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 payment, 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 payment 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 writing you’re getting ad-free. “Not my problem,” you say. Oh really? Since those people are the only ones financially supporting the writing, publishers increasingly are shaping their stories to appeal to them. Eventually, the writing 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 the written word 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 writing 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 payments. I got 321 payments totaling $3676. About 230 were $10 or less. The rest ranged from $11–50. Despite the imbalance, the larger payments still made up about half the total. I appreciate these payments, but on their own, they wouldn’t be enough to sustain the project.
I expected that direct payments would rise and fall with traffic. But I was surprised to see that certain sources of traffic were far more likely to pay than others. For instance, readers who came from Cool Tools paid 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 direct payments 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 direct payment (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 pay 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.
A few readers objected to my use of the term “donations” to describe direct payments. That’s a fair point. I’ve changed it. I agree that “donation” connotes a charitable gift. I’m not holding myself out as a charity. More broadly, while the term is commonly applied to voluntary payments, I don’t think that’s the right way to characterize the economic relationship between writers and readers.
I shouldn’t have used the word “content” to describe what writers make. Writers make writing. So let’s call it that. Because “content” isn’t a neutral word. It’s anesthetizing jargon that encourages us to see the best (and worst) parts of the web as fungible commodities, like soybeans. Writers are not content farmers. Recognizing that fact is a prerequisite to improving the economics of writing.