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    A Closer Look at Self-publishing

    As a J.W. Pepper choral editor who is also a composer, I’d like to share some of my observations about self-publishing.

    Self-publishers have been around for a long time but I believe works that are truly worthy of publication and have sales potential are at a disadvantage by being self-published.  I almost always encourage the composers of those works to seek publication by an established publisher.  This way they can benefit from the publisher’s editorial expertise, promotional muscle and industry connections.  I offer my experience here hoping it is useful to anyone considering whether to publish themselves or work with a publisher.

    Today’s technology makes it easy for anyone to produce a neatly engraved, professionally printed piece of music.  That’s step one.  Step two is promotion.  And, that is a very big step often underappreciated by composers.  Every major publisher spends large sums of money promoting their publications.  They send representatives to conventions in all fifty states, collaborate with dealers on reading sessions, and foot the bill for studio recordings and print promotions, all of which is very costly.  They also make sure music stores know about the music.  In turn, music retailers like J.W. Pepper work intensely at finding interested buyers, and make sure the stock is in place and ready to be shipped.  It’s a collaborative effort between composer, publisher and music store.

    At this point you’re probably thinking, it’s all about money, isn’t it?  The answer is yes, and no.  Yes, it costs money to publish.  But, it’s also about putting as much good music in the hands of as many people as possible, to enrich their lives and our children’s lives.  The publishing industry is like an ecosystem.  Composers bring fresh, inspiring, beautiful sounds into the world.  Publishers ensure past musical treasures live on, while simultaneously supporting new voices deserving of an audience.  Dealers nurture and maintain contact with musicians, teachers, and students to facilitate education, worship, and the universal love of music.  The ecosystem is healthy when there is open support and dialog throughout the process, so the needs of musicians are continuously met.

    Self-publishing is a quick, sure way for a composer to break into print, but not the best way to reach a large audience (or earn royalties.)  A teacher of mine once told me that a writer’s greatest danger is to fall in love with his own work;  his words ring true to me.  Some of my compositions and arrangements have been published, and some of them have sold well, but many of my writing efforts have not been published, and I don’t want to publish them myself.  They’ve been rejected enough times, I can take a hint.

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    Steve Kupferschmid
    Trombone player, widely published composer and arranger of choral music. Former editor at Shawnee Press. Retired from his position as school choral music editor at J.W. Pepper.

    2 COMMENTS

    1. Hi Steve,

      I really can’t disagree more with the idea that composers should go with legacy (i.e., traditional) publishers. It’s certainly hard enough to find a reputable publisher that will even accept your work. But to find one that will also promote it in a way that results in sales is nigh on impossible. Publishers are only going to buy scores that they think will sell, but their guess as to what will sell is a) as good as yours or mine, and b) just that: a guess.

      I have several very well-established composer friends who are represented in various ways by legacy publishers. One is represented exclusively by one of the big houses and has a Pulitzer to boot – a big composer with a big name, who should, by all rights, be selling well. However, until recently, his career has languished – his publisher did very little to promote his music to orchestras and other ensembles, they did nothing to assist in the recording of his works, and they wouldn’t even look at half of the works that he had written in those years – they’re only now, in some cases 10 years after having been written, starting to make it into print. His career has recently gotten a major boost, but no thanks to his publisher – he went out and hired an agent at his own expense, who is doing a bang-up job at getting orchestras and performers around the country to perform his music and commission new works. His complete piano music is also in the process of being recorded, but here again, the publisher is merely granting permission – the pianist is left to do all the fundraising for the project.

      Another friend has won most of the major awards and sits on all the big panels. Many of his works have been published by a number of major houses. Yet his royalty checks are pitiful. The International Society of Bassists wanted to promote one of his works that was just released on a disc by Naxos, but the publisher who owned the rights to the work refused to return his calls requesting that they send several copies to the organization so that they could review it and do proper promotional efforts. Guaranteed sales for the publisher, but they wouldn’t even talk to the composer.

      If this is how publishers treat composers with decades-long careers and significant respect within the concert music community, I shudder to think how poorly a composer such as myself would be treated. I’d much rather prepare my scores myself, have them available on my website and NewMusicShelf.com, and promote them at concerts and events.

      Add in the pitiful royalty rates that composers are paid by publishers, the prohibitive prices that publishers charge for scores, and the fact that I’m putting my trust in a corporation to accurately report and pay royalties when they have every incentive not to (and if you doubt that a publisher would do such a thing, look no further than the ebook royalty reporting scandals currently making waves in the book publishing world), and self-publishing looks quite a bit more attractive to me.

      Sure, I don’t have the built-in relationships with music dealers that a publisher does, but there’s nothing stopping me from creating those relationships myself. It may take more work, but I guarantee that those relationships will be much more fruitful because they’re much more personal. And I’m happy to do the legwork for my own career, especially when I can make more money on fewer sales because I claim the full profit, and don’t have to share 90% with a publisher. And I’d be more than happy to offer the traditional discount to a distributor like J.W. Pepper.

      And a fear of rejection is absolutely no reason to avoid self-publishing. There are no rejections in self-publishing, only sales. If you don’t make a sale, no one mails you a form letter telling you that you’re not good enough. They just move on, and you’re none the wiser. Meanwhile, I have an order to go fill.

    2. Dear Dennis,

      Thanks for your response to my article. I’m not surprised by your comments, and I can see where you’re coming from. No question, great music deserves to be published, recognized, and performed, and I know it can be extremely difficult, or impossible, to find an established publisher that considers the work to be a profitable investment. But, when I see self-published music that does have the attributes of a profitable publishing investment, I like to encourage the writers of those works to go the route of commercial publishing. I realize that in some cases self-publishing might be the composer’s only reasonable alternative.

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