When the sudoku craze swept the country in 2005, AdAge questioned whether it was the “Rubik’s cube for the 21st century” but also pointed out that it had been around in various versions for thousands of years. Its modern guise was invented by an American architect, Howard Garns; his “Number Place” ran in Dell Pencil Puzzles and Word Games for the first time in 1979 and actually spread from the U.S. to Japan, where Japanese publisher Nikoli renamed it “sudoku.” In 1997, New Zealand judge Wayne Gould rediscovered sudoku in a Tokyo bookstore, began producing the puzzles on his computer, and pitched a book to the London Times in 2004. Sudoku became a transatlantic hit when Peter Mayer at the Overlook Press, Esther Margolis at the Newmarket Press, and Matthew Shear at St. Martin’s struck deals to publish U.S. titles. Today, St. Martin’s has 12 million sudoku titles in print.
Can we expect to see another sudoku soon, or will it take 25 more years? And can book publishers hope to grab a stake in the next puzzling trend, or are games all going to be iPhone app terrain from here on in?
Sterling, which has a long history of successful puzzle publishing, started a new games and puzzles imprint, Puzzlewright Press, at the beginning of this year. Puzzlewright is headed by Executive Editor Peter Gordon, who’s been with the company for twelve years. “What makes puzzle books special,” says Gordon, “is that you don’t read them, you ‘do’ them. When you’re done, the books are full of answers, erasures, scratch-outs, etc. It’s completely consumed. From a publisher’s point of view, this is a great thing. You can’t lend someone your book when you’re finished.”
Andrews McMeel Publishing has also expanded its puzzle publishing over the past five years, says Amy Worley, VP of Marketing. Worley agrees with Gordon that puzzle books are unique because they are “consumables”: “When a reader is done with a puzzle book, they’re done. They probably wouldn’t keep a finished puzzle book on their shelf or give it to a friend.” Libraries won’t buy consumable books, so sales outlets must be found elsewhere, but the sudoku craze turned up a new group of puzzlers. “What’s amazing about the whole sudoku craze is that the other puzzle books didn’t suffer drops in sales,” says Gordon. “So the sudoku craze brought all new people to the puzzle section. It didn’t take solvers away from the sales of crosswords or other books.”
As Sterling and Andrews McMeel have expanded their puzzle publishing programs, others have contracted. Random House and Simon & Schuster are not currently growing their games and puzzles publishing programs. The first book Simon & Schuster published, in 1924, was The Crossword Puzzle Book, but “we have stayed true to our roots and have not done other variations for some time,” says Marcia Burch, VP, Publicity Director, Touchstone/Fireside. “We are not expanding at this point.” However, the company “repackaged and refocused” its puzzle books earlier this year after “several discussions with major accounts.” The books’ covers are now “warmer” and show photos of comfy couches, cozy candle-lit living rooms, and other places you might want to do a crossword puzzle.
Indeed, in many cases it’s not about the content so much as the package. “Packaging has a great impact on sales,” says Gordon, and Puzzlewright offerings include small Sit and Solve books meant to be used on the toilet (over 5 million copies sold) and “Martial Arts” sudoku books ranging in difficulty from white belt to black belt. Puzzle books also offer branding opportunities. Puzzlewright has a Hasbro line (including Trivial Pursuit Crosswords and Boggle Sudoku), a Mensa line, and partnerships with USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and others, in which the original publication holds the copyright. With the popularity of sudoku, the company has expanded its line of language-free books and has a multi-book arrangement with Nikoli for sudoku and sudoku-like puzzles.
“Crosswords and sudoku are by far our bestsellers,” says Karen Corvello, Head Buyer at R.J. Julia Booksellers. “The New York Times crossword books sell the best for us. Sudoku stills moves briskly, though it has slowed down a bit from two years ago, when everyone had first discovered it.”
“We go after a general audience of adults with different levels of puzzles,” says Lisa Senz, Associate Publisher at St. Martin’s, which publishes the NYT’s Will Shortz–edited books. “We’ve recently been successful with a more gift-oriented packaging that includes a spiral binding and a paper-over-board cover with special effects.” The company describes its “Little Luxe” game books as the books “every puzzle fan will want to be seen solving this season.” Similarly, Andrews McMeel has introduced a “Posh Puzzles” series with upscale cover designs (“sophisticated and feminine”) and “green” puzzle books, made from recycled materials.
Puzzle books’ throwaway nature, says Tom Russell, VP, Publisher, Random House Information Group, make them unique to sell. “I hesitate to use the word ‘commodities,’ but there’s certainly a downward price pressure, or at least there’s not very much opportunity for the books to get more expensive than they already are,” he says. “We’re always looking to see where we can realize efficiencies . . . keeping in mind that for a lot of these books we’re not going to be able to go much higher than eight, nine dollars.” He says that if Random House were to expand its puzzle publishing, “if there’s a growth area for us I would see it definitely being more electronic.”
And the cheapest (and greenest) way to solve a puzzle, of course, is online. “Games, because of the inherent interactivity, are clearly more affected by the move to digital than other types of books,” says Worley. And Russell notes the “many fun distractions online that print crossword puzzles have to compete with. There’s only so much time in the day and so much bandwidth for people to have fun.”
But Gordon doesn’t believe that direct competition from web puzzles has hurt puzzle book sales. “While you can get a lot of free puzzles online, most puzzles still work better on paper. And while you can get literally billions of sudoku online for free, it’s cheaper to buy a book of puzzles than it is to buy the paper and ink needed to print them out at home. . . . As for e-books, until there’s an easy way to fill in grids, e-books won’t be taking away a share of the puzzle book market. If you need to write in the book to solve it, it won’t work as an e-book.” Still, you can follow Puzzlewright on Twitter to receive a free puzzle of the day. Simon & Schuster does offer crossword puzzle e-books and has a $4.99 “365 Crosswords” iPhone app, which gives users the option of solving in “pen” or “pencil” mode (and which can also reveal answers by the letter, word, or entire grid—an advantage not available to would-be newspaper puzzle cheaters).
So what’s the next sudoku? Senz says it’s KenKen, which is owned by Nextoy and is “a natural extension of sudoku but with some additional math in the puzzle.” St. Martin’s now publishes a line of Shortz-branded KenKen books. Corvello, however, says that so far, R.J. Julia has seen “very little movement with the new puzzles from Japan.”
Running Press and Berkley, meanwhile, have spun off in an entirely different direction: turning sudoku into fiction with their separate lines of sudoku mysteries (by Shelley Freydont and Kaye Morgan, respectively).
“Sudoku is a great puzzle. It’s so simple to learn, yet it can be so complex to solve. But it can also be kept easy if that’s what you want. That’s a tough combination to duplicate, and I’ve seen some pretty poor attempts,” says Gordon. “Nikoli has some fantastic puzzle types that I think could be just as popular if they can get a foothold. But with newspaper readership dropping fast, it may be hard to duplicate the success of sudoku.”
Nevertheless, he adds, “As more and more research shows that to prevent brain problems later in life you need to exercise your mind, I see a bright future for puzzle books. A daily crossword or sudoku is a lot more fun than a daily jog.”