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Commentary

Library Subscriptions: The Future of Fonts? Shall We Sing or Cry?

Stephen Coles on May 8, 2013

Yesterday, Adobe declared that Creative Cloud is its future. Designers will no longer license desktop copies of Photoshop, Illustrator, or InDesign and use them “forever” (though that word is obviously limited by each version’s practical lifespan). Instead, they subscribe to a Creative Cloud membership and get access to the apps through an online account.

Along with this announcement came the news that Typekit will be included in the Creative Cloud product. This move was widely expected — once Adobe acquired Typekit in 2011 we all knew that they would use the fonts to add value to their core software, but just how they were going to do that was less clear. Now we know: desktop font syncing. Come mid-June, paid subscribers of Creative Cloud ($50/mo.) or Typekit Portfolio ($50/yr.), Performance, and Business plans will get access to some Typekit fonts directly in their desktop OS. This includes all desktop apps, not just those from Adobe.

Adobe’s announcement comes on the heels of Monotype’s SkyFonts product which offers time-limited desktop access to any of Fonts.com’s webfonts for free. Those who pay for the Professional ($40/mo.) or Master subscriptions get 30-day access to all the fonts from Monotype’s internal libraries, which include Monotype, Linotype, ITC, Bitstream, and Ascender.

For many font users, these services are a godsend. Creating websites without desktop access to webfonts is a major hurdle for designers who rely on apps like Photoshop for comping. Some providers offer workarounds: OurType fonts are licensed once and can be used in print or on the web; FontFont bundles their downloadable webfonts with free (but limited) desktop versions. But Creative Cloud and Skyfonts gives users access to an entire library of fonts, not the individual fonts of traditional sales.

For font makers, these developments raise all sorts of questions. Equating the music and font industries is rife with pitfalls, but the parallels here are too conspicuous to ignore. A few years ago, people bought albums — now they stream songs from a music service. If the font market is headed down the same path, I wonder:

Will easy access to desktop fonts increase piracy?
My hunch: no. While Creative Cloud and Skyfonts obfuscate the temporarily installed fonts in some way, there is always the concern that users will find a way to hack the system or otherwise use the fonts outside the license. I feel the same way about this as I do the silly old debate about PDF embedding permissions: never punish your customers in the attempt to prevent piracy. Fighting font theft is a losing battle. Those who steal fonts will always find easier ways to steal them. Those who focus on making their fonts easy to license and use earn the good will of the market.

Will library subscriptions lessen the perceived value of type?
My hunch: yes. The recent rise of steep discounts and Google freebies has already reduced the value of fonts in most users’ eyes. Cheap access to a vast library of more professional fonts will only add fuel to that fire. Granted, the ease of use and bundling with the Adobe ecosystem will bring new users to the foundries who participate, and Typekit says that providers will be compensated whenever their fonts are used, but it’s unclear whether these things will compensate for sales lost through traditional licensing models. Mark Simonson, for one, is not worried: he says that Typekit has been good for sales via other channels. But I suspect his experience is an outlier, as his Proxima Nova is probably the most popular family in Typekit’s library, raising awareness of the typeface throughout the market. What I hear from other participating type designers is that Typekit revenue represents(ed) a very small fraction of their sales. Beyond hard numbers, I think the more important casualty is that squishy concept of type’s overall worth. As Frode Bo Helland says: “If ‘everything’ is available to ‘everyone’ for a small monthly sum, what does that do to the perceived value of a typeface?” The answer to that question may depend on the definition of “everything”. Right now, there are thousands of professional typefaces that aren’t yet available from these services. Which leads me to my final question.

Will other professional foundries join these libraries?
My hunch: mostly no. Typekit has announced that “7 top-tier foundries” are participating in the initial Creative Cloud offering, and Monotype offers their substantial collection via SkyFonts. The size of these libraries is nothing to scoff at, but it doesn’t represent heavy-hitters like Hoefler & Frere-Jones, Font Bureau, House Industries, Commercial Type, Typotheque, Emigre, and most of FontFont — not to mention a vast and growing crop of small indie foundries that increasingly defines original type design. Given what I mentioned above, I don’t think we’ll see these top-tier foundries join either venture, and if they do it will only be to tease with a few typefaces, as FontFont does with Typekit. If they don’t, the contrast between the major and indie labels will be even more stark than it is today.

22 Comments

  1. Rudy says:

    I think that you forgot one major question: Why would a type designer continue to develop type? Their part of the cake becomes so small (we are talking dollar cents here) that it isn’t economically viable to spend (in some cases) years to finalize a family. There is a very strange way of dividing the profits — the biggest chunk goes to the services, a small part to the foundry, and a minuscule part to the type designer. I guess that type designer could as well sell their fonts on the app stores for 99 cent per font. They would earn more. Anyway, OurType won’t join the club.

  2. Angus says:

    I think the “subscription based” accounts are the big issue here, as apposed to cloud based services.

    When it comes to font sales and making some sort of decent revenue out of selling fonts — you can not rely on subscription based accounts. Unless your font(s) is über popular, you will not make enough out of it to make any difference. So, for font sellers, it doesn’t sound like much of an alternative for the future.

    It does however provide steady revenue for Monotype and Adobe, as well as a very desirable and very affordable option for users.

    But what is desirable by users, doesn’t mean it’s absolutely needed by the majority of users.

    There are also other (successful) options, like Typecast which allows extensive testing and even sharing several choices of webfonts without the use of desktop fonts nor undermining “normal” desktop sales of foundries. I’m sure more alternatives like Typecast will be developed in the future, where both users and foundries will remain satisfied.

    So, personally I don’t think Adobe’s, Monotype’s, and Google’s venture into subscription based font sales is the answer nor the future for any font foundry that actually wants to make money out of it.

  3. Nick Sherman says:

    You ask: “Are subscriptions a thing to celebrate or lament?”, but I think it’s extremely important to make a distinction here between subscriptions for individual typefaces and subscriptions for large libraries.

    I imagine both models will have a market moving forward, but other than outliers like you mentioned, individual typeface subscriptions are undoubtedly more beneficial to small foundries in terms of perceived value as well as sustainability.

  4. Jackson says:

    A comment about piracy: Making fonts “easy to license” should be a nice way of saying “easier to license than steal.” Fighting piracy needs to be done on both fronts, making legit use easier and illegal use harder and more deliberate (there is fuzzy/accidental/unknowing/lazy piracy and there is deliberate/stealing piracy).

  5. Thanks for formulating what I wanted to, but struggled to say clearly. I’ll add that for many graphic designers some level of “exclusivity” matters a lot. Perhaps library subscriptions may end up increasing the value of whatever is not included in the package deal, similar to how fonts bundled with operating systems are shunned by most professional designers.

  6. PK says:

    do we have numbers that support the idea that subscription-based selling reduces income? I have never seen any actual numbers that prove that type is better or worse off (in financial terms) than it used to be.

    I’m not trying to be a naysayer, I just want this conversation to framed by actual financial data from actual people, not hearsay. hearsay helps nobody.

    jackson’s comment gets right to the heart of the matter: if these fonts are easier to legitimately license, they will be less likely to be stolen.

    a lot of what I spoke about at Adobe MAX with Bryan Mason yesterday was that this is essentially a way to begin to smooth the process of getting fonts to people, which has never been done well in the type community. it’s always been prohibitively expensive, and yet with objects carrying no copy-protection, and difficult to install.

    my big issue with type libraries is the notion of brand awareness: adding yourself to a library hides your brand. but if you don’t care, great. if you’re working hard to protect your identity, like Jackson does with OkayType, it’s kind of a bummer.

  7. Two discussions at once, it seems to me. One is about comparing distribution channels (one established and high margin but very leaky for a somewhat defined market, and one untested and lower margin, but low-leak for a potentially much larger market). The other about the speculative impact of zero-trending prices for some kinds of typefaces onto very different kinds of typefaces.

    I’d rather take the first discussion point as a given: that some sort of transition to hosted/rented resources is a one way street, where foundries have little choice: the document use modes that their clients require will impose this.

    I’d deal with the second point by highlighting the differences in the market for the free and paid-for typefaces, and what this means for the incentives to designers of each category. (Free fonts by Google or others are a distraction, a noisier form of OEM, and therefore a minor friction in the system — but in the long-term, probably a positive for the paying market.)

    And then I’d have the discussion I am rather more interested in having: how to educate the community of potential paying customers about quality in typeface design, and the added value that good typeface design brings to communication design projects. Growth of the profession hinges on the supply of sufficiently differrentiated high-value typefaces, and the realisation by a growing market that typefaces matter. So far type professionals have been really good at the supply side, but have, in general terms, lagged in educating their markets.

  8. Angus says:

    Jackson and Patrick: I don’t think font piracy is the issue in this case. Of course time will tell, but in my opinion Adobe’s Cloud won’t increase or decrease font piracy. If any font is in demand among pirates, it will be pirated.

    It’s more about providing a product and a service to the user.

    a lot of what I spoke about at Adobe MAX with Bryan Mason yesterday was that this is essentially a way to begin to smooth the process of getting fonts to people, which has never ben well-done in the type community.

    Really? What can be “smooth”er than paying for a font online and downloading it immediately? Any smoother than that will be like sucking a milkshake empty with a straw. :) I’m not so sure I would like my fonts to be consumed like that.

    do we have numbers that support the idea that subscription-based selling reduces income?

    The idea is that subscription to volumes of fonts, not only one, affects sales. Sure it does. I don’t have numbers, but I have record of sales, and global impression of general use. Most customers pay for a font to use it for a specific project, and usually take their time, if ever, before using that font again. Let’s say, the same customer will get the same font as part of a library subscription. If the model is that font designers get pay per font use (which is temporary in this case), than as a font designer you actually start with a loss, rather than a profit.

    This is strictly from a short term business point of view.

  9. PK says:

    I think worrying about subscription packages lessening the perceived and emotional value of typography is, at this point, potentially a straw man (but I do think the conversation should be had). I’d be a lot more comfortable looking at actual data before we start getting into emotional discussions surrounding data we think might be there.

    as a model, I’d like to see if we could get a comment from jos buivenga, as he will make museo available to seemingly anything with a pulse. :) it’s clearly doing well. how does that translate into income and recognizability for him, and how are his sales different between exljbris and a library?

  10. Bill Dawson says:

    If you step back and look at the history of typography as a business, 30 years ago type was purchased as headlines and galleys, not fonts and families. The digital era turned type into a product for sale and moved the business from a service to a retail model.

    The commitment of a galley proof is far less than the cost of purchasing an entire typeface family. A subscription model seems more equitable for the graphic designer client. And for type designer and foundries with a body of work, it allows for their collected works to be used together, the way they were intended. Perhaps better designers and foundries could partner in making their works available in sets.

    The end result might be ongoing payment for use of a given type design, rather than a one-time payment for the digital product.

  11. PK says:

    I have another broader idea for this conversation, and I apologize if I seem to be trying to dominate the conversation. I’m not, it’s just coming to me in bits.

    coles, your initial question begins with some assumptions I’ve never seen evidence of.

    1) that the customers of type designers who will consistently buy the work do actually see independent type designers as a better source of the product, and

    2) that the customers do actually see library brands as inferior.

    do we actually know either of those things? I don’t know that I’ve ever seen any evidence supporting either position.

    that’s a roundabout way of saying: I suspect that we could actually be discussing how type designers see themselves and would like their own position to be regarded within the market.

  12. The end result might be ongoing payment for use of a given type design.

    This is the model already used by collectives like Webtype and Fontdeck and foundries like Typotheque and Just Another Foundry. There is a big difference between individual font family subscriptions and library subscriptions. As Nick said, the former is likely more sustainable for most type designers.

  13. your initial question begins with some assumptions I’ve never seen evidence of.

    I don’t think I made those two assumptions. If I did, I failed to make my point clearly. I don’t know for sure how customers see things. But here is how I see them:

    1) Independent type designers can be a better source of the product for two main reasons: direct contact with the customer is better for both parties in the transaction, and a larger share of revenue is more sustainable for new type design.

    2) Current library brands range from mostly lame (Google) to widely variable (Typekit, Fonts.com), but most of the new ideas in type design are coming from foundries that are not part of these libraries.

    Adobe and Monotype are betting that library subscriptions are the future of font sales. From what I can tell, the future of type design hasn’t yet subscribed to that point of view.

  14. pk says:

    @coles:

    point two, I totally agree with. absolutely.

    point one, I contest. that assertion needs evidence to support. you’re talking about customer service in that case. my experience is quite the opposite: I get better and more consistent service from larger companies than small brands. in two cases, I have had independent vendors disappear entirely during a transaction.

  15. Sure, your mileage will vary. Sounds like you had some bad luck there. I’ve experienced the opposite. But one thing that doesn’t vary so much: the manufacturer is generally in a better position to troubleshoot problems, fix problems, and otherwise customize their own fonts.

  16. Crystian Cruz says:

    One point that worries me about library subscriptions is the matter of the usage of fonts in publishing houses. For a long time, I’ve experienced the problem of publishing houses investing all the money they had in licenses for Adobe Font Folio, which is not cheap, especially in Brazil.

    As a result, it pushed art directors to use only fonts that came with Adobe Font Folio in their magazines and books. With the emergence of indie foundries, that scenario changed in the past years, because fresh and innovative fonts didn’t appear in Font Folio at all. Sadly, I think this library subscription will point to the old direction again (I think this is exactly Adobe’s goal), and publishers will force art directors to use those “traditional” fonts again. The argument is that money for investing in type is already made.

    The same could happen in major design studios, when working with freelancers. They would be forced to use the same bundle as the studio/agency. And in that case, say goodbye to type variety.

  17. It is wrong to refer to typefaces as “product”. The retail market for nearly-ephemeral type use is quite different from the “type for publications” business, from the “type for branding” business, from the “type for embedded uses” business, from the OEM business. Most of the people I know who pay their mortgages as type professionals use retail to build awareness of their own brand, but aim for the other categories. On the contrary, most of the people who contribute to these discussions tend to be either on the supply or the demand of the retail business.

    The CFOs of Monotype or H&FJ or Dalton Maag do not post on these threads, but they are unlikely to be uprooting their licensing models without some good indication that they are not going to sink their companies.

  18. Mark says:

    Adobe can call this the Future like Monsanto can call GMO seeds theirs: it’s greed, not innovation. Innovation has always carried type further with new creativity. Adobe going to Cloud insures we only rent it. Why would anyone want to create new fonts?

    I value H&FJ, Emigre, and other foundries for what they crafted. This is a game changer and not for the better.

  19. jeffrey says:

    I wonder how long it will take, if this scheme is “succesful”, for it to be pushed as the solitary way to buy a font from those big foundries?

    I mean, if Adobe is putting everything only in the cloud now, why not go cloud only for fonts as well, offering only subsribtions. This way they insure an even more steady stream of revenue, and will probably think they killed font piracy.

    I was wary when Skyfonts was introduced with it’s credit system. If it works for them and it is foul-proff I can see them spread this system for all their fonts. Using fonts will be more like webfonts now.

    I am not thrilled with this scenario, how about type designers?

  20. Nick Shinn says:

    I can’t claim to be representative of type designers.

    I used to rail against bundling, but nowadays am more stoic about the actions of the big boys.

    In the long run, nobody can predict the future, but I’m inclined towards Neal Stephenson’s ideas in The Diamond Age, and stuff that I read in Wired twenty years ago.

    My hunch is that eventually whatever anyone looks at — the mere act of looking — will involve micropayments. That’s good news for type design as a market segment, as long as people continue to read, notwithstanding the issue of monopoly.

    I don’t think that large libraries will have an advantage on the cloud, other than economies of scale and top-of-mind awareness, which don’t involve the quality of typeface design. Size requires buyers to use aids such as keywords or aggregations (e.g. Best Seller lists), to narrow selection. This creates a marketing field that is negotiable by suppliers. One very viable tactic is to maintain branding and exclusivity with one’s own cloud offering, even if one’s wares are also distributed as one amongst many via a large scale reseller. This favors established foundries with a range of work that covers the genres, which is the direction that the digital font business has taken as it matured over the past 25 years, as established foundries build up their inventory. In effect, foundries evolve from boutiques to department stores, and providing we (designer-owned publisher-licensors) can assert our brand in the marketplace, we can provide enough variety to satisfy consumers.

    That does require more investment in infrastructure and marketing than just making fonts.

  21. Here’s one musician’s perspective on how well the library subscription model is working in his world (and others): David Byrne says streaming spells disaster for today’s artists across creative industries.

    The major labels are happy, the consumer is happy and the CEOs of the web services are happy. All good, except no one is left to speak for those who actually make the stuff.

  22. […] type of “library subscriptions” for both creative software and web fonts are becoming more popular; with Adobe recently […]

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