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Real Rules of the Puzzle
-- Sunday NYT Crossword Pay Rates

At the bottom of the previous page you saw the pay rates as of July 2005 for the Sunday New York Times crossword and the six dailies Monday through Saturday.  They are a considerable increase compared to 12 years ago, and well above the inflation rate.

Below is a message of June 9, 2005 from the NYT puzzle editor, Will Shortz, to the listmom of the crossword constructors' online forum at CRUCIVERB.COM announcing the increases.

Starting July 4, the rate for daily puzzles will rise from $100 to $125.  When I became the crossword editor in 1993, the Times paid $50, so this is a double-and-a-half increase in 12 years.

Starting July 3, the rate for Sunday puzzles will increase from $350 to $600.  When I started, the Times paid $150, so this is a quadrupling of the amount since then.

The payment for diagramless crosswords will increase from $125 to $150.  The amount for cryptics and novelty puzzles will increase from $150 to $200.

These raises are the result of long, careful persuasion with the Times -- and the sympathetic ear of the person in charge of the budgets.  The increases are in recognition of the high degree of skill and effort required to make Times-quality crosswords, and in appreciation for the contributors' role in making the puzzles financially successful.

Further increases are scheduled next January.

--Will Shortz

First, note that these significant increases in pay rates since 1993 have no doubt resulted in better NYT puzzles.  Obviously, the more you offer to pay for a product, the harder are the competing suppliers of that product going to try to offer you a good one.

In fact, the rates have exactly tripled (and I mean exactly, down to the last decimal place) since 1993.  If the NYT had exactly kept pace with inflation over the 12-year period, the average pay rate per crossword would be $85.50.  Instead it is $192.86, or a full 125% better.

In any case, I got intrigued as to why a Sunday should pay so much more than a daily, $600 versus $125, so on June 12th I asked that forum the following question:

The new NYT rate for a daily 15 (225 squares) is $125, and the new rate for a Sunday 21 (441 squares) is $600.

Comparing only the number of squares, a Sunday should be 96% more difficult to construct, yet comparing only the pay rates it is 380% more difficult.

Why is a 21x worth so much more per square?

Three of the answers I received might increase your appreciation of the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle.

The first is from Kevin McCann, the listmom of that very forum.

I am by no means an expert, but here are my guesses why the Sunday NYT puzzle pays so much more:

First and foremost, the Sunday puzzle is the prime NYT offering.  While many solve the dailies, there are countless people who do only the Sunday puzzle.  The NYT's reputation is based largely on the quality of the Sunday crossword puzzle alone.

Of the Sunday puzzle submissions Will does receive, many of them are probably OK, but few are fantastic.  The truly wonderful masterpieces are rare.  Will wants to make sure he gets first crack at the rare and wonderful masterpieces; he wants to ensure the NYT's reputation is maintained.

To summarize, the high price is a statement to constructors that says, "The NYT has looked for and will continue to look for the best Sunday crosswords anywhere, and we will pay for it."

The second explanation for why Sundays pay so much more is from Vic Fleming, another experienced constructor who expresses himself well.

My experience has been that it takes a disproportionately longer time AT EVERY JUNCTURE to construct a GOOD 21x than it does to construct a GOOD 15x.

Theme Development -- For a 15x, I am off and running with only 5 or 10 possible entries.  On three 21x's that have been rejected by NYT and accepted by The Washington Post, the average number of possible theme entries that I came up with was 80.  (I have over 60 compiled right now for a 21x that I hope to construct to NYT standards, but I sense there is more yet to do.)

Grid construction -- For a 15x, with three 15-letter answers or four 10- or 11-letter answers, I can often construct a highly workable grid in five minutes.  For a 21x, with 7 to 10 theme entries totaling 80 to 100 letters, it often takes three hours, and even then it's usually necessary to adjust the grid during the fill.  [Note to those who have not spent any time constructing crosswords: To have to "adjust the grid" can mean not just a little but a whole big whale of a lot of extra work.]

Fill -- With a 15x, a solid hour will usually result in a quality fill, and an hour of tweaking will improve it immensely.  With a 21x, the potential for duplications of words alone runs that process to at least double the time, and more often triple.  On a 21x fill that was "fighting back" recently, I sat down at 8:00 p.m. and worked uninterrupted until midnight in order to ensure a quality fill.

Clue-writing -- This will vary from constructor to constructor and puzzle to puzzle, but in a 15x, there are usually 10 to 20 non-theme entries that a constructor will give really individualistic clues to.  In a 21x, there are usually 2 to 3 times as many.  The 142-word 21x exceeds the 78-word 15x by only 82% in terms of number of words.  But the custom-writing of clues for the liveliest entries takes twice to three times as long.

The third explanation, dated June 12th, is from another presumed expert.

The reason for the disproportionately higher rate for Sundays over dailies is simply supply and demand.  It's much more difficult to get great Sunday puzzles than great daily ones.

You might think, by counting the number of squares, that a 21x crossword is only about twice as hard to make as a 15x.  In fact, though, because Sunday themes are much more elaborate than daily ones -- and need somehow to be more special -- they require more than twice the work and skill to create.

Also, I require Sunday puzzles to have fairly wide-open grids (the maximum word count is usually 140), while themed dailies don't need this -- again making the Sunday puzzles disproportionately harder to write.

-- Will Shortz

Update of January 11, 2014: According to an email today to cruciverb.com from Will Shortz the rate for dailies has risen again.

Good news: Effective immediately, the rate for daily New York Times crosswords will be increased to $300 from $200. The rate for Sunday crosswords remains the same -- $1,000.

This increase is in recognition of the time and tremendous skill it takes to construct a high-quality crossword.

I'm proud to have managed to get the Times's daily rate increased from $40 to $300 during my 20 years at the paper. And I will do my best to get the rates increased further in the future.

A $40 fee in 1993 raised by the price of inflation for the 20 years since then results in a fee of $69.32.  Said another way, after taking inflation into account the rate for the six dailies at the NYT has risen 332.77%, which is more than quadruple.

The annual NYT budget for constructors' fees as of January 11, 2014, is as follows:

$1,000 times (365.25 / 7 days per week) for the Sundays


$300 times [365.25 / (6/7)] for the six dailies


$52,178.57 + $93,921.43

= $146,100.  Not that it matters much, but that's exactly $400 per puzzle.

Here's a message on that same day to that same forum on that same subject.

Date: Sat, 11 Jan 2014 13:45:46 -0500
From: Peter Gordon <xwords@optonline.net>
Subject: [C-L] Increase in rates for Fireball crosswords
To: cruciverb-l@mail.cruciverb.com

Better news: Effective with puzzles published April 1, the rate for Fireball crosswords will be increased to $300.56 from $205. (All slots before April 1 are filled, so any new submission will get the new rate.) Subscribers will also get an extra $0.44 (the price they paid per puzzle, since they don't get much of a challenge solving their own puzzles), bringing their total to $301.

This increase shows that independent crosswords can compete with the big boys.

I'm proud to maintain my status as the highest-paid crossword in the industry. And I will do my best to keep it that way.

--Peter Gordon


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