The economics of a web-based book: year one

at the end of july 2014, this book com­pleted its first year on­line. When it launched, I de­scribed it as “partly an ex­per­i­ment in tak­ing the web se­ri­ously as a book-pub­lish­ing medium.”

In the in­ter­ests of sci­ence, a few words about how that ex­per­i­ment is go­ing. Noth­ing here is in­tended as a hum­ble­brag. Rather, I be­lieve in the po­ten­tial of the web as a book-pub­lish­ing medium. I want to en­cour­age more au­thors to try it. Shar­ing in­for­ma­tion is one way I can do that. (Re­leas­ing my pub­lish­ing tools for free is an­other way.)

My pol­icy for Prac­ti­cal Ty­pog­ra­phy was sim­ple: read­ing the book would re­quire no pre­pay­ment. Rather, on a page called how to pay for this book—no hid­ing the ball here—I asked read­ers to sup­port the book as they wished, rang­ing from a $5 di­rect do­na­tion, to buy­ing a pack­age of my fonts, which to­day top out at $299. Call it an honor sys­tem. I’ve never used the term free to de­scribe the book, be­cause I don’t see it that way.

Of course, oth­ers do. This is the web, af­ter all. I es­ti­mate that about one in 650 read­ers has sup­ported the book with a do­na­tion or pur­chase. The other 649 have not. Maybe they will later. Maybe they don’t know they can or should. Or maybe they just think in­for­ma­tion on the In­ter­net should be free.

In­de­pen­dent of my in­ter­ests as an au­thor, I con­tinue to find this view cor­ro­sive and dan­ger­ous. Last year I gave a talk sug­gest­ing that we’d traded good gov­ern­ment for ban­ner ads. But the rip­ple ef­fects are wider still.

Take the ex­am­ple of desk­top web browsers. Let’s face it, un­less you’re re­ally slow on the up­take, you’ve out­fit­ted your web browser with an ad blocker. Ha ha, you win! But wait—that means most web ads are only reach­ing those who are re­ally slow on the up­take. So their dol­lars are dis­pro­por­tion­ately im­por­tant in sup­port­ing the con­tent you’re get­ting ad-free. “Not my prob­lem,” you say. Oh re­ally? Since those peo­ple are the only ones fi­nan­cially sup­port­ing the con­tent, pub­lish­ers in­creas­ingly are shap­ing their sto­ries to ap­peal to them. Even­tu­ally, the con­tent you liked—well, didn’t like it enough to pay for it—will be gone.

Why? Be­cause you starved it to death. The im­mutable law re­mains: you can’t get some­thing for noth­ing. The web has been able to de­fer the con­se­quences of this prin­ci­ple by shift­ing the costs of con­tent off read­ers and onto ad­ver­tis­ers. But if read­ers per­ma­nently with­draw as eco­nomic par­tic­i­pants in the writ­ing in­dus­try—i.e., refuse to vote with their wal­lets—then they’ll have no rea­son to protest as the uni­verse of good writ­ing shrinks. (And make no mis­take—it’s al­ready happening.)

Still, read­ers could rea­son­ably com­plain that they haven’t been given enough op­por­tu­ni­ties to change their habit. So here you have it: a book that in­vites you to pay. Not be­cause you have to. Not be­cause you want to. Not even be­cause you should. Rather, be­cause the al­ter­na­tive—starv­ing the con­tent you en­joy—is against your interests.

So what’s been hap­pen­ing here?

Read­ers. I track us­age with Google An­a­lyt­ics. As­sum­ing it’s ac­cu­rate, it claims that about 650,000 read­ers vis­ited the site in the first 12 months. I can tell you for cer­tain that my mar­ket­ing / PR bud­get dur­ing that time was $0. So this read­er­ship is based en­tirely on word of mouth. I’m grate­ful to every­one who has of­fered kind words. (It won’t sur­prise you to hear that the most pop­u­lar page was ty­pog­ra­phy in ten min­utes.)

Di­rect do­na­tions. I got 321 do­na­tions to­tal­ing $3676. About 230 were $10 or less. The rest ranged from $11–50. De­spite the im­bal­ance, the larger do­na­tions still made up about half the to­tal. I ap­pre­ci­ate these do­na­tions, but on their own, they wouldn’t be enough to sus­tain the project.

I ex­pected that do­na­tions would rise and fall with traf­fic. But I was sur­prised to see that cer­tain sources of traf­fic were far more likely to do­nate than oth­ers. For in­stance, read­ers who came from Cool Tools do­nated fre­quently; read­ers who came from Red­dit, al­most never.

Sales of Ty­pog­ra­phy for Lawyers. TFL has been plug­ging away steadily since its re­lease in 2010. While I know that some read­ers of Prac­ti­cal Ty­pog­ra­phy have got­ten copies, it hasn’t cre­ated a no­tice­able de­vi­a­tion from the usual sales pat­tern. Prob­a­bly it’s also de­terred a few peo­ple from buy­ing copies, since most of the ma­te­r­ial is avail­able here. So I’ll call it a neu­tral influence.

Re­fer­ral sales of other fonts through this site. Not a big con­trib­u­tor. At best, per­haps $25–50 a month.

Re­fer­ral sales of my fonts Her­mes, Her­ald Gothic, or Wes­sex. No de­vi­a­tion from the his­tor­i­cal sales pat­terns, so I’ll call it neutral.

Sales of Eq­uity, Con­course, and Trip­li­cate. The good news for the 649,000 or so read­ers who didn’t pay (yet?) is that I sold a lot of fonts. Good news be­cause if it weren’t for the fonts, this project would be an ex­pen­sive hobby.

To be fair, by any ra­tio­nal eco­nomic mea­sure, most of the book-pub­lish­ing in­dus­try is an ex­pen­sive hobby. Citable au­thor­ity is hard to find, but avail­able fig­ures (for in­stance) sug­gest that non­fic­tion books sell a to­tal of 1000–3000 copies on av­er­age. Sup­pose fur­ther that the au­thor gets about $2–3 per book. Even in rough terms, we can see that most au­thors are get­ting paid a pit­tance to write.

I say this not to tee up some sen­ti­men­tal ar­gu­ment that writ­ers and artists are en­ti­tled to such-and-such pay­ment for their work. They’re not. But when we think about tak­ing the web se­ri­ously as a book-pub­lish­ing medium, we should have a re­al­is­tic bench­mark in mind. I said ear­lier that $3676 in do­na­tions was rel­a­tively small. But if I had pub­lished this work as a pa­per­back, that would cor­re­spond to first-year sales of 1200–1800 copies. In other words, I’d be off to a good start.

That said, hold­ing one­self to low ex­pec­ta­tions is just a recipe for stag­na­tion (for in­stance). It would be nice to think we can use the web to do better.

Based on changes to my usual sales pat­terns, I es­ti­mate that about 450 Prac­ti­cal Ty­pog­ra­phy read­ers be­came font cus­tomers. What that means in terms of dol­lars at­trib­ut­able to Prac­ti­cal Ty­pog­ra­phy is hard to say, since these read­ers were get­ting some­thing of in­de­pen­dent value (i.e., a font li­cense). But even if I as­sign a $25 “re­fer­ral fee” to each of these trans­ac­tions, that means about $11,250, which still far ex­ceeds the other sources of rev­enue from the book.

What’s most in­ter­est­ing to me, how­ever, is that so many more read­ers were will­ing to buy a font li­cense (at $59–299) than to make a do­na­tion (at $5–10). Don’t get me wrong—I’m ut­terly grate­ful. But it’s coun­ter­in­tu­itive: I never ex­pected that the cheaper op­tion would be so much less pop­u­lar. Econ­o­mists, I in­vite your explanations.

So far, I con­sider Prac­ti­cal Ty­pog­ra­phy to be a suc­cess­ful ex­per­i­ment in web-based book pub­lish­ing. Though I did con­sider mak­ing it a pa­per­back, as a prob­a­bilis­tic mat­ter, I can’t say that I would’ve been bet­ter off do­ing so. Fi­nan­cially, this web-based book has per­formed at least as well.

More­over, I’m de­lighted that 650,000 read­ers have paid at­ten­tion. Even with­out pay­ment, that at­ten­tion is valu­able. That kind of reach would’ve been im­pos­si­ble with a pa­per­back (or even an e-book). True, ex­po­sure can’t re­place money. But it’s a pre­req­ui­site. The fate of most books is to be ig­nored. The fact that so many peo­ple are en­joy­ing the ma­te­r­ial & putting it to work is a great plea­sure. The web has made it possible.

To be fair, the 649 : 1 ra­tio of un­paid to paid read­er­ship would be prob­lem­atic with fewer read­ers. This is a book of use­ful in­for­ma­tion, ap­plic­a­ble to a wide au­di­ence. But most books are not. For web-based book pub­lish­ing to be vi­able, au­thors need to be able to at­tain pa­per­back-level fi­nan­cial re­wards with con­sid­er­ably fewer than 650,000 read­ers. This is an area where I’d like to do bet­ter. Es­pe­cially get­ting more read­ers to do­nate small amounts—not be­cause it makes a big fi­nan­cial dif­fer­ence, but be­cause it in­stills a vir­tu­ous habit.

For a non­fic­tion book, the fluid na­ture of web pub­lish­ing has been a valu­able perk. When read­ers find ty­pos, I can fix them in­stantly. When I want to add or up­date pages, I can. As an au­thor, I have an in­cen­tive to be steadily re­vis­it­ing and re­vis­ing the ma­te­r­ial. The book is a liv­ing thing.

Prac­ti­cal Ty­pog­ra­phy has also been a proof of my friend Richard Nash’s the­ory that au­thors shouldn’t think of a book as the end of a re­la­tion­ship with the reader, but as the be­gin­ning. The book be­comes an in­tro­duc­tion to a range of pos­si­bil­i­ties. Cur­mud­geons might grum­ble that writ­ing the book should be enough in it­self. Per­haps. But that’s never been true off the web. So the idea that the web should mag­i­cally re­pair the frac­tured eco­nom­ics of the book in­dus­try is unreasonable.

What’s not un­rea­son­able is to think of the web as a place where writ­ers and read­ers can try new ideas that pre­vi­ously weren’t pos­si­ble. Be­cause let’s not kid our­selves—printed books are on their way out. What will re­place them? We get to choose. We get to vote with our time, our wal­lets, and our at­ten­tion. We can choose a world of dig­i­tal books con­trolled by a hand­ful of tech­nol­ogy be­he­moths, who de­ter­mine what gets sold, how you get to read it, and what you pay for it. Or we can choose the web, where writ­ers get to pub­lish what they want, read­ers get to read what they want, and they can work out to­gether how to pay for it.

To me, that choice is easy. But what counts is back­ing it up with ac­tion. I thank you all for your sup­port of Prac­ti­cal Ty­pog­ra­phy in its first year. Let’s keep going.

—MB · 6 Au­gust 2014