Self-Published Composers Explain What They Do and Why Donald Martino

Self-Published Composers Explain What They Do and Why Donald Martino

Donald Martino
photo by Lourdes Awad, courtesy of Dantalian, Inc.

If not the first, I am certainly very nearly the first composer to establish by himself, for himself, and without banding together with other composers, a fully commercial publishing house which produces engraved or autographed editions in quantity by offset printing. It was the emerging tendency for the large commercial houses, out of financial necessity, to abandon engraved offset prints in quantity of new music in favor of print-on-demand “editions” (often nothing but unedited copies of the composer’s manuscript) implemented by the grossly inferior back room copy machine and then bound even less professionally with spiral bindings that, among many other things convinced me that I should strike out on my own. That “tendency to print on demand” has now become the norm for most composers and I am very glad that I got out when I did.

My company DANTALIAN, INC. was founded in 1978 out of a, by then, overwhelming frustration with my commercial publishers in virtually every domain of what I had come to expect (hadn’t we all) to be their historical responsibility. I am not going to plead the case for self-publishing by providing you with a titillating litany of complaints about a bad, perhaps in my case an unusually bad, relationship with the establishment which has long since been corrected by the action I took back in 1978 and by which I joined them. (And I will readily admit that it is very easy to criticize them until one is faced with the problems they face. Of course one has to be “the little engine that could.”) But I will say that when I founded the company, its in-house motto was ” there is no way we can do worse than they do.” We have done it much better. Our catalogue boasts over seventy items of which all except rental items are offset printed in quantity from autographed or engraved masters. Print delays do not exist. We are speedy in our response to all requests for music no matter how small the order. We advertise, promote, are liberal with complementary copies, and are very much in the black. Some of this is because we do not operate with the same constraints that impede the commercial houses nor do we have expenses of overhead and a large staff. Our mission after all is to promote the composer first, make a profit second.

Self-publishing is a huge undertaking — a full time job if one wishes to do it in a highly professional manner. To obsessive types like myself it brings enormous satisfaction in that I have complete control over every aspect of my work product. But one has to be willing to be president, manager, treasurer, editor, autographer, graphic artist, book designer, proofreader, publicity director, packer, shipper, gopher, and when all is done sweep the floors. When, you ask, do I find time to compose? Luckily I require very little sleep. And I have always found that the more excited I got about a project — composing, publishing, woodworking, playing tennis, practicing my clarinet…, the less time is needed for sleeping.

I would not recommend self-publishing to anyone who has not already achieved a certain degree of recognition. The chances are that no one will buy! Of course the problem with being an uncelebrated composer in a large commercial catalogue is that one is overshadowed by the big shots (such as they are in our art). The advantage to self-publishing is that when the potential buyer receives your catalogue, and when he tosses it in the waste basket along with all the other unsolicited mail (he may do this with the commercial catalogue, too) he remembers your name, not the publisher’s. This may seem like negative advertising; it is. But the next time you send out your catalogue this potential buyer may just take a look at it, the next time you may have a buyer, even a performer, ideally a convert, a crusader for your music.

It also takes a few items that sell and keep selling! You need a self-made subsidy — or a patron. One commercial publisher told me that there were just thirteen issues in his vast catalogue that paid the bills; all else he claimed was window dressing. DANTALIAN, INC. has its unique chorale edition for study, the 178 CHORALE HARMONIZATIONS OF J. S. BACH, which are used in hundreds of college theory classes each year, STRINGOGRAPH, used by composers and arrangers to calculate string passages, and believe it or not, a few Martino compositions that pay the bills.

Finally, there is no praise high enough for Lora Harvey Martino, DANTALIAN’S treasurer, tax accountant, investment officer, and chief financial wizard.

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