[This is the grid I submitted. It's the same as the final version, save the first letter in the puzzle. During edit this was changed to BIG A/BSS. I think my entries are better, but I understand (I think) the logic behind the change. RIGA/RSS could be a straight-up Natick at the R, whereas BIG A/BSS is inferable, even if less elegant.]
The puzzle in today's New York Times is a themeless one by me. I like it fine -- standard Friday fare, I think. Actually, I'm going to give myself more credit: I think it's a little better than the average Friday puzzle. I don't have too much to say about it other than that, but I do want to talk about something else crossword puzzle related.
A few days ago, noted crossword puzzle blogger Rex Parker sent out an intriguing tweet calling for constructors to stop "submit[ting] xwords to the NYT until they pay fairly".
I was going to send a reply tweet with some thoughts, but I didn't, because over the years I've developed a strong aversion to responding to things on social media. I found one of three things happens: (1) nobody cares or responds to my post; (2) somebody cares too much, and I end up in a "comments battle," in which nobody can express themselves fully, both sides just dig in deeper and deeper, and nothing gets accomplished, other than I waste a bunch of time to get stressed out and irritated over nothing; (3) I have a satisfying and informative exchange. I will let you guess which of these three happens to me the least frequently, by far. I do post comments on-line, but it's typically about uncontroversial topics in fora in which I already feel comfortable. (Twitter is not one of these; I think I have three followers and have sent fewer than ten tweets total.)
But this is a topic I'm interested in, so I want to write about it. The first question:
What is fair pay?
Currently the NYT pays constructors $300 for daily puzzles and $1,000 for Sunday puzzles. After some number of puzzles (20, I think), you get a 20% increase, so I now get $360 for a daily and $1,200 for a Sunday (theoretically, I haven't submitted a Sunday-sized puzzle in years). If you do the arithmetic, this means the NYT likely pays its constructors less than $175,000 total per year.
On first blush, this might not seem that low. I would gladly write the New York Times puzzle everyday for that annual salary. But, of course, the quality of the puzzle would suffer drastically, because I would very quickly run out of good ideas, and I would be time-pressed on the weak ideas I did have. If I'm getting over half my puzzles rejected now, when I can cultivated them over days or even weeks, how would things look if I had to pump one out everyday? I don't think any constructor could keep that pace (although Zhouqin Burnikel appears to be trying!).
That's the thing about the NYT puzzle. It's the cream of the crop (as judged by Will Shortz, of course), culled from the oeuvres of many good constructors. It's like having an inhuman super constructor on staff. And what is fair pay for an inhuman super constructor? Well, it depends, I suppose, on how much revenue they generate for the paper. And on this topic we can only guess. I don't know of any publicly available analysis speaking to this, and it's possible the paper doesn't even really know itself, as it's a very difficult thing to quantify.
But here's a number I'll throw out there: $8 million a year. It comes from this guy, whose source is a BuzzFeed article, whose source is somebody "familiar with" the paper. This only includes money from the digital crossword puzzle subscription, so it is very clearly an underestimate of the total amount the puzzle generates for the paper, as it excludes the puzzle's probably still rather substantial dead-tree value. But I'd rather underestimate than overestimate, so let's go with $8 million.
There is no hard-and-fast rule dictating the percentage of a business' sales that should go to payroll, but from what I can gather reading online, it's usually between 15% and 30%. So let's go 20%. On $8 million, that's $1.6 million. Let's say half of this goes to NYT crossword puzzle staff -- editors, testers, bloggers, etc. -- and half of it goes to the constructors. (I have no idea what the real percentage is; I'm just trying to make reasonable, conservative guesses, here.) That's $800,000 a year for constructors. That's roughly five times more than we get now.
If I'm not wildly overestimating things (and I suspect, if anything, I'm way off in the other direction) then the New York Times could easily afford to pay constructors around $1,800 for a daily puzzle and $4,500 for a Sunday puzzle. That's a significant bump.
So then what gives, why don't they pay more?
The obvious answer: They don't have to.
I suspect that this is due, in large part, to inertia. This is the pay model that was in place decades ago, so it's the pay model that's in place now. I don't think businesses alter their operations to increase costs unless they are absolutely forced to. And the NYT puzzle seems to be selling fine. From their perspective -- why change?
After all, even if you think there are better puzzles out there now (say, Fireball or various indies), the NYT has the reputation and they have Will Shortz, who's not just a crossword celebrity, but an actual celebrity. These two reasons are enough for people to buy the puzzle (for now, anyway). In the short to medium term, the solvers are mostly expendable. The "puzzle master" Will Shortz is the star, and the paper is clearly staking a claim on his reputation. You can see this in the print version of the puzzle: Will's name appears larger and in a more prominent location than the constructor's.
And, by the way, this isn't a criticism of Will, with whom I've only had positive (if limited) correspondences. He earned his reputation through decades of good work. Throughout his tenure, he's significantly transformed the NYT puzzle in a positive way and deserves a lot of credit for that. Also, I think I heard that he's the main reason why the constructor has a byline at all (previously we were anonymous). And he claims to be an advocate for higher constructor pay. To what extent and what that means exactly -- I have no idea.
Now, if all the top constructors heeded Rex Parker's call and stopped submitting to the NYT, then I do think the quality of the puzzle would degrade enough that solvers would eventually catch on and get their puzzle fix elsewhere. (Rex would tell you -- or rather, he does tell you, everyday on his blog -- that the quality erosion is already in full effect and has been for years. I'm not nearly as down on the NYT puzzle as he is, but, if I'm being honest, I don't think he's totally wrong.)
But a "constructors' strike" is not something that's likely to happen. For one thing, there is a collective action problem. For another thing, there is no "constructors' union". Somebody would have to organize all this from scratch, and I don't see anybody agitating to step up and do so. And even if somebody did, I don't know if a critical mass of constructors would go along with it. I suspect a decent percentage of us: (a) don't think we're underpaid (they take the libertarian view -- our work is worth only what we can sell it for on the open market); (b) don't care; (c) do care, but are still willing to submit.
I definitely fall (fell?) into camp (c). In the same Twitter thread mentioned above, Rex attributes this general perspective to ego and the thrill of seeing one's name in the paper. He's not totally wrong, but I think he's overly cynical. It is exciting to see your byline appear above something in the New York Times. But the thrill wears off pretty quickly. What it's more about for me is distribution infrastructure. When you do something you think is cool, you want to share it with as many people as possible. It's not ego; it's a different compulsion. And the New York Times is still the best for this. They have the biggest audience. I once tried to get my own indie site going, and it sucked and I hated it. I'd much rather send my puzzles somewhere and be done with them.
There's also the fact that constructors love constructing and do it as a hobby for fun all the time. If you have a hobby, and you can make a couple grand a year on it, it feels a lot like "found" money. It's hard to get riled up about worker exploitation, when you are periodically getting $360 checks, for spending your free time the way you want to spend it. I'm well aware that I can only do this because I don't depend on crossword puzzles as part of my income and that this mindset is precisely what allows places like the New York Times to underpay everybody. But on the other hand, it doesn't feel right to tell somebody they shouldn't sell their work for whatever they are willing to sell it for.
So what do you do about it?
Well, I'm probably not submitting to the New York Times for a while, but that's more because I have "constructor's block" than anything else. To make matters worse, after a tremendous streak of acceptances, I've had my last few puzzles rejected, and it's perpetuated something of a crossword funk. I don't feel like I have any good ideas, and when I do get one, it completely falls apart when I attempt to translate it to the grid. Right now, it feels like I'm done submitting to the NYT, because it feels like I'm done submitting everywhere. But that's probably not the case. I'll probably come out this, and when I do, I'm not exactly sure how I will proceed.
Well, I think I've spilled enough ink on this topic for now. Please comment if you have any criticisms or thoughts on this analysis. Until next time...