Better looking web pages… for the rich.

On May 6, 2010, in Doing It Wrong, by Rob Levandowski

I read today that the font foundry Monotype is now offering a service providing over 2,000 fonts for use on Web sites.  This sounded like great news—one of the things I hate about trying to make a decent web site is the horrid state of web typography.

Of course, it’s too good to be true.

Yes, there is a beta service offering 2,000 free fonts, if you add tracking JavaScript to your page.  It’s free until the beta period ends.  Then, you have two options.

  1. Transition to a “free trial” account, which still includes 2,000 fonts, but injects advertising onto your pages.  According to the Terms and Conditions, you have no control over the content or nature of the advertising.
  2. Pay an unspecified amount of money for an account.

Monotype won’t say how much the account will cost.  Apparently, it will be based on page impressions. I suspect it will be substantial.

The article also mentions FontShop. They offer pricing for their product.  If you want to use their FF DIN Web font, that’ll cost you $384.  That steep price doesn’t include the font files to install on your personal computer; those are sold separately for $282.  Yes, they want more money for the font that you can only use on your website, as opposed to the font file you can use on your computer and in print.  No quotidian blogger in their right mind is going to cough up this sort of money for a font.

A more reasonable service that offers large quantities of web fonts from smaller foundries is Typekit.  They offer a reasonable library of free web fonts.  However, there are strings attached:

  • You can only use them on one website
  • You can only use two Typekit fonts on that website
  • The bandwidth used by your viewers downloading the fonts can’t exceed 5GB/month
  • You have to add a Typekit badge to your website

Okay, if you don’t want to do much other than choose a headline and body font, this could work, except for one thing:  What happens if you get Slashdotted?  Typekit says they won’t cut you off, but they will call you up and expect you to start paying for bandwidth. Every time someone hits reload, it can cause the font to get sucked down again, burning bandwidth.  Since you don’t have control over Typekit’s JavaScript, this may be difficult to control.  Although Typekit’s first paid tier, “Personal,” is reasonable at $24.99/year, the bandwidth limitation is still troubling.

I understand that it takes a lot of talent and time to create a font. However, I think the foundries are generally being silly with their pricing.  If you want to charge me $40 per typeface, and count each weight and slant as another chargeable typeface, fine—but grant me the right to embed the font on my website, too, at that price.  Worried about piracy?  Fine, set up your own DRM-laden hosting, but don’t charge me extra for it: roll it into the price of licensing the font.  Send me the OpenType file so I can use it on my computer, and write Word documents with it, and give me access to your server for embedding.  (And trust me not to just serve up the OpenType file.)

I often hear type foundries complaining about piracy. I have no doubt that fonts are frequently pirated.  I think that they’re pirated because they are so often overpriced as far as the consumer is concerned.

Desktop publishing brought typography to the masses. Everyone has access to high-grade layout tools nowadays.  Even Word, pathetic as it is for page layout, offers capabilities far in excess of your average print shop from 1960.  The Mac and the LaserWriter were as big a revolution as Gutenberg’s press.  Before Gutenberg, books were owned by the very wealthy, because of the massive expense involved in manually copying a book.  Today, paperbacks are considered disposable by most people.

It no longer costs a lot of money to create good design… except for the cost of fonts.

The record industry complained about digital music piracy for years.  Then Steve Jobs convinced them that it would be more profitable to sell songs at 99¢ each—that people would willingly pay a fair price, especially if they weren’t locked into buying more than they wanted.  As a result, iTunes has made a lot of money for the music industry.

The movie industry started out selling videocassettes for $90 to $120, soaking the rental stores for all they were worth.  They fretted about rising piracy of videotapes.  When they knocked down the starting sale price of videocassettes to $20, it became much easier to buy a reasonably-priced copy of the movie than to go through the hassle of pirating it.  Result: Windfall profits for the movie industry.

As much as I’ve complained lately about Atlassian, they deserve a lot of credit for enlightened pricing: They offered their flagship products with a limited license for personal use at a very reasonable price.  Paying $5 or $10 for JIRA or Confluence is practically a no-brainer.  The license is useful enough to be worth the money for personal use, but doesn’t siphon off corporate sales.  No one was going to pay hundreds of dollars to play with JIRA at home… but a great many people were willing to pay $5 or $10.  Atlassian is donating that money to worthy causes, but they didn’t have to.  Rather than seeing these sales as “money left on the table” where they could theoretically have sold high-priced licenses, they saw that these were sales they were never going to make at full price.  Each starter license sold is $10 they weren’t going to make, and it brings new users who could become product evangelists for them.

So: Font foundries, wake up!  Charging hundreds of dollars for web fonts may bring you some profits, but you’ll be leaving lots of blogger money on the table instead.  You could be offering low-cost licenses for bloggers and making even more money.  You just have to do it so that it’s priced fairly, doesn’t interfere with the editorial content of the pages, and has predictable costs even if the site gets slashdotted.

Be like Typepad, but without the bandwidth limits.  Or, at least, with a clear idea of how many page views you get for a given amount of bandwidth, and an exception for the occasional traffic spike when one meme gets picked up by social media.


One Response to Better looking web pages… for the rich.

  1. Bill Davis says:

    Hi Rob – Thanks for your article and perspective. At Ascender we added web fonts recently as an option to our desktop font licenses. We offer both a hosted web font service for small to large sites, and a self-hosted option for huge sites (greater than 500k visitors/month). We think our prices are quite reasonable for bloggers with small sites: for a site with less than 30k visitors/month it costs $10/year per font for a desktop font with a $20 retail price.

    All our fonts are premium quality commercial fonts licensed from leading type designers and foundries. We proof all our fonts to ensure they meet our quality standards across Mac & Windows platforms. We also grade fonts as being worth of being used at either text sizes or headline sizes.

    The Ascender Web Fonts platform does not use JavaScript, or ads, as you mentioned other web fonts solutions requiring. I hope you’ll take a look at our approach and let us know what you think. We offer a free 30 day trial to test out our web fonts system. No gimmicks – we believe in providing the best possible solution and service. Would love to know what you think. Check us out at Thanks!

Leave a Reply