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Much ado about Sudoku
Can the popular Japanese number puzzle save newspapers or is it just a passing fad?
September 20, 2005: 9:20 AM EDT
By Paul R. La Monica, CNN/Money senior writer
Lucky numbers: Newspapers such as The New York Post have latched on to the Sudoku craze.
Lucky numbers: Newspapers such as The New York Post have latched on to the Sudoku craze.
Puzzling popularity: The ten most popular Sudoku books on Amazon.com, including this one from Plume, have sold nearly 200,000 copies during the past few months, according to data from Nielsen BookScan.
Puzzling popularity: The ten most popular Sudoku books on Amazon.com, including this one from Plume, have sold nearly 200,000 copies during the past few months, according to data from Nielsen BookScan.

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) Do you Sudoku?

Sudoku, or Su Doku, is the name for a maddeningly addictive Japanese number logic puzzle which has become a bona fide craze in the United States during the past few months.

The rules are simple. There is a nine-by-nine grid composed of nine three-by-three boxes. Some numbers are already filled in to a few of the 81 squares. The goal is to fill in all the squares so that each row, column and box contains the numbers 1 through 9 only once.

Click here to try two Sudoku puzzles

Scores of newspapers have added the game alongside the crossword puzzle. There are several Sudoku Web sites as well where people can play for free or pay to download programs that generate new puzzles.

And according to the most recent list of best-selling books tracked by USA Today, seven of the top 100 were compilations of Sudoku puzzles.

The rapid rise in popularity of the game has reminded some of the Rubik's cube phenomenon in the 1980s. So who stands to make money from Sudoku?

Wayne Gould, a Hong Kong-based entrepreneur who has written a computer program that generates Sudoku puzzles, said that his firm, Pappocom, has received "well over $1 million" in revenue in less than a year from the game.

His Sudoku.com Web site offers downloads of the puzzle. Gould also has written several Sudoku books. He has a publishing deal with Harper Collins, a subsidiary of News Corp. (Research)

Gould, who said he first discovered a book of Sudoku puzzles while vacationing in Tokyo in 1997, also offers his program to newspapers for free in order to generate more publicity for the game.

He said he first approached the Times of London in the fall of 2004 and after that paper published it, the game just took off, eventually spreading to the United States.

"People enjoyed it immediately and other papers noticed the jump in circulation," Gould said. More than 140 newspapers worldwide now feature his Sudoku puzzles, including the New York Post, Washington Post and Chicago Sun Times.

Will the game's popularity be a shot in the arm for the beleaguered newspaper industry? Shares of publishing stocks have slumped lately due to concerns about sluggish advertising growth and declining readership due to the growing popularity of online media.

So far, there are some hopeful signs. "This has been a fantastic launch for any new feature. It's unprecedented," said Kathie Kerr, a spokesperson for Universal Press Syndicate, which began offering a version of Sudoku to newspapers in May and already has 250 clients. "Newspaper editors feel Sudoku is a natural fit to capture new readers."

But the wide availability of the game could also wind up being a problem for companies trying to profit from it.

Although Dell Magazines, a privately held publisher of puzzle books, claims to have invented Sudoku in 1979 (at the time it was called Number Place), Gould, a retired judge, said that the game itself is in the public domain.

So it's not too hard for others to create their own Sudoku computer programs or launch Web sites featuring the puzzles.

To that end, Kerr said that Universal Press Syndicate is using a version of Sudoku written by British puzzle author David Bodycombe.

And Tribune Media Services, the content syndication arm of newspaper publisher Tribune (Research), began offering the game, based on a version created by British puzzle writer Michael Mepham, to newspapers in August. "It's doing quite well. We're excited about that. A lot of papers are paying attention to it," said Walter Mahoney, vice president of sales for Tribune Media Services, pointing out that it has customers ranging from publishers in Akron, Ohio to a newspaper in the Orkney Islands off the coast of Scotland.

Considering how fast the game has become a pop-culture phenomenon, Gould is a bit worried that the craze could cool just as rapidly. "The glut does concern me. But it's a free market," Gould said.

Still, Kerr believes that Sudoku won't be a fad.

"Crossword puzzles are the love of many people. There is a hope that newspapers can build the same kind of loyalty with Sudoku fans," she said.

For more Fun Money stories, click here.

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