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11 Across: RIP OFF
December 11, 2012 8:41 AM   Subscribe

The crossword puzzle economy
posted by Chrysostom (26 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
For anyone who hasn't done them, Ben Tausig's crosswords are some of the best available.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:33 AM on December 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Ben Tausig's puzzles are lots of fun. Try them at the Ink Well or the former A/V Club crossword, where Tausig is addressing the issues of his essay via a Kickstarter campaign.
posted by chavenet at 9:33 AM on December 11, 2012


Interesting article. When faced with similar problems, Swedish crossword puzzle constructors formed Sveriges Korsordsmakare [Google Translate], a sort of union/marketplace. So far they've been quite successful in establishing what constitutes fair pay and they've also brought a new sense of togetherness to the occupation.
posted by soundofsuburbia at 9:35 AM on December 11, 2012


I always forget there's a newspaper wrapped around my six-dollar Sunday NYT crossword. Huh.
posted by heyho at 9:57 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thanks to a bit of drunken bragging, I ended up constructing a weekly crossword for my college's newspaper for 3 years. It was a lot of fun and very rewarding, but when it became clear that I wasn't going to grad school, my parents started asking me whether I might like to somehow become the next Will Shortz. Reading this makes me glad that I deflected that long enough for them to start bothing me about law schoool.

I also recommend the American Values Club Crosswords. The first two were well done and I am always going to favor the "pop culture/dumb sex jokes" camp of clue-making.
posted by Copronymus at 10:03 AM on December 11, 2012


This explains some of the timeline inconsistency in these clues.
posted by asperity at 10:34 AM on December 11, 2012


I started doing crosswords about 15 years ago. I began with the easy one in the newspaper and quickly got to the point where I could finish them in 10 minutes, so I graduated to the NY Times dailies. It took a while but eventually I could finish these ones too so I moved on to the Saturday NYT crosswords. Once again, it took a while but after a few years I found that I was finishing these ones too - not all the time, but regularly. Over the years I developed a strong appreciation for crossword constructors - how tricky they could be, how smart, how sarcastic, how clever. I didn't realize that it could be a different constructor from day to day until reading this article. I realize that puzzle editors can and do alter the original puzzle, but is it to such a degree that the puzzles have the same tone or "voice"?

Thanks for pointing out Ben Tausig's puzzles. I completed the first one but it took longer than I'm used to, it's been years since I've tackled one. I bet I still have some NYT puzzle books stashed somewhere - I should pull them out.
posted by ashbury at 10:47 AM on December 11, 2012


asperity: "This explains some of the timeline inconsistency in these clues."

I could be wrong, but my understanding was that the editor will usually take the answers relatively as is, but will extensively re-write the clues. This goes to ashbury's question about tone, too. There was a HUGE difference switching from Eugene Maleska to Will Shortz at the NYT, and it wasn't just in fewer "crossword-ese" answers-the clue flavor drastically changed.
posted by Chrysostom at 11:17 AM on December 11, 2012


soundofsuburbia: "Interesting article. When faced with similar problems, Swedish crossword puzzle constructors formed Sveriges Korsordsmakare [Google Translate], a sort of union/marketplace. So far they've been quite successful in establishing what constitutes fair pay and they've also brought a new sense of togetherness to the occupation."

Yes, this comment on the article suggests that French crossword constructors also do much better than their American counterparts; interesting that this seems to be a specifically American/English-speaking phenomenon:

"In the francophone world,the name of the "verbicuciste" (constructor) as opposed to "cruciverbiste" ( the one who fills it) is very often published and many are on regular contract. Some ( like Maurice Hannequart) are famous enough to essentially write their own ticket."
posted by dd42 at 11:29 AM on December 11, 2012


I should mention that Tausig's latest puzzle does, in fact, include a reference to Ulee's Gold. Probably because of the vowels.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:58 AM on December 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Meanwhile, The Times buys all rights to the puzzles, allowing them to republish work in an endless series of compendiums like The New York Times Light and Easy Crossword Puzzles. In that same interview, Shortz called these "about the best-selling crossword books in the country."

For a brief period, maybe 2 years, I subscribed to both my local paper and the NYT. We had to tighten our economic belt so to speak and so the NYT was the first to go but by that time my husband and I had developed the habit of solving a Sunday puzzle together while eating our Sunday breakfast. So we switched to the books. We've gone through several volumes and it is amazing how much the individual puzzles vary in quality. Some of them are just maddening (a Swedish river crossed with an African chief) and some of them are almost too easy. The best book by leaps and bounds is Will Shortz Favorite Sunday puzzles. Not only is each puzzle terrific with a fun little bit of inner word play, each one is also introduced by Shortz with an explanation of why it was chosen or a bit of background about the author. I highly recommend it and I wish he would get off his ass and put together vol. II.

As to the economics of the puzzles, I wonder how many more subscriptions they would get if the annual puzzle-only subscription was $20.00? I know for myself $40.00 is a bit rich and too hard to justify. Of course that would not put more money in the pockets of the authors, but perhaps if the NYT was making more money, the wordsmiths would make more money.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 12:09 PM on December 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


I think this is the best place to point out that the crosswords of The Guardian are available online (enable javascript and click to type, double click to go from horizontal to vertical).
posted by ersatz at 12:23 PM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


My friend Josh and I did an interview with Ben Tausig and three others -- I thought it turned out pretty interesting (with Josh's help), though I was amused kind of at how terse most of the constructors could be for folks who deal with words. Ben seemed like a nice guy, too, and I love his puzzles.

(Unpopular Opinion: I tend to think of Brendan Emmett Quigley as way overrated. IMHO, he seems to try a little too hard to be edgy/obscure-in-a-hipster-sort-of-way. Crosswords aren't ever gonna be cool, man, just relax.)
posted by Rev. Syung Myung Me at 1:38 PM on December 11, 2012


Crosswords are a come-and-go thing with me, so I had made it an occasional habit to log into
Magmic's NYT Crosswords app on Android to subscribe for a month. I never did anywhere near 30 puzzles in that time, but it was nice to work on new puzzles for that time, and it only cost $2 for that time.

Well, last week I tried subscribing only to get Play market errors. And I searched the Play store to get an address to leave feedback at only to find that I could no longer find the app there. In fact, I couldn't find traces of the app anymore on Magmic's site, and the NYT's own page listing official apps didn't mention an Android app, leaving me to conclude that it had been discontinued and left unsupported.

As near as I can piece together now, the solution for Android users is either to get a full electronic subscription to the New York Times, which is a lot more expensive than the crossword puzzle subscription and is more than I can really pay right now, or console myself with the meager four sets of 30 older puzzles, at $2 each, available on the Amazon app store. So anyway, fuck you New York Times.

I think this is the best place to point out that the crosswords of The Guardian are available online (enable javascript and click to type, double click to go from horizontal to vertical).

I can't make heads or tales of those types. I know what Cryptics are but the others are mysterious to me. Looking at a few makes it appear that they use Cryptic-style grids in any case.
posted by JHarris at 3:09 PM on December 11, 2012


I'm a big fan of crosswords and recognize the names and styles of many of the constructors that appear in the Times. I should be inclined to come down on the side of the constructors. But I'm not sure I agree with Tausig in this article. He's complaining, but it's hard to understand what he's arguing. I think he has two arguments: it's not very easy to make a living writing crosswords (so the Times should raise their rates), and the NYTimes are unfairly taking advantage of creators (so the Times should raise their rates).

I don't find the first argument compelling. Imagine a model railroad enthusiast demanding that he be able to make a living wage selling his model railroads. I'm not sympathetic, and I'm not sure the crossword case is different. If the biggest crossword distributor makes only 2 million per annum in online subscribers, then crosswords are also a niche, hobbyist market. (I'm surprised Tausig presents "50,000 subscribers" as if it were a big number. It's tiny! Model railroad tiny!) Tausig mentions that there are some people who manage to eke out a full-time living, but not everyone can. He finds this problematic. Well, how many people should be able to? I don't think that every creator has a right to a market price that produces a living wage. If there were a huge demand for crosswords, then people would be able to support more constructors... but the demand just isn't that big. I buy crossword extravaganzas on Kickstarter, I subscribe to Foggy Brume's P&A magazine, etc. I'm one of the people willing to seek out crosswords and pay a premium for them. But there aren't a lot of other people like me.

If the Times underpays, constructors could publish elsewhere. But if there isn't more money elsewhere, that means there isn't a market for more than one quality daily crossword. Supply outstrips demand, and this isn't surprising: making crosswords is fun. Constructors start out as solvers. They like doing puzzles. Then, they realize that making crosswords is a puzzle in itself! It's no wonder that there is a glut of quality crosswords.

Anyway, even if the Times tripled the amount they paid, it would still be extremely difficult to eke out a living as a crossword constructor (how many times does the average constructor publish in the Times per year?). It is not the Times's fault that it is hard to make a living as a constructor. It is the fault of a high supply/low demand market. I think Tausig is railing against the Times here when it's not the Times's fault. He should be railing at the public.

I am also skeptical that the Times is as exploitative as Tausig makes out. How much profit is too much profit? When is profit unfair? He presents 2 million dollars as if it's big money, but it is chump change for an operation that is the size of the Times. Imagine the Times only made 200 thousand a year on the crossword. I bet they would get rid of the crossword altogether if they made that little. The crossword needs to *at least* make more than whatever advertisement could be run on that page instead of the crossword, and make *at least* whatever they could save by making the weekly magazine one page thinner. Also, Tausig is definitely underplaying the costs... he doesn't mention anything about the costs of the construction and maintenance of the app, for instance. Given the size of the audience and the support needed to deal with that audience, I'm guessing this costs at least a few hundred grand a year.

It would be nice if the Times let creators keep the copyrights to their works, I admit.

Tausig also blames the Times for not advertising the constructors' names. I agree that constructors should get more credit than they do, but Tausig claims that "The anonymity that surrounds puzzle construction undoubtedly helps to maintain the status quo." I'm not sure what he's thinking. Is the idea that if solvers became aware of the individual constructors, they would seek out puzzles by the bigshots and pay a premium for them? I very much doubt this.
posted by painquale at 11:44 PM on December 11, 2012


painquale's comment is very interesting to me, because not too long ago I would have made a comment a lot like it. Since then my thinking has changed. So thinking that maybe I am in a position to make a convincing argument here, I figure it's my duty to respond in some detail. So, sorry in advance for its length.

I don't find the first argument compelling. Imagine a model railroad enthusiast demanding that he be able to make a living wage selling his model railroads. I'm not sympathetic, and I'm not sure the crossword case is different.

First off is this statement, which subconsciously takes the workings of markets for granted, as objectively good. Markets, especially when the general public is concerned, are rarely so clean-cut; lots of things influence supply and demand, many of them irrational, like marketing and fads. Maybe given the right situation model railroad sales could support someone. Public opinion is extraordinarily fickle, demand sometimes shoots through the roof for crazy reasons (look up "tulip mania" on Wikipedia), and greatly favors entrenched economic interests who have the resources to mold public opinion and enrich themselves even more.

If you scoff, consider: if an A-list celebrity revealed that they collected model railroads, is it no likely that this would cause a spike in their popularity? If you don't believe this would happen, I point to the surge in popularity the "Elf on the Shelf" product experienced when Jennifer Garner said she liked it. I have trouble assigning any kind of objective value to a thing which can be manipulated so readily by some people. Note, that I don't suggest a replacement system doesn't mean the current system isn't bad.

It shouldn't be forgotten that markets are ultimately artificial constructions, the point of equilibrium they settle on is vulnerable to many things, and in fact a major point of public policy to try to adjust it in favor of one group or another.

(I'm surprised Tausig presents "50,000 subscribers" as if it were a big number. It's tiny! Model railroad tiny!)

It's all relative. A thing is small only in comparison to another thing is big. Just because someone sells millions doesn't mean 50,000 isn't significant. Believing that it's not is a symptom of the winner-take-all biases of our culture, where the media only takes an interest if you're one of the biggest in your category. Another part of it is that very large companies and investors tend to be interested in you only if you're extremely profitable, because of competing opportunities for money. Their chasing of the biggest profit opportunities places disproportionate importance on them, and that attitude has leaked out. To a small operation, 50,000 subscribers can be quite significant.

Tausig mentions that there are some people who manage to eke out a full-time living, but not everyone can. He finds this problematic. Well, how many people should be able to?

Well, I think people should be able to find work they enjoy, if it is valuable. Yeah, I'm not supplying ideas for alternative mechanisms, but that doesn't invalidate dissatisfaction. Even if they do not become rich through it, I think people shouldn't be left to starve because their interests don't match up with fickle, changeable fashion. The history of mankind is filled with artists who followed their dreams; those we remember, it's mostly because they found rich patrons, and so it's their tastes, those with the money to support the arts, that have come down to influence later generations, the tastes of the gentry centuries ago still casting shadows over our world today. This is a tremendous shame, even worse than the situation we have now.

What mechanism could there be to make up for it? There is government sponsorship of the arts, which isn't a perfect solution, and far too vulnerable to Republican dismantling. And I don't think all art should be so sponsored. But there are many power imbalances baked into the system, which hasn't changed because the people with the most power to change them also benefit the most from keeping it as it is, which causes them to not even see the situation as being problematic.

If the Times underpays, constructors could publish elsewhere. But if there isn't more money elsewhere, that means there isn't a market for more than one quality daily crossword.

This is not necessarily the case. Many markets are only created with some initial investment, demand can be stimulated with marketing, people are subject to memes and fads, and so forth. It could well be the case that it's bad business decisions on behalf of the Times that are depressing the crossword puzzle market. It is a mistake to believe that businessmen automatically know the best way to exploit something. There are more variables at work than you'd think.

Supply outstrips demand, and this isn't surprising: making crosswords is fun. Constructors start out as solvers. They like doing puzzles. Then, they realize that making crosswords is a puzzle in itself! It's no wonder that there is a glut of quality crosswords.

A hidden factor at work here is that people need work just to live. A lot of people, if they had the opportunity to survive, maybe not make a lot of money but still get by, would accept that and be freed to use a lot more of the limited time they have on this Earth, the great limiter, doing things they want to do. They'd be happier, and it'd force employers to pay more for the many necessary jobs people don't like doing. I consider this to be the hidden reason Republicans seem intent on destroying the safety net in the US, and why they seek to demonize those who take advantage of what there is. It's another way to reduce wages, and maintain control over the system; people who are greatly hurt by losing their job are less likely to complain, and work harder for less money. That's the source of all those terrible "at will" employment laws, courageously standing up for the right of employers to fire anyone they like for any reason at all, with no explanation needed, full stop.

I am also skeptical that the Times is as exploitative as Tausig makes out.

After being subject to their obnoxious website lockout scheme, I am not. But what does "exploitative" mean anyway? The workings of markets demand that executives utilize whatever means they can get away with to increase profit; their limits are legal ones, not moral ones. That is the very problem that I protesting.

He presents 2 million dollars as if it's big money, but it is chump change for an operation that is the size of the Times.

The Times is big, but there are lots of companies that are bigger. $2M is not "chump change" to them. To provide scale, Wikipedia notes that the total revenue from the NYT web paywall's first year of operation is around $100M.

Tausig also blames the Times for not advertising the constructors' names. I agree that constructors should get more credit than they do, but Tausig claims that "The anonymity that surrounds puzzle construction undoubtedly helps to maintain the status quo." I'm not sure what he's thinking.

It is the same thinking that kept Atari from revealing the names of programmers of its popular 2600 games. If people know the names behind the product, especially if the product is highly personal, they'll come to see the name of the author as being more important than that of the company. It is a way of preserving power, and thus value. It is in the best interests of the company to treat employees as replaceable, if they can get away with it. We assign moral value to things like acknowledging work, but executives will only give up a thing with economic value if approximate matching economic pressure is brought to bear against them.
posted by JHarris at 1:57 AM on December 12, 2012


JHarris, for the most part, I agree with what you've written. But what is the takeaway? What's the conclusion of the argument? I think it's fine for a crossword constructor to complain that he can't make a living doing what he loves. I could equally complain that I'm not getting paid for writing this Metafilter comment. But what is the stronger conclusion that is being argued for?

I think most of your comments also support the notion that Tausig does not have a good argument. You're saddling me with a lot of positive theses that I didn't state and that I don't believe. I was trying to show that the two arguments of Tausig's that I identified are unsound. From what I can tell, you should also find the arguments unsound.

First off is this statement, which subconsciously takes the workings of markets for granted, as objectively good. [...] lots of things influence supply and demand, many of them irrational, like marketing and fads. [...] and greatly favors entrenched economic interests who have the resources to mold public opinion and enrich themselves even more.

I'm not taking the workings of markets for granted as good, and I'm not sure why you imply that I don't think that entrenched economic interests can manipulate fads and public opinion. I believe in fads and market manipulation, and I agree that this can be a crappy thing. How is this relevant? The Times obviously wants to make crosswords as popular as they can.

You say that just because you don't have a replacement system, it doesn't mean that the current system is bad. OK, but I at least need a reason to think that the current system is bad. The model railroadist can grumble that the corporations are keeping him down. He can grumble that there could be a world in which Jennifer Garner makes model railroads the talk of the town. Every hobbyist could claim that about their hobby. I'd love it if Jennifer Garner started fawning over my Metafilter comments and I could thereby make a living just writing them. Doesn't mean it should happen. You say that I believe the valuations of the market have objective value and you counter by saying that assigning objective value to a thing is problematic. But I agree with you! That's why I don't think Tausig has an argument. If he wants to argue that crossword constructors deserve more of a market share, then he likely needs to show that crosswords have intrinsically more value than railroads or sudokus or video games or other things that could command the public's money.

That's why I think you should also find the first argument unsound.

It's all relative. A thing is small only in comparison to another thing is big. Just because someone sells millions doesn't mean 50,000 isn't significant.

I agree.

The Times is big, but there are lots of companies that are bigger. $2M is not "chump change" to them.

When you consider operational costs and the opportunity cost of running other features in the magazine space, the $2M gross dwindles pretty fast. It might be the case that the Times is making mad bank from their crosswords, but it's hardly obvious, and the $2M figure that's presented doesn't prove it. Anyway, for Tausig to get his argument off the ground, he needs to show that the Times is making too much profit at the expense of the constructors, and it's hard to know what counts as "too much." You agree:

what does "exploitative" mean anyway? The workings of markets demand that executives utilize whatever means they can get away with to increase profit; their limits are legal ones, not moral ones. That is the very problem that I protesting.

Yes, and that is why I do not think that Tausig's second argument is successful. You should also think so. If he wants to explain why the current situation is exploitative, he needs to explain what he means by "exploitative" and why there is moral exploitation going on. He doesn't. He just flashes a big number ($2M!). You can make a case for exploitation if you would like, but I'm not sure what it would be.

You are trying to argue against positive theses that you think I am making when I am just poking holes in Tausig's arguments. Your responses to my alleged positive theses are poking the same holes in Tausig's arguments.

It is the same thinking that kept Atari from revealing the names of programmers of its popular 2600 games.

The New York Times does publish the names of crossword constructors! Will Shortz is vocal about supporting constructors. What more should they do? How is it the fault of the New York Times if there's anonymity surrounding crossword puzzle creation? (Which I doubt; it is easy to jump on the internet and read philosophy blogs brimming with opinions about favorite constructors... heck, there was just a New Yorker profile on Henry Hook). This notion that the Times is bad for the visibility of crossword construction is very bizarre to me. The Times has increased interest in crosswords dramatically. Suppose that the Times got rid of its crossword section in the 90s. Are we supposed to think that we'd live in a world with more public exposure to crossword constructors? I doubt that.
posted by painquale at 11:18 AM on December 12, 2012


painquale: "heck, there was just a New Yorker profile on Henry Hook"

Extremely minor point: the New Yorker article about Hook was from 2002. He also came up once in an article about the Stamford Marriott Crossword Puzzle Tournament in 1987.
posted by Chrysostom at 12:09 PM on December 12, 2012


Oops! It was just linked on Metafilter and I got confused. Thanks for the correction.
posted by painquale at 12:38 PM on December 12, 2012


I am actually aware that the NYT publishes the names of constructors, but the crossword guy seems to think they don't. I was conceding to his knowledge there, assuming there must be markets of which I am not aware where the creator's name is downplayed. But thinking about it, every place I see NYT puzzles have listed the creator's name: printed compilations, iOS and Android compilations, and the Nintendo DS package. You can consider my comment changed to "IF the NYT is doing this, then this is why."

As for the rest, well, it was long enough to write it. It's going to take some time to read your nice response. I had my misgivings about writing that huge drain clog of a comment, sorry again.
posted by JHarris at 2:13 PM on December 12, 2012


I had my misgivings about writing that huge drain clog of a comment, sorry again.

Not at all! Never apologize for discussion!
posted by painquale at 2:38 PM on December 12, 2012


and the Nintendo DS package

So I'm not the only person to play that? Awesome!
posted by asperity at 2:44 PM on December 12, 2012


I loved that thing, one of the best purchases I ever made for the DS, had thousands of puzzles in it. Unfortunately I lost it when my DS was stolen.
posted by JHarris at 3:18 PM on December 12, 2012


(Oh BTW, Nintendo's own Crossword Puzzles DS card sucks tremendously.)
posted by JHarris at 3:33 PM on December 12, 2012


Yeah, I still haven't worked through all the NYT puzzles on the DS -- best thing ever on airplanes/transit. I didn't hear much good about that Nintendo one but did pick up the USA Today crossword puzzles game when I saw it for like $3. Haven't tried it yet.
posted by asperity at 5:45 PM on December 12, 2012


Hi all,

Great discussion and smart points all around. There might be some misunderstandings about the points made in my article. I'm happy to discuss if anyone has questions. (Including critical ones). If not, no worries, and thanks for your interest.

Ben Tausig
posted by datageneral at 12:04 PM on December 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


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