Patent Problems and Intellectual Property: “The Indigestion of Success”

Aside from love, one of the great emotions humans can experience is the thrill of discovery and achievement – being the first to reveal more of nature’s immutable laws governing the cosmos or doing something no one else has been able to do. Patent Warning_1 Some aspects of life inevitably go together – a coupling of cause-and-effect, if you will. Sometimes, we simply cannot have one thing without another. The claim that “there is a price to be paid for everything” seems a truism which ably illustrates that contention of coupled cause-and-effect. In that vein, man’s finest intellectual achievements or physical accomplishments materialize only after significant vested effort is expended. Our personal life experiences leave no doubt that hard work is a necessary, though not sufficient, prerequisite for great success…in any venue. We understand that. Not so obvious is the other price often associated with intellectual achievement and intellectual property, a price which is extracted after the fact – the tedious, ongoing, and costly effort required to establish and maintain the legal rights to the intellectual property behind any significant achievement.

I call this second price to be paid for success “the indigestion of success” which is often so severe as to result literally in ulcers if not merely pervasive, never-ending discontent.

The “indigestion of success” begins with proving one’s priority of invention while establishing patent rights, and it continues seemingly forever while vigilantly protecting those rights against usurpers. The motivation to defend one’s intellectual property is typically financial, but, understandably, the battle becomes distinctly a matter of personal principle as we will see…and the consequences can be tragic. It is difficult to overstate the high price – both financially and emotionally – of defending intellectual property and priority, yet this surcharge on success is inevitably demanded of inventors, engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs. The list of such examples is varied and fascinating, stretching far back in recorded history. Gaileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, and Michael Faraday, three of the greatest physicists of all time were each affected by priority controversies during their careers – especially Newton, as we shall see. In the realms of engineering and business, Thomas Edison, Howard Armstrong (radio’s greatest inventor/engineer), Robert Noyce (of integrated circuit fame), and Steve Jobs of Apple Computer were all enveloped by priority controversies and patent battles. Even the Wright brothers, the well-documented founders of modern aviation paid a stiff price defending their marvelous invention, the controllable “flying machine.”

The Wright Brothers: Hard Work, Triumph, then Disillusionment

Wright Glider 1902_1 I just finished reading David McCullough’s new book, The Wright Brothers, which relates the incredible story of the two brothers from Dayton, Ohio – bicycle mechanics/salesmen who created the first true “flying machine”…in their spare time! McCullough is a consummate teller of true stories, but the story of these two men tests the line separating fact from fiction because their stunning success seemed so improbable. The truth is, the Wright Brothers “invented” and successfully flew the first full-sized, self-powered, controllable airplane – a staggering accomplishment for two young men with no formal technical credentials. Their ultimate success was rooted in a fascination at the prospect of manned flight coupled with a single-minded, driven determination to do whatever it takes to accomplish their dream of flying. The two brothers constitute the very best examples of self-made men… engineers and flyers, in their case. Their accomplishments are so thoroughly documented as to seem unassailable and safe from thieves who would steal in the courts of patent law, yet it was not quite that simple. It never is. Author McCullough paints a clear picture on his pages of just how technically challenging their task actually was. What also emerges is the sad turn of events their triumph became once the airplane was designed, tested, documented, and patented. Wilbur Wright, the brilliant engineering mind for whom no technical challenge seemed too large, died early in 1912 at the young age of forty-five years. The official cause of death was typhoid fever, but it seems Wilbur’s spirit was dying for quite some time before his body expired. In May of 1910, the brothers, who did all their own flying from the project’s onset in 1900, went up together in their Wright Flyer for the very first time – some seven years after Orville’s first flight at Kitty Hawk. Their disciplined methodology throughout the project dictated that, should there be an accident, at least one of them should survive to carry on the work. Their flight together that day seemed their tacit acknowledgement that they had completed their life’s dream; all that remained was to form and grow a profitable company which would carry on their work and insure a comfortable livelihood for the brothers and their immediate relatives.

WilburWright7[1]By 1912, two years had passed since Wilbur Wright had last done what he truly loved to do: Piloting the Wright Flyer while perfecting its design. His weeks and months the past two years were spent on business trips to New York and Washington and in courtrooms defending the patent portfolio he and Orville had assembled as the backbone of their new Wright Company… for the manufacture of airplanes. In author McCullough’s account, Orville took note of Wilbur’s restless discontent with the tedium and exasperations of establishing their company, noting that after a day spent in offices dealing with business and patent matters, Wilbur would “come home white.”

Wilbur, himself, wrote of the patent entanglements: “When we think of what we might have accomplished if we had been able to devote this time to experiments, we feel very sad, but it is always easier to deal with things than with men, and no one can direct his life entirely as he would choose.”

Within several years of Wilbur’s death, Orville Wright had sold the Wright Company to others, preferring a peaceful, retiring life to one spent constantly battling corporate demons and those who would usurp the brothers’ past and future accomplishments. His mission for the remainder of his long life: To represent his brother while defending the less materialistic aspects of the Wright brothers’ legacy. I believe I would have done precisely the same, were I in his shoes. Other notable, historical figures in similar circumstances made sadly different decisions when faced with the indigestion of success and the never-ending need to protect intellectual property. The two examples that follow vividly illustrate just how bad these matters of priority and intellectual property can become, especially for the most-principled of participants.

Edwin Howard Armstrong: Radio’s Greatest Inventor/Engineer and Tragic Victim of His Own Success and the Patent System

For radio and electrical engineers who know the history, Edwin Howard Armstrong is the tragic hero of early “wireless” and a victim of the radio empire which he helped to create. Howard Armstrong was the quintessential radio engineer’s engineer – bright, motivated, creative…and stubbornly persistent. He exuded personal integrity. The very qualities which made him the greatest inventor/engineer in the history of radio, led to his downfall and suicide in 1954. Howard Armstrong surfaced in 1912 as a senior electrical engineering major at Columbia University with an obsessive interest in the infant science of “wireless” radio. He was a fine student with a probing, independent mind that suffered no fools. In 1912, while living at home in nearby Yonkers, New York, and commuting daily to Columbia on an Indian-brand motorcycle, he invented a way to greatly increase signal amplification using a single De Forest Audion vacuum tube by feeding part of the tube’s marginally amplified output back to the input of the device where it was amplified over and over again. This technique is now known in the trade as “regeneration,” or positive feedback. Along the way, young Armstrong had made great strides in understanding the technology behind Lee De Forest’s recent invention of the Audion tube, insights far beyond those De Forest himself had offered. While tinkering with the idea of signal regeneration in his bedroom laboratory early on the morning of September 22, 1912, he achieved much greater signal amplification from the Audion than was possible without using regeneration. The entire household was abruptly awakened by young Armstrong’s unrestrained excitement over his discovery, and an important discovery it was for the infant science of “wireless radio.” Regeneration was patented by Armstrong in 1913/14 and was used, under license from him, in countless radios during the early years when radio sets with more than one tube were very expensive to produce, due to the high cost of tubes.

Armstrong Patent_2Armstrong’s 1914 patent on the regenerative receiving circuit – one of the foundations of early wireless radio and a gateway to efficient tube-based radio transmitters, as well. Armstrong_Regen_1 Armstrong’s historic, handwritten chronological account of inventing the regenerative circuit – page one of six; likely written around 1920 to serve as evidence in the litigation with De Forest over Armstrong’s regeneration patent. Note the Sept. 22, 1912 date of his triumph (near the bottom).

In 1914, Lee De Forest stepped forward to challenge Armstrong in court over Armstrong’s patent, claiming that he, De Forest, was the legitimate inventor of regeneration. The litigation in the court system over regeneration went back and forth, lasting twenty years and finally ending up in the United States Supreme Court. Shockingly, De Forest was handed the final decision by the court, but the substantial body of radio engineers across the nation in 1934, who were well aware of the “radio art” and its history, were not buying De Forest’s claim. They fully supported Armstrong as the legitimate inventor – the same view held today. The twenty-year patent litigation battle over regeneration was the longest in U.S. patent court history. Unfortunately, that was only the beginning of Armstrong’s troubles with the patent courts and those who would take advantage of his work.

The Tragedy of Edwin Howard Armstrong

Howard Armstrong was one of the last, great, lone-inventor/engineers. He was long affiliated with his alma-mater, Columbia University, and had extensive business/patent dealings with giant corporations, such as RCA and Philco, which drew their life-blood from his inventions and the industry which he helped to create. By licensing his many important patents to these corporations, Armstrong became a very wealthy man. At one time, he was the largest stockholder in the giant RCA Corporation. Despite such wide-spread affiliations, he was, by temperament, an independent thinker in the lone-inventor mold. As radio entered the late nineteen thirties, men-of-action like Armstrong were becoming obsolete, increasingly overrun by corporate bureaucracies and their in-house armies of engineers. Radio was now out of the hands of the lone-inventor, becoming the exclusive domain of the moneyed corporations with influence at the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) in Washington. Armstrong increasingly found himself defending his legitimate patent rights against large corporations which were treading on those rights, battling their great financial resources and their legions of corporate lawyers. As he continued to lose rightful patent royalties to corporate violations of his patents, he stubbornly fought back fueled by his personal principles of fair play, all the while dissipating his once-great financial security to fund the necessary lawyer’s fees. Armstrong was a man of principled integrity; he could have capitulated, retreated, retired comfortably, and lived out his life, but he chose to fight.

Armstrong's Suicide    004Ultimately, those ceaseless legal battles wore him down, bankrupted him, and destroyed his long marriage. On May 5, 1954, he stepped from his New York apartment window to his death thirteen stories below. In an ironic sense, he fell victim to the industry and the changing times he helped to create. He also was victimized by the very qualities which made him great: Intellectual independence, principled integrity, and the stubborn will to persevere. There are many lessons to be learned from Howard Armstrong’s life-story. The lone crusader was crushed by the corporate “Goliaths” he helped create. Final postscript: After Armstrong’s death, his estranged wife, Marion, took up her husband’s ongoing patent battles with the Goliaths of the radio industry. She eventually prevailed in every single case!

Inventor of the Calculus: Isaac Newton or the German Mathematician, Gottfried Leibniz?

History’s most ardent defender of his intellectual property also happened to be the greatest scientist/mathematician of all time, Sir Isaac Newton. As vindictive as he was brilliant, Newton waged one of history’s most vicious priority battles with Gottfried Leibniz over credit for the development of the calculus, that ubiquitous, indispensable mathematical tool of the engineer and scientist. Newton formulated its fundamentals in 1665/66, the famous “miracle year” spent at his mother’s homestead in isolation from the great plague which swept through England at the time. GodfreyKneller-IsaacNewton-1689[1]Newton’s peerless scientific self-discipline tended to completely desert him when challenged by others on matters of intellectual priority which he felt belonged to him. Leibniz and Robert Hooke were two men who famously felt the full force of Newton’s rage in such matters. For Newton and his circumstances, there was no real money at stake – only prestige and ego, and Newton’s ego was well-developed… and sensitive. Today, both Newton and Leibniz are credited with independently developing the calculus – essentially true, although it appears certain that Leibniz had unauthorized access to some of Newton’s early personal papers on the subject. In that sense, Newton is regarded as the “primary” developer of calculus. Leibniz never quite recovered from the savage and telling effects of Newton’s vindictiveness which was well publicized in scientific circles and which reduced the great Newton to unprincipled deceits in his efforts to discredit his rival. In Newton’s mind, much more was at stake than mere money: For him, personal satisfaction and the ego-satisfying prospect of scientific immortality were far more important motivators. In his defense, one could argue that, for Newton, the long-term stakes riding on his efforts to receive due credit for his brilliance were much higher than most. Nevertheless, when all was said and done, Newton’s personal reputation suffered significantly even if his scientific reputation remained unsullied over the dispute with Leibniz.

What Would You Do?

Milton_Wright_1889[1]If you were ever in the position of enjoying a significant personal success that had already conferred substantial wealth upon you, yet huge wealth beckons you or whoever else takes the enterprise still further – what would you do? Like Orville did, I would have heeded Bishop Milton Wright’s early admonition to his children (paraphrased here) that greed is bad and leads to grief; be content with sufficient money to sustain a comfortable life and require nothing more beyond that than the normal pleasures of life and living. The Bishop also warned against temper and ego. The Bishop was a very wise man; the brothers received some very informed guidance.

 “If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.”

 – Wilbur Wright

Click here to get to last week’s post, The Brothers Wright had “The Right Stuff”

The Brothers Wright Had “The Right Stuff”

Their names are synonymous with the airplane and aviation, yet they are under-appreciated by today’s public. Wilbur and Orville were brothers from Dayton, Ohio, and they truly had “the right stuff.” Nobody knew their names in the beginning. This famous picture captures the moment that changed everything.


 Kitty Hawk – Dec. 17, 1903 – Orville Wright at the controls!

Chuck Yeager, the famous test pilot who first flew through the sound barrier at Edwards Air Force Base in 1947 also personified the “right stuff”, and nobody knew his name. Also anonymous were his fellow test pilots at Edwards who risked their necks while pushing aviation’s “envelope” in the early part of the last century. But, all of it started with the Wright brothers from Dayton, Ohio.

Humans had dreamt of flying for centuries. It finally truly happened on December 17, 1903 on the barren sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The chosen site of mankind’s first self-sustained, powered flight had little to offer as amenities except sweeping expanses of soft sand and virtually constant wind – just what the brothers Wright were looking to find. Despite all the hot-air ballooning and gliding experiments that had taken place decades before that day in December, 1903, there were many so-called aviation “experts” who said man would never truly fly…right up to the time of the Wright brothers’ first powered flight.

Wright Bros. Stamp_1Wilbur and Orville Wright were not listening to the skeptical “experts.” They navigated their successful course relying on their own compass bearings: That was just their way of doing things – a necessary ingredient for the “right stuff” recipe. Even so, they had hoped to leverage their engineering/design efforts by using worthy findings and data compiled by their contemporaries and predecessors in “the flying machine game.” It was only common sense to use what findings were already available. But, as often as not, the brothers had to invent and chart their own course in so many ways.

Even the great German, Otto Lilienthal, whose pioneering experimentation with gliders furthered the cause of flight, had compiled data on wing curvature that was proven erroneous by the independent-minded brothers who proceeded to correct Lilienthal’s findings. Ultimately, the brothers Wright did things their own way, and, in the process, provided society not only with man’s first flying machine, but with a template for future large-scale engineering and manufacturing processes.

1909_Wright_Cycle_Shop[1]There are few stories more engaging than that of these two brothers who turned the world on its ear through their vision, ingenuity, and stark determination. Imagine: Two brothers in the business of manufacturing and selling bicycles from their tiny shop in Dayton, Ohio, taking upon themselves the immense task of building a flying machine by studying and observing birds in order to decipher their DNA encoded secrets of flight. Wilbur and Orville had no fancy college education to enable them. It was their curiosity and sense of wonder, coupled with their practical, can-do attitude, that powered them to success in the venture.

Their father, Bishop Wright, was a religious man – a traveling pastor whose personal example instilled in the brothers their common-sense approach to life and their devotion to hard work. And the task they undertook required copious quantities of both virtues.

Their first successful powered flight of 12 seconds duration over120 feet of distance occurred during the third of three extended trips to Kitty Hawk. The first two outings which began in 1900 were devoted to gliding experiments.

Among the critical findings during those first two extended stays on the site’s desolate sands were the concepts of wing-warping and proper wing curvature. Warping of the wings using controls by the prone pilot anticipated the modern aileron design present in all modern airplanes and crucial to controlled turns. It was their correct surmise that control of the machine was the ultimate problem standing in the way of successful flight, and they attacked it with a vengeance. The critical wing curvature question was tackled in the backroom of their cycle shop using one of the first wind tunnels ever constructed (by themselves, of course!).

There was one major problem remaining, and that was acquiring a very lightweight engine capable of launching their craft in the air…and keeping it there. A search for appropriate power-plants revealed none, so the brothers furnished their own! The twelve horsepower, four cylinder engine with a lightweight aluminum block was designed and built by Charlie Taylor, a mechanic with a genius bent who worked for the brothers in the backroom “machine shop” of their cycle shop. Yes, luck is always present in any successful endeavor with a long reach, but the brothers’ association with Mr. Taylor accurately illustrates the adage that talent attracts talent. It is quite incredible and so fitting that the brothers produced, as icing on the cake, their own power-plant for the world’s first true flying machine.

The brothers continued their pioneering work on flight in the years which followed Kitty Hawk, keeping much of it under wraps for fear of those who would steal from them, their patentable ideas. Indeed, in France they believed that they, the French, were leading the charge in aviation – that is, until Wilbur traveled to France in 1908 and took the wraps off the brothers’ latest refinements with a tour-de-force series of demonstration flights by Wilbur in the latest “Wright Flyer.” The French were stunned and found themselves quickly relegated to a back seat in the bus along with the rest of the “flying machine” contenders.

Wilbur died early, in 1912, but Orville lived until 1948, long enough to see their brainchild, the airplane, exceed anyone’s wildest imaginings. I recall that Orville’s death occurred just one year after Chuck Yeager shattered the sound barrier in the rocket-propelled Bell X-1 at Edwards, thus giving birth to a new age in aviation.


The saga of the Wright brothers is the quintessential American story. Fact is always stranger than fiction…and so much more engrossing. I love a true story, well-told, so I am very pleased that the author/historian best positioned to do the Wright brothers justice has chosen to do so in his just-released book, The Wright Brothers. That, of course would be David McCullough, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for his biographies, Truman, and John Adams.

Wright_Brothers_in_1910[1]Author McCullough maintains that Wilbur and Orville Wright, though well-known, are under-appreciated by today’s public; I agree. In reading McCullough’s carefully researched account, I find so much of value in their story which sticks to the reader’s ribs. The author’s demonstrated appreciation of “excellence” and “self-reliant” motivation resonates perfectly with the characters in his book. In today’s world, with its emphasis on glitz and immediate, though transient impact, the devotion-to-task and patient steadfastness of the Wright brothers may appear old-fashioned and out-of-date, but there is no denying that that they, as much as anyone in our history, characterize our celebrated “Yankee ingenuity” and inventiveness. These were serious people, doing serious engineering, and making great history. I applaud author McCullough for his thorough research which figures so prominently in highlighting the personal characteristics of these men, characteristics which enabled their great success. The world has been and continues to be changed forever by the likes of them.

Remarkably, they achieved this great success without any outside funding for their efforts – unlike some other competitors who failed, despite government funding. True to their independent nature, the brothers paid their own way – entirely. Later, the government in Washington predictably became very interested in their flying machine… for military purposes.

I found fascinating, McCullough’s vignette on Amos I. Root, an enterprising beekeeper from upstate Ohio and one of the very few people who took any notice of the Wright’s extensive test flying at Huffman Prairie, near Dayton, in the spring of 1904. It was over that expansive prairie that the brothers perfected their flyer and honed their flying skills. This went on for months, to the complete oblivion of virtually everyone in the region including the local Dayton newspapers. Proud owner of a new Oldsmobile automobile, Root would motor down to Dayton to watch the brothers fly, earning their friendship and confidence, in the process. It was months before the population and the local papers finally latched on to the importance of what was visibly happening right under their distracted noses. In contrast to the public at large, Mr. Root possessed intellectual curiosity and sufficient wisdom to be able to discern history in the making.

And finally, much like the brave, intrepid test pilots like Chuck Yeager at the Edwards Air Force Base Test Center, the two brothers risked their lives every time they went up in the air – even in the early gliders. The brothers did all of their own flying. The first airplane passenger ever killed was a member of the Signal Corps who went up with Orville in 1908. Orville was seriously injured and barely survived the crash. Nothing about their remarkable, successful journey was simple or easy. I confidently hope that David McCullough’s book will help to impress that fact upon the public while generating new interest.

The quote which opens chapter one is perfectly suited to the message received from the story within the book:

“If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.”

 – Wilbur Wright


With all due respect to Ohio, that state may not quite be the exciting cauldron of opportunity it once was, but Wilbur’s contention that a good father and mother are  prime catalysts to the success of their offspring still holds true. I feel so strongly about that contention that my blog post last week happens to be about the most important job in the world: PARENTING. I think the brothers Wright would agree.

Click here to see last week’s post on PARENTING

 For my previous blog post on author David McCullough click here:

My post on David McCullough

My Adventures in Self-Publishing a Book: Tips and Advice for New Authors

Have you ever had the feeling that you have a good story to tell – one that would fill at least a small-sized book? If so, you are not alone, and the good news is that you have real options available to you for sharing that story.

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I retired from my thirty-seven year career in electrical engineering twelve years ago, at the age of sixty-one. Over many years, prior to retirement, I had become fascinated with science, especially physics and its history from the sixteenth to the early twentieth century. I began assembling a reference library, a collection of books which could enlighten and explain while also providing historical context.

Working, here, in Silicon Valley, California, for most of my career, I was a part of this culture which is almost exclusively focused on present, unfolding technology and visions of the “next big thing.” There is not much time spent on retrospection in this valley. My side-interests in pure science and its historical development gave me a different perspective from that of most of my engineering colleagues. After years of reading and researching the history of science, a story materialized in my mind which I felt was important to share.

I had read a lot about four men in particular: Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, and Albert Einstein. They are the brightest of stars in the vast firmament of science, and I came to appreciate that they each earned their greatest fame through their work on the physics of motion. For example, Kepler was one of the first to support the heliocentric (sun-centered) solar system proposed by Nicholas Copernicus in 1543. He proceeded to determine the planetary motions around the sun to be elliptical in shape and not the perfect, “divine” circles espoused by Copernicus and his many predecessors. Galileo Galilei was the first to uncover the fundamental truth underlying motion physics, the celebrated “Law of Fall (ing bodies).” Isaac Newton, the greatest scientist of them all, proved that the universe is mathematical in nature, operating in accordance with universal “natural laws” which can be revealed to humans and understood using mathematics. Albert Einstein and his famous theories of relativity focused on the concepts of space, time, and that unifying theme which embodies those two – motion.

Your Story and How to Tell It:
Learning About Publishing!

 With a great supporting cast of four luminaries all making scientific history by revealing, step-by-step, “the elusive notion of motion,” I had my story…and my book title! Starting soon after retirement, I created some rough drafts of my story. The next step was to find a publisher, and this is was an education in itself. I obtained some books on “How to Get Published” and got started.

The first thing a novice author learns is that book publishers are not interested in talking to you, the unknown writer. Things are different if you are David McCullough, or Hillary Clinton, or Steven King! For the rest of us, the response is some variation of, “Please go around to the back door with a literary agency representing you. Don’t call us, we’ll call you!” The newbie author next learns how to get “represented” by the prerequisite literary agent…you need a “query letter!”

The Query Letter and the Literary Agency

If directly interesting a publisher in your fabulous book manuscript is virtually impossible, finding an interested literary agent to represent you to publishers is next to impossible. One lands an agent by sending out many copies of a “query letter,” a one-page, tautly-written, but lively description of your book manuscript and its unique merits. Most agencies will respond, but only after keeping you in suspense for anywhere from two to six weeks. More than ninety percent of the responses have one of the following cryptic responses scrawled at the top of your letter: “No Thanks!” “Not for me!” “That field does not sell very well,” or “We are so swamped with proposals – sorry!” Occasionally, a kindlier, more empathetic agent will write, “Liked your concept, but just cannot take on any more projects at this time.” Once in a great while an agent will request a sample chapter of your manuscript, but, even then, don’t get your hopes too high for you have only reached first base on a diamond with four bases, and the odds of landing an agent are long, even from first base.

Virtually all new authors will relate the same experiences with the publishing industry and agencies – sending out dozens of query letters without success. It can get to be rather demoralizing.

Self-Publishing, the “Other” Option –
The Good and the Bad Aspects

 After putting the rough drafts of my early manuscript aside for a few years, I was browsing in the reference section of a Barnes and Noble bookstore one spring day in 2010 when I noticed a small paperback book titled Dan Poynter’s Self-Publishing Manual Vol 2. I pulled it out and started to read; the more I read, the more excited I became about the prospect of self-publishing. I bought the book and, within a few days, decided to self-publish a more polished version of my then-current manuscript. After a few months of dedicated, hard labor, I was ready.

Another book proved to be very helpful with my learning-curve in this new venture: The Fine Print of Self-Publishing, by Mark Levine. The book sheds much light on the pros and cons of “doing it yourself” while pulling no punches in its reviews of the dozens of self-publishing companies which can turn your manuscript brainchild into a real (or virtual) book. This handy volume also clearly demonstrates the economics involved in authoring and marketing a self-published book.

One might ask, “What is the difference between a traditional publisher” and a self-publishing” company? The major difference: The author pays a development fee to the latter which guarantees a book will “happen.” As an author/ self-publisher, you generally own all rights to your work as well as the ultimate design templates for on-demand printing (read the contract carefully!). When a traditional publisher accepts your book, you almost always give away all ownership rights to the book in exchange for an up-front cash advance and ongoing royalties based on sales. With self-publishing, you enjoy significant control (at least “say”) over the design, formatting, etc. of your self-published book. When a traditional publisher accepts or “buys” your book, they can do whatever they wish with its production, format, cover design, etc.

As opposed to publisher’s “print runs” in the old days, self-published books are “print-on-demand,” meaning they are ordered, as needed, from a dedicated, highly automated print-house which gets all the required software templates from your self-publishing company. Anywhere from a single copy to hundreds of copies can be in the mail within two business days of the order, generally!

Marketing and Sales of Your Book: Ready for Work?

 If you believe that landing a traditional publisher for your manuscript opens the door to being on the New York Times best-seller list, think again! I contend that being on that list does not carry the same aura of exclusivity it did twenty years ago. It seems that fully half of the many books on display in bookstore windows carry that “accolade,” some of which seem unworthy of any notable mention. At any rate, don’t assume that having a traditional publisher will get you on the list. Most traditional publishers will do very little to promote your book that they publish. Unless you are Hillary Clinton, or Ben Bernanke, or Martha Stewart, your book is on its own. The same is just as true of your book when you self-publish: It is on its own once it is listed by the self-publishing company with the major book distributors and major sellers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble. As any good book on self-publishing will emphasize, your sales will depend on your chosen topic, the quality of your writing, and your personal involvement and effectiveness in marketing the book – especially the latter.

Here is a key statement that all potential authors must appreciate:

With the flurry of books being published today, both by traditional publishing houses and by self-publishing companies, it is extremely difficult for first-time authors to capture the public’s attention to the extent that there will be any meaningful sales revenue. The huge number of communication channels open to the public is both a blessing and a curse for new authors. On the one hand, there are many channels that can be used to publicize a book; on the other, the public audience is so bombarded by “information” coming from every angle that your new book is very likely going to get lost in the shuffle –  without ever being seen or appreciated.

The Big Advantage of Traditional Publishing

The huge advantage of traditional publishing is this: Brick and mortar bookstores will stock a new author’s unproven title coming from a traditional publisher whereas they will not stock a new, self-published title. Why is that?  In large part, it is because sellers can return an unsold, dog-eared copy to the publisher/distributor for a refund/credit whereas they usually cannot return self-published titles. Why should that be the case? The reason is that self-published authors generally must designate their books as “unreturnable.” If they do not, the author is stuck with returned books that a traditional publisher – not the author – would be responsible for. That makes a huge “dent” in the book’s marketing prospects and the ability of a new title to “be seen” by the buying public. There have been many self-published authors who have found out the hard way that not designating their book, “unreturnable” cost them dearly – in returned books.


The author and his book (on the book-rack)
at the Stanford University Bookstore

You can get select bookstores to carry your self-published book on a consignment basis…if it has merit, and if you take the initiative to personally contact the seller and make the necessary arrangements with the buyer. 

Why Do You Want to Publish a Book?

There are a number of reasons for wanting to see your very own book in print – some noble, some, not so much. The choice of traditional publishing vs. self-publishing will depend to a degree on your reasons for writing the book and your goals for it.

To make money

If you are writing/publishing a book to make big money – good luck! That is very unlikely even with a traditional publisher, most of whom offer skinny advances and small royalties, even on a larger book. As a new, unknown author with a deluxe paperback selling for $19.95, you would be lucky to receive $3.00 per book. One can actually make considerably more by self-publishing and self-marketing that same book, roughly, $8.00 per book of profit, but the sales volume will be small. Even though the financial rewards are small for a first-time author, the bookstore exposure provided by traditional publishing is key to at least selling books and becoming known by the reading public.

To leave a memoir

Not the most economical way to go, but if you desire a real book in small numbers, then self-publishing is the only way to go unless, once again, you are Hillary Clinton! For those who have the several hundred dollars it takes to purchase an entry-level package which will get them the five sample copies of a nice paperback book/memoir, it is a fine approach.

Ego Gratification

OK – fair enough, but for good writers who are serious about their craft, this reason rarely satisfies. Good writers are mainly motivated by the desire to create a manuscript that someone else will read, enjoy, and perhaps benefit from – a book with literary merit that will sell.

 To Tell and Share a Significant Story

Telling a good or favorite story and sharing it with others is the goal of many new authors. We all have our unique interests which captivate our imaginations and which we would like to share with others…in the “true spirit of giving,” shall we say? That is a wonderful reason to offer a book, but no assurance that the topic or your implementation of it will sell. A story that needs to be told, for whatever reason, is also a basis for a compelling book.

To have the kind of book you, the author, would like to read!

Say what? What does that mean? I can relate to that reason-statement. When I wrote and self-published my book, The Elusive Notion of Motion: The Genius of Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein, I did so to tell and share a story, one that I deemed important and interesting. But I also felt that none of the many books I have on the subject matter really tied up the scientific history of motion physics along with explanations for the layperson into one neat bundle – the kind of bundled approach that appealed to me. So I literally set out “to write the book that I wanted to read.”

I find I am not alone in that approach to writing! As many of you know from past posts, especially that of July 21, 2013, Meet David McCullough – Engaging Author, Historian, and Man of Common-Sense (see my blog archive for July, 2013), I am a big fan of Mr. McCullough and his writing. I have learned that his first book, titled The Johnstown Flood, was written out of his frustration in not finding a suitable book describing that catastrophic event. He wrote the book he, himself, wanted to read, to paraphrase his words (see the very excellent short film on him, Painting with Words, for the story).

The Times, They Are-a-Changin’ In the Book World!

 Three things, in particular, are in the midst of rapid change: First, the rise of self-publishing vs. traditional publishers; second, the marketing and selling of books, today; third, the E-book phenomenon.

The Publishing Business

Self-publishing is rapidly overtaking traditional publishing today. The old publishing establishment with its “farm system” of literary agencies which is used by publishers to screen new authors and their offerings is quite unable to keep up with today’s demands. There are many good, new, talented authors for whom the protracted struggle to actually get the attention of a publisher (or not) is very discouraging.

In some ways, that tight screening process of traditional publishing is a good thing; it generally prevents many manuscripts of dubious merit from reaching bookstore shelves. In the early years, a rather large number of authors with poor offerings resorted to self-publishing their books, and that fact stigmatized the genre; that has been the knock on self-publishing in the past. I have seen some dreadful, self-published books in which any semblance of decent grammar and syntax is clearly missing. That has drastically changed today, and there are many fine works being self-published thanks to the increasing tendency of the traditional publishing industry to eschew new authors and revert to the financial guarantees implicit in well-known, previously published names – publishing “sure-things.”

Bookselling and Marketing

The visible demise of so many brick and mortar bookstores and the towering internet presence of Amazon tell most of the story. I buy some of my books from Amazon because of the convenience and unbeatable pricing, but my wife and I make it a point to frequently buy from brick and mortar stores, especially our local favorite, Leigh’s Favorite Books in downtown Sunnyvale, California (see my blog-post of April 1, 2013, Support Your Local Bookstore – available in the April, 2013 archives of my blog). Without the pleasures of browsing in a real bookstore and the new discoveries to made there, where would we be?

As for book-marketing, it is the age of the internet and social media with all its pluses and minuses. The advice for new authors with a new book is: Be prepared to be your own VP of marketing…on the internet. As I pointed out earlier, even a traditional publisher will do virtually zero to promote the new book of an unknown author – beyond the built-in advantage of bookstore exposure, as explained earlier. There are many ways to bring your book to the public’s attention using social media, but the bad news is that there is so much “clutter” out there that your book is in very real danger of being lost in the shuffle.


E-books have taken on increasing importance in book publishing and marketing. Most self-publishing companies offer to release various E-versions of your book for a nominal up-front development fee. The author’s profit from an E-Book sale is actually slightly higher in most cases compared to the sale of a paperback copy. Although not a big fan of reading from E-Books, I acknowledge their importance and had my book made available in that format. 

The Final Chapter: A “Fun Find” in a Vancouver Bookstore

Back in September, my wife and I visited the Pacific Northwest and Vancouver. Our B & B host in Vancouver recommended a used bookstore downtown, so we stopped there one afternoon. Per custom, my wife and I went in different directions after choosing a meeting time at the front of the store. I headed for the science section. Browsing along the shelves and seeing a number of titles I already have in my reference library, I came across one special title – my own book, The Elusive Notion of Motion: The Genius of Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein (see the photo)!


 I was quite taken-a-back to find my own book all the way up in Vancouver! Looking closely at it, I could tell that it was from the first order of books I ever received from the printer; it even had the errata slip that I personally inserted before page 191 (I had that problem quickly corrected by my self-publisher). I bought the used copy of my own book for the bargain price of $10.00 and brought it back home…from where it originally left on its journey to Vancouver. It resides on my bookshelf, a special souvenir of Vancouver! I hope the original buyer read it and enjoyed it before giving it up!

What’s Next? A New Book!

For me, a new book is almost ready for a publisher-search… or a self-publisher! The finishing touches are in process on my newest manuscript, a book on the problem of educating today’s youngsters for success, especially in the critical areas of science and math. In my new book, I point out that America’s problems will not be solved by the traditional panaceas of “better schools,” “better teachers,” or “longer school days” as is so often heard in the news media. The solution lies in my thesis that, “education and learning begin at home;” accordingly, my book shows parent/mentors how to send children to school who are “learning-ready.” I hope to have it published, one way or the other, by June.

My advice to aspiring authors?

Believe in your work, but first insure that the quality of your effort is worthy of such belief! Above all, do not get discouraged; virtually every new author will need a vast reservoir of determination and dedication to the task to make their book a reality. Good luck!

I Can Do This…and I’m Getting Better!

Is there any better feeling in the world than the realization of a meaningful personal goal or ambition? David McCullough, the noted author/historian expressed it ebulliently in the short video-bio on him called Painting with Words (See my post of July 21, 2013 in the archives, Meet David McCullough). Discussing his love of drawing and painting and the arts in general, he related the joy that results when “learning and doing” brings notable progress and proficiency: “I can do this…and I’m getting better!” Like so many succinct reflections of his, this one struck a real chord with me; I understand exactly how special that feeling is.

It is not that I have so many great life-triumphs to relate, but the joyous feeling he expressed does relate perfectly to one particularly hard-won success in my life that means a lot to me. I hope sharing my story in this post might rekindle in you similar reflections of personal triumphs. If not, perhaps the recounting will at least provide encouragement for those with as-yet unrealized personal ambitions.

My Life-long Passion-for and Battle-with the Trumpet:
 Bitten Early by the “Bug;” Round One


Yes, I am referring to that shiny, B-flat brass instrument called a trumpet. I first became smitten in 1955, my sophomore year in high school, when the top hit on the pop charts was Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White by Perez Prado and his orchestra. With a mambo rhythm driving a shimmering trumpet solo throughout, the song was a giant hit. It hit me harder than most, for it sparked a life-long passion for the trumpet sound. I could not get enough of the tune, stopping everything to listen when it was played on the radio. Who can explain it, who can wonder why? …as the song lyrics go. My best guess as to why this attraction exists is genetic; I believe I have a hard-wired pre-disposition to the trumpet’s tonal qualities. It is a fantastically versatile instrument which covers the full range of musicality, from regal to jazzy to sexy/seductive. My parents understood my new-found enthusiasm and somehow found enough money to get me started on lessons…with a rented instrument.

Cherry Pink 45 1955

I immediately encountered significant difficulties. Recalling my first lesson with Mr. Cheney, the elderly proprietor of the downtown music store, brings a smile today. I was so nervous that the horn was shaking as I attempted to squawk out a few bleats and blats. It took a while for the nerves to abate and the shaking to stop. I vividly recall him asking if “a nervous disposition runs in the family.” I suppose, in hindsight, the answer to that was yes; my father had what might be called a nervous physiological tendency. To this day, I still experience nervousness, but not nearly as badly as in my youth. Of course, an appearance someday as trumpet soloist in Carnegie Hall or anything similar has always been highly improbable for me, so nerves were not my big problem; playing was.

After several months of lessons, I just could not play the higher register of the instrument with any consistency. Trying harder in the physical sense only made it worse as I “tightened up.” Nor could I gain any feeling whatsoever of confident competence and consistency in any register. Today, I appreciate that the trumpet is a very physically demanding musical instrument. For starters, it requires a lot of lung-power to produce the steady airstream necessary to “buzz” the lips and create that magnificent trumpet sound. By far, the most important aspect of playing is the “embouchure,” the configuration of the lips, jaw, and facial muscles and their relationship to the cupped mouthpiece. Proper and consistent alignment of all these elements as the mouthpiece is placed on the lips is absolutely necessary for success. Additionally, the lower facial muscles involved in the embouchure require considerable strength and conditioning just like the muscles of any athlete. Without the physical conditioning required for “good chops” (trumpeter’s lingo), playing is nearly impossible.


Granted, there are only three valves to deal with, but so much is going-on at the mouthpiece! And “trying harder” to play upper register notes only makes things worse. Playing the trumpet requires a yoga-like relaxation mentality: Embouchure muscles are simultaneously in a state of relaxed tension! Achieving that takes a degree of mental maturity and much practice.

As a youngster, I had no clue. I did not appreciate any of these fine points, nor was I really informed of them by any of the three teachers whom I eventually went to for lessons in those days. I became very discouraged and gave up on trumpet, assuming that my “natural” embouchure was just not compatible with the instrument’s demands. It was very demoralizing to think, “Here I am, born with this great love of the trumpet, yet totally ill-equipped to play it.” That was my mistaken notion at the time. I switched to the clarinet in junior-year band hoping that it would yield more readily to “time spent practicing.” Alas, I had no passion for the instrument. No passion, no practice, no good! After high school, instrumental music disappeared from my life for twenty-some years.

Not Willing to Say No; Round Two

In mid-life, with a family and a career in engineering to keep me occupied, the trumpet was still on my mind. I bought a Yamaha student horn from a high school kid and gave it another try – with no lessons. After about four months of recurring exasperation, reminiscent of my early years, I put the trumpet away – for another twenty-some years.

Still Not Willing to Say No; Round Three

Five years ago, trumpetitis struck again, at age 68. Out came my Yamaha student horn. The saying that “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is insanity” has merit! This time, I said to myself, “I am going to stay with this come hell or high-water and not get discouraged. Determined not to repeat past mistakes, I harnessed the power of the now-available internet to Google articles on trumpet playing and bought a number of books on trumpet technique, books that were formerly not available. I also patiently experimented with different aspects of technique – all new approaches for me.

Success! I Can Do This
and I’m Getting Better!

After five years of daily practice, study, and experimentation, I can finally play the  trumpet – high notes too! I am no threat to the first-chair players in our regional symphony orchestras, to be sure, but my tone is good, my endurance solid, and my register capability way beyond what I ever had before.

A series of lessons from an accomplished local jazz professional helped considerably – not only his “instruction,” but my ability to observe first-hand, through careful observation, all aspects of his approach to playing. He reinforced in me what my new books were emphasizing, namely that your capability as a player is best exemplified by your tone quality and your ability to play notes consistently and cleanly. I have arrived at that station and am now ready to move on to the intricacies of playing by learning techniques like double/triple tonguing, etc. With trumpet, there is no sense going beyond the big three – tone, control, and endurance – until proficiency is achieved in those. It is time now to move on to a more advanced level thanks to a new confidence in my foundation. I continue to look forward to playing/practicing, every single day – it is pure joy. I have graduated to a professional model Yamaha horn which makes playing that much more enjoyable. Just as in golf where expensive clubs do not a golfer make, the instrument does not make the musician, but a better horn does help. Over these past five years, learning about the jazz/swing music of the big-bands and the history of that era has been pure pleasure! Playing excerpts from standards of those years – strictly for my own pleasure – is a total joy. I hope to engage with a “late bloomers” jazz band someday and acquire some real playing experience, but that opportunity has not yet materialized.

In Summary and Looking Back on the Whole Saga

Hopefully, this has not been too long and detailed an account, but I wanted to tell the whole story. Although there are many more important things in life such as family, education, career, etc. than learning to play a musical instrument, some matters become very personal and very important. For me, learning to play the trumpet was one of those.

If you have followed my blog, you know that the fascinating process of learning (anything) is a subject near and dear to my heart. My saga with the trumpet has been extremely enlightening for me in that respect. What was it that I ultimately learned… or at least validated once again?

-Great Motivation is the key to great persistence; great persistence leads to great effort; great effort leads, hopefully, to ultimate success.

-Patience is necessary in all things difficult; do not be easily discouraged by the temporary lack of progress.

-Reach out for any and all resources which can help you. Develop a plan of attack.

Experiment and evaluate before committing to a given approach.

-Master fundamentals before moving on.

Lastly, specific to the trumpet: The embouchure is most everything, and an overlooked aspect of the embouchure is the critical importance of a proper and consistent initial placement of the mouthpiece on the lips. The importance of initial placement finally embedded itself in my consciousness not that long ago as I was observing a trumpet player in a jazz combo entertaining at our local Saturday morning farmer’s market. I have worked on that aspect diligently for months, and it was the final piece of the puzzle that finally really unlocked my abilities.

Is it not fascinating – the diversity of elements required to finally piece-together the whole learning puzzle – for any difficult endeavor? That question validates the priceless worth of teachers/instructors in any venue who appreciate the critical insights and can readily communicate them to students. Some individuals seem destined to breeze right-on through the learning curve with its pitfalls and difficulties. Others of us need to work hard to get there.

Great musicians who became virtuoso players at a very young age as was the case with two jazz greats, Harry James on trumpet and Benny Goodman on clarinet, are truly “naturals” in every sense of the word. Those two legends worked very hard at their craft early-on, but Benny Goodman did not hesitate when asked about the basis for great musical talent; he replied matter-of-factly, “You are born with it.” I understand. They are the ones who are physiologically equipped for the task in terms of muscle-memory and body-awareness in addition to being instinctively capable of visualizing the physical techniques required for great proficiency on an instrument. They then take that ability to new creative musical levels. The rest of us have much longer learning curves in the technique phase and often fall victim to “dropping out” for good. When Goodman was fifteen, he was already good enough to be playing in professional dance bands. He had all the confidence he needed at that early age. I imagine his personal revelation that “I can do this” came well before his teen years. Lucky him!

One More Thing!

David McCullough – when asked what he would like to be able to add to the list of his other accomplishments – replied, “Play the piano.” I liked that.

Dancing with the Stars?
Where Does That Enter Into the Discussion?

Yes, my wife and I enjoy watching the program. The process of celebrities with no prior experience in dance realizing at some point that “I can do this…and I’m getting better!” is fun and uplifting. For me, that aspect of the show cuts to the heart of its appeal. Perhaps a future post on DWTS is in order?

To My Readers

If any of this post strikes a chord with you, please tell the rest of us about your personal experience, whether in music, athletics….whatever! It can be very brief or it can be long. Reader-contributions in the form of comments are what truly make any blog “go-round.” To comment, you can click on the “Leave a reply” link just below!