I am hoping to put up a puzzle today, but might not get round to it. I can at least point you at my puzzles during what is a fairly busy opening to July. There’s a Telegraph Toughie from Kcit on July 2 (nice they remembered my birthday), followed by a Times Quick Cryptic from Pedro and a Church Times puzzle under my own name on July 3. With the usual Friday Independent puzzle that makes three in a day, which is always a bit of a surprise. And if I’m slow off the mark updating the site in a fortnight, the Times Saturday competition puzzle on July 11 is from me as well.
More immediately, the Enigmatic Variations puzzle of 28 June is Extracts by Kcit (nip out and get it now!). The Enigmatic Variations has been the subject of a short but intense campaign this past few weeks. I first heard about it when the EV editor circulated all setters announcing the demise of the series and encouraging us to place our pipelined puzzles elsewhere. It struck me then that this was going to set a hare running and a mill producing rumours and – well, you wouldn’t want to guess where that might end up.
Of course, when a series ends you want to go out with some sort of a flourish, and plans were afoot for a couple of puzzles to end the series. I felt this rather hamstrung me in terms of commenting on the situation, but I was glad to put up Hedge-Sparrow’s comment a week or so ago. But of course the process of pacing puzzles elsewhere gets the other editors asking and, yes, I may have said something or other to someone or other. And eventually Alberich and fifteensquared pushed it further above the parapet – and very quickly the decision was reversed.
One thing this highlights is the unsuitability of entry numbers to determine interest in a crossword. Over the history of The Listener crossword (in The Listener magazine, not in its Times incarnation) there were attempts to stop publication, and there was always a groundswell of support in the mailbag from people who wouldn’t dream of entering and who thus weren’t being counted. A few years ago one of my Inquisitor puzzles appeared with the wrong grid and the Independent switchboard got more calls than the puzzle ever got entries (though I wouldn’t recommend this as a regular way of testing how many people do the crossword). The fact remains that the bean-counting mentality that dominates business is going to want something to count, and entries are the most obvious one to hand. The Inquisitor was doing all right, I was once told, if they got half a binful.
These days, of course, you can also look at blogs and (dare I say it?) some of the sites offering assistance to see whether puzzles are gaining attention. It may be better than entries, in fact. Entries are solicited via the prizes offered and, oddly enough, I don’t want another fountain pen (and nor do my family members), and my e-Chambers isn’t showing much sign of wearing out. Sponsorship has its place, but it also limits incentives as well as affording them. The IQ had boxes of chocolates (until lockdown) and previously Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin and those are more repeatable. (Mind you, I wouldn’t mind a new Brewer’s but I still haven’t received the Listener prize I won back in 2018 – just sayin’. Not that I’m bitter, or anything…)
Then there is the mode of entry. Postal entries are rather limiting unless you have a closing date that is some way in the future – not the 10-20 days that pertain. While the current circumstances are clearly unique, I was nonetheless amused to note that four of my Listener entries – posted at weekly intervals – arrived in Hertfordshire on the same day. Once again, measuring by entry numbers alone is going to underestimate the potential worldwide interest in your product (I understand the EV is even solved by people in New Zealand). I put my hand up here to note that I haven’t taken advantage of the EV e-entry option, and from now on I shall (even if they re-introduce the pen…). Well, maybe not today, of course.
It would be useful to know how prizes are chosen where the puzzle does have this mixed entry system – how do you choose when you have a dead-tree binful and an e-binful? That would go some way to reassuring would-be entrants. Similarly prizes should be more e-friendly. I can do very little with a book token (except send it to my brother-in-law) – I could do something with an e-voucher for some form of online shopping.
There has been a great expansion in puzzle solving during the present crisis which suggests an untapped market (and makes the EV decision even more unusual) – but the present approaches to publishing puzzles remain rather set in the past. It is not that we should throw out postal entries – that is years away – but new ways need to be brought in alongside the old.
This isn’t getting my next Times Jumbo gridded…excuse me while I open up my crossword program.