Four Lies Book Publicists Will Tell You

Hi. Barb here. At home in Somerville, MA, but venturing to Maine early next month.

My experience is that, if you write fiction, whether you are a new author, or a mid-career author adapting to the brave new world of publishing, there are people around who will give you incredibly terrible advice.

I don’t mean your mom. (“Why don’t you go on Oprah, dear?” “Gee, thanks. I never thought of that.”) I mean people who make their living publicizing books. Publicists you pay, “experts” in the field, even your assigned publicist at your publisher. And since these people have conversations with your editor who has conversations with your agent, there are many, many channels through which bad advice can reach you.

Of course, I don’t mean all publicists, experts, editors and agents give bad advice. Many will give you great advice. Others will give you honest advice–i.e. they will say, “I have no #$%^ing idea.”

Most of the people who give bad advice don’t mean you any harm. They believe what they are telling you. They give you poor information for the following reasons:

1) Nobody really knows the answer. There is not, nor has there ever been, a magic formula that turns books into bestsellers. If there were, every book would be a bestseller.

2) Nobody really understands the brave new world of publishing. It’s too new and changing too fast. To quote William Goldman, “The only thing anybody knows is that nobody knows anything.”

3) Marketing, in general, is an ill-understood activity. John Wanamaker (1838-1922) famously said, “I know that half of my advertising dollars are wasted … I just don’t know which half.” When you generalize from advertising to all of marketing, and when you look at both dollars and effort, I think you’re talking more in the range of 90% wasted. Huge corporations that have millions to spend on focus groups and other semi-scientific ways of judging their marketing still make horrible missteps. And waste a whole lot of effort. But remember, 10% of it works.

So given these challenges, there’s a huge tendency for people to over-generalize. To desperately take whatever worked last time and apply to something new, even if the situation is different. Or to try to reverse engineer success. “Well, this book was a huge success, and the author did A, B & C, so therefore, everybody do A, B & C!”

I don’t have an issue with this. What I have an issue with is the advice that is damagingly bad, and that goes around and around and around. So herewith is my assessment of publicity advice you should absolutely ignore.

1) Don’t waste your time marketing to other writers. You should be focused entirely on readers.

Of all the stupid things people say, this is the stupidest. It’s true that as you come up through the writer ranks, you’ll get to know a lot of fellow authors, both established and aspiring. Sometimes it will feel like all your Facebook friends and other social media followers, all your blog readers and all the people you hang out at conventions with are fellow authors. But authors are incredibly important to you from a marketing perspective.

Most authors are voracious readers first and foremost. They read books and they talk to their friends about books. They hang out in places where people read books and talk about books. Leaving aside the psychological benefits of having a supportive network of friends, having a buzz about your book among writers is priceless. They will recommend you for speaking gigs. They will blurb you. One of the most common questions writers get when they do presentations is, “So who do you like to read?” There’s a reason almost all the reviews in the New York Times Book Review are written by writers.

Whatever you do, please, do not go wandering the earth looking for a lost herd of “readers,” and ignore the very readers it is easiest for you to find, your fellow writers.

2) Readers aren’t interested in writerly stuff.

I actually believed this one, which is sort of a corollary to the above. So when I did “Reader” events I talked about things I thought would interest readers, things about the setting, characters and mystery elements in my books.

But whenever Q&A time rolled around, someone always put up his hand and asked, “So do you write in the morning, or in the evening, or what?”

I know. I don’t get it, either. But I’ve observed this now at lots of writer events, including really famous writer’s events. Some of the questioners are aspiring writers, sure, but others are not. It’s just something the kind of dedicated readers who read writers’ blogs and websites and magazine interviews and who come out to events want to know. They also want to know, do you have a special place where you write? Do you plan a whole book first? All that stuff.

3) Fiction writers need to develop a platform of thousands of Twitter followers and blog readers before they get published.

So let’s talk about the platform thing. A platform is where you stand so people can see you. It helps people find you, and therefore find your book.

Obviously for certain kinds of non-fiction writers, the platform is huge. If you’re a business guru going around the world doing guru seminars, and you’ve written a book to sell at the back of the room, your platform is everything.

For other non-fiction authors, the platform proves their bona fides. If you’ve written a book about the Civil War and you have a university appointment in a history department where you are the resident expert on the Civil War, that’s important. If you are an award-winning journalist, that’s important, too.

In the modern world, the height of your platform often gets measured in social media followers and blog readers, but those are the results of the platform, not the platform itself. You don’t stand on the audience’s heads. You stand on your platform so the audience can see you.

If you are a fiction writer, your platform is your books. Your books are what cause you have an audience, not the other way around. The single greatest reason people purchase fiction is that they have read the author before and liked (loved) their work. And mystery and thriller readers are the most brand loyal and least adventurous of all. As Julia Spencer-Fleming says, “Your book sells your next book.”

So if you are focused on building a Twitter following instead of spending every moment making your book the best book it can be, stop it right now.

I’m not saying the modern mid-list writer should ignore social media or eschew other promotional activities. Once you have an audience, even a small one, it is your most precious asset. You should find as many ways to reach your readers and cultivate them and keep them interested and get them talking about and recommending your books as you can. If you have a new book out, and someone who love-loves you hasn’t heard about it, it’s a shame for them and shame on you.

But growing an audience without a platform–i.e. without a book, is difficult and inefficient.

And if you happen across a publisher who wants to know how many Twitter followers and Facebook friends and blog readers you have before he will commit to publishing your first novel, don’t walk, run.

4) You should do a blog and build a big social media following about something in the world of your book, but not writing.

This is the obvious off-shoot of all three of the above. 1) You should be cultivating readers, not writers. 2) Readers are not interested in writerly stuff. 3) You need a huge platform. Therefore, 4) you should be blogging about something else.

The main reason this is terrible advice is because building a successful blog is an actual skill. If you have the kind of mad enthusiasm for a topic, distinctive and compelling voice, high energy work ethic and productivity required to build a large and faithful blog following, you should consider becoming a blogger instead of a novelist. Because, believe me, it is equally hard, and the last thing you need is another poorly compensated, all-consuming activity to suck up all your time. You already have one. You’re a novelist.

It’s like telling someone to become a virtuoso rock guitarist so they can play in a symphony orchestra. They’re related skills, but not the same skill.

It’s also crazy inefficient. Say you are writing a mystery set in the world of windsurfing. Brilliantly, you build the world’s most popular windsurfing blog.

The theory is these readers will buy your mystery. Like this.

the theoryBut how it actually works will be more like this.

How It Actually WorksNot that I am casting aspersions on the general literacy of windsurfers. At all. And note that I’ve indicated you’ll get 90% of the overlap, except for the few dumb asses who will forget to buy your book, or the ones who steal it from their local surf shop. The reason the circle is so small is because of this:

Because of ThisThis is not at all drawn to scale. Because if it was, it would look way, way worse than this. But you get the idea.

Willie Sutton said he robbed banks because, “that’s where the money is.” When you’re starting out, you need to focus your marketing efforts on the highly limited number of people who will buy a mystery from an unknown author. Because that’s where the money is. (Actually, there’s no money to speak of anywhere, but that’s an entirely different topic.)

So why so negative, Barb. Why spend this endless blog telling people what not to do? What should we do?

The companion posts for this one is now up. See Four Principles of Book Promotion here and Okay, But Seriously, What Should I DO? (About Book Promotion) here.

About Barb Ross

Barbara Ross is the author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries: Clammed Up, Boiled Over, Musseled Out, Fogged Inn and Iced Under. Stowed Away, the sixth book in the series will be published in December, 2017. See her website at http://www.maineclambakemysteries.com
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81 Responses to Four Lies Book Publicists Will Tell You

  1. Not negative at all, Barb–smart and business savvy, as always.

    Kathy/Kaitlyn

  2. Karla says:

    Reality, humor, bull’s eye. Thank you, Barb.

  3. Great blog entry! I’ve reposted this on the Chicago Writers Association Yahoo group, chicagowrites

  4. Barb,

    You say, “And if you happen across a publisher who wants to know how many Twitter followers and Facebook friends and blog readers you have before he will commit to publishing your work of fiction, don’t walk, run.”

    So wise. I have been to writers conferences where the big-shot New York publisher advises the audience of striving writers to build a Twitter “community” of 15,000 or more. To me, it’s a sure sign he doesn’t know what he’s doing.

    In my opinion, a publisher should be able to detect quality books of interest to an audience the publishing house serves. The publisher should be a master at marketing the types of books he publishes.

    If most of the marketing effort now falls upon the author, the publisher should at least be able to direct that effort intelligently so that first-time-published authors aren’t spinning their wheels.

    -d

    • Barb Ross says:

      Thanks, Diana. I don’t have any sympathy for writers who are unwilling to help themselves, but the chances of a new novelist building a “community” of 15,000 twitter followers are near zero, unless they already have a platform in some other aspect of their lives, in which case I estimate the conversion rate to people who will actually buy and read their books will be roughly the same as friends and family–ie not that great.

  5. Laura says:

    Thank you so much! I didn’t think this was negative at all! And who else is gonna tells us The Truth? Apparently, not the publicists!

  6. So many excellent insights here (which I found via Facebook link from Hallie Ephron, by the way). Thank you, Barbara.

    I’d like to jump in with a few reasons why some of this advice gets offered by publicists and others in the publishing community.

    1. From my perspective, this advice has arisen mainly in relation to aspiring authors who end up talking with other aspiring authors at how-to-write-and-publish blogs. Or self-pub authors talking to author self-pub authors within indie publishing communities. How much this activity leads to book sales down the road is anyone’s guess. However, I do find it weird when aspiring authors think they’re building an audience for their future work by writing about writing for others who aspire and may not even be avid readers (something of another weird issue in the aspiring author community).

    2./4. Again, if you’re a published/successful author, there’s a great deal of curiosity about it, right down to what you have for breakfast before you start writing. When aspiring authors without any success talk about writerly stuff, or their often tortured journey to publication, how many people are interested?

    On other fronts: I think agents often say “get a platform” because it’s the easiest excuse – a simple and fast way to reject. I find it similar to agents/editors who tell nonfiction authors, “Get a celebrity endorsement/foreword, then we’ll consider your project.” The project lacks strength or oomph, so they offer some kind of “fix” that sends the writer off to do something, rather than offering the hard truth that the work isn’t marketable without the magical dust of celebrity or fame. In any case, I wish they wouldn’t suggest it. It leads to mass confusion and wasted time.

    Finally, while marketing is notoriously fuzzy, this is starting to change dramatically. With more than 60% of books now being bought online (whether in print or digital format), marketers can collect and analyze consumer behavior and understand, to a shocking degree of granularity, who is likely to buy a book, when they’re likely to buy it, etc. (E.g., Google can predict a movie’s box-office take with more than 90% accuracy based on sentiment expressed online through search and social media.)

    Logical Marketing, a firm run by book publishing industry vets, is on the cutting edge here, and is the one to watch if you like to geek out on this sort of stuff.

    Thanks again for the excellent post.

    • Barb Ross says:

      Hi Jane-

      Thanks so much for coming by. I did try to focus on things I had heard actual professionals say. But I could do a post on “Myths I’ve Heard Aspiring Writers Pass Along to One Another,” that would be twice as long. (I also should have been clear. I didn’t pick these up from my agent, editor or the marketing people at my publisher.)

      I also agree with your second point. When I get to the “What To DO’ Part II, I will not be recommending that unpublished authors blog about their agonizing journey. For one thing, 99% of those stories are identical. “It was really, really, really hard. And then something good happened.”

      I agree that “Bring me 15,000 Twitter followers,” may be a way of rejecting. In my life in tech start-ups we used to call this, “Bring me the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West.” And you’re like, “I just killed the Wicked Witch of the East for you.” But at least the journeys venture capitalists sent us on were actually getting us toward our goal. Build a beta product, sign your first customer. In that vein, it would be much kinder for agents to say, “Write another, more saleable book.”

      Finally, I so welcome actual data in this field. The amount of myth and legend at all levels of the business drives me crazy. (Though of course, there are other parts of the business that I love.)

  7. Yes, yes, yes! That whole Twitter thing irritates me to no end. I actually like Twitter (and love Facebook) but the only way for social media to work is for growth to be organic. You can’t get 15,000 REAL followers without having a reason for them to follow you. This is particularly true for novelists. And I think many people misunderstand Twitter — it skews younger than Facebook — if you’re writing YA, for example, your readers are more apt to be on Twitter than Facebook. If you’re writing cozy mysteries, your core readership isn’t going to be on Twitter. I get so angry at aspiring writers who spend so much time trying to build a readership when they don’t even have a book out for people to read. Write the damn book first.

    Great blog, thanks!

  8. Freaking Brilliant! You get the 2015 Common Sense/I CAN see the Forest for the Trees Award.
    Looking forward to Part II!

  9. Mollie Bryan says:

    Great post, Barb. And Jane I am with you on the platform as an excuse not to publish thing. I sat on a panel in NYC with several agents and editors a few years ago. I was the moderator. Every one of them said if the book is great, they would buy it, even if the writer had no platform. They were all non-fiction editors and the agent repped both fiction and nonfiction.

    • Barb Ross says:

      Interesting, Mollie. And what I’ve always believed. Every agent and editor will take a book if they believe they’re the right person to sell the heck out of it. Everything else is secondary.

  10. This is the most brilliant thing I’ve read in ages. Smart, true and fun to read. I look forward to the next installment.
    Lida

  11. Karen Salemi says:

    Excellent, well-written, humorous advice. As a reader I enjoyed it immensely, and I’ve put in a request for your first book from the library. I’ve looked for your book at the library and it’s not been there, but seeing this on-line reminded me to request it.

    • Barb Ross says:

      Thanks, Karen, and I hope you enjoy Clammed Up!

      I was with your other half last evening when this blog was half written, and he said he had never heard Lie #1. In fact he said something about Lee Child pointing out that writers are “book people” and one should be spending one’s time with book people. I want to learn more about this.

  12. Bud Crawford says:

    Excellent points. I’d add one more: just as novelisting and blogging are distinct skills, so is marketing. I’m so conspicuously lacking in that skill that I don’t know whether it’s an inborn gift like perfect pitch or something you can train for. But the current market (which nobody understands much) favors the best marketers among us (some of whom may be brilliant writers) rather than going directly to the best writers.

    • Barb Ross says:

      Interesting point, Bud. You can definitely learn it. I’ve worked with some great marketing people in my former profession. At first, when I started down this road, I thought I had to forget everything I ever knew, but now I’m realizing that’s not quite true.

      I also do believe, as Mollie says above, the great book will win out.

  13. Smart analysis and advice, Barb. Building an audience is almost as hard as writing a book. I look forward to your list of Do’s after these Don’ts.

  14. Patti says:

    As a writer who has just finished her first book and getting ready to let it fly out into the world, I agree with what you wrote. And too…alot of publishers don’t publicize little authors. They put their money into pushing their already blockbuster authors! So, a writer has to be willing to not only be a writer…but a marketing person…a publicist and a jack of all trades! I have to laugh because recently on FB, I saw a writer who was going on and on about her book, plugging her website and her blog, and building up this following. One person commented: When will your book be out? And she replied: I should be done writing it in a few months. 🙂

    • Barb Ross says:

      Patti–that is hilarious! But understandable given the message some writers hear about publicity.

      I have to say, one of the lessons I’ve learn is that most of the important things that happened to make my first book a success was done by the publisher. Everything I did was “at the margins.”

      More on this later.

  15. Fantastic article. Thanks for the honesty.

    I just analyzed the blogs I read that are writing related. I have to admit, it does not entice me to buy that author’s books if I’m not already interested in that type of book. The books I buy still have more to do with the blurb on the book. I don’t know that I have ever then gone to the author’s Facebook page or blog (unless I have a personal connection to them) and I don’t follow them on Twitter etc. I’m a poor fan/supporter.

    I wonder if it’s because as a writer I use my ‘extra’ time to write.

    • Barb Ross says:

      That’s so interesting, Helen. You can indeed learn things about writing from people who work in genres and styles you don’t read.

  16. Ellen Byron says:

    Fabulous blog! I’ve been dealing with all of this myself lately. Please oh please tell me you offer a way for unknown authors to reach readers in Part Two!

  17. B.K. Stevens says:

    Thank you for posting this, Barb. My first novel is coming out soon, and I’ve been feeling guilty and lazy because I haven’t tried to build a Twitter following or done some of the other things you mention. I feel a lot better now. And I think you’re right when you say other writers are readers worth cultivating. I’ve bought lots of books written by writers I’ve gotten to know and like through Facebook and other social media–in fact, most of the mysteries I buy these days are by writers I’ve gotten to know online.

    • Barb Ross says:

      Thanks, B. K. Congrats on your launch. Part of what people forget in the frenzy–it’s a very cool thing and you need to enjoy it.

  18. Danielle says:

    I would like to point out that marketing and publicity, while work every closely together, have very different functions. And it is very important for a new and veteran authors to understand those differences. Most publicists do not care about twitter or facebook, because that is not our function–that is your social media marketer or marketing contact. We also don’t care if you blog, again marketing. So before throwing the publicist under the bus, please understand the difference between marketing and publicity. That being said, there is definitely overlap and many publicists fancy themselves marketers as well. But I think some of this bad advice comes from asking the wrong person about the wrong thing.

    • Barb Ross says:

      You’re right, Danielle. I think I have used the title, “Publicist” a little cavalierly. Also, I tried to say at the top not everyone will give you terrible advice. But I recognize how a caveat like that can disappear in the full force of a post like this.

      • Danielle says:

        Right. I just think it is important that people realize the difference between marketing and publicity.

    • And I agree as well, except many of the major publishers with whom I’ve worked introduce me to my “publicist” who proceeds to tell me to set up Goodreads accounts and increase my social media coverage. At this point, the two terms have blended in our minds.

      • Barb Ross says:

        In my experience, social media always serves as an important “echo chamber” for anything at publicist achieves, so I was surprised to hear Danielle say this isn’t the province of the publicist. But maybe the issue is that some publishers have generalized the duties and kept the title.

    • At the risk of stirring the pot, what are the differences between marketing and publicity, in your view? When someone comes to me and says they’re a “publicist”, what should I expect from them? I’ve never had anyone approach me and call themselves a “marketer,” but same question as above – if they did, what should I expect? Just saying that the two are different doesn’t actually help us understand their respective functions or where they overlap, or tell us what we should ask of each.

  19. Cindy Sample says:

    Barb, what a wonderful article. I was first published in 2010 when all the social media “experts” were telling authors that we had to post on Facebook every hour. As a former banker, I couldn’t understand why I would want to see 12 – 24 posts from my 1,000 friends every single day. It didn’t compute! Those same experts also said we needed to write a blog every day, or worst case, once a week. We all received hundreds of daily requests to read our writer friends’ blogs. Much as we love one another, there isn’t enough time in the day to reciprocate because we have great books we need to write:-) I say use common sense, do what you enjoy and keep on writing. I can’t wait to read Part 2.

  20. Grace Topping says:

    Great article, Barb. I’ve felt the pressure to have an internet presence but thought it a bit silly since I don’t have a book out yet. I’ve often heard that you have to have a following before your first book is out. This has caused me a bit of stress. If I spent a lot of time writing blogs, etc., I would never get my manuscript completed and ready for publication.

  21. Great post, Barb, and the comments it generated were equally informative! Breaking into the nut and being the author with enough of that little sparkle to make folks stop and at least read the blurb or back cover is daunting. After that, it’s in the readers’ hands (literally), not the publicists’ or the authors’. In this emerging world of “new publishing,” the playing field has been leveled with the power of social media tools. The “nobody” has the same access to the masses as the “somebody.” Following good advice or turning a deaf ear to bad advice is a mind-muddling experience. If marketing is viewed as being synonymous with outreach, folks will have an easier time focusing their efforts or even knowing what efforts to make. “Reaching out” to a blog or media outlet seems more natural than “marketing yourself” to one. I agree with Bud that writers with innate marketing skills have an edge that helps them be heard through the din.

    Great post. Keep ’em coming!
    -ConnieJH

    • Barb Ross says:

      That’s probably true, Connie. And humans with innate marketing skills probably have an edge, in general, in life. At least for those of us who live in complex societies.

  22. An excellent blog which demonstrates your savvy knowledge.

  23. Barb,
    This is such a good and practical post. I can’t wait to read Part II.

  24. S.W. Hubbard says:

    Don’t take this the wrong way, Barb, but I LOVE YOU! You have articulated, brilliantly, many of the things I’ve been muttering to myself for years. One thing I would add is, “Don’t be a lemming.” What worked for Barb doesn’t necessarily work for Susan. What worked yesterday doesn’t necessarily work tomorrow. Listen to advice, but don’t follow it slavishly. Chances are, if everyone says you HAVE to do it, it’s probably already jumped the shark. Try new approaches continually and see what works for you.

    • Barb Ross says:

      I love you, too, Susan. And even more after what you say here. So completely true.

      “What worked for Barb doesn’t necessarily work for Susan. What worked yesterday doesn’t necessarily work tomorrow. Listen to advice, but don’t follow it slavishly.”

      Absolutely.

  25. Rhonda Lane says:

    What a great post and ensuing discussion! I’m looking forward to Part 2.

  26. Marian says:

    What a relief to see this articulated. Well done, Barb. Just needed to be said.
    I’ve been in business for a long time (at least a century). While I recognize that I am in a new kind of business with writing and maybe trying to sell a few books, much of the advice around building platforms seems so counter-intuitive to me, I feel I’ve entered a parallel universe.

    • Barb Ross says:

      I felt the same way, Marian. But over time I’ve learned that though some parts of the book business feel like alien territory, others represent familiar terrain.

  27. Genius! Pure genius. Thank you.

  28. Great post, Barb. Informative and well written, plus I agree with most of what you say. And now I don’t have to feel guilty that I don’t have millions of Twitter fans, and am also not as active on Facebook, as I feel I should be.

  29. Amy M. Reade says:

    How did you know I needed this post today?? Great insight–thank you!!

  30. “the last thing you need is another poorly compensated, all-consuming activity to suck up all your time . . .” LOLOL! Well-done!

  31. As an author who has listened to publicists for over thirty years, I can vouch for the fact that most are not in touch with popular genre fiction audiences. They do their best with the information and time they are given, but one size does not fit all. I have spent many years teaching publicists what we need, only to have them move on over and over again. These days, I do it myself. I still hate promotion, and I’m agreeing with your blog because that’s the way I feel. It could also be spectacularly bad advice for a lot of other people. 😉 And while I agree with what Jane said, I’m a writer, not a statistician. I need someone to TELL me what I should do to bump up those stats. And those people are thin on the ground.

    • Barb Ross says:

      I agree what I’m saying won’t fit all. In fact, over generalizing from specific situations is part of the problem, as I see it.

  32. Carol says:

    I did not find this negative. In fact, I am an unpublished author, and found it comforting. I struggle with the whole thought of blogging and website, tweets etc. Hence you see I have no website (yet).

    For now I need to get my book done and learn the craft. Then I’ll venture into social media. I read and follow others and find it interesting.

    Thanks for sharing your insights.

  33. Triss Stein says:

    Loved this common sense, straight talking approach.

  34. It’s interesting that you bring up writing about writing. I’ve been blogging for eight years, and the vast majority of my posts on writing get virtually no hits at all. I did one this week that was a hybrid of life-and-writing and that one did get good play, but the vast majority of the time my experience has been the opposite. I suppose as much as anything it is another example of what works for one does not work for another.

    • Barb Ross says:

      When I get to the proscriptive part, I definitely won’t be recommending that a writer have a one-person blog about writing. I think that’s a tough row to hoe. I just meant that sometimes the experts wave away all that “writer” stuff, like nobody’s interested, and in my experience, that’s not the case.

  35. Kathryn Jane says:

    Well said, Barb. Looking forward to Part 2. 🙂

  36. Liz § says:

    Barb,

    This post (and mostly all the comments following) makes me feel just a little bit better about being an inexperienced writer and new blogger. It’s very overwhelming to step into an unknown world, much like your first job, and feel confident about what’s to come. I hope you don’t mind, but I want to share your blog on my newest post (my second post, embarrassingly enough, to be exact). I appreciate the inspiration and reassurance!

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  39. Kaye George says:

    “If you are a fiction writer, your platform is your books.” Best line I’ve read in a LONG time on promo!

  40. Aya Walksfar says:

    Barb,
    Thanks for this article. It helps reaffirm some of the things I’ve learned on my own. And it points out a few things that has helped me think more clearly about publicity and books. I especially like how you pointed out the fallacy of the one that says not to waste time marketing to other writers. I have thought it kind of silly, since as a writer I read voraciously.

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