Why is the type design industry so secretive about sales volume?

Christian Robertson's picture

It seems like that in other creative industries people are all too happy to advertise how well their products are selling. The music industry has their charts. Box office sales are all newspapers talk about in the summer. TV likes to talk about its ratings.

Why then are type designers so shy? Here's my theory: All type designers secretly worry that anyone can design type as well as they can, and that if people knew what their sales were like that they would instantly create knockoffs of such quality that the original designs would no longer sell.

What does everyone think? Are you shy about giving out your numbers, or do you like to brag about your top sellers? If not, why?

Ray Larabie's picture

Kinda. There's no system in place to track font sales like box-office sales or album sales. The Starlets and Best Sellers pages on MyFonts is as close as it gets. But I guess it's true that any shmoe can chart a font if that's what you're getting at. I didn't know that it was such a big secret.

Stephen Coles's picture

All your examples relate to the very biggest performers based on some sort of industry-defined standard. There is no measuring stick for the font industry that compares to weekend box office sales or platinum records.

But it's an interesting question.

Christian Robertson's picture

I'd say that there is a standard in the font industry exactly the same as platinum records, namely sales. It's just not public. I'm sure that people have their reasons for not publishing the numbers, though.

One difference might be that with music and movies, you want to see what everyone else is seeing. When using a creative asset, though, you might not want to use the same one as everyone else (unless you are a modernist; then you have to make sure your type looks exactly the same as the whole world ;). There is less motivation to publish the numbers for your font. You want your consumers to think, "Wow, I just discovered the most amazing script font that only I know about. I'm going to use Cezanne on everything!"

In the case of MyFonts, though, there is so much garbage to sift through that sales volume is used as a filter. The number of sales ends up being a motivator for purchase. The same can be said of the music and movie worlds. The consumer is asking, with so much garbage out there, what should I watch? The box office sales numbers tells them what other people find interesting.

Another motivator for sharing numbers in the case of the Movie industry is that when people know how huge your movie is, they are more likely to fund your next project. For TV, ratings mean ad sales, so the more public the ratings on the top shows the better. Even in the record business, there is the concept of record deals. If everyone knows you are a multi-platinum artist, you are going to get a better contract next time. These motivations for sharing numbers aren't present in the type industry.

Thomas Phinney's picture

In the font industry, would you express sales in dollars or sales in units?

T

Nick Shinn's picture

I could report sales, but it would be a lot of work to compile, and I could only do it quarterly, as several of my distributors provide quarterly returns.

Also, how do I decide what to measure? - for instance, if I license a family of ten fonts to one customer for 300 terminals, what is that per font--300, 30, 1, or 0.1?

Or would I just divide the retail transaction by 10 on a per-font basis, and count dollar sales per font?

With so many foundries selling directly, it would be difficult to audit.

Ray Larabie's picture

I guess niche markets are garbage, huh?

blank's picture

Here’s my theory: All type designers secretly worry that anyone can design type as well as they can...

Given what type designers go through to design a good typeface and the limited financial compensation for the work, your theory pretty much falls apart right there.

Album and movie sales are publicly tracked because there is a finite amount of space available to them, so distributors and resellers need to know what is doing well to plan how to use that space (Actually the numbers aren’t even publicly announced in most cases, they’re published in trade journals and get republished by the mainstream media). In the case of fonts, space is essentially infinite due to tiny file sizes and relatively low sales volume—it’s not like anyone is keeping a hundred thousand boxed fonts in warehouses—and thus irrelevant. There is no need to worry about how many screens a movie gets, or how many copies of the new hot album will clear out before the next shipment arrives. So it makes more sense for everyone to keep their numbers secret to the detriment of competitors.

typovar's picture

Any international company has an anuals reports. No secerts there.

kris's picture

Who really wants to know, and why? For an independent, publishing sales etc is kinda like declaring your income publicly. And some people are a bit uncomfortable about that.

—K

Don McCahill's picture

And how would you incorporate "sales" of the 500 fonts for a dollar collections, or the totally free fonts?

And Kris makes a fine point. In fact, for a full time designer, the font sales might "be" the person's salary.

Vertex's picture

I don’t understand if Your question refers to sales volume in sense of “sold units” or in sense of turnover.

In sense of turnover the industry (not the indy) is bound by law to publish once a year the annual report (financial statement). Usually you find it on the website link: Investor Relations.

Here an example: http://www.bitstream.com/corporate/about/investor/index.html

It’s much more difficult - but not impossible - to find “charts”:

http://www.linotype.com/37/fontchartsbyfamilies.html

http://www.fontshop.de/news/topseller.html

Statements or charts referring to “units sold” (fonts or font families) I found nowhere.

mrschwartz's picture

Christian, you've released some fonts, haven't you? You go first.

I think CD sales are a misleading comparison. What you're asking is more like trying to find out how much various musicians make from licensing their music to be used in commercials, films and TV shows, and as far as I know they keep that info private, too.

aluminum's picture

It's likely more of an issue of 'who cares?'

The only folks that likely care a lot about this are fellow type designers and given that the community is rather small, they likely all know this from just interacting with each other.

"Here’s my theory: All type designers secretly worry that anyone can design type as well as they can..."

I think anyone that has actually sat down and designed a typeface has completely rid themselves of any thoughts like that. Just like all us DIY home remodeling folks. Sure I can redo my bathroom myself! Anyone can do that! (6 weeks and one very angry wife later...)

The only fonts I ever created for commercial use were just sloppy tracings of antique wood type. Anyone COULD have done that, but even that was a lot of work for the return on investment. (EDIT...and now that I see you've released some very nice faces as well, Christian, so you of course know all of this already ;o)

Christian Robertson's picture

I'm being a little sarcastic here. I don't really think that type designers think that their work is easy. I do think that type designers are terrified about copying, and worry that their customers won't be able to tell the difference between their quality work and the cheap knockoffs. It is true that the type design field has a very low barrier to entry from an equipment standpoint. From a blood, sweat and tears standpoint, well, we all know the answer to that.

@mrschwartz: [sarcasm] I'm too worried that everyone will copy my work once they see how lucrative it is[/sarcasm]. I would like to see how I stack up on a "New York Times Bestseller List" of fonts though (even if I'm a long way from the top). Maybe that's a good reason to sell through MyFonts, to see if I could ever elbow up between the Helveticas and Univers' to the top 50! In the mean time, I'm very happy to be on Veer's "Hot Fonts" list ;-)

Stephen Coles's picture

Appearing on one shop's bestseller list does not make the font a bestseller overall. It's interesting to see how the lists from FontShop, MyFonts, and Veer differ significantly, revealing a bit about each reseller's clientele.

Dear Sarah, for instance, is made for Veer, but Pill Gothic might do better as a FontFont. I guess I'm digressing.

fontplayer's picture

It would be fun to know how much you could make with fonts in relation to the output. But I can't blame anyone for not wanting to say how successful (or unsuccessful) they are.

If people knew how much certain people were making, they might start feeling that person obviously doesn't need the money (as much as me), so why shouldn't I pirate his fonts (For the people... right on!). That whole 'people should only make so much money, then they are greedy' type of thing foisted on us by certain political parties.

We should probably tax the people with lots of fonts, to give to those who aren't so fortunate.

Fonts for ALL!!!

(I may be getting my threads mixed up)

Down10's picture

It's because there aren't standard "scans" of what fonts are being sold, and there isn't really a weather map or a publicity industry on font releases and when people buy them. Movies and music make big sales numbers the very day they are released -- fonts... not sure, but I'm guessing they don't.

Christian Barca's picture

Sarcastic sounds good!

By the amount the people have time to comment here and all over typophile (really appriciate it, don't get me wrong), I think they make shit loads of money. From "hobby" to occupation to hobby again.

«Deus, my sells goin over the roof, ahh **** it! What was it again... ahh yeah he should go down with the crossbar on the A...»

fontplayer's picture

Just consider hrant. He's off to the Mediterranean for like a month. Could you or I afford that? No. And he only has a few fonts. Just imagine what the rest of these guys must be raking in.

(Meanwhile, a usurper basks in pretentions of prolificity)

Miss Tiffany's picture

I'm pretty sure Hrant doesn't make his "living" with fonts.

fontplayer's picture

Quiet, you're ruining my hypothetical house of cards.
: )

kris's picture

I would like to see how I stack up on a “New York Times Bestseller List” of fonts though (even if I’m a long way from the top).

But what would that prove? One one hand, a bestseller list is just that—top sales. It typically bears little correlation to quality, and could be bolstered by a huge license for a corporation which is dictated by their designer. Meaning that out of 501 licences, 500 could be the corporate license for Germany and 1 could be for J. Smith in Timbuktu. Whereas 300 licenses split many people internationally means that that more are using it for what it is, rather than by Brand Dictation. Y'know what I mean? On the other hand, it may be interesting to see how many people jump on the bandwagon of top-sellers, "oh, it's selling really well—that must mean it's good!" mentality.

Either way, it seems like an ego thing to want to be in the Top Whatever!

—K

Randy's picture

The time I'd think it would be most helpful to know sales volume would be when deciding which company/ies to distribute your font through. As a designer, you know that you're rolling the dice every time you create a font. So you want as much information as possible.

For example: my Olduvai is not on the hot list at Veer, and generally sells around 5 - 10 licenses per month (oops did that slip out?). What would Olduvai's sales look like if I went with FontShop instead? Or if I hadn't done an exclusive agreement at Veer and used multiple outlets? Should I change that now? For the record, I've been pleased with Veer, who have given Olduvai a decent amount of exposure in their catalogue over the years.

I have limited experience shopping my fonts around, but I think companies are more forthcoming as a part of the negotiation process. I imagine, Kris when you signed on with Village, Chester gave you some idea about what might be possible for Feijoa by looking at Corundum or Dolly and how they've been marketed. If not, it would have been a reasonable question.

All that to say, I'm not surprised that foundries don't post numbers, but it's possible to feel out the situation (where relevant) in a private setting... either dealing directly with the foundry, or with designers who've used that foundry.

Ok, back to the little gem I'm working on called Deer Sarai.

Randy

Bert Vanderveen's picture

If this weren’t turning into a really serious discussion, I’d suggest that ranking by glyphs sold would be the way to go… (And Luc[as] de Groot in all the top spots, I guess).

___
Bert Vanderveen BNO

Rob O. Font's picture

"All type designers secretly worry that anyone can design type as well as they can, and that if people knew what their sales were like that they would instantly create knockoffs of such quality that the original designs would no longer sell."

Wow, Lol. Provoker. So, let me get this straight...a type designer who contractually obligates all his/her retailers to report sales to the exact number of fonts, and then sums that up and publishes it, is showing confidence in his/her ability to design type because it proves he/she are not afraid of competition from the average Joe/Josephine who could do just as well pirating their way down the sales list thus created.

Am I with you so far? Does the average Joe/Josephine get to pirate all the tables or just the glyph shapes? I only ask 'cause I think its fair that if someone wants to make a dime in this business, they should at least be saddled with the burden of reading the FontLab documentation far enough to find all the "gem" icons, aka, the new backbone of the industry ;) Oww...sorry, I tripped over this huge rake in my office.

Cheers!

Joe Pemberton's picture

Provoker indeed. David, sorry to hear about the rake.

Public numbers seem to serve public companies that want to drive up their stock price: Car sales, box office sales, video game titles, real estate, iPod sales.

But it's hard to see how sharing numbers in the type world would serve the foundries. Frankly, it's pretty tiring to see the usual (big)foundries trot out the "best selling" list which contains the stuff they've been selling for 50 years.

vectorgirl's picture

>>Here’s my theory: All type designers secretly worry that anyone can design type as well as they can, and that if people knew what their sales were like that they would instantly create knockoffs of such quality that the original designs would no longer sell.

Hmmm, I'm not going to knock that theory because I'm a designer too and, while I work hard and am confident in what I do...from a subjective, outside standpoint...what's the REAL incentive in paying GOOD money for that for thousands of business owners who fail to see the forest for the trees and stay afloat anyway?

I'm not a typographer but can certainly appreciate the hard work and talent it takes to create typefaces. I don't have the talent to do it so I don't.

But, as a consumer...I don't see that there's a lot of incentive on a wide-scale for another consumer who is NOT a real part of the design community to pay $200+ for a font that looks and operates a lot like a $20 knock-off at myfonts.

I wasn't a print design major in college and up until my 3rd or 4th year working full-time I was always under the impression that a $20 simply wouldn't technically function for print. Then it did.

Bottom line: until you can legally protect a font name but not a font LOOK, there's no real incentive for people NOT to rip it off and sell it for $20 other than being shunned by the design community, and there's no reason to pay full price for it other than ethically feeling wrong about driving down the price of good design. So why even bother compiling numbers?

I don't buy $20 fonts at work for the same reason I don't shop at Wal-Mart. But millions of people do.

Dan Gayle's picture

One of the maxims of marketing is that you find what you are #1 at and sell the hell out of it. For instance, Veer's recent Typecon presentation clearly shows what they are #1 at, and they were doing a damn good of convincing me that if I needed a script face, I know who to go to.

The opposite is also true. You don't market what you're not the best at (Unless that's your gimmick. We're #27 in font sales worldwide!). Perhaps a smaller font distributor has lower-ish sales volumes, but makes up for it in higher quality typefaces at higher prices. Volume in terms of units sold then would not matter when compared to another foundry that sells tons of cheap crap.

kegler's picture

I don’t buy $20 fonts at work for the same reason I don’t shop at Wal-Mart. But millions of people do.

I think we may have to initiate a "double our price" policy if we are losing market share due to charge too little. However, it is the agencies who don't buy our fonts at all and still use them that is more of a concern for us.

Implying that anything at Myfonts for $20 is a knockoff is just a wrong statement. Myfonts is very good about ethics and if there are knockoffs, they should be alerted. On the other hand being "inspired" by a design can tread into a grey area.

fontplayer's picture

On the other hand being “inspired” by a design can tread into a grey area.

It occurred to me that it would be nice if there was some software that could take two fonts I like, and combine them. Like taking font A, and being able to dial in a percentage of influence from font B. I'm sure anyone can think of examples that would be fun to try.

But if this were available, that would surely tread on some grey areas. But if someone wants to invent it, I will surely play with it.
; )

blank's picture

It occurred to me that it would be nice if there was some software that could take two fonts I like, and combine them.

Some of the Font Design software out there is capable of interpolating new font weights in-between existing weights. Who knows, maybe you could toss in two existing fonts and get something that would make a base for a new font.

Don McCahill's picture

> It occurred to me that it would be nice if there was some software that could take two fonts I like, and combine them.

Dr. Frankenstein tried something like that with humans ... it didn't work out too well. I don't suspect it would with fonts, either.

Now I can see software of that type being used as a starting point by a competant designer, who will then tweak the results into a good font. But I fear it would result in the same kind of monstrosities that have resulted from the ability to change the width and height of fonts independently in DTP programs.

fontplayer's picture

Now I can see software of that type being used as a starting point by a competant designer

Haven't you ever wished you could see strong stylistic font toned down just a tad?

But something Frankensteinish might occur when the two different kinds of 'a' or 'g' characters were combined. Then again, horrible seems to be a look that a lot of people are gunning for these days. It could be very popular.

blank's picture

Then again, horrible seems to be a look that a lot of people are gunning for these days. It could be very popular.

It would be perfect for grunge font designers. Interpolate a few fonts together, shred them up, and nobody can figure out where it all really came from.

eliason's picture

It occurred to me that it would be nice if there was some software that could take two fonts I like, and combine them. Like taking font A, and being able to dial in a percentage of influence from font B. I’m sure anyone can think of examples that would be fun to try.

You're not the first - over 20 years ago Donald Knuth was already imagining a "font that is one fourth of the way between Baskerville and Helvetica."

fontplayer's picture

You’re not the first - over 20 years ago Donald Knuth was already imagining a “font that is one fourth of the way between Baskerville and Helvetica.”

I think it first occurred to me with Rotis.

But it would be fun if there was a random feature, and you could just keep hitting it and see what it came up with. Sort of like the typoGenerator

Thomas Phinney's picture

FontPlayer:

That font-blending capability was realized in Ares FontChameleon software, back in the early 90s. Adobe acquired Ares to use the Chameleon technology for font compression in PostScript 3 printers, so the retail product vanished. But I played with it a fair bit, and it mostly kinda worked. Usually there would be a few letters or details that were messed up, but it worked better than it had any right to.

Note: the fonts in question had to already be manually converted to Chameleon format to make this work, so you couldn't run it on just any arbitrary fonts.

Regards,

T

fontplayer's picture

That font-blending capability was realized in Ares FontChameleon software, back in the early 90s.

Please tell Adobe to feel free to release an improved version of that capability any time they feel like muddying the waters.
; )

vectorgirl's picture

> Implying that anything at Myfonts for $20 is a knockoff is just a wrong statement. Myfonts is very good about ethics and if there are knockoffs, they should be alerted. On the other hand being “inspired” by a design can tread into a grey area.

OK, so it's not a true knock-off. But taking an expensive font and tweaking the ascenders so they're a micromillimeter longer on a few of the characters or tweaking the spacing doesn't make it a new font - or does it? Maybe that's something I just don't "get" about the type industry.

Years ago a design house I interned for bought a few House Industries fonts that were awesome...but back then the free downloads at fontalicious didn't have a LOT of differences. If it's the difference between paying $1200 for a few fonts or downloading them free, other than the fact that you think the foundry is worth paying for...what's the incentive?

I don't create fonts but it seems like the situation just sucks for people who do. As a font designer - how do you KNOW when somebody is using your fonts without paying for them? What if "your" font is retweaked as a free or $10 download somewhere and that's what this person's used? How do you keep track of that? I see designer's blogs complaining that some corporation ripped off their patterns, fonts, etc. but if there's no legality keeping anyone from, say, basically tracing it and "repackaging it" as something else for a fraction of the price, how do you know the company didn't buy that cheap, repackaged font/pattern/whatever instead?

Bert Vanderveen's picture

Maybe a comparison to the fashion industry is useful:

The fashion leaders (aka couturiers) (re)invent clothing a couple of times a year.
Fashionistas (rich ladies or true fans) buy the expensive products of these events.
Fashion followers take the commercially viable 'inventions' and adapt them for the next group of followers…
Early adaptors buy these.
Middlemarket firms fashion their own versions to sell to the millions.
These millions buy those rags.
Meanwhile the whole rigamarole is already in phase two of the next season.

Meaning: if you, as a designer, wait for the next big thing to get cheaper, you're bound to be a lame follower of fashion.

___
Bert Vanderveen BNO

kegler's picture

What if “your” font is retweaked as a free or $10 download somewhere and that’s what this person’s used? How do you keep track of that?

There are some (although not great) legal protections and tweaking anyones font and reselling them is just asking for potential legal problems. We have found knockoffs and dealt with them accordingly. Modifying an existing font is generally known as a derivative work and is generally not allowed by anyones EULA. Keeping track is not easy, but if found, it could be a major problem. I have two words for anyone who feels it is OK to take a commercial font and blend it with another (or just tweak it a bit) and resell it or give it away: Frank Martinez

Don McCahill's picture

> As a font designer - how do you KNOW when somebody is using your fonts without paying for them?

I consider font piracy to be when someone buys a font, strips any protection that it might have, even if only the copyright notice, and then sells it for free.

The practise of cloning the work of others, by copying the work of others, is a long established tradition in typography. I can remember using English Times and Helios on Compugraphic machines, because Linotype owned the names Times Roman and Helvetica. If I recall, the boss even listed them with the Linotype names on the font sample sheets.

If modifying the work of another is not allowed, then we are all in a lot of trouble, because the ghost of Claude Garamond will be after us.

blank's picture

If it’s the difference between paying $1200 for a few fonts or downloading them free, other than the fact that you think the foundry is worth paying for...what’s the incentive?

Keeping the good font designers in business. If the guys and House and Hoefler & Frere-Jones have to hang up their hats and stop making fonts to pay the bills, what are all the knockoff artists going to knockoff?

If modifying the work of another is not allowed, then we are all in a lot of trouble, because the ghost of Claude Garamond will be after us.

I’m pretty sure that Claude’s copyrights expired a while ago. But for now, those using fonts are (or at least should be) bound by the EULA of the font, and if the EULA does not grant a license to modify and/or redistribute it, said users should pay up for a license that does.

Dan Gayle's picture

how do you KNOW when somebody is using your fonts without paying for them?
Didn't David Berlow say that if they see a high profile use that they know isn't legal they send them a nice, friendly letter thanking them for being their newest customer along with an invoice for their "new font purchase"?

dezcom's picture

Vectorgirl has the best profession, according to her bio. She must also has a great sense of humor. Glad to hear there are designers out there who are honestly looking out for type designers.

ChrisL

blank's picture

Turns out that FontLab Studio does font blending, check the manual.

Rob O. Font's picture

"Note: the fonts in question had to already be manually converted to Chameleon format to make this work, so you couldn’t run it on just any arbitrary fonts.
Though the technology was very rich, the product was just about compression. There were masters for Roman, Italic and Sans and then each descriptor told a style...One could blend Baskerville and Helvetica, sadly, but experiments of this nature mostly yield oddly formed Cheltenham.

Making descriptors, one never had to touch the contours directly, (it sends shivers just to think of), one could globally change anything, then manually from a width down to an individual curve, edit to the exact likeness of whatever. I wanted to use it for optical size descriptors, justification specials and several other really rich goodies it offered, but for compression, it also worked.

"Turns out that FontLab Studio does font blending"
Different, I think. But see what you get from a Baskerville and an Helvetica.

Cheers!

Nick Shinn's picture

how do you KNOW when somebody is using your fonts without paying for them?

If you are a foundry selling through distributors, it's impossible to know, because they don't report who bought your fonts.
The most forthcoming of mine provides an email address of the purchaser; they used to give more info, but I believe they stopped doing that and adopted the general practice of not passing on sales information, so that their suppliers would be unable to form lists and market directly, bypassing the retailer.

(Suppliers may have the right to occasionally audit the sales records of distributors, but in practice that doesn't happen much.)

So in this aspect of font sales, don't blame the foundries for secrecy, blame the distributors.

vectorgirl's picture

Interesting info - thanks! :^) I've always been fascinated by this but don't know any typophiles IRL. Thankfully (or hmm...maybe that's not the right word, lol) somehow in my full-time gigs I've wound up with a few already liscenced, workable fonts somewhere in the workflow.

But then again my target demo is still kind of angry about the price of penny candy rising. They're like what, 35? 40? :p

fontplayer's picture

I barely remember penny candy, so they are more geezerish than your estimate.

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