Monday, November 30, 2009

and you thought getting a book deal was hard...

INTERN is back, after a delightful and adventuresome pilgrimage to her ancestral homestead, aka grandma's house, for Thanksgiving. It was nice and low key and most of the crazy belligerent long-lost relatives who cornered INTERN for a chat were too deaf to understand her responses to their questions, so she was able to get away with pretty much anything:

CBLLR: "Why don't you get a real job?"
INTERN: "The moon!"


An eye-opening thing INTERN learned this week:

Techie Boyfriend, who invented a neat tool a little while ago, and has been staying up late reading about the patent application process. Like book publishing, the whole concept of patenting something can push some powerful emotional buttons: "If I don't get this published/patented, someone can steal my idea!" "If this goes through, I can get rich off the royalties!" "The world really needs my idea!" etc.

With book publishing, you send in your query for the price of postage stamp and it gets read and processed at no further cost to you. Editors and agents and their interns read your pages for free and if your ms gets declined, you're only in the hole emotionally and not financially.

In patenting, though, you pay out the eyeballs for every step of the process. First, there's a $75 fee just to get your application in the door. Then, once your application makes it to the top of the pile, it's another $300 for some monochromatic civil engineering type to read it. Then, it's another couple hundred bucks for somebody at the patent office to search through other patents to make sure your idea hasn't already been taken. Then, the patent folks will probably find something to quibble about in your wording and you'll have to hire a lawyer to fix your patent application for several thousands of dollars.

If you make it that far without a snag, it's another several hundred bones to have the damn patent issued. Oh yeah, and even after the patent is issued, you have to pay a "patent maintenance fee" that starts at $700 and goes up every few years just to keep the rights to your patent.

Sounds an awful lot like a vanity press.

The funny thing is, the U.S. patent office was *supposed* to level the playing field between small-time inventors and big companies, and make it so the big guys couldn't rustle the little guys' ideas. Except now it's prohibitively expensive for most people except in big companies to afford a patent.

So, people, be glad you're only trying to publish books and not trying to patent groovy electronic action figure robots who act out your books. Publishing is at least still *sort of* accessible to everyone. Right? Right? ...


  1. At least a financial hole has a depth to it... but an emotional hole... goes as deep as you wanna dig!

    Haste yee back ;-)

  2. 20 or so years ago a friend of mine invented a new speaker system. he had all sorts of compicated schematics of this fantatical new system and was eager to get the thing patented so he could start looking for his new digs on Easy Street.

    he found the exact same WFT? walls of impediments, er, i mean paperwork and demands for money that Techie Boyfriend found. my friend came to the conclusion that the process was gamed towards Big Companies in that:

    * you, the lowly, poor inventor, comes up with A New Idea

    * you, the lowly, poor inventor, patent said New Idea, by investing all of your spare time and money into the process

    * then, burdened by the next wave of paperwork and money, you Sell your patent to a Big Company and consider yourself lucky to have gotten out of the process with a few grand.

    best of luck (and patience... and fortune) to him!

  3. This is something I think writers do forget. In most other endeavours, it takes a certain amount of capital to get going. Artists need supplies, musicians need instruments, doctors need expensive degrees, etc. But to write, at the most basic level, requires nothing more than pen and paper. And it's something you can do when it suits you. For all there is to bemoan about the book business, there are advantages to it.

  4. I work for a small company and it cost us $40K to get a patent through. You practically can't get a patent without consulting or being a lawyer.

  5. A close friend of mine is a patent judge. I kid you not (though I'm known for joking, I'm really not here!!).

    I feel a trade of some sort may be made...
    just saying is all.

  6. That sounds like a racket to me! Man!

    For writers (and inventors), we're not just out emotionally. Time is money...

    But man, inventors have to pay a freakin' fortune. That's not right.

  7. Ugh... my husband sounds a lot like techie boyfriend, and we went through the "A patent is *$@%&*& how much??!" stage, too. CRAZY!

    I do feel blessed that the cream rises to the top in the publishing industry for free. Free is just the right price for achieving my dreams :).

  8. Poor Intern's Boyfriend!

    *Pats soothingly on hair*

  9. Best of luck to your Techie Boyfriend!

  10. Hey, why are civil engineering types monochromatic? Just asking, y'know. Though the ones that read patents might well be uniformly-colored. I don't know any of those.

    Some CE's are downright colorful, good lady. Enough to comment on publishing blogs, anyway.

    Best of luck to TB in the process. Now all you have to do, Ms. Intern, is get a monstrous advance on a novel so that you can finance the patent habit.

  11. Hi Intern: In a previous lifetime I was an intellectual property attorney, though my specialty was trademarks, not patents. I actually worked in the Trademark Office, the cousin to the Patent Office.

    Later, when I was with a huge multinational corporation, all my fellow attorneys were engineer/lawyer types who had become patent attorneys -- a livelier bunch would be hard to find. Not.

    Indeed, prosecuting a patent does cost a lot -- in time, money, and effort. Those fees are nothing to a corporation, but a lot to an individual. Here's what Techie Boyfriend might want to do:

    1) Go to the library or bookstore and find free advice. Maybe it's all online now. There used to be a great book called "Patent It Yourself," and there is often good material from Nolo Press. (Perhaps he's done all this already.)

    2) Consider paying for a cheap patent search BEFORE paying out anything at all to the government. So he knows out of the gate if it's dead in the water. (To mix cliches.)

    3) Use his techie savvy to make sure it hasn't already been invented -- or if it's what they would call "obvious" -- a combination of already existing technologies which he has simply put together.

    4) See if he can find a company who wants to invest in it -- folks who are exploiting such technology already. Perhaps they will think he is a good bet for more such ideas. This is basically selling his idea, but that might not be so bad an option.

    Here's the real rub: the patent fees are but the tip of the iceberg. If/when he gets his great idea protected, THEN it is very expensive to get it into production. Prototypes, manufacture, sales, distribution... that's where the expense comes in.

    But hey -- my brother is a tech guy who arranges affordable manufacturing overseas and sells to the big companies. Maybe he can help out on that end.

    P.S. I finished my now self-help book and just sent the whole ms. out to a big name in literary agents. Thanks for your help!

  12. Wait, wait, wait. No, no. Techie boyfriend is going about this entire thing all wrong.

    First, find some rich person (they often call themselves investors). See, rich people get rich by finding people that have invented some neat-o tool, and then they pony up the bucks to get the patent done. And best thing yet? Rich people have lawyers, on retainer!

    Now, I think that if we could perhaps get the pulishing industry to work like the patent process in this way...

  13. This article reminds me of the frustration in the patent process that stopped me from trying to market and sell an invention of mine. I have several ideas for some things that I believe are actually worth while, none of this blanket-with-arm-holes crap. (It's called a MONK's ROBE people) ugh.... ok, now I'm on a tangent. What were we talking about?

  14. ooh, very insightful comments! :)

  15. Sure, it costs money to get a patent. It also costs money to take a vacation or buy a house. And the patent process is indeed full of bureaucracy. But your analogy of how cheap it is to get a book "considered" and your sneer at POD is not warranted.
    In the patent process, there are specific reasons given for rejection. In publishing, it's all subjective.
    It's kind of like pornography. An agent claims they know (a good one) when they see it. They ask for things they cannot define, ie "voice." They clutter up the process with jargon.
    I'd rather spend money than be insulted.

  16. Agree with those who say the two are not analagous. The main reason (as lknick mentioned) is that a technological instrument can be tested for useability (does it work? does it have an application?). This is exactly what (non-scientific) writing cannot be tested for.

    Regarding money: the time, the printing, the critique, the research or experience put into the project, the gin, the coffee...these things ain't cheap.

  17. I read the last couple entries and enjoyed them! Hope you get your manuscript taken care of and published.
    See you 'round.

  18. Yeah, let me tell you, it feels really sh--ty when one of those editors declines your manuscript only to hand off the idea off to someone else to use.

    I have recently immersed myself into the world of copyright, and it may be a lot cheaper and easier to navigate than the world of patenting, but it's nice to know your ass is covered.

  19. I was a patent examiner before i quit to go back to school to pursue writing so I had to laugh. i was a computer engineer and examined computer security and crypto patents. my husband still works there. so this made me laugh and one of the things you definitely forgot to mention, besides money, is the time. Believe me, once you apply, in my art unit, it took at least 5 years before i looked at a patent application for the first time. then after that, we're talking 6 months at least between responses.

    A few things off trademark persons advice:

    it's true, whenever i saw a pro se case cross my desk and there was patentable material in the spec but not in the claims, it was hard but i couldn't coach the applicant and it didn't matter that it was in the spec, it has to be in the claim language which is almost always written in legal jargon.

    having someone do a search first is only helpful if the person knows what they're looking for. large companies or law firms often have people do searches and they file ids's. do we look at them? yes, but very rarely do we use the art that's in them. because no one knows better than us what we're looking for and we're looking only for what's in the claims.

    good luck to techy boyfriend.

    also, just as an aside, if he's working for a company right now, he should check the ip rules his company has. for many companies, if your'e working for them, even if you've developed the invention on your own time, it's still theirs. so if he's working for a company, i'd check on that too.