A few thoughts on self-publishing

Over the course of the last week or so I’ve made a fairly significant upgrade to the website to be able to better handle the purchase of scores. The new site structure streamlines purchases by integrating an e-commerce platform (the excellent and free WooCommerce WordPress plug-in, supplemented by several additional plug-ins and a bit of tweaking of some php and CSS code under the hood), which automates pdf downloads and makes maintaining an inventory for bound/physical scores much easier.

I wanted to spend a few minutes to write about how I approach self-publishing and to try to give a bit of context for that approach.

Most of the recent upgrades to the website simply make an approach I’ve been using for many years more visible, transparent, and efficient. I’ve had a pricing list (the link for which was always buried at the bottom of the page near the ‘Contact’ link) with payments sent through PayPal via email, and upon receipt of payments I’d send the purchased scores either via email or through the mail. It worked (both for small orders of single pdfs and for large library orders of every bound score in my catalogue), but not very well.

I’ve always had a three-tiered approach to pricing, with separate prices for digital downloads and physical scores, plus free digital copies available for perusal scores or for study scores for students (more on which in a moment). My approach to pricing has been, from the beginning, driven by a sense that scores should be, first and foremost, accessible, that prices should be fair and reasonable, and that it was more beneficial to keep the prices at a level where I was selling to real people—performers, composers, writers—rather than thinking of ‘publishing’ as being about selling/renting to institutions (which, in my view, is at the heart of what seems to have killed off the traditional publishing houses, prioritising large ensemble rental fees over a broader sales volume, and taking virtually no interest in individual performers and small ensembles). And, at the same time, my general thinking was that, for performers in particular, if you’re being paid to play a concert, you should probably pay for the scores you’re performing.

That approach was conditioned by three factors: a) I was of course once a student, and the beginnings of my score library were created through illegal photocopies of scores borrowed from the Northwestern University library (many of which I still have, 20 years later); b) as a teacher, I’ve seen score prices go up and library budgets go down, so of course we simply buy fewer scores (which then forces the publishers to raise their prices even higher to cover overheads, which then means we order even fewer scores, which then forces …., etc.), and some of those score prices have been criminally, offensively high (in one particular case nearly £400 for a string quartet score); and c) my wife is a singer, and I’ve watched her struggle for years to access scores from publishers for work she wants to perform, virtually having to plead with them to take her money (every month or two I see a thread on the subject on Facebook, with dozens upon dozens of horror stories from performers and promoters about their negative experiences dealing with traditional publishing houses—it seems quite clear that negative experiences with publishers have become the norm).

The economics of publishing are obviously complicated, particularly for contemporary music, and I also of course completely understand that I’m in a position where my overheads are pretty ridiculously low (no employees, for starters, and no need for the sale of scores to even really contribute to the cost of keeping the lights on), but I really don’t understand an economic model that makes it difficult for people to access your product and encourages pirating. This isn’t a Napster-esque problem, in which CDs were already pretty reasonably priced before their market was undercut by file-sharing; this is clearly a situation where traditional commercial publishers have simply priced themselves out of their own market by neglecting (even ignoring) the vast majority of their actual customer base.

So the goal has been to keep the prices low. Most of the digital versions of the solo works sell for less than £10, with most of the chamber/ensemble works not much more than that. And one of the things I really like about the tiered model I’ve been using is that it makes the prices quite transparent—the prices for the physical copies really just add the cost of paper, binding, printing, and shipping (so, for example, the colour scores add quite a lot more to the cost than the black-and-white scores in comparison to the pdf—some of those cost as much as £25 per copy to print). I have a fairly simple formula that I use to price the scores, which takes into account the instrumentation, the number of pages/systems/staves, plus any additional materials (electronics, for example). My hope is that the pricing is consistent and reasonable.

I suppose the obvious question is why I don’t just make the scores free (particularly the digital pdf ones). It’s an approach I’ve considered many times over the last few years. In the end, what’s persuaded me to go in this particular direction is actually what’s happened over the last year or so in the world of journalism. I, like most, got used to reading the newspaper for free online. I, like most, found things like the NYTimes paywall somehow an affront to my right to access the news for free. But, like many, I now subscribe to a handful of newspapers and news magazines, and, critically, only one of them is behind a paywall. I’m not paying for access, I’m paying to support a product that I value and to contribute to the process of producing that product.

It seems we’ve turned an important corner in the world of digital media. There was a period where the model seemed to be that we’d give away digital materials for free but create high-end/bespoke/artisanal versions of the product to sell (In Rainbows is, I suppose, the most obvious example, with a pay-as-you-wish digital download paired with a range of elegant physical CD versions in custom boxes, and we took a similar approach with my Noise in and as Music book, with an open source pdf but a carefully crafted physical version (I picked out the fancy Italian paper myself) in a fairly small print run), but I’m certainly sensing a shift to a situation where people are more likely to pay for digital materials even if they know they can access them for free. It seems to be an acknowledgement that the economic mechanisms necessary for creating the work in the first place are important to support, and it has also been interesting to see how new small-scale digital economies have stepped in to fill the gap left by the implosion of some of the traditional institutional distribution structures (witness, for example, the emergence of something like Bandcamp).

There’s another answer, though, and I alluded to it above. One of the reasons I maintained my old email model, coupled with very low prices, is that it meant I had some idea who was engaging with my work, and I had a chance to start a conversation, make myself available to answer questions, and offer to add information about performances to my website or help promote concerts via twitter/facebook. (And there are also of course performance royalties, though sometimes those are quite literally mere pennies.) My sense is that one of the significant downsides of the overpricing seen from the traditional publishers is that ‘off the books’ performances are more likely. Ironically, I have similar concerns at the other end of the pricing spectrum, wondering whether the pdfs I still happily give for free to student composers and performers also make unreported performances more likely. (In the case of students, I think access to scores is important, and while I like to encourage those students to have their university libraries purchase physical copies (I probably learned more from stumbling across scores accidentally in the library than I did from any other source, as a student), I also know the realities of library budgets. My sense is that educational settings are a bit different, and they typically sidestep some of the professional/economic justifications I have for generally choosing to sell scores.)

The way I’ve chosen to approach that issue is first by maintaining a Performance History listing for each piece listed on the website. My hope is that such a public listing gives an incentive to report performances, and it also makes figuring out things like world/national/city premieres much easier. And, similarly, these lists of information are, I hope, further incentive for people to purchase digital copies even if it’s possible to find the same pdfs online for free.

The final strand to all of this is that I’m trying to provide as much interesting material about each work as possible (usually in the Media tab for the page for each work). Where possible, I include audio recordings (or at least samples), videos, accompanying photographs from rehearsals or recording sessions, and over the next few weeks I’ll also add some images of sketches and drafts. I have a pretty huge archive of old photos and sketches images, and there’s no particular reason why they should sit on my hard drive rather than being publicly available (or shared only on Facebook with friends and family). In short, I try to compile as much material for each piece—some of it already online, much of it not—that I can. The goal over the coming weeks and months is to provide a comprehensive picture for each piece in the works list, providing bibliographic info or links to texts about the pieces and any other materials that might help someone build a more thorough impression of the materials, methods, and contexts for the work. The score purchases help subsidise that activity (not least the web hosting costs, plus some kind of contribution to the time it takes to make those materials available), and hopefully it’s clear that there’s something valuable on those pages that’s worth supporting, above and beyond the costs of the scores themselves.

I’m really excited about this upgrade. On several occasions over the last decade or so I’ve looked into other publishing options (as a composer of almost exclusively solo and small ensemble music, the major publishers really have no use for me, but there are a number of smaller outlets that have emerged in recent years that have really piqued my interest), but I’m now fairly confident that this is the right approach. The material is easily accessible, it’s presented in a high quality format, I have sufficient quality control of the materials, the prices are as fair and transparent as I can make them, and there’s now access to supporting and contextualising materials, which I hope provides some added value for those who invest in the scores. At the very least, I’ve had fun getting this new site up and running, and I hope it provides a useful new way to engage with the work.

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