Solving The Broken Crossword Puzzle Economy

The crossword puzzle can seem utterly authorless. If you haven’t caught the documentary Wordplay, or bothered to look up the name that appears in tiny agate type below the grid in The New York Times, you might join many others in assuming that the crossword is written by editor Will Shortz. Or volunteers. Or a computer.

In fact, crosswords are made by people (called constructors) whose status is roughly equivalent to freelance writers—that is to say, low. Puzzles are sent on spec to editors, who buy them or turn them down, and who fine-tune the ones they accept without, as a nearly universal rule, consulting the constructor. Submissions may sit in an editor’s inbox for months or even years before the author hears back. (A few months ago, constructor Tim Croce received an acceptance from The New York Times—for a puzzle he submitted in 2001.) Even after a puzzle is accepted, the constructor may not know in advance when it will run. Attribution comes in the form of fine-print bylines, and in syndication the author’s name is often excluded altogether. And this is true not just at The Times, but at other papers that run puzzles, such as Newsday and the LA Times. If you’re hoping for riches, you’ll be disappointed. Pay is—to use a puzzle term—olid (foul). Most outlets offer less than $100 for a daily crossword and less than $300 for a Sunday-sized, despite the huge number of readers who presumably buy the paper in part or in whole for the crossword, and despite the substantial labor and creative energy that construction requires. For aspiring constructors, things don’t look so rosy—but that’s changing.

The financial stakes of the crossword are higher than a casual solver might realize. The New York Times, which runs the most prestigious American crossword series, pays $200 for a daily or $1,000 for a Sunday, which is certainly more generous than its competitors. However, The Times also makes piles of money from its puzzles. Standalone, online subscriptions to the crossword cost $40 a year ($20 for those who already subscribe to the dead-tree edition of the paper). In this 2010 interview, Will Shortz, the paper’s famed puzzle master, estimated the number of online-only subscribers at around 50,000, which translates to $2 million annually.

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.” All royalties go to the New York Times Company, the constructor having signed away—as is the industry standard—all of his or her rights. Visitors to NYTimes.com will also be familiar with the crossword merchandise—mugs, shirts, calendars, pencils, and the like—pitched aggressively by the paper, and perhaps also with the 900 number answer line, which still makes some money from a presumably less Google-minded segment of solvers. Finally, the crossword has a significant impact on overall circulation. Lots of people buy the paper, or even subscribe, in whole or part because of the puzzle. Of course the feature has expenses as well, including Will Shortz’s salary, the cost of testing, and so on, but these are moderate compared to the millions of dollars that the puzzle earns from a variety of revenue streams. And out of that total, constructors collectively earn well under $200,000.

To be clear, Shortz is not brandishing the ulu (Inuit knife) at this holdup. In fact, he has presided over a humane increase from $50 to $200 for daily puzzles and $150 to $1,000 for Sunday puzzles in his two decades at the paper. The last one, in 2007, came about from what he described as “long, careful persuasion with the Times.” (Shortz has also been a hugely important force in the popularization of modern crosswords; the darts in this article are aimed more at the Sulzbergers than Shortz.) The Times has been very conservative about further pay increases, and the issue of giving constructors royalties for republished puzzles has never been seriously raised, ostensibly because of the challenges of keeping track of the bookkeeping but more likely because constructors lack any clout.

PUZZLE-MAKING AS OCCUPATION

When I published my first crossword in 2004, I took a typical path, trying my hand at making a grid on a sheet of paper and, with some mentorship from old hands on the Cruciverb-l email list, eventually refined it to the point of saleability. My first acceptance came from USA Today, and ones from the LA Times and New York Times followed not long after.

This was a fairly standard path for a constructor. But less typically, I also reached out to alternative weeklies that I noticed didn’t run a puzzle, to see if they might be interested in supporting a new weekly feature. Before my Times puzzle had even been published, I was given a trial run at the San Francisco Bay Guardian. I developed an email pitch that promised a sometimes racy and opinionated puzzle with a focus on “contemporary music, film, food, sexuality, art, and slang.” A number of papers bit, including the Village Voice and Chicago Reader. The pitch became a syndicated weekly puzzle called Ink Well that I continue constructing to this day. Meanwhile, in 2006, I was offered the editorship of the then-newly launched Onion A.V. Club crossword, which was my first opportunity as an editor. Although longtime constructors told me in no uncertain terms that crosswords could only ever be a hobby, I was increasingly able to scrape together a living from those two features, along with some book contracts, and an assortment of freelance projects.

In fact, I made it through graduate school while splitting my mental energy between fieldwork methods and lurid clues. (Thing caught in the act? (3 letters) … STD.) PhD student stipends don’t go very far, especially if you live in New York, so puzzles were and remain a serious part of my professional life. My career in puzzles hasn’t been typical, but nor has it been unique; others have carved out careers by combining weekly features with book royalties and editing gigs, for example. Few of us, however, have any job security. Writing puzzles is a lot like freelance writing—except possibly even more marginal.

THE NEW CROSSWORD MODELS

The anonymity that surrounds puzzle construction undoubtedly helps to maintain the status quo. Puzzle outlets implicitly tell authors that they should feel lucky to have their work appear in a major paper, rather than entitled to honest payment and acknowledgement. And for those who construct only one puzzle a year (or in a lifetime), perhaps the satisfaction of seeing their work published is enough. But for those of us who construct more regularly—who may even consider the pursuit a livelihood—our minute share of crossword earnings is frustrating and unfair.

Until recently, papers like The Times had little incentive to change their policies. The only pressure they have ever felt came from the now-defunct New York Sun, whose editor, Peter Gordon, continually raised his rates to at least one dollar higher than what The Times was paying in order to be able to claim that he paid the highest rate in the country. Shortz would then, in turn, be compelled to petition the Times to raise its rates. But since The Sun folded in 2008, The Times hasn’t budged a single ecu (old French coin).

Today, though, things are a bit different. A number of alternative puzzles have become viable through online and in-app distribution. Features like Matt Gaffney’s Crossword Contest (xwordcontest.com) and Brendan Emmett Quigley’s twice-weekly puzzles (brendanemmettquigley.com) rival any major newspaper in quality—and surpass them in edginess: consider Brendan’s recent theme answer WAX AND WANK, clued as “Pleasure yourself after a Brazilian?” According to Brendan, “While I still sell puzzles to the Times, I find the speed at which print media operates too stifling. When I make a puzzle I want it to be out in the world almost immediately. Writing for the digital world allows that freedom.” The existence of alternative outlets provide an important shim (wedge) in the labor showdown between constructors and publishers. Puzzlemakers with their own sites have full financial control and access to a growing audience. However, not every aspiring puzzle constructor can launch his or her own weekly feature, and Matt and Brendan are self-published authors rather than editors in the main. What is needed is a more equitable model for constructor compensation in edited crosswords, digital or otherwise. What might such a model look like?

As I mentioned earlier, for the past six years I have managed and edited the Onion A.V. Club crossword, which recently moved to a subscription service after being dropped by the newspaper that launched it. As of last month, we are called the American Values Club xword (Avxwords.com ), and we continue to specialize in pop culture/dumb sex jokes. (Example: Caleb Madison’s recent “Deal with one’s period, perhaps?” (4 letters) … EDIT.) Rather than buying work outright from constructors, we offer a base rate of $100, plus a fixed percentage of all royalties—from apps, books, or anything else. As the feature has grown, payment has risen to an average of well over $200 per puzzle, surpassing The Times and all other outlets despite our comparatively tiny size. Furthermore, there is no effective limit to what American Values constructors might earn, which seems perfectly fair given that they are artists whose creative products are the sole reason the feature exists, let alone succeeds. This model benefits constructors, of course, by paying them a fair share, and it benefits the editor by incentivizing better puzzles. There is nothing arcane about these economics, and their implementation is a simple matter of having the will to put a better system in place.

All of the pressure in the crossword industry today pushes against fairness, but there is an opportunity to turn alee (away from the wind). If more editors come to recognize the upside of increased base rates and royalty-sharing—and especially if constructors grow to demand those things—then puzzlemakers might finally get the recognition and compensation they deserve.


Related: Seven Years as a Freelance Writer, or, How To Make Vitamin Soup


Ben Tausig is the editor of the American Values Club xword, available by subscription, and the author of the syndicated alt-weekly puzzle Ink Well xwords. He has been a freelance and syndicated puzzlemaker since 2004, and writes for sites like The Classical and Dusted Magazine, in addition to working on a PhD in ethnomusicology from NYU.