Nameplate set in Orwellian by Shiva Nallaperumal. Your typeface could be next. Learn more.
Ads via The Deck
Commentary

Taking Your Fonts to Market: Foundry, Reseller, or Go Solo?

Stephen Coles on November 20, 2008

Letter ShoppersMy sincere apologies for our extended hiatus. Perhaps it’s appropriate to break the six-month silence with an answer to a type question that I hear more than almost any other: “I am a new type designer. What’s the best way to get my fonts on the market?”

Here is the best answer I can muster, drawn from over 10 years of examining the retail font industry (in what some might call disturbing detail). This advice is intended to be as unbiased as possible, but my perspective is inevitably shaped by four years as a type director at FontShop.

When people ask about selling their fonts, the conversation almost always begins with the ol’ bottom line: “I wanna make some bank! Who offers the best royalty rate?”

But the question of commission or discount percentage should be only one of many: What else is in the contract? What services do they guarantee? Do I respect their brand? What kind of audience do they speak to? Is their library a good fit for my typeface design? Is signing with a retailer even the right thing to do?

It’s also important to understand the difference between a foundry (AKA vendor or publisher) and a reseller (AKA distributor or retailer). Here’s a rundown of your options.

1. Signing with a Foundry

A foundry can be considered a font manufacturer. Examples are Linotype, Monotype, P22, and FontFont. Foundry type can be distributed through multiple channels, such as their own web shop and the shops of their resellers. When you submit a typeface to a foundry for release it is usually an exclusive deal. They will maintain the right to sell the font according to their contract. Royalties range from 20%-50% but there is also an important distinction: most foundries pay a percentage of the wholesale price of the font. In this model, as the font goes further down the distribution chain, the designer is getting less of the retail price. Other foundries, like FontFont, give a percentage of the suggested retail price — no matter where or how the font is sold, the designer gets the same cut.

Advantages

  • No business knowledge required, the foundry will handle all customer support (big!), marketing, and reseller relationships
  • Some foundries offer technical and design assistance to complete font production
  • Foundries are an advocate for your work, monitoring piracy and misuse
  • Spend less time administrating, more time drawing type

Disadvantages

  • Very little control of where and how fonts are sold
  • Receive a portion of each sale

Questions to ask yourself about a foundry

  • Is the library a good fit for my style of type?
  • What production assistance do they offer?
  • Where are the foundry’s fonts sold and how are they marketed?
  • What is the length of the contract agreement?

2. Signing with a Reseller

A reseller offers fonts from multiple foundries. The major type resellers are Fonts.com, FontShop, MyFonts, and Veer. Resellers sign a contract with a foundry/publisher and offer the fonts in that foundry’s library. The foundry usually receives between 40–65% of the retail price of the font. Each reseller has a different customer base and produces different kinds and quantities of promotional materials. Examine them thoroughly and ask about their marketing strategies. Some independent foundries (like ShinnType and Mark Simonson) have found success in reaching a wide audience by offering their fonts through many different resellers. Others go for a more exclusive strategy (like Porchez Typofonderie at FontShop, Jukebox at Veer) benefiting from a boost in promotion that comes when a retailer can claim they are the exclusive reseller.

Advantages

  • Reach more customers and diverse markets
  • Maintain some control of brand, pricing, and the ability to sign with multiple resellers

Disadvantages

  • Must be somewhat business savvy
  • Receive a portion of each sale

Questions to ask yourself about a reseller

  • Who is their clientele?
  • How is their customer service?
  • What marketing materials and other tools do they use to draw customers?
  • How many fonts and foundries are already in their shop? Do I risk getting lost among similar offerings?
  • What do they offer if I sell my fonts exclusively through them?

3. Going it Alone

Building a foundry and selling fonts exclusively on your own web shop brings you 100% of sales, of course. Exclusivity has its benefits, as Hoefler & Frere-Jones, Jeremy Tankard, and Lineto will attest. It can give your brand a certain boost in value. But unless you are already well known, it can be a lot of very hard work to get customers to your shopfront, while lesser fonts are benefitting from broader exposure and marketing. There is also that nagging feeling that you don’t know how much more you could be selling were your fonts available elsewhere.

Advantages

  • Full control of brand and pricing
  • Receive 100% of sales revenue
  • Maintain a relationship with every customer

Disadvantages

  • Must be business savvy
  • Spend more time administrating, less time drawing type
  • Potential for substantial overhead (marketing, website, e-commerce costs)
  • Responsible for customer support
  • Maintain a relationship with every customer

Charting a Course to the Market

So the first decision to be made with each of your fonts is whether you want to go the foundry or reseller route. If you decide to submit your fonts to a foundry, find the outfit and agreement that is right for you. If you choose to build your own foundry, decide whether you want to sell the fonts exclusively on your own, or through one or more resellers.

Success can be wrought from any of these models. Much depends on what’s important to you, the fonts you’re selling, and what kind of work you’re willing to put into distributing them.

I almost certainly neglected something in this summary and I welcome any rebuttals or filling of holes from those who are actually making a buck from drawing type. There are hundreds of you out there and many lessons to glean from your experience.

21 Comments

  1. Kent Lew says:

    Stephen, I’ve always appreciated the various iterations of this overview that you’ve offered. I also appreciate how unbiased you’ve managed to be.

    Your focus here is primarily the marketing end, “getting to market,” as you clearly state. But there is another consideration for those starting out, which is implied in some of what you say, but not addressed explicitly — font production.

    When considering whether to go with a foundry, a reseller, or go it alone, one must consider how much responsibility for the technical aspects one wishes (or is qualified) to take on. Beyond the glyph drawing and spacing/kerning, there are increasingly more complicated technical aspects to be handled — from proper name fields and ascent/descent parameters to OTL feature writing, etc.

    A foundry will offer final production (as well as quality control and tech support). Some resellers may offer some assistance, but for the most part consider you the foundry and hold you responsible. Going it alone, of course, requires you to manage it all yourself.

    So, in addition to considering how much of a business person/administrator you wish to be, you have to consider how much of an engineer/programmer you wish to be as well. With the advances in OpenType format, the technical barrier for entry has begun to rise again.

  2. Jon says:

    Very informative article. I’m glad to see some action here. It’s been too long!

  3. Thanks, Kent. I mentioned a bit about font production, but yours is a type designer’s perspective that will make this guide all the more useful. I’m sure your partnership with Font Bureau is more than a marketing arrangement, their technical and design expertise helped make Whitman possible.

  4. Thank you for this informative and thought-provoking post. I am in the process of creating my first typeface in my father’s handwriting. Although it is going quite slow, I will hopefully be faced with this decision soon.

    I suspect if my plans are to create type as a hobby, rather than a profession, I may try it alone for six months to a year. If that does not work, my “mentor” owns a foundry, and he might be willing to give my typeface a whirl on his site for a percentage. After purchasing several of his fonts I became interested in creating my own, and he has provided me a bit of guidance here and there along the way.

    Again, thank you for the terrific reference information.

  5. Stephen

    What a thoughtful exploration. One of the major components for “foundry” consideration for me came post facto. My foundry is truly an advocate for my work. Not just sales etc., but monitoring piracy. I cannot tell you how much that has meant to me. So add it to your list if you would please. Thank you

    Michael

  6. Since we are no longer melting metal and casting type, can we find another word to replace “foundry”. It seems such a silly term for what we do.

  7. Sometimes I’m with you on that, James. Leading too. Then again, it’s nice to retain a bit of the past in our lingo to remind us where we came from.

  8. We still “dial” the phone and “ship” packages, even though there are usually no dials or ships involved. It’s just how language works.

  9. “Spend more time administrating, less time drawing type”

    Someone explain me how much you will waste in business than drawing fonts. I think this is a myth. The web goes beyond bureaucracy and many here knows that, once you did the packets, you put it on a website then, you can administer. What kind of help support more than “My credit card isn’t supported” mails you can administrate.

    I think font business man here exaggerates a bit. I know many people on software business who are 1 guy making more working for him than for software resellers or software distributors. I think type here doesn’t apply such “customer costs”. You have a piece of art you want to sell, you sell it or not. There’s no “it doesn’t work on my mac”, there’s no “I found a bug…”.

  10. Typographica says:

    Diego, it’s fairly simple: the more time you spend marketing your work, the better it will sell, particularly if you know how to market. But if you’re a type designer and marketing and business is not your bag, I don’t see anything wrong with passing that role on to someone who does it well so you can spend more time doing what you do well.

    On the “customer costs” — if you think there is no technical support involved in selling fonts, I invite you to spend a day with me here at FontShop.

  11. For more insight into working with a foundry you can hear about the experience of three FontFont designers here.

  12. jordy says:

    Going it alone is very difficult unless you are already very well known. )Just got back on to Typographica after months of absence. Great new look.) My advice is do the best work you can, go to a reliable font vendor and hope for the best. There is or can be an awesome amount of work in type design so I feel it best to let a professional firm do the marketing work while the designer can concentrate on design.

  13. Going it alone is difficult, time-consuming and expensive. But I can’t imagine giving up 50 or more percent to be part of a vast library with no control over what else is in that library.
    I understand that not many type designers are interested in business or marketing, but I find the whole thing fascinating, and negotiating a large OEM contract makes it all worthwhile!

    Good luck with your future plans Stephen.

  14. Stephen, thanks for a good unbiased read. I’m currently testing model number 3 :-)

  15. Rafael says:

    For people who intend to earn income by designing consistent, finely crafted text typeface families, it seems that there’s a more fundamental issue to address than production, promotion and marketing models: the steep challenge that is making a living off designing type. In this Typophile thread where the topic is discussed, there’s a general agreement on the analogy between actually building a career in type design and rockstardom: “Everyone wants to do it, but only a select few make a living at it”. It was very discouraging.

  16. What software is needed to digitze and create a working font?

    What is the minimum of design needed in order for someone to submit their special font design to a foundry, reseller etc? Just a drawing? Good article. Just an ice berg tip though currently.

  17. What software is needed to digitze and create a working font?

    There are a few different font editing applications. FontLab is used by the vast majority of professionals, tho often with the addition of other apps and scripts to streamline production.

    What is the minimum of design needed in order for someone to submit their special font design to a foundry, reseller etc? Just a drawing?

    It varies by foundry. Sometimes a drawing is enough to start a conversation, others prefer a completed font. But sometimes it’s better to submit something earlier in the process to leave room for feedback, adjustments, and help with development.

  18. Eric says:

    Thanks for the helpful article but I still wonder about something – Do I have to actually own/register a company with the name that i want to represent me, say “X-name” if I want to sign with a reseller?
    Can I just create an account with a “x” name that isn’t a registered company?

  19. Hi Eric. As far as I know, resellers won’t require a legally registered corporation. They’ll just want a name so they can label your fonts, and how well you use that name to create your brand is up to you.

  20. Miles Newlyn says:

    If signing up with a reseller, and in particular with webfont platforms, ask 2 things of any contract:

    DO I KEEP ALL RIGHTS TO MY FONTS?
    CAN I GET OUT OF THIS CONTRACT WHEN I WANT?

    if its a no in either, DONT SIGN.

    FontFonts excepted.

  21. Gareth Reid says:

    Really great article but I was wondering how do I protect my font from it being distributed once purchased.

Post a Comment

Comments at Typographica are moderated and copyedited, just like a “Letter to the Editor” in a newspaper. Abusive or off-topic comments will not be published. Compliments are appreciated, but will not be published unless they add to the conversation. Thank you!

Recently Commented
Colophon

Typographica is a review of typefaces and type books, with occasional commentary on fonts and typographic design. Edited by Stephen Coles and designed by Chris Hamamoto. Founded in 2002 by Joshua Lurie-Terrell. Relaunched in 2009 by Coles and Hamamoto.

Set in Bureau Grot by Font Bureau, Nocturno Display by Nikola Djurek, Fern (unreleased) by David Jonathan Ross, and JAF Bernini Sans by Tim Ahrens.

Brought to you by this month’s nameplate sponsor, FontShop, MyFonts, FontFont, Wordpress, Fused, and the letter B. Read our editorial policy.

Elsewhere