What is a crossword worth?

The most appropriate question to start off a blog on the business of crosswords, surely?

In the past, this was a simple question. Authors supplied exclusively to newspapers, magazines and other publishers who had a fixed rate sheet for what they would pay based on size and often on additional features. How much the publishers made from each crossword was a much more opaque matter. For most newspaper and magazine, it was zero since they were mostly considered part of the cost of production to entice or retain readers.

Syndicates provided crosswords for a few pennies to sites that could not afford their own hoping to make it up in volume while they paid a relatively small per puzzle price to authors which set the worth of a crossword. The few syndicates that were successful passed very little of the higher revenues to the authors.

Some publishers made money from compilation books but in the non-digital world of printing costs, storage, distribution, shelf space, etc, a single crossword would be worth close to zero. The pricing was determined almost entirely from the brand rather than the crosswords.

Surprisingly, much of this model continues today although the production, consumption and distribution systems have evolved, many more authors are thinking in terms of revenue share and some are creating self-syndication products.

But one thing still remains the same. Authors make very little for the effort they put into constructing them. The better the quality and effort, less the returns. Publishers exist on razor-thin margins.

In this evolving world of increasing digital consumption, determining the worth of a crossword to price it correctly is a much asked and discussed topic with no clear answers. A simplistic answer, of course, is that it is determined by the supply and demand. True, but an useless axiom in any practical sense.

It is a much more complicated situation where the pricing is determined by author and solver expectations, modes of access to content, copyright protections (or lack of it), unethical business practices, publisher and author ignorance of digital media, and marketing techniques.

I will cover many of these aspects from my perspective in the coming days and weeks in these blogs and hopefully it will make the industry start to think in the big picture than in the silos that exist at the moment.

It will always be true even if simplistic that a crossword is worth what the solver is willing to pay. However, it is a mistake to assume that there is some magical number (or a range) that a solver is willing to pay and that it remains constant over time or even that it is consistent. In that sense, the very question I posed to start this blog is, unfortunately, a rather meaningless one even though it is a oft-asked question.

In my opinion, “What is a solving experience worth?” is a much more meaningful question especially in digital media where the worth is determined by a combination of the source, content, differentiation, branding, access, delivery, solving and more recently social media features. In other words, it is the entire ecosystem that determines the worth, not just a narrow view of the content.

The more pragmatic question for the industry really is how to create and maintain pricing power for a product with a relatively fanatical and addicted audience and yet with very little pricing power. The entire industry can take some blame for this – authors, publishers, distributors, software vendors, … I will take a look at this in some detail in the coming posts.

Next post: Crossword content differentiation – Is it a better hamburger or a more gourmet meal?

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