I am writing this from the ATypI conference 2013 in Amsterdam. I hosted a panel on free fonts on the first opening day (Wednesday) of the pre-conference two-tracked discussion, and Victor Gaultney of SIL International did the same on Friday. The panels and discussions around them brought up a bunch of issues, and I wanted to share my thoughts. Note that this is something of a live post, and subject to clarifications and additions, though I think my main positions are pretty set.
Threat, or Menace?
I don’t think free fonts are evil. If anybody has that misperception about my thinking, it’s my own darn fault for entitling my panel “Free fonts: threat or menace?” I intended it as a joke, a bit of a deliberate incitement to get people talking/thinking, and perhaps poking gentle fun at the not-unusual anti-free attitudes in the type design community. I got the “threat or menace” part from old comic books, in which crusading newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson is writing crazy anti-Spider-Man comic headlines, but apparently it goes back even further.
Of course free fonts are at least mostly a good thing for people who use fonts. Who doesn’t like free? For hobbyists and casual font users, they are certainly a good thing. For professional users who are passionate about quality, it is less clear, as if free fonts have a negative impact on average quality or continued availability of new, quality fonts, then it may not be all good for them.
Gratis vs Libre
There are two overlapping but distinct kinds of free fonts; it is worth distinguishing them.
“Libre” fonts are those which post few if any restrictions on what the user or acquirer can do with them. They are generally “open source” and can be bundled with either commercial or open source software. Although it is allowed to charge for them, it is also allowed to redistribute them for free, so it is hard to sell them effectively. Most of the really high-end free fonts made by professional type designers are released under libre licenses.
“Free as in beer” or “gratis” fonts are those for which there is no charge. Many of them still have licensing restrictions on what one can do with them, such as only allowing non-commercial use, or restricting modifications.
Most of the “free fonts” in the world are gratis rather than libre, but the biggest growth lately has been in libre fonts. Sites such as “dafont” feature many gratis fonts that are not libre, but also some libre fonts.
Sometimes a type designer or foundry will make some members of a larger family available gratis. Often they will be less useful styles, but whether it’s the regular and the bold or just the black italic, giving away some styles as a teaser for the rest of the family seems like a special case. This has worked well for some designers (e.g. Jos Buivenga / exljbris with his Museo families). Some have seen less result.
Quality vs Free Fonts
I am pretty harsh about font quality. Most of the fonts I have made have never shipped, because my conceptions of quality early on outstripped my ability to execute at that quality level. So I will be the first to say that there are plenty of commercial fonts that suck. Easily 30–40% of commercial fonts leave me thoroughly unimpressed. If you look at libre fonts, and use the Google Fonts collection as your baseline, maybe 65% of those fonts suck. If you just look at all free fonts on dafont, maybe 95% of those fonts stink.
Why is that?
Well, most of the people who are capable of making high quality fonts have some serious training, and/or a fair bit of experience. The people who are at a stage of their career where they are interested in making stuff and willing and able to give it away are mostly younger people just starting out, or people just beginning to get really into type design. On average they have a lot less experience and skill.
Plus, polishing a font until it is really good is a whole lot of extra work and a lot less fun than the earlier stages of the design process. Frankly, it’s the 80/20 rule, only with type it is more like 90/10 or 95/5. Most of the quality improvement won’t be immediately/consciously noticed by most potential users, especially in the new growth area of the web where would-be end users are generally less typographically savvy.
I should be clear that when I say “quality” I am not talking about matters of mere taste. There are objective aspects of font quality. For example, in spacing a typical sans serif, if the cap H and N have straight sides, and the white space (sidebearings) allocated to the left and right sides of the cap H are significantly different values, and those in turn differ from the sidebearings of the cap N, then the font is simply badly made.
One of my perennial arguments with the folks at Google is about the fact that they didn’t have a very high quality bar at all, and let in an awful lot of fonts that I would say are simply crap or at least substandard, at an objective level. Some of the folks on the Google side of the fence say that they are simply giving their users free choice and that if one of the fonts I consider to be junk becomes popular, then that’s evidence that it was actually “good.” I don’t have much patience for this line of argument. I think that Google is abandoning what it ought to see as a responsibility to be a gatekeeper not of taste, but of quality. It is not hard to find the expertise to deal with these things.
Interestingly, Adobe, having an increasing interest in there being decent quality libre fonts out there, is actually dedicating some in-house resources (read: people’s time) to helping fix and improve some of those fonts. Kudos to them.
Money for Free Fonts?
Most of the solid quality libre fonts were actually commissioned works, or done in-house by a big company. In either case, somebody with deep pockets had a need or desire for a new open source font, They expected to make money in some other way, and were willing to pay usual professional wages for the development of fonts that met their needs. But these well-paid professional fonts are a minority of all libre fonts.
Google has offered a bounty on libre fonts, but according to Bruno Maag in the discussion here at ATypI, it amounts to some $2000 per font. He suggests a basic three-member family takes about 400 hours to create, and that hence Google is paying $15 an hour for type design, and that isn’t a livable wage. Bruno’s angry outburst about this garnered applause from a significant chunk of the audience.
Of course, the audience here at ATypI in Amsterdam is an audience of middle-class and better westerners, to whom $15/hr is not a real living wage. But in much of the world that is a pretty decent wage, especially for a student or somebody in the earlier stages of their career.
But I expect there is no reason to think that Google or any other specific company will continue to pay for new libre font development at the same rate that new commercial fonts have been being made in the past. If the money to be made in creating libre (and other free fonts) is less than what we had before, it’s possible that the total amount of money will go down, and the impact of libre and gratis fonts on the demand for retail fonts matters.
Eben Sorkin has suggested that for popular libre fonts he has designed, people are starting to ask about paying for customizations, additions and modifications. He thinks he can make sufficient money off of this to make it worthwhile, and that this may be a viable model for everyone.
I am not entirely convinced this will be the reality for the “average” type designer from a wealthy country. Maybe. If not, the development of the bulk of libre fonts will tend to be more of an activity for people from less wealthy countries, and/or done by less experienced type designers.
Some libre or gratis fonts can raise development money on Kickstarter or some similar crowdfunding source. This is challenging, and doesn’t work for all projects. It also requires a different skill set in terms of social connections and marketing to be successful. Unfortunately, many type designers don’t want to have to sell themselves, their story and their projects in that way. (Though arguably it is an important skill for traditional retail proprietary fonts as well!)
David Kuettel of Google responded to Bruno Maag’s outburst with a lengthy and partly evasive response, which basically amounted to “we want to see type designers get paid, and we haven’t worked out the model by which this happens. First we need to finish sorting out various technical and practical issues, and once we iron those out, we will be able to come up with a better model to pay for the fonts.”
I am not excited by this response that wants the type designers to do all their work up front and just trust that sooner or later a model will spontaneously break out that allows them to make money. In the future. With different fonts, as I don’t believe that for the existing libre fonts that were made before that magical future, Google or anybody else is likely to start paying additional revenue that they don’t have to.
Although interest in using type is growing, growing even faster is the supply of people trying to design it. There are more and more serious college and university programs teaching type design. The loose anarcho-syndicalist Crafting Type collective (which I am a member of) teaches three-day type design workshops to beginners, which while not turning out master type designers certainly gets them past the level of the average gratis typeface, perhaps to the level of the average libre typeface. But (in my estimation) having so many people interested in trying to design type means that supply of type designers is outpacing demand, which is creating another source of downward pressure on prices/wages.
Impact of Gratis & Libre on Commercial Fonts?
There are a number of different theories about the impact of more and more free fonts on the income made from retail font licensing.
(1) One theory is that free fonts will have little or no impact. For the most part they are of poor quality. The people who want to distinguish their work have always been willing to pay and always will be, because being different and distinctive and using quality fonts is of value to them. The people who would use the free fonts would never have bought retail font licenses anyway.
(2) Another theory is that free fonts increase the awareness of fonts in general and help stoke demand, and that as this new audience gets more sophisticated some of them will gradually get more and more interested in commercial alternatives to free fonts.
(3) Some folks believe that just like fonts bundled with apps, free fonts will decrease the total demand for retail fonts. Any demand they create will be outstripped by the demand they satisfy, Some users will not become sophisticated enough to prefer better typefaces, while others will simply choose from the higher-quality free fonts they can find, which appear to only be a growing category.
Personally, I actually buy all three of these theories to some degree. I think there is a core demand (1) that will never go away. But I think the portion of that demand that is truly immutable is a small part of the total market for fonts. I do think that making free fonts available will increase awareness of fonts (2), but I am politely skeptical that any resulting increase in paid font licensing will surpass the decrease due to free fonts substituting for paid fonts (3).
Of course, even if I am right about that mix, that doesn’t say what happens to the total money being spent on fonts. Some people will commission libre fonts, or Google may continue to pay a bounty on the ones they want to see made. My guess is that the total amount of money going into the pockets of type designers is more likely to decrease than increase, but I can’t swear that’s what will happen. But even if the total amount of money going to type designers goes up, I am pretty sure that more people will be doing it and the average $/hr compensation will go down. Mind you, even if so, these economic shifts will not happen overnight.
I actually hope that some of my projections and guesses are wrong, because of course I would like to see more money ending up in the pockets of type designers. But even if my predictions and guesses are all correct, I don’t see free fonts as bad, exactly. Having more fonts available for free to the average user is still a good thing for the end user. The percentage of new fonts that are of what I think of as high quality may go down (compared to the old proprietary world), but the total numbers of all kinds will only increase. Existing quality fonts won’t go away, even if the average quality of new fonts is lower.
While the changes may be “bad” for many first-world type designers, including people I know personally, I don’t see anything horribly wrong with there being more work for people who have less money, and to whom $15/hr is a good wage. Although I like the idea of everybody in the developing world having the same level of affluence that professionals do in the west, realistically this doesn’t happen overnight. Wages increase over time. The changes I foresee in type design economics are part of that shift, even at wages that we would consider potentially exploitative here in the USA. I don’t like the idea of type designers making only $15/hr, and I fear that it won’t get the level of quality and care that I would like to see, but at least that’s not a sweatshop wage. If we were talking $5/hr it would be different.
For those of us for whom the coming shift is not a Good Thing, it may be a saddening change. But I think change is inevitable, and all the players involved are going to do what makes sense for them at the time. A company like Adobe making a couple of open source typefaces is not due to some huge change in their corporate ideology of thinking: it just became beneficial to them to create a few open source fonts due to their other business interests. Similarly other type designers are going to do what is right for them (as well as they can judge). If that makes for more free fonts and lower income levels for the average type designer, that’s not some evil conspiracy, just change and life.
[Revised twice on 13 October 2013, first to add more on font quality, second to discuss free fonts a promo for bigger families. Revised 14 October to clarify wording on free and libre some more, and clarify sweatshop wage position.]
As I’ve been posting about lately, Cristoforo is a family of three fonts I am developing, reviving Columbus & Columbus Initials (Ihlenberg, 1892) and American Italic and American Italic Initials (Ihlenberg, 1902) as well as adding a symbol font. I am the lead designer, with the assistance of my new intern, Andrea Harrison.
I funded the development of Cristoforo through a Kickstarter campaign, which raised over $10,000 from backers. Woot!
Current ETA on finished fonts? February 2013. However, limited pre-release versions will be available to appropriate levels of backers starting in mid-July.
Here are my awesome backers, in tiers by their level of support.
Great Old Ones
Philip M. Payes
M Sean Molley
Juris L. Purins
H James Lucas
Sarah E Canzoneri
Alexander Y. Hawson, M.D.
Damon Loren Baker
Battlefield Press, Inc.
Fred Hicks / Evil Hat Productions
Derek M. Koch
Mark L Pappin
Galahad de Corbenic
David Occhino Design
Robert “Rev. Bob” Hood
Hans de Wolf
Stacey Van Keuren
Rt Andrez Mora
Elliott C. Bäck
Adam Hunter Peck
THomas W. Holt Jr.
Juan M. Escribano
Wayne A Arthurton
H. James Lucas
A couple of weeks ago I bought a Kindle, Amazon’s dedicated eBook reader device. This enabled me to carry a whole bunch of reading around with me in a compact form and way less than a pound of weight. This has been a great convenience, because I have been taking the bus to and from work since moving to a new house recently (though I miss the convertible), and I’ve been traveling a lot and like to read on the plane, such as on a recent press tour I did in my day job at Extensis (Portland > Minneapolis > Denver > SF Bay Area > Portland).
I love many things about books as artifacts: the variety in their appearances/layout/typography, the smell of paper and ink, and the refined look of printed type. Yet I am quite certain that within a decade, the majority of what was once print publishing will be electronic (some estimates are as high as 75% by then). The advantages and economics are just too compelling… although of course physical books have their advantages as well.
My interest was initially sparked because, like web fonts, eBooks are a growth area for fonts and typography, while the traditional print usage continues its inexorable slow decline. It’s clear now that after years of false starts, eBooks are finally taking off. Amazon says they’ve sold 40% more eBooks than hardcovers over the last three months, and in the past month it’s been 80% more eBooks than hardcovers.
Now of course, that’s hardcovers and not paperbacks, and that’s units and not dollars. (Some books in the Kindle top 10 non-free list cost as little as $1.16.) If one looks at the data from the Association of American Publishers, which includes all retailers and not just Amazon, it seems in the month of May, eBooks were more like 4.4% of all book sales in the USA. or for “trade books” 8.5% year-to-date, up from 2.9% fir the same period last year. (The AAP figures are based on dollars, not units, by the way.) That may not sound like much, but factoring in the growth rate, we’re looking at the beginning of the explosion. eBook market share of all books three years ago, rounded to the nearest whole percent, was zero.
In that same time the price of eBook devices has plummeted. The original Kindle was $399 when it came out in November 2008. Now the third-gen Kindle, announced July 28, is to come out in late August for $139 (wi-fi only) or $189 (3G and wi-fi). Many of these prices are set in response to similar pricing/drops on the price of Barnes & Nobles’ “Nook” eBook reader. Then there’s the Borders/Chapters Kobo, Sony’s Reader, and perhaps most importantly the iPad…. Even if prices don’t drop for Christmas, you could see a lot of these things under the tree for Christmas. Next year? I’m thinking in 2011 you could easily see, in terms of US sales in dollars, 20% of trade books and 10% of all books in general being eBooks. Maybe more.
Given the usual topics of this blog, I would be remiss not to comment on eBook fonts and typography. Generally, I’m impressed with the current crop of eBook devices in their display and font choices. All the dedicated eBook devices (but not the iPad) use eInk tech for screen display, which is currently limited to B&W (plus greyscale), but has the advantage of using a lot less power than LCD or even LED, and not requiring any power to maintain an image on the screen. It’s also reflective rather than transmissive, making it more “paper-like” and meaning the screen doesn’t wash out in bright sunlight, though you’ll need a night light to read in bed
On the font side, slab serifs are in, with the occasional sans or Dutch-English oldstyle. Apparently the new Kindle has the same PMN Caecilia typeface (slab) as the previous editions, and adds a condensed version of Caecilia, and an unspecified sans serif option. The Nook uses Amasis (a slab), Helvetica Neue (sans, and a horrid choice for on screen legibility), and “Light Classic” (serif). Sony’s Reader uses Dutch 801 (a Times knock-off) as the default, with Courier and Swiss 701 (a Helvetica knockoff, again an awful choice) as options. Apple’s iBooks on the iPad offer a bunch of serif faces (Baskerville, Cochin, Georgia, Palatino and Times New Roman) and one sans (Verdana). Kobo offers Baskerville Georgia, Verdana and Trebuchet. With all these devices there are a bunch of complications around whether font embedding is respected (mostly not, unless it’s a PDF) and such, but that’s probably for another post. See also here for font support details.
Many of the eBook reader devices have limited language support, often just for western European languages. The newly-announced Kindle’s bundled fonts are a dramatic improvement in this area. Now they have Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, Chinese (simplified and traditional), Japanese and Korean. Given the rest, I’ll bet the Latin is extended Latin that covers central/eastern Europe, Baltic languages, the Balkans, Turkey, etc. One can reasonably expect competitors to take similar steps, of course.
One thing that fascinates me about the eBook revolution besides fonts is the economics of it. One thing most people focus on is “which device will win?” What’s interesting is that the e-stores and devices are not always tightly tethered to each other. The eBooks I buy via Amazon for the Kindle, I can access via Kindle software on either my iPhone, the just-acquired iPad from work, my home Windows laptop, or my work Mac laptop—and other devices I don’t even have around. Same thing goes for the Nook, by the way (B&N is currently rebranding its eReader apps to share the same name as their hardware device, like Amazon has been doing for a while.)
Side note: I have surprised myself on several fronts with my own preferences in reading eBooks. I thought I’d like the Kindle DX (the oversize model) better than the base model, but the opposite is true: I didn’t find any real advantage of bigger pages in reading mostly fiction, and the lighter weight of the base model (240 to 290 g, 8 to 10 oz.) was quite important to me. The iPad is heavier (a pound and a half, or 680 to 730 g) even than the Kindle DX (540 g, 19 oz) though of course far more versatile… so it’s further from my ideal reading device. I was particularly shocked to discover that, if I was already half-way through a Kindle book and into it, I didn’t find it problematic to read it on the iPhone, either! I would have thought the tiny iPhone screen would have made that unpleasant. Clearly the big screens will be helpful for more highly structured content, such as textbooks and some kinds of reference works, but I think the dedicated eReader device folks got the size/weight tradeoffs about right in their standard models.
Anyway, with all these different delivery vehicles for a single eBook store, it’s possible that either Kindle or Nook eBooks could be dominant without the same being true of their corresponding hardware. I wonder if Apple’s iBooks will do the same, allow other devices to run the software? I expect they’ll do it like iTunes, and restrict it to Apple devices, plus full-blown computers (Macs and PCs).
The companies who I expect to lose out in all this are publishers and authors’ agents. Not for all kinds of books, and not at all levels of the industry, and not eliminated completely. But for your basic fiction novel, these entities may sometimes be “disintermediated,” cut out of the middle.
In fonts, we see this with MyFonts.com, where the server is a giant aggregator. The folks who make fonts can directly put their fonts on MyFonts, and take a big slice of the revenue, while 95% of the process of getting the fonts up there is automated. There are some advantages to folks banding together as a foundry, because of collaborative work, specialization of font production tasks (including testing), and marketing. But they no longer have to, or they can do so without handling distribution and marketing.
There are similar advantages to having an agent and/or getting your book in with a print publisher—most notably the potential for physical publication, which will still be where most of the money is for a few more years. Some authors also benefit immensely from having a relationship with an editor to help refine their books.
But eBooks reduce the friction in the system and grease the way from author to reader. So last week we saw mega-agent Andrew Wylie eliminate the publisher entirely for a bunch of classic novels, cutting an exclusive eBook deal with Amazon under his new agent-owned imprint, “Odyssey Editions.” Publishers such as Random House are freaking out, and understandably so.
Yet there’s nothing stopping the authors from bypassing the agents as well. It’s just a matter of time until folks like Amazon set up a route for authors to self-publish eBooks… nope, wait, I just checked and to my lack of surprise, they already have, and they offer royalties of 35% or 75%. I am not sure whether publishers or agents will go away entirely, because they can in fact add value. But I am sure that some authors will bypass them in favor of a more direct route to the reader, with a better percentage of the revenue pie.
[Small update on writers cutting out publishers, from the authors of Draculas.]
That’s the future for books and fonts both. Aggregators like Apple and Amazon for books, MyFonts for desktop fonts, or (my own employer’s) WebINK for web fonts are the only thing really needed besides the creators. Yet just as we see many surviving vendors for fonts even in today’s all-digital era (as in, few people buy fonts on disk today, unless it’s a huge collection), I expect we will continue to see several major vendors for eBooks as well. Somebody with an iPad might have iBooks, Kindle and Nook apps all running on one device, allowing them to access even the content that is exclusive to one or another e-store. Similarly, even if the market settles out at some point, there’s room for multiple major vendors of eBook reading devices.
And… what about the consumers of books in all this? Sure, we can be sad about the loss of book-as-artifact. But for mass-market paperbacks, the artifacts were not that exciting, and relatively undifferentiated in appearance, beyond the cover. There are some advantages to print, but not enough to stop the rise of eBooks: consumers will find the advantages compelling and will vote with their money. Freedom from the costs of printing (whether economies of scale or the higher unit costs of one-off print-on-demand) will cause a huge explosion in the number of different works available. I know some folks writing hyper-specialized academic works with huge page counts and short print runs, which cost hundreds of dollars for a single copy today. That can now change. Similarly, books out of print for decades or centuries have come back in print as eBooks.
It is a great time to be somebody who enjoys reading.