Self publishing digital sheet music… Why not?

April 24, 2013 - By 

This week I took a step of courage. I self published a collection of piano arrangements. There is no physical product, just a download that is delivered after it is purchased. (Click here to learn more about it.)


I call it a step of courage because you never know how your music is going to be accepted, if at all. And there doesn’t seem to be a lot of other people out there doing this (at least on their own websites), so that makes it even more nerve-racking.

I’ve had some friends give me great advice, and others who have listened and been very encouraging. Some have asked, Why do this? Don’t you have good relationships with your publishers? What would make you go in this new direction?

It’s true, I do have great relationships with some excellent publishers. I fully intend to maintain those relationships. (You can still count on some great new Koerts arrangements in the near future. I’m excited about them, but I won’t go into detail now.)

I guess it just came down to asking the question, “Why not?”

Here is more of what went into my thinking:

  • Okay, I’m not gonna lie. The idea of receiving nearly 100% of the profit (as opposed to the industry standard 10%) interests me. That doesn’t feel like a very ministry minded thing to say, but one of my most important objectives in life is to provide for my family.
  • More and more people are using digital music readers. A couple of us at our church use an iPad to read our sheet music. I happen to know of a lot of people who scan or photograph their sheet music so they can use digital devices to read their music. Let’s face it, the future is here.
  • I understand that I don’t have the marketing arms that the established publishers boast, but I believe with hard work and patience, I can get there.
  • E-books and e-readers have revolutionized the book industry, but I have to wonder when these changes will start to take place in the music industry. (Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t seem to find any composers who are self-publishing piano music, at least digitally.) I have to admit, being on the front end of something that could be big seems like a neat idea.
  • I do follow some musicians (vocalists) who publish their own books, and whenever they come out with something new, I instantly desire to purchase it because I believe it can be helpful in my ministry. If I could do the same for others, I would be humbled and thrilled.

So there you have a little inside baseball about this decision. And so far, it’s been good. I haven’t sold millions yet, but I’ve been pleased with how well it’s been received. And… I have many more ideas for future projects.

What do you think? Am I just crazy? Or is there something to this? Leave a comment below.

James Koerts serves as the worship pastor of Mikado Baptist Church in Macon, Georgia. In addition to his full time responsibilities at the church, James is also a published composer and arranger.

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  • I don’t think you are crazy at all. Actually, when looking for new music, I look first for digital downloads…because I want it right now, baby! LOL I think you are wise to extend yourself into this area. Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket, after all. There is room in the marketplace for both avenues of publication. Keep up the good work!

  • Thanks for your feedback, Lori.

  • I’ve considered doing this for a while and it is neat to see it being done. Some of what holds me back has been concerns for quality on my part (not questioning yours!). Having other people’s insights (publishers) go through my music can be beneficial for the final product.

  • Brian, you bring up some excellent points.

    Quality is a HUGE concern! I think you need good music engraving skills, and it helps to have graphic design abilities. Fortunately, I dabble in both. I had to get over this obstacle myself. When I really thought about it though, there are plenty of my published products that were produced by mainline publishers that had glaring errors in them that were missed by me and entire editorial teams alike. Not a knock, it’s just that anything can happen. So, I do think you need to have a high level of quality, but realize perfection is never the goal.

    By the way, this has been a learning process. I have definitely grown in my engraving skills and graphic design skills. I’m sure the experts out there reading this would probably say I have a long ways to go. But for average musicians, I feel I’m on target.

    Your other point, about valuing the publisher’s editorial team, is huge too! It’s naive and wrong to think you don’t need an editor. I strongly advise all aspiring composers and arrangers I come into contact with to embrace the editorial process. So that was a hard hurdle to cross.

    I actually believe this first project, Be Still, would have been stronger with an editor. But in the end, it wasn’t enough to discourage me from going forward. It has just caused me to have a strong desire to focus on detail.

  • I’ve wondered why more arrangers haven’t done this. Much like iTunes has revolutionized the way we buy and listen to music, and the Kindle and Nook have changed our reading experience, composers and arrangers are changing the way they do business. There’s no overhead! No printing costs, no shipping costs. Why wouldn’t you self publish, especially for the profit margin alone!

  • I’ve wondered why more aren’t doing it as well. Certainly there is an allure to “being published” the traditional way. And I can see many valuable reasons for it. (Do you see how I’m not throwing the baby out with the bath water?) But when you begin to look at it in the terms that you mentioned, it’s a no-brainer!

  • This is a great move! I pastor a small church, Maranatha Baptist, in Aiken SC. We don’t have a large library of music for church use. When I want music to have played and/or sing – I look online first. I am usually looking for something specific, your arrangement of “Be Still, My Soul” is what brought me to your website. I am working through a sermon series this month called “Be Still”, and this song came to mind – I love your arrangement.

    Personally, I would much rather be a financial blessing to the arranger (even if it means paying a bit more) than send our money to an antiquated third-party system.

    God bless you AND your endeavors!

  • Thanks so much! Appreciate the feedback.

  • I’m all for it!! I love having instant access to new music and the ability to buy all of it or just the songs I want! I also love the fact that you receive the proceeds – we can all be a bigger part of your ministry in this way! 🙂

  • I’m not typically a blog commenter, or a soap-box stomper, and I realize that there are many who will disagree with me just on the financial argument alone. But folks, I have to say that there is a tremendous amount of work involved in publishing music – enough that often demands a team of office employees. I recently went from being part of a team of 7 people in one office, to being completely alone. And the weight of the aloneness has been anything but freeing. I am constantly aware of my need for other professional eyes. And I thank the Lord for their expertise! Even the pieces I write for SoundForth (of which I’m the editor) go through another editor’s eye before publication, and I’m always amazed at how many things I missed, even though I was trained professionally to do this. It would be downright arrogant of me to think that I could get it all done by myself as the writer, editor, and engraver.

    Another thing a self-publisher must admit: when they include theory or grammar errors in their music (and they will), they are, in one sense, “teaching the next generation” an acceptance for occasional (maybe even regular) error. And I wouldn’t want to be responsible for that.

    Of course, I acknowledge the small royalty percentage a composer gets from his own work, comparatively speaking. Wouldn’t we all rather have more money? But honestly, I don’t think this is a stewardship issue. God provides for my needs. He gave me the ability I have. He’s in charge of every person who buys my music. In essence, He signs my royalty checks. And I take great comfort in that.

  • Molly, I suspect the system you are in is broken and will not recover any time soon. It is no longer financially feasible for the arranger/composer or the publisher. I feel for both sides. People like James that acknowledge that are not arrogant; they are just adjusting to reality.

    After all, the traditional publishing perspective is not THE way to do it. It is just one way.

  • To the anonymous writer:

    Broken or not, a publisher’s brand stamp gives me credibility as a writer in a highly competitive industry. Self-publishers certainly don’t get that. And unless you are someone who is intimately involved in the publishing and composing industry, I’m not sure what gives you the impression that this system “no longer financially feasible.”

    Frankly, I find it ironic (and interesting) that the most successful, trained composers are humble enough to go through a publisher and seek an editor’s opinion. After all, is the extra dollar that important, that I skip over the person who helps me be a better composer?

  • Seriously Molly, you need to drop the humble/arrogant theme. This is not about arrogance at all. It is about adapting to the real world.

    Regarding financial feasibility: I doubt you would do this but since we are talking about a piano arrangement book here, I would love for you to tell us a few things: how many copies of an average piano arrangement book does Soundforth usually sell, how much does the writer typically make, how much time does the writer typically invest, and how much does Soundforth earn on the project.

    Without knowing much about Soundforth, I still suspect I could very closely guess the answers. Writers are working too hard for peanuts and the publisher is not making money either even if they are only paying 10-20% to the writer. It is not financially feasible for anyone really.

    Addressing your first sentence: Yes, it is a competitive industry but how does “credibility” help you? Does it help you sell more music? If so, why are all these credible, “successful, trained” composers you speak of struggling to earn a reasonable living writing music?

    If you think “success” means being “credible” in that you are respected by publishers and published writers, feel free, but some are not interested in that. They would measure success in a different way such as whether they are actually selling enough music and earning enough money to make a living.

  • Molly, thanks for chiming in. It’s good to get the perspective of an industry insider. I’m all in favor of the editorial process, but your point about “teaching the next generation the acceptance of error” is entirely lost on me, as I’ve seen revered publishers entirely miss glaring errors prior to publication. Sure, more eyes are better, but believe me, I’m not gonna loose any sleep because of guilt that I’m endangering the next generation.

    I’d be interested to know if other editors in your field view self publishing as an act of arrogance.

  • Anonymous –

    You won’t give your identity, but your comment, “without knowing much about SoundForth,” reveals your ignorance. You don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t need to reveal sales figures or royalty statements to prove anything. And I never said that successful composers are “struggling to earn a reasonable living?” The trained composers I know seem to be doing just fine. 🙂

  • LOL, OK, if you won’t, I will post some numbers for consideration.

    A typical piano arrangement book sells 1,000-3000 copies maybe. With Soundforth, probably towards the lower end. The arranger probably earns in the range of $2,000. There are some arrangers out there who can probably turn out a book of arrangements in 40 hours but on average, they might reasonably invest 100 hours or 10 hours a song. That means the arranger is earning $20/hour.

    If you consider $20/hour to be acceptable (I don’t), that is fine but remember that the market will not support an arranger putting out a book every week or even every month. At most, they can do that a few times a year, earning less than $10,000.

    Moving on to choral octavos. A good-selling octavo might sell 10,000 copies at a few dollars each. The average is way less. The writers (lyrics/music) split a few thousand dollars at most, and again, it is not like they can get out a new octavo a week. The market will only support a small number each year.

    Now regarding the publisher financials, it is no secret that they are struggling. In fact, it is pretty common industry knowledge that Soundforth has been losing money for a while and recently was sold for that very reason.

    Granted, these are rough guesses but not ignorant ones. I know enough people in the industry to know it pretty well.

  • Richard Nichols June 5, 2013 at 8:24 pm

    I’ll apologize in advance for the lengthy reply, but it speaks to the issue at hand. Here are my comments, in no particular order…

    Publishers identify composers: I haven’t heard anyone mention the fact that publishers are a necessary part of the process. If we took it to its logical conclusion, without publishers composers would have a very difficult (if not impossible) time getting “found.” I read a blog a couple of months ago by a guy who was encouraging new composers to self-publish rather than going through normal publishing channels. Ironically, the guy writing (or being interviewed, I can’t remember) was a very well-known composer. James, you are an established writer so you might be able to pull it off. A new composer has an uphill battle because he/she has no established platform. I wanted to comment on that blog, “Composers should do what they are aspiring to do: compose. Leave the publishing up to the publisher.” The more time spent in publishing and promoting, the less time is available to compose. Which brings me to another point…

    Risk vs. reward: Anonymous (above), you should have a grasp of this. Publishers take a risk when publishing a piece. It’s an educated guess, but they do not know how well a piece is going to sell. They edit it, typeset it, print it, record it, market it, etc. all before making a dime off of it. That’s a big risk. Don’t they deserve to make money off of it? We can argue about the percentage of royalties, but I don’t know of a publisher out there who is killing it while composers reap a meager profit. Most publishers are struggling for survival. One major problem in this area is that the customer is wanting to pay less and less for music. They seem to expect more and more for free. But that’s another topic.

    Soundforth: I won’t go into all of the reasons for why BJU sold Soundforth, but Anonymous brought it up so I’ll address it. Our biggest problem was exposure. If we had produced a losing catalog, Lorenz wouldn’t have purchased it from BJU. Bottom line, they saw an opportunity to make a profit with the catalog/name and so they did. They have the exposure to make it happen.

    I agree with some of the comments above about the advantages of editors, credibility of publishers vs. composers self-publishing, etc. (I don’t mean to diminish those topics as they are germane to this topic), but those aren’t the most important ones.

    One word of caution to anyone who is interested in self-publishing: be ready to burn your bridge with publishers. I can’t imagine a publisher who would look fondly at a composer seeking to cut out the middle man (the publisher, in this example). You have to “dance with the one that brung ya” [sic].

    I’ll be interested in hearing other comments…

  • I can appreciate much of what you say Richard. There are no easy answers and everyone is in a tough position. Your last paragraph is interesting and I get the point. It is a catch-22 for writers because they in many cases do owe much to publishers and yet have less and less chance of a successful future with traditional publishers.

    On the other hand, what I don’t understand is the idea that traditional publishing is the only way or even the best way. In the music industry, it is clear that what has always worked is not working and other things are working. I can think of a few names not far distant from Soundforth-type music that appear to be doing extremely well without publishers and record labels or any of what traditionally would be considered necessary. They have just done a great job of marketing themselves.

    Ten years ago, publishers did identify the writers and labels identified performers. Today, that is no longer necessarily the case.

    I did not mean to imply that publishers should not make money. They do take a lot of risk. They deserve the meager money they make. My point was that today, things are not working out for them either.

  • Richard Nichols June 6, 2013 at 1:11 am

    Let me begin by stating something that I should have written at the beginning of my first post. I applaud James for his entrepreneurial spirit, his risk taking and for his creative ability. This entire post started because of his new book; one that I am interested in checking out. No publishing company made him into a good writer. He is just very creative and has committed to honing his craft. Congrats, James, on your endeavor!

    Now, in response to Anonymous, I’ll agree completely that things are changing. And I’m not saying that I think things should stay the same. I’m simply stating that it’s easy to make publishers (big business) look like the bad guy and composers (Joe the plumber) look like the ones who are being taken advantage of. I say, let each do what they are best at: composers compose and publishers publish.

    If I understand you correctly, Anonymous, the “few names not far distant from Soundforth-type music” would be someone like Dan Forrest. What is interesting to me is that even the ones who have this type of success (Courtney, Hayes, Martin, Larson, etc.) are not self-publishing the vast majority of their output, but are using the traditional publishing route. They may have their own website, blog, facebook page, etc., but they see the value of a publisher and are willing to sacrifice some of their potential profit in exchange for the benefits. Again, this frees them to do what they do best.

    In a similar model to self-publishing, some book publishers now offer a “vanity” press, where an author can pay to get her/his book “published.” The problem is, the book hasn’t been scrutinized (edited, valued for marketability of content, etc.) by the publishing company. They simply print it. Without that scrutiny the book has significantly less chance of success.

    In light of all of this discussion, I would like to propose a solution, or at least a temporary fix until a better system is in place:
    – strive to write the best music you can
    – do whatever you can to market yourself and your music
    – direct potential customers to the publishers (investors) of your music
    – strive to find the best composers (even the ones no one has heard of yet)
    – do whatever you can to market their music to your customer base
    – keep taking chances in order to stay relevant to changing methods and technologies

    Both entities then profit from the benefits offered by the other.

  • Rick, thank you for your input here. What a balanced view! I appreciate so much everything you said. Anonymous, you are more than baffling. I have no idea why you think “composers have less and less of a chance with traditional publishers.” That’s offensive. And you haven’t a clue what you’re talking about. No publisher in their right mind would push a great composer out its doors. In fact, I’m constantly on the look out for new, innovative work to publish, and I promise the composers to parade around with their work, as their spokesman, once it’s out. James could go back to his inbox and read the multiple emails I’ve written, even lately, pleading for his work, even attempting to give him new ideas to write for us. As an editor, that’s my job to “reel them in,” and I work unbelievably hard at it. So, if customers don’t buy the music that we publish, it’s NOT because the publish didn’t try their hardest. Maybe,… it’s just that people just didn’t care for the music (??).

  • Richard, you give some solid advice here. I think your “solution/temporary fix” is more of the status quo, or way things have been done. To me, it’s not the only way, it’s just one way to do it (and probably the best way for many). I agree with Anonymous here. I just don’t see it as the only way.

  • Molly, this is what I mean by composers having less and less of a chance with traditional publishers:

    First, publishers are on the ropes and consolidating if not going out of business. Second, they are publishing less. Third, sales are off so the royalty checks are less.

    None of that is the publishers’ fault necessarily. It is just real world.

    I am a little bewildered why I keep getting accused of painting the publishers as bad. I am not. I feel sorry for them. I know that in spite of only paying 10-20%, they are not making money either. I wish they could figure it out because I agree with Richard in that ideally, it would be more efficient if writers did not have to market themselves.

  • If you’re going to self-publish, it might be prudent to choose an “honest” price. The $14.99 price screams of a corporate mentality. I’d much rather pay $15.

  • You’re joking, right, Tom? Wow. I have actually never heard of an honest or dishonest price, which, I’m sure attests to the fact that I’ve never taken a marketing class. I have so much to learn! Lol

  • Your Alfred’s Getty and Townend Praise Classics has been a lot of fun for my dd. I bought the last copy at my local music store. (Hope they get more in soon-her piano teacher wanted one and so do some folks from my church who’ve heard Catherine learning to play By Faith.)

    As someone on the buying end of things-adding self-publishing sounds good to me. You’ve given the idea plenty of thought, and all your reasons are valid. After all, you still intend to work with publishers as well. I hope to add your newest book soon!

  • Thanks for your comments, Holly. Glad you like the Getty book. That was a fun project!

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