I recently read a post on the blogs at J.W. Pepper that addressed the issue of self-publishing that I disagreed with so strenuously that I couldn’t resist commenting. Since it’s been two days, and my comment hasn’t been approved yet – and I rather despair of its ever getting approved – I’ve decided to post my comment in its entirety here with a link to the original post by Steve Kupferschmid. Read the original post here.

My response:

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 negligible. 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.

What are your thoughts? Weigh in in the comments