Evolving the crossword industry – why fix something that isn’t broken?

In the last post, I listed four categories for change in the crossword industry to move forward. There may be questions on many people’s minds as to what “move forward” means and why it is necessary. Valid questions.

So, before I continue with the next category of change and solutions, I will slip in a post to address this important issue to prevent losing at least some of the audience to “where is the problem?”.

The earlier posts may have given the appearance that the motivation for this blog is entirely one of commercialization coming from a company. For many authors, commercialization is a non-issue. Sometimes, it feels as if even some crossword publishers see it this way!. Like many hobby fields, the field of crosswords is full of individuals for whom it is a passion, not a commercial venture. For them, getting published in The New York Times (in the US), for example, is worth more than any money they could realistically get for it. Combine that with the instant gratification one gets from reader feedback and discussion of their puzzles, especially in this real-time digital world, what else would one want?

I understand this completely. That is how we started. Even after a decade of it, I still get immense satisfaction when I glimpse a traveler at an airport or a patron at a cafe pull out a crossword and I recognize it as being printed from Across Lite. The various compliments we have received over the years has been extremely gratifying. The idea that you may have touched someone or given them moments of pleasure is powerful and highly motivating and, unless you really need the money, quite sufficient.

So, for many, it might seem like a case of why try to fix something that isn’t broken.

One advantage of a decade of observation and experience is the ability to see slow evolutionary changes and trends and by being in the business, see a more global picture and have exposure to the dollars and cents calculations that support this “hobby” business. It is in a lot more precarious situation than most people may be aware of.

One of the motivations for doing the market survey I quoted from in the last post was this nagging feeling that perhaps avid crossword solvers were a dying breed. We have definitely seen an erosion in the number of people solving crosswords, at least in the traditional way. It has been masked, to a certain extent, by an increasing volume of chatter in the growing online channels such as blogs, e-mails and social media. But the volume of chatter shouldn’t be confused for the size of the audience. Were we losing audience or were traditional means simply being replaced with new means of production and distribution?

Everyone is aware of the audience decline in the printed newspaper and magazine industry which have supported crosswords in a big way. Authors take the existence of publishers in these channels and the rate of payments for granted at the moment. But if these channels are themselves suffering, would it have no effect on the crossword industry? Regardless of how you derive the value chain, even the small payments that the authors get need to be justified somehow in the business models of the channels that support them.

What about changes in the demographics? Is each successive generation still as enthused about the crosswords as the previous generation? Even if they are, do they look at them in the same way and use the same channels and media to get their crosswords to justify the status quo?

Most, I think, would not dispute that the above factors do have an effect on the industry and perhaps even negatively. But I doubt there would be any broad agreement on the extent of the effect. It would vary from a “head-in-the-sand” denial of any effect that matters to “world-is-ending” doom and gloom predictions. The reality, as always, is somewhere in between such extremes and polarizing to those extremes would miss the real danger.

What is the biggest risk that I see in the crossword industry with the status quo? It is increasingly losing relevance to the audience combined with a decrease in the amount of dollars available needed to maintain diversity and standards necessary to grow and maintain an audience base. Both of these are tightly coupled, of course. We can lose audience for two reasons, lack of time and motivation for intellectual pursuits that has been a long-time trend that we cannot do much about but also for being irrelevant in the form of media and delivery that the audience is moving towards or has the time for where we can do plenty.

This is not unlike what has been happening to the Theater and the playwrights (relatively speaking as they don’t compare in the amount of dollars). When is the last time you saw someone reading a play (let alone on a Kindle)? How many theater productions are available on Video On Demand on home theaters, the growing preferred medium for many previous patrons?

Arts have always needed an audience and a patronage to thrive. Most every form of Art has been moving, in history, towards greater and greater reliance on the patronage of the audience rather than the benevolence of a small patronage to cater cheaply to the wide audience – a vestige of the middle ages. Crosswords are still stuck in the benevolence of a few publishers as the patrons – even though many of these publishers have a threatened business model.

Here is a simple line of thought that I doubt most authors or even some publishers would have concerned themselves with. If the revenue source is shifting from printed media to online media for most of the channels and the distribution of crosswords in the online channels requires non-trivial investment to cater to the fast evolving plethora of devices and delivery mechanisms, what kind of a treatment would crosswords get when they go from being a marginal cost center to a significant cost center but still with no pricing power? Note that The New York Times is the ONLY source in the US for new crosswords with any pricing power for the product at the moment and even they might have trouble justifying providing patronage with the required investments in the new world, if we as an industry keep losing audience. Without it, how would the taken-for-granted patronage be justified?

In the above points, there would be no dispute. Any disagreement would be in whether the industry as a whole has a responsibility to keep and grow that audience or it is a matter of “not my problem” or “out of my hands” for some of the constituents. The main thesis of this series of posts in the blog is that it is everyone’s problem and responsibility and that each constituent can do (and must do) something about it.

The consequences, otherwise,  are very predictable. Minimal publication at the lowest cost as already evidenced by the fact that most online newspapers have invested very little and provide the bare minimum support for crosswords and can only support the cheapest sources available. New syndicates coming up in the future to create more diversity and sources and channels for authors? Forget it, there is no pricing power. Individual authors being able to provide high quality or differentiated content as an alternative? No way. All signs of a dying or stagnating industry at least in the traditional manner.

When people with an increasing number of mobile devices, for example, find arcane web publishing methods for crosswords unusable, or when parasitic web-scraping apps further reduce the need for people to even visit their sites where the publishers might perhaps justify carrying it on click-thru advertising, anyone who thinks crossword publishing in the traditional manner isn’t threatened in the near future ought to seriously examine their assumptions and their role in it.

Now, this isn’t to say crosswords will go away. They won’t. There is still money to be made with many different business models. But the very people who currently have the ability and the qualifications to maintain quality and standards will lose control and the markets because they have been oblivious to the need for attracting and growing their audience, oblivious to the need for a paying (direct or indirect) audience and perhaps even comfortable in the ignorance of what to do about it – “not my problem, where is the spec sheet..”.

They will be slowly, but surely, pushed aside by branded verticals outside of traditional published media that are smart about commerce and provide crosswords created by people with no pedigree or with slave labor from people who do have the pedigree but have no alternative,  and edited by people who have no qualifications. Made possible because they get to establish the narrative of what a crossword is or should be with the largest markets and they provide a product that is distributed and delivered in a manner that is relevant to that audience either in cost or convenience or both but not necessarily in quality or the level of enjoyment. In other words, most crosswords will come from the “Walmarts” of the future unless the industry provides a meaningful alternative or promotes an audience that expects more.

Some might think these views as unjustifiably alarmist, or as views not supported by what they hear in their circles or perhaps they are just so close to retirement that they don’t really care what happens more than a few years down the road! In such a case, this blog would be of limited use to them. But there is always the next generation of people coming into the industry and many progressives in the old guard. I will make a case for them that (1) we all need to acknowledge the seriousness of the trending problem and (2) that each of us can do something about it which is just common sense in other industries.

Moreover, even if you do not agree with the “negative” consequences of doing nothing, you might realize that the proposed changes and solution can certainly help the industry and the audience as a consequence and that is good for everyone involved.

What someone does about the problem is entirely a private choice but at least we would have made that choice with eyes wide open than shut. I would hate to be judged by history as being part of the industry generation that made good crosswords extinct or irrelevant.

Back to regularly scheduled thoughts in my next post: Crossword branding and differentiation – the reviews and ratings game.

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3 Responses to Evolving the crossword industry – why fix something that isn’t broken?

  1. D_Blackwell says:

    These posts have the veneer of substance, but seem vague and lacking specificity when red-penciled. Aside from the ‘business of crosswords’ hook, I haven’t got a clue what you are selling; product or philosophy.

    For example, references to ‘parasitic apps’ appear in this and the immediately preceding post; seemingly lobbed into the text haphazardly. I am missing the relationship to the point being made. The appearances seem almost non sequiturs. And the word choice is strong for a passing reference.

    “. . . or when parasitic web-scraping apps further reduce the need for people to even visit their sites where the publishers might perhaps justify carrying it on click-thru advertising. . .”

    . . . Parasitic apps who don’t care a whit about copyrights or site terms of service grab these crosswords and web page-scrape even more and deliver to the solvers. . . .”

    What ‘parasitic apps’ specifically, e.g., Crossword Butler?
    Though protecting “copyrights” can be problematic, content providers are not without a range of legal and IT defenses. Yet the subject seems tossed off as hopeless in the same sentence in which it is mentioned.

    I suspect that the ‘parasitic apps’ problem is tangential to the issue of monetizing content.

  2. Guda says:

    Thanks for the comment. The issue of copyrights and how lack of enforcement affects the business model is one very important component of this multi-faceted problem and I will cover it in more detail in the fourth category of change – protecting and growing the market.

    All original content producers face this problem, especially in the digital world. Aggregation sites have been problematic to content producers’ business model for a long time and the battle rages on. Aggregators in the crossword world have gone far beyond any reasonable definition of “fair use” (and other outs) typically used to justify aggregation services and so is much easier to prevent and enforce and not at all hopeless once the issues and consequences have been understood.

    I will explain this in the context of an excellent and timely working paper from Harvard Business School on the subject of news aggregation (which applies to any original copyrightable work in general) . I can also state with some confidence that you will start to see visible consequences of this concern in the industry very soon.

    1. Biology. An organism that grows, feeds, and is sheltered on or in a different organism while contributing nothing to the survival of its host.

    Anyone who has represented content producers’ interests or has worked on their business models knows first hand that the survival of the content producers is threatened by apps or aggregation services that contribute nothing or negligible monetary value to the content producers, reduce their monetization potential much more by weakening or destroying certain parallel business models and yet exist ONLY because of the very same content producers. This is why many legal teams including that of The New York Times have been publicly active in this area in recent times. If there is a better paradigm to describe this effect, I am open to suggestions. :-)

    “Selling a product or a philosophy?” not only suffers from false dichotomy because one could be selling neither but also begs the question, since one may not be trying to sell anything in the expression of a view for the purposes of self-examination or introspection within an industry. May I respectfully suggest that as a possible reason for the lack of a satisfactory resolution to that question?

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