't get better than that!

Look, I'm fully justified in asking for a fee. The very fact that I'm asking for one is pretty much an assurance that I'm not expecting to see anything I'll want to represent. I'm saying, "you're wasting my time, so you're going to have to pay for it." But what's really fun? I don't have to read anything!

Okay, any editor will tell you, most of the stuff in the slush pile rejects itself in the first page, if not sooner. And in this case,I suppose "it sucks," isn't a satisfactory rejection. Okay, maybe it is. What are they going to do? Ask me to unreject them? No need for repeat business. Plenty of fish in the sea and all.

But just to be careful, we'll read just enough to put together a plausible bull-shit rejection. You know, throw in a couple of character names, pick on their manuscript format ("I hate silver brads!") and generally make them seem personally hated. Not that we need repeat business, but it doesn't hurt.

Anyway, beyond that, newbie writers are so eager to get, talk to, even see (from across a crowded room) a agent that we're much in demand. Writer's conferences can't get enough agents, and so they actually pay agents to show up and court suckers -- uh -- potential clients. Heck, as long as I call myself an agent, I could probably sell my worn underpants on eBay. (Note to self: revise business plan.) Speaking fees? Not a problem.

Yes, I will travel. But only if the price is right. Of course, all the time I'm doing this, I'm nowhere near New York, and I'm not in my office either. I'm not doing anything agent-like. But that's okay, because I still haven't sold any books.

Okay, here's another revenue stream. I'd tell you about it, but it's all right here in my book! Only $28.85. They make great gifts! I'll even sign them for you (for a small additional fee)! If I'm qualified to be a really bad agent, I'm just as qualified to write a really bad writing book. Never mind if I can't even sell my own book (though I probably can, because like I said, us agents are much in demand). I'll just publish it myself. That way I don't have to share the profits with anyone. Not even my agent, because, I don't have one! Is this a great country or what?

Okay, maybe you're saying, "but Steve, what if I really do become your client?"

Ha! Fat chance of that, writer-boy! As we've seen, we don't need actual clients to keep the gravy train rolling. In fact, if we had clients, we might actually have to start answering our phone!

But wait. I guess we do need a few clients. People to list on our web-site and to sing our praises (for no good reason we can see, but they're just glad to have an agent).

Okay, how do we keep them out of our hair? Well, Skippy, we have a plan for that too. Since we clearly know than any really bad agent has a fool for a client, it's obvious that you wouldn't know a publishable manuscript if it slapped you in the butt.

Okay, neither would any self-respecting really bad agent, but that won't stop us! Yes, for any three-hundred page manuscript, it only takes three or four pages of "notes" to keep you busy for months! A simple, "I think you should rewrite this in second person, from the viewpoint of the briefcase," could keep many writers busy for a year. Especially if the book doesn't have a briefcase! Brilliance!

Okay, the point of these rewrites isn't just keeping you running in circles. It's also about our ego, and keeping you in line. After all, it's clear that if we know so much more about writing than you, we really don't need you. We're doing you a favor just opening your stinky writer mail. And of course, if makes us feel pretty good up here on our agent throne, watching you little writers scurrying to and fro at our every command. Yeah, it's a little like being Stalin, or Idi Amin. Good times!

After a while, we might even start to believe our own press, that we really can take your sow's anus of a manuscript and turn it into a Gucci bag. And if one of our clients actually does manage to produce a Gucci bag, and it somehow escapes our "improvements," and really does turn out to be a best-seller, score! It doesn't matter how it happened, or who is really responsible. The credit is there, and we're glad to take it.

Okay, okay, confession time here. This is where I'm really, really poorly qualified to be a really bad agent. You see, as a really bad agent, how can I possibly tell you how to rewrite your book if I've actually written books of my own. Multiple books. And sold them. To major publishing houses. For money.

And how can I possibly tell you how to write best-sellers when I've actually been on a best-seller list. Twice. Oh, the shame.

Okay, good news though. Though I'm a national best-seller, I'm not a New York Time's best-seller, so I'm completely unqualified/qualified to tell you how to cross that hurdle!

Okay, but there's one flaw in my business plan. What with hawking my book, speaking engagements, writer's conferences, and hiding in my left-coast house with the shades drawn, there's not much time left to meddle with even my most prized clients.

But we've got a solution for that too, and it works for all aspiring suckers -- uh -- writers, client or no. Yes, for a small fee I can refer you to a highly-unqualified book-doctor who can tell you how screwed up your book is for not reading exactly like Harry Potter with the names misspelled. For which I get only an -- uh -- modest, kickback.

So, with no further ado, I'd like to introduce you to my book doctor:

So that's it. The Really Bad Literary Agency is now open for business. Want to be a client? Ha! The line is already forming! What you need to show me is that you're just a little more eager than anyone else. Bribes cheerfully accepted! Just click the "donate" button below.

No promises of course. Except we will take your money.

[J. Steven York is the national best-selling author of over a dozen books (and counting). He is not an agent, nor does he want to be one. He will, however, still take your bribes.]

Because everyone seems to love Bad Agent Sydney, and technology lets me do this stuff, I've created a Cafepress shop where a full range of Bad Agent Sydney tee-shirts and other goodies are available. Find it HERE.

Did you find this article useful? Your donation, big or small, will encourage us to do more like it. Every little bit helps and is appreciated. Thanks in advance: Chris and Steve.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Writer's Horoscope #3

Well, it's time again for another "Writer's Horoscope." When reading this feature, it's important to remember that as writers, we're all professionals at making s&!t up. But this is REAL. It must be true! You read it on the internets!

If, however, you don't find that your entry in this horoscope seems to apply to you, it's entirely possible that your parents lied to you about your birth-date. (They may also be aliens. Or robots. Or robot aliens. Just remember next time you visit home, it wasn't our idea to cut them open and see what's inside!) Try another sign and see if it makes more sense to you. If it still doesn't seem to apply, keep in mind that they may not only have fudged the date, but the year, and possibly our earlier installments will fit you better. Find them here and here.

Aries (March 21 - April 19) - Don't be afraid of deadlines. They can push you past the blocks and hang-ups that impede your productivity and creativity. A little pressure can be a very good thing.

Taurus (April 20 - May 20) - You're a professional at making things up, and most times, that serves you well. But this skill -- this habit -- can cause endless grief when it comes to the business side of your career. Whenever possible, act on information, not speculation. When it doubt about someone's intentions, ask. Fiction is your profession, not the basis of your business plan.

Gemini (May 21 - June 20) - Stop overthinking your work. Good storytelling a golf-swing. Repeat and refine aiming for perfection. Thinking in the moment will only trip you up. Get your thinking done ahead of time so you can follow-through in the moment.

Cancer (June 21 - July 22) - Pay your debts, literal and figurative. This would be a good time to consider where favors are owed. Who has helped you in the past, and what can you do for them today? Perhaps somewhere, somebody is now thinking as well of you.

Leo (July 23 - August 22) - While you're trying to follow the latest trend, so are a million other writers. Following the herd is a good way to get turned into hamburger. Be true to your own talents and inclinations first. Only then should you try to adapt those to fit the marketplace.

Virgo (Aug 23 - September 22) - Having a routine can be a great key to productivity and consistency, but it's possible to take it too far. Have you fallen into a rut? Break things up. As an experiment, try a new writing schedule, location, or method. Who knows?

Libra (September 23 - Oct 22)
- Publishing relationships aren't like an ideal marriage. There's no "till death do you part" here, or there shouldn't be. Is a long time relationship: with an agent, editor, or publisher, still working for you? If you have doubts, you won't go to hell for shopping around a little.

Scorpio (Oct 23 - November 21) - Read Libra for some sage advice, but rather than getting out of a relationship, you should be thinking about getting into one. Maybe it isn't forever, but it should be as long and fruitful as possible. In that, look carefully at potential new partners, and consider how compatible you will be. Do not rush, do not force yourself into something you will regret later. Patience will be rewarded.

Sagittarius (Nov 22 - Dec 21) - As the worm turns into the butterfly, we must from time-to-time evolve. But while the butterfly changes only once, the writer must be reborn many times. Your time is coming again soon. Now would be a good time to take pause and contemplate that future. A change of scenery, perhaps a writing retreat, will allow you to chart your new direction.

Capricorn (December 22 - January 19) - A new perspective may help your current project. Seek the advice of someone whose wisdom and experience you trust. However, don't seek to follow their path. Instead, ask them what they think about yours.

Aquarius (January 20 - February 18) - The grind may be wearing you down. Don't give up hope, but don't get too lost in dreams of a grand and dramatic rescue from obscurity. The Gods rarely send down gifts in the form of lightning bolts. The most important progress is rarely so sure or dramatic.

Pisces (February 19 - March 20) - You've worked hard to get where you are. This would be a good time to reward yourself and enjoy the company (and energy) with friends. Throw a party, a barbecue, or organize an outing. Put the emphasis on talk, socializing, and shared activity. Too much drinking and wildness will defeat the purpose.

If this is your birth month: Look at the big picture for the coming months. This is a time of travel and new experiences. They can be a distraction, but treat them as preparation for what is to come. Consider them an investment in the future. Use your travels and experiences as research, and store energy for the winter. When fall comes, return to your projects renewed, recharged, and full of new ideas to bring to the page.

Did you find this article useful? Your donation, big or small, will encourage us to do more like it. Every little bit helps and is appreciated. Thanks in advance: Chris and Steve.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Books don't sell any more (and other self-fulfilling prophecies)

Steve here:

Okay, I confess this is going to be a bit of a rant, and a bit of an unfocused one too. Because it's about a number of things, and it's all about the selling of books, especially fiction books, a subject near-and-dear to my heart.

What it's about is declining book sales, and at least a small part of why that's happening. It's also about the kind of one-size-fits-all, top-down, number-driven retail management that is driving many of this country's retail giants (book-chains included, though they aren't directly the subject here) into ruin.

It's also about the local chain grocery store where I do much of my shopping. (Safeway. Let's name names here, so credit can go where credit is due. Safeway. Safeway. Safeway. F***ing Safeway!) And it's the sad tale of my little beach town where you can buy kites and surf-boards in at least half-a-dozen places each, but where getting a new book written by one of our many local authors (including Chris and I) is all but impossible.

Let's go back to the beginning.

I live in a beach town on the Oregon coast, one of the busiest and most tourist driven. Every summer weekend we're crowded with weekenders and tourists jamming hotel rooms, rental properties, condos, and second homes. Many more are day trippers, driving over from the Willamette Valley for a bowl of chowder, some salt-water taffy, and a stroll on the beach before they head home.

On a sunny summer weekend the roads are jammed and "NO VACANCY" signs are everywhere. The locals, those that aren't out servicing the visiting throngs in one way or another, are mostly cocooned at home, knowing better to challenge the roads, and having had the foresight to do our shopping, eat our meals-out, and see our movies earlier in the week then things were relatively uncrowded.

Unlike southern beach towns, we have a much more laid-back style of tourism here. Except for a small but growing contingent of extreme surfers and wave-boarders, the ocean is too cold, rough and dangerous for much in the way of swimming. There are no amusement parks, major tourist attractions (other than the beach itself) and not a lot of night-life, even in the summer. There's some boating on the local lake, but for most people it's not about watercraft either. People come to eat, shop, comb the beach, and mostly to kick back in their weekend castle, put the feet up, and enjoy the sights and smells of the seaside.

They come to relax, and for a lot of people (a LOT of people, screw you Steve Jobs) that still means kicking back with a good, entertaining, book.

That is, if they can get one. It's a surprisingly difficult thing to do.

Actually, there are still plenty of books here. We've got several bookstores, some excellent, that primarily sell used books. There's also a book liquidator store in the local outlet shopping center that deals in remaindered book. But as for new books, the kind that actually keep the book industry (and authors like us) in business, the water holes are drying up and the vultures are gathering.

When I moved here ten years ago (has it really been that long?) we had an excellent little independent bookstore in this town. It was good enough that, even when I was driving over from much larger Eugene, Oregon, which had many bookstores, independent, chain, and big-box, of its own, it was still worth dropping in. The store was run like a bit-city newsstand or a good airport bookstore. Not a lot of floorspace, but tons of magazines, tons of paperbacks, lots of turn-over so there was ALWAYS something new every week. Yes, there were more serious books, more hardcovers, a nice section for local authors, lots of hand-selling, but the owners knew the economic engine that made all that other stuff possible. Churn the stock, make the tourists and casual readers happy.

Ironically, this store was located right next to the grocery story that is the subject of this post, one door down in the little strip-mall they both occupied. The storefront stands empty now, and has for most of a year. The sad tale of its demise is a story in itself, and I've already written it. You can find it here.

Anyway, that left us locals primarily defendant on the local Safeway,, out-of-town travel (60 miles to the nearest chain-bookstore) and the limited new selection carried in a couple of new/antiquarian bookstores in town, as our sources for our new books.

Actually, that wasn't so terrible at first. At that time, Safeway had a pretty good book section, most of one side of an aisle and a wrap-around end-cap devoted to books and magazines, plus a couple of spinner racks where hardcovers, trades, best-sellers and kids books were sometimes displayed. Sadly, that didn't last long.

We should have seen it coming. It began with the three most dreaded words that any customer of a corporate entity can possibly hear, "to serve you better..." Nothing that begins with "to serve you better" ever ends well. Our store was to be remodeled over the winter.

But like sheep, we suspected nothing. Despite the mess, the confusion, the reduced hours, the noise, and the dust, we were looking forward to our shiny new store, and the imagined new amenities that it might being when it was all done.

It was a chaotic time. Everything in the store kept moving. Stocks and selections on everything were cut back to make room for the construction, and so it was no shock at all the that book and magazine section was moved and rearranged and reduced. Surely this was a temporary thing. Surely the section would return as good or better than before?

Surely -- not.

New fixtures came in, including a smaller magazine racks, and just enough book pockets to hold a rang of best-sellers and not much else. The fancy fixtures just ended part-way-down the isle, leaving an incomplete and shoddy-looking joint that certainly would connect to more book pockets once the dust started to settle.

That didn't happen. The remodel wound down, and as the local writers gathered for lunch, we would talk in hushed and nervous voices about what had happened. This can't be the new status quo, can it?

Eventually we started talking to the employees and the managers. No, they didn't like it either. No, there was nothing they could do about it. Corporate decided all these things. It quickly became clear that the people calling the shots had probably never been to our store, much less on a busy summer weekend which are its biggest business days. They had no clue about local needs or how it differed from other stores of similar size and sales volume. It was just another interchangable cog in a retail machine.

So this was the new status quo. The magazine section was maybe 2/3s the size it once had been, and was much more thinly stocked. The book section had suffered even more. I'd guess we have maybe a quarter the pockets we once had, most of them devoted to best-sellers, the rest to second-tier "big" books. There are no genre sections, no science fiction, no western, no cozy mystery or category romance.

Pushing out the books is a huge greeting card section. One entire side of the aisle and half of the side the the books are on is taken up with greeting cards. You can imagine the bean-counter-think on this. Most greeting cards are a piece of folded cardboard and a three-cent-wholesale envelope that you can sell for $3-5. Short of gift-cards that never get cashed, there can't be many higher-profit items in a grocery store, and the grocery business runs on notoriously tight margins. Books and magazines don't sell the way they used to (ask anyone, or check the numbers comparing stores of similar overall sales volume through the entire chain), they take up lots of space, and they don't have high margins.

You can see the logic. Dump the dead-tree-media for some dead-tree greeting cards, get kudos from your boss (who will be gone in six months anyway) and get ready to climb the corporate ladder to something really important, like breakfast cereals or female hygiene products...

Now, you can argue that this is the price we pay for living in a small town, that this simply reflects the decline of the book industry and the magazine business. But we aren't just any small town. We're a beach town. This isn't a generic Safeway store of a certain sales volume in a typical location.

It's in a beach town! Most of that volume comes from tourists! And surprise, surprise, people mostly don't come to the beach to buy get-well and Christmas cards. They come to the beach to kick back with a good book.

Don't believe me? Go back and take a look at the photos taken earlier this evening at my local Safeway (and I apologize for the poor quality of these things, taken with my cell phone) at the beginning of the article. For good measure, here's one of the small hardcover section. Take a good look. I'll still be here...

No, this isn't the result of some fire-sale, or the death of the local news-vendor. It's just a typical mid-week during the summer after the locusts have descended.

What's really interesting, as many books as obviously sold here, are all the books that didn't sell. Every empty pocket represents lost sales, just in the best-seller area. And trust me, when people go to the beach, they love those NYT best-selling thrillers and potboilers, yes, but they also crave literary comfort-food: the genres. They love their category romances, cozy mysteries, their westerns, their space-operas, and you pretty much won't find those at Safeway any more. More lost sales.

This isn't just Safeway, and it isn't just grocery stores. Across the industry, books aren't selling because books aren't being sold. They aren't easily available, and they aren't where people can find them! You won't find books in convenience stores any more, or in many drug stores, and book sections are being cut back or eliminated in many big-box department stores. Paperback books are fast-food for the mind, but you won't see them sold that way. Not any more. And certainly not at Safeway.

And what about those cards? Well, I've been keeping an eye on the card aisle since the remodel, and fact is, I rarely see anybody there. Locals buy cards, and there just aren't that many of us. The tourists seem to avoid them.

The good part about this is that, with fewer books and magazines to browse (and when somebody does linger there, it is almost always for the books and magazines) and nobody interested in cards, the aisle is like a superhighway between the back and front of the store. If you want to get back to the pharmacy or to grab a quick gallon of milk, this is what the locals now use as a short-cut. Unlike the rest of the store, you aren't likely to get blocked by shopping carts or gawking tourists. It's a wasteland, a straight desert road where you can really open it up and let it rip.

Look, assuming some bean-counter or merchandising V.P. ever looks at this, I know what they're thinking: it doesn't matter if you sell more books or magazines because the margins are small. If there's no profit, you can't make it up in volume.

But consider this. Just like milk and bread and soda-pop, the reading section was a destination. Regular visitors knew that if they needed a quick read, they could drop in and find a reasonable selection to browse. But nobody walks into a beach-town grocery store just to buy books, of if they do, that isn't how it goes down.

No, they buy a good book, and then to go with it, they need some salty snack, maybe some cookies or baked goods, maybe some soda pop or a nice bottle of wine. Maybe while they're at it, they'll look for something for a nice dinner in, something pre-prepared, quick, and low effort. The store may not make much off the books and magazines themselves, but they'll make plenty off all the high-profit items necessary to complete the relaxation experience.

And the real irony is, my gut feeling is that a smaller card section would still sell about the same number of cards. We locals don't have a lot of other options in town, and an occasion or holiday is an occasion or holiday. So a smaller card section would make just as much money, and a larger book section would make more. And, because more books and magazines would encourage more browsers, some of them (or the people waiting to get around them) might look over at the card section and think, "I should send a card to cheer up Aunt Penny in the hospital." So they might actually sell more cards.

That's my theory. Prove me wrong.

Please, give it a try.

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Also, your donation, big or small, will encourage us to do more like it. Every little bit helps and is appreciated. Thanks in advance: Chris and Steve.