Louise Adler

Louise Adler is the CEO and Publisher-in-Chief of Melbourne University Press. She has had a long career in the publishing industry, and her many former roles include Editor of Arts and Entertainment at The Age and the Editor of the Australian Book Review. 

Louise became a Member of the Order of Australia for Services to Literature in 2008. Her board roles include the Monash University Council, the Melbourne International Arts Festival and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from University of Reading in the United Kingdom and a Master of Arts and Master of Philosophy from Columbia University in the United States.

Louise spoke to The Garret about Australian book sales and what they mean for both publishers and writers, as well as how she seeks to capture the zeitgeist with that she publishes.

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Astrid: Louise Adler, welcome to The Garret.

Louise: Thank you.

Astrid: Louise, you hold a prominent place in the Australian publishing industry. You became a member of the Order of Australia for Services for Literature in 2008, and you're currently the CEO and publisher-in-chief of Melbourne University Press, among many other roles. What is your opinion of the current state of the publishing industry in Australia?

Louise: Well, that's a big question. [Laughter] A lot of books being published. I think that in general – I'm thinking of the book industry rather than the publishing industry – the book industry is alive and well. I think, if you think over the past decade, that we have weathered some really significant storms, over the past decade. I'm just thinking about a particular period, both the Global Financial Crisis, the withdrawal of Borders and the Red Group from Australia, the advent of increased and deeper technological innovation, if you like, the coming and going and plateauing of ebooks, ereading, the advent of the online bookshops. There's so many aspects to the book industry that have changed, I think, radically in the last decade. And I think we've weathered the changes, we've managed the changes, quite well collectively, and most of us are still here, which is very interesting.

Astrid: You started that comment by saying, there are a lot of books being published. And I actually wanted to ask you about that. Are there too many books being published in Australia each year?

Louise: So, I never like to think of it like that, being a bibliophile. How can it be too many books? It can never be too many books! And there are some character-building numbers around. So, this is a quite technical way of describing or responding to the question of, are there too many books being sold?

Nielsen BookScan says that, in 2017, if you count the number of titles by volume, so, if Australia was the country of publication, only:

  • 6 titles sold more than 100,000 copies
  • 23 sold more than 50,000
  • 100 sold more than 20,000
  • 230 sold more than 10,000
  • 458 sold more than 5,000.

Of the total, the total count of titles by volume, which was 66,500, 61,500 sold less than 5,000 copies. So, that's the salutary number to remember, that of 66,000 odd titles that were published in Australia, or count Australia as their country of origin of publication, 61,500 sold less than 5,000 copies. That's a character-building and depressing number for everybody.

Astrid: That is sobering.

Louise: Sobering, sobering.

Astrid: So, what does that mean for publishers?

Louise: That the reasonable requirement of writers – that they are afforded the capacity, the economic means by which to write – doesn't compute with the number of sales that you can expect, the quantity of sales that you can expect. So, if most people, if 61,500 out of 66,500 titles sell less than 5,000 copies, you can't give people money. Publishers can't give advances sufficient to create the time for writers to write their books.

I think the end result will be in a really impoverished literary culture, because only bestsellers can then argue – or their agents can argue – for the advances sufficient to write the next book, and the book thereafter. And that's a problem, because it's about growing new writers, it's not just about established writers. Where is the environment, the fertile environment, in which you can publish, support, nurture new writers? The writer of today who becomes the Flanagan of tomorrow, or the Tom Keneally, or the Diane Morrissey, or the whoever your aspiration is? You know, how does that happen? And it seems to me that the economics of it just do not work out, work for the individual writer, and they're not working for the individual publisher anymore.

Astrid: So, there is so much to unpack there. I guess, I want to start with perhaps the simpler questions, and move into the more difficult concepts. How does Melbourne University Press go about choosing your titles each year?

Louise: So, like university presses all across Australia, we are supported by our institution, the University of Melbourne. That support goes to ensuring that we publish academic content for academics, as well as academic content for a broader reading public. But, the support we get is targeted precisely at academic monographs, discipline-specific for specialist readers. No one expects those books to be bestsellers, or to... It's good if they break even, right? The rest of the work we do, which is about contribution to a broader literary culture and intellectual discourse, a public debate, those books need to earn their own way. So, that's the economics of it.

So, you've either got direct subsidies, like Melbourne University Publishing has a direct subsidy from Melbourne University. Or, in the instance of other presses, like University of New South Wales Press, or the University of Queensland Press, or the UWA, there'll be other ways in which the institution, the parent institution, supports them. They will have ownership of the bookshop, for example, the university bookshop, which will deliver cashflow. They'll have distribution businesses, they might be running the printery for the university, but there are ways in which, either by direct subsidy or by indirect subsidy, that university presses get to do the kind of scholarly work that is part of the charter.

Astrid: So, stepping away from the academic titles, that, as you say, no one expects to break even, and focusing on those works that are expected to provide a return, how do you choose those books?

Louise: Well, I think that publishing is a very personal business. I think people pretend it's not, but I think you publish to your interests, to your sense of the zeitgeist, to what the readers that you imagine are your community, and you publish to that bubble, if you like. I think all of us try, whether you're serious non-fiction and literary fiction, whatever your publishing brief is, or mandate is, you're trying to imagine, feel, what are the issues of the day, and what are the issues of the day likely to be? And this is pertinent particularly to non-fiction, what are the issues likely to be in the environment in the next year or two?

Astrid: So, for you, how do you find the next big thing?

Louise: We are less dependent on agents than probably any other conventional trade publishers are. We don't wait on agents to find writers and deliver them to us. We're going out there and matching people and ideas, and ideas and people. And that, for me, personally, I'm just talking on a personal level, that's the great pleasure. That's the joy, saying, ‘You've got a great idea there’. Or, ‘Why don't you write about X or Y?’

Astrid: I recently read Made by Humans: The AI Condition by Ellen Broad, which you have published, and, in the introduction, Ellen actually writes that you asked her if she would write the book after hearing her talk on the radio. Tell me about that.

Louise: I did. I did, I did actually write... I heard her talk, and I thought, ‘She's riveting’. And the story she was telling about artificial intelligence I thought was superb. I thought she could deliver it superbly, I could hear that there was a capacity to write in there, in the narrative she was telling, but it was also the way of her thinking through the problem of artificial intelligence. So she was right, that's exactly. I'm so... I'm a devoted ABC listener, so I find plenty of ideas. Going back, Ellen Broad's the most recent one, way back, many years ago, I discovered Maria Tumarkin…

Astrid: Oh, yes?

Louise: ... who was delivering a ... I think it was an Ockham's Razor on traumascape, sites of trauma, and the landscape and environment of trauma. And, with this gorgeous Russian-Australian accent, I just was besotted, listening to her in the car. I think I was driving up Sydney Road to some meeting in Coburg or something, and I stopped the car and I rang up the ABC. I think I spoke to Robin Williams. The thing was Ockham's Razor, and I said, ‘Who's that Russian girl you've got on right now?’ And he said, ‘Oh, Maria Tumarkin. She's at Melbourne University, at the Australian Centre.’ And, of course, around the corner from MUP, so I knocked on the door, or rang, I can't remember how it went, and Traumascapes developed out of that. She was doing her Ph.D at the time, I thought she was a fantastic writer. I think she still is a fantastic writer, and I was really delighted.

So, it's plucking... seeing people, or seeing ideas, or thinking, ‘There is an issue here, how to write about this? And who is the right person to do that?’ Often, it's academics who can write for a broader audience, that can be challenging. Sometimes you do find new writers among younger academics, who are really keen to engage with a broader audience. I think that's heartland MUP turf, really, is to find those academics, whatever their discipline, whatever their generation, and say, ‘This is really interesting content. How do we make this work for a general, serious readership?’

Joëlle Gergis, who wrote The Sunburnt Country for us just now, she was a student of David Karoly, a very well-known and highly-regarded climate scientist, and I rang him and I said, ‘It's time for you to write something for us’. Because I've watched him on television, I thought he was superb. He said, ‘I'm too busy, I've got at least another four years of work before I can write anything, but you should contact Joëlle Gergis’. So, that's what happened. And she's written a book for us which comes out of serious academic research, but actually is for the general public, and that's in a way the work we're really proud of.

Astrid: I read that you have, when required, a three-week turnaround. Please tell me about that.

Louise: [Laughter] Well, the person who should tell you about that is our wonderful executive publisher Sally Heath, who blanches every time I say, ‘Yeah, of course we can do that. We want the book and we want it now’. So, part of being a boutique publisher, small publisher, is, you can be agile. You're not running a huge beast of a machine. You haven't got 300 titles to push through, month by month, which the mass-market, major, multi-national publishers are doing. That's not our turf, so you can actually say, ‘How do we get this done?’

But it depends on a writer who can deliver in a really timely fashion, efficient fashion, clean copy. You just go hell for leather, and we have a brilliant editorial team. Doing books on a fast turnaround, which we have done quite often, doesn't always give the book the best opportunity in the aftermath of production. You know, booksellers… The normal cycle would be, six to nine months of editorial discussion and negotiation and production, and then four months of selling in by the sales reps, and going into the warehouse, books landing in the warehouse, being sold in by the reps, and then going into bookshops, ordered, supported by sales reps and supported and hand-sold to the booksellers, who are crucial to this kind of work. But, when you turn that upside down and you turn around a book in three weeks, you are in a way collapsing the entire schedule, and I think that makes for a challenging sales result. Sometimes you can make it, it can be a huge success, sometimes you're really... you're not giving the book the best chance.

Astrid: So, from a publisher's point of view, why would you take that risk?

Louise: When the book is topical.

Astrid: Right.

Louise: So, we did, for example, Maxine McKew's book... well, I'm sorry, it was a book by Margot Saville, about The Battle for Bennelong, about Maxine McKew winning that seat, the seat of Bennelong. And we wanted to get it out. There was a big debate and I.... You're often wrong, you're often right, you're as wrong as you're right, in this business. But I felt that leaving it until February or March of the following year, the caravan would have moved on. It was the first flush of the Rudd Government, that if this story was to be published, it needed to be published as soon as possible after the election result. And I think Margot Saville wrote the last chapter, the weekend that the election result was in. She delivered the final chapter that Monday, and we had that book out and in the bookshops, I think, 7 or 10 December, if I remember correctly. We were told there was no way you would sell any books, that the booksellers wouldn't open the cartons, they would leave them because they're way too busy to open new boxes of fresh books at that stage. They did, and I think we sold something like 18,000 copies before Christmas. So it was a beautiful result.

So, that was worth all of the effort, and it is an effort for the entire team of any publishing business, but certainly in a small team. Everybody's shoulder is to the wheel to get books like that out and into the marketplace.

Astrid: It feels like the whole industry has their shoulder to the wheel. You just mentioned, you were told it wouldn't be done, no one would open the books to actually sell, and yet they did. That sounds like there was entrenched wisdom that you made a call on, and went past. Do you think that there's more opportunity in the industry to do new things?

Louise: I don't know. I think there's a lot of entrenched wisdom... [Laughter] That's the kind way to put it. Often, it's this book worked in this way, for this market, it's this genre. For example, true crime. If you go into the bookshop where they sell true crime, or crime fiction, you'll see all the covers are about the same. I think... I'm a devotee of crime fiction, privately, right? I follow writers, the covers are of no consequence to me at all. Perhaps that's what everybody's like... everybody who's a crime reader has the same response. But you see that there is conventional wisdoms around, for example, book covers. So, who's going to break with that? Well, someone breaks with it, and it's new and it's a radical departure.

But it does tend to be a business based on what you've learned, both your mistakes and your successes. Maybe that's no different to any other industry, that you repeat… What's worked, you repeat, and you learn from what didn't work, and you try to shift it slightly.

Astrid: So, from your vantage point as an established publisher, what do you think of the new writers and the emerging writers basically trying to break into non-fiction?

Louise: Very hard, because it's all so personality-based. It's all about having an author who can... who's a person that's... There is relentless pressure on writers to be distinctive. How you carve out distinctiveness for yourself, I don't know. You've got to be able to talk, you've got to be able to sell yourself, you've got to have a social media presence. So much... it's not good enough to write the best book possible. That's not enough anymore, which I think is very painful and hard on new writers, but at the same time you see that people break through. It is really remarkable how someone who is unknown can break through, and that's a combination, that's not just... Sometimes it's brilliant marketing, and sometimes it's about word of mouth.

The book I always think is such a case study, a surprising case study, was the book, The Hare with Amber Eyes by... what was his name? Edmund de Waal, I think his name was. He's a ceramicist, English ceramicist, with a very interesting story, of, I think if I remember correctly, Viennese Jewish background, and with an interest in Japanese ceramics. He wrote this beautiful book which no one had heard of. I don't even know what the sales were. I haven't looked up the sales, here or internationally. But, that book just came in quietly, there were some nice reviews, but no one paid any attention, and people started to talk about it. And it grew and grew and grew. It was one of the remarkable successes of the year, and a superb piece of memoir-writing, but it came out of nowhere. And no one knew who Edmund de Waal was, here. No one had ever heard of him, he was of no consequence here. And yet, that book just had a momentum of its own.

So, that's what lifts the spirits of a publisher. You say, ‘It is possible’. Not often, but it is possible.

Astrid: So, when you come across an author, or when an author approaches you, do you Google them? Do you look at their social media profile? Do you look at any appearances they've done?

Louise: Yeah, you look, you check all that out. You want to see who they are, what they are, what they're kind of... You know, have they written before? If a writer approaches, you want to see what their other books have done. Thank God for Nielsen BookScan. You can look up what their sales results are, nobody can lie anymore.

Everybody lied through their teeth about their book sales. Well, the publishers lied, authors were probably more honest, but the publishers were certainly lying through their teeth. Now, there's complete visibility, unfortunately.

So, no one can fool anyone about the quantum, but it makes realistic decisions, but you do, in terms of identity of authors, you want to see, can this person go out there and assist? Because it's all ... Publishing books is about the author. The publishers are irrelevant. Doesn't matter whether you're MUP or you're Penguin Random or you're Pan Macmillan, you're the smallest publisher or the largest. No one goes in and says, ‘Can I have the latest MUP title?’ They go in and say, ‘Can I have a Leigh Sales book, On Doubt?’ Or, ‘Can I have the book by Leigh Sales?’ They won't even remember the title, usually, right? So, it's not about the publishing company, it's not about the imprint, that's... no one is in print-driven, no customers are in print-driven, it's all about the writer. So, the writer's capacity to perform, their reputation, their identity, their profile, becomes more and more important.

Astrid: What about a new author who doesn't have a previous body of work published?

Louise: It's very hard. It's very hard in this market, and you can see that the sales figures are showing it. You know, 750 to 1,500 to 2,000 copies, it's not enough, it doesn't cover the costs. Even if you say, ‘I want to build this writer, this writer is superb’.

Think of the history of Christos Tsiolkas, this wonderful writer who now is very successful commercially. It's a long build. Richard Flanagan, it's a long build till you get... You've got to stay with your author, you've got to be committed to them, and you've got to build them and support them while they grow an audience. Very hard.

Astrid: So, there might be no answer to this, but how could a new writer of non-fiction build a sustainable and financially viable career?

Louise: Probably by doing like any other artist, doing a mix of things. You've probably got to teach, you've probably... Many of them are working in Readings bookshop, or in Glebebooks, most of them are aspiring writers. I think you can't rely on it, it's like every other artist in this country. Most of them are not full-time artists. There's no way to earn a living, which is very disheartening.

Astrid: It is.

Louise: We have failed to persuade successive governments that artists should be given a living wage. In other countries, this happens, but we have not been able to... and it's as if people think artists, as workers, don't require what any other form of work requires. Well, it's a failure of the entire cultural community that we haven't been persuasive. There's a challenge for all of us collectively.

Astrid: There is a challenge for us. Louise, can you explain to our audience how an advance works?

Louise: So…

Astrid: Or doesn't work?

Louise: It doesn't work. [Laughter] How does an advance work? An advance is really an advance against the income, so you'll be given some money upfront. So the publisher will say, ‘I think we're going to sell 3,000 copies of this book at $30, so how much money are we going to make from that?’ The total income from selling that book, I won't even go into the detail of the bookseller discount, the cost of getting the book sold in, both sales representatives or distributed, but, let's say, the author is entitled to 10 per cent of the income earned. So, if you think, 3,000 copies at $30, $300,000, you're lucky... you can see what you can get, if you get 10 per cent royalty. And so then they'll say, ‘Well, I'll give you half as an advance. And then I'll give you that half, which is an advance, in three tranches. One tranche on signature, one on delivery, and one on publication’. That's pretty standard. You can't live on that, is the moral of the story, you know.

Astrid: You can't live on that. As an academic publisher, have you ever given weight to publishing books that might end up on the school curriculum or in libraries?

Louise: It's very difficult to... You can't publish on the presumption that this is going to be a set text.

Astrid: You aim to contribute to the public debate, and I am actually fascinated by your short essay series. You mentioned On Doubt by Leigh Sales. There are many, recently Sarah Ferguson On Mother, previously On Quiet by Nikki Gemmell. I believe you have On Indignation by Don Watson coming up, and you also have On Rape by Germaine Greer coming up. What prompted the series?

Louise: So, we did it a few years ago. We started a few years ago, in fact Don Watson's On Indignation was first published a few years ago, as was Leigh's, and they've done an update. And it was really, I should be... because who owns ideas in our world? No one. It was prompted by a philosopher, and I'm ashamed that I can't remember his name, but the title was On Bullshit. It was an American academic philosopher, and I thought that was the best title everywhere. [Laughter] But I thought, I saw the little object, was beautiful as only the Americans do, the kind of craft of publishing, which they still... Their population and the demographic and the reading public is such that they can afford to do very handsome even bookettes like this one was, On Bullshit. And I thought, that's a lovely idea for us to start to do shorter essays. They're not just polemics, sometimes they're occasionally polemical, but often they're quite reflective, like the Nikki Gemmell, or Sarah Ferguson On Mother was a highly personal essay on the death of her mother, and her response to it.

So, it's been a lovely form, and writers seem to be very keen to do it. Maybe because the word length is 10,000 to 15,000, so it's manageable if you're working in other media, you can do it. Or, if you're a writer with a longer project, it's something you want to write, but actually you think it's... actually, the limits of it are around 10,000 to 15,000 words, this isn't a full book-length project. And we've had a lovely time doing it.

Fleur Anderson, I talked to Fleur, I think she's a terrific writer, she was writing for The Financial Review when I first started talking, and we just had a chat, and I can't remember what the project was initially, and we were talking, and she just said, ‘I just can't sleep’. And we started talking about sleep, and insomnia, and of course, there's the On Sleep, from Fleur.

Or, Katharine Murphy did one, On Disruption. Katharine Murphy is the political editor for The Guardian, and she's written a fantastic essay On Disruption, on the media, the future of the media.

So, it's been a real opportunity, and people have told me that they really like the length. They're little bookettes, we call them, little books on big themes. But it's also… The word length seems to be very... People are finding pleasure in that length, rather than the full-length book.

Astrid: Well, it's a way to mediate on an important topic, particularly a personal topic that might impact your own life. Louise, you mentioned the American market, and the size of the American market lets them do things that perhaps we can't do in Australia. Obviously, you work for MUP, but, when you take a step back and look at the Australian market, and all of the publishers in the Australian market, how do you think we're going compared to bigger markets, and are there any gaps?

Louise: So, I think the Australian publishing scene is as innovative and as agile – to use sort of Turnbullisms – as the rest of the market, the English-language market. I think we've been very quick to adapt, I think we're innovative, I do think actually, genuinely, Australian publishers are smart. I think the cover designs are superb, quirky, witty, beautiful. I think the craft of publishing here is as advanced as anywhere in the English-language market.

In terms of technology, in terms of innovation, I think we're internationally engaged enough, so there aren't initiatives going on elsewhere that Australian publishers are not up-to-date with, but there's... I guess there's a gap between, or there's a difference between, the multi-nationals, the Australian branch of Penguin Random or Pan Macmillan or Hachette. They have the support of parent companies that have huge capacity, resources, ballast, market share, however you want to describe it, so they're playing in a different market altogether. Or small independent publishers like MUP, or the other trade small publishers, totally different place. But I think we're competitive in terms of the style and the capacity, and the way in which we think about publishing, I think, is entirely competitive.

The presence of Australian books internationally is another matter. I think we hype it a little more than is accurate, I think that those Australian books, certainly Australian serious non-fiction, does not have a huge impact internationally. For MUP, I think it's obvious, it's because most of the work we do is local in focus. English or American readers are not particularly interested in, for example, Australian politics or Australian social issues. They don't need an Australian author on the #MeToo campaign when they have their own. So, you've got to understand your relationship to the international environment, or publishing environment, and what you can do and what you contribute. Sometimes you can actually do a book that takes off and is transformative. I know that there are some writers that have actually been very successful internationally, but I don't think there are all that many.

Astrid: Very.

Louise: In fiction I think it's slightly different, but in non-fiction I think it's more difficult.

Astrid: I have to say, every time I travel, I always look for the Australians on the shelf, then get very excited when I find them...

Louise: Correct.

Astrid: ...which is not as often as I would like. How competitive do you get with those other publishers that you mentioned?

Louise: Everyone offers something slightly different. I think it's about identity. There's a rapport and a relationship with the writer that's important. And I think writers have a feel for the right home for their writing. I think it's quite a personal relationship, and in the end it is the writer's decision to come to X publisher or a Y publisher. So, I think that in the end the money, or the pitch... If all other things are equal, then it comes down to the chemistry, the dynamic between publisher and author, or author and publishing house. I think that's where it lands, but, of course, one can always lose out to publishers that have got much deeper pockets, larger check books, and so on and so on. You just have to grin and bear it. I'm not a great bearer of loss, myself. [Laughter] I'm not a good loser. I do get a headache, but I have had to learn to get a grip on reality.

Astrid: But you carry on.

Louise: Yeah, you carry on with clenched teeth for a while, and then you get over it, because you're not going to win them all. And, in the end, you may not be the right publisher. Someone can do that book, that you thought was brilliant, and do it much better than you did, or not do it as well as you did, and you have to recognise that.

Astrid: Is there any…

Louise: A bit of humility, a bit of modesty, just a little bit is okay.

Astrid: Do you have any final advice for emerging writers?

Louise: I'm always surprised by writers, emerging writers. You have to think about the audience. Who are you writing for? So, in non-fiction, I will often get people coming to me and saying, ‘This is a really important idea, I'm very passionate about this idea’. I'll say, ‘Who's the audience?’ And they'll say, ‘Well, it's policy’. Let's say, it's a book about parenting, right? Or education, children and education. They'll say, ‘Well, it's for policy-makers, it's for public servants, it's for parents and it's for schoolchildren’. And I think, ‘It can't be. That book is not the same book for all of those audiences’. And you want to publish people with passion, because they know their subject, they're deeply in it, they've got conviction about it. But you've got to get clarity, because the book for the parent is not the book that's going to be useful to policy-makers.

And blurring that, telling me, ‘Oh, it's a hybrid’ is not going to work. It's not going to succeed. You have to be really clear. And it's an irritating question to those who are passionate, to say, ‘I know this subject, it's a burning issue for our society, I want to write on it’. You've got to push really hard, get clear. Don't always want to, as writers, but you've got to get clear on that.

You've got to know who you're approaching, in terms of a publishing company, look at their list. There's no point... For example, you don't bring children's fiction to MUP, we don't publish it.

So, know who you're approaching.

What do you call it, your pitch, the documents you send, or the submission you send to publishers, you should make that short and sharp, sample of your writing, outline of the chapter, who you are, what it's like. I think every publisher's website has this kind of advice on it, but the better that proposal is, the more chance you've got of attracting the publisher's attention. And we're all drowning in proposals, and we used to call them the poison taster. You give them to someone to taste the poison, the slush pile. But, saying that your Auntie Beryl loved the title is not going to be persuasive, or Uncle Jack thinks it's a great book, a very important book, probably not a selling point, right away to sell the book. So, you've got to be clear about your audience, you've got to be clear about the identity and the profile of the publisher, publishing business you're approaching, because that helps.

Of course, getting an agent helps, and I know how hard that is. I understand how hard that is, particularly for novice writers. It's really difficult to get the attention of an agent, but they can open doors that you find are closed to yourself as an individual. So, that's hard.

Getting published in the media is useful, whether it's online or in the declining print media. Getting published, writing reviews if you're a fiction writer, submitting work to magazines, all of that helps, because, first of all, you're getting response, you're getting reactions, you're getting feedback from people who are experienced editors, and commissioners and people like that. That's helpful, and secondly it's giving your work time to find an audience, for you to find an audience.

I'm sure I'll walk away from this interview and have a million other bits of advice that might or might not be useful, but I think they're the three things I'd say are really important.

Astrid: Louise, you are a fount of wisdom. Thank you so much.

Louise: Thank you very much.