Ever hear of Sudoku?
If you donâ€™t like puzzles, you probably havenâ€™t.
Not only is Sudoku the biggest thing to hit the puzzle world in years–perhaps ever–it is also a bona fide book publishing phenomenon.
Iin 2005, there were seven crossword puzzle books on Nielsen BookScanâ€™s list of the 50 bestselling adult game books. A year later, there were none. Sudoku books had taken over the category, accounting for 40 of the top 50 spots. In 2004, according to Bowkerâ€™s Books In Print database, there were no Sudoku books published in the U.S. Last year, 233 were published in the U.S. and more than five million were sold.
What is Sudoku, and how did it take the publishing world by storm?
Sudoku is a logic-based, number placement puzzle. The object is to fill a 9-by-9 grid â€“ and a 3-by-3 sub-grid — with digits from 1 to 9 without using a number more than once. The name â€œSudokuâ€, in fact, means â€œsingle digitsâ€ in Japanese. Numbers are used as a convenience. They possess no inherent arithmetic value and derive none from relationships with any other numbers on the grid. You could just as easily use alpha characters, shapes or colors to achieve the same effect.
The story of how Sudoku became a worldwide sensation bears repeating because it is a textbook example of how the chain of events leading up to an ideaâ€™s tipping point only begins with the original act of creation. If the Sudoku pandemic shows us anything, itâ€™s that the inventor is the least important part of the puzzle.
Howard Garns–a retired 74-year-old architect and freelance puzzle constructor from Indiana–designed a new kind of numbers puzzle in the late 1970â€™s. In 1979, Dell Magazines published Garnsâ€™ puzzle as â€œNumbers Place.â€ Itâ€™s safe to say that it enjoyed a modest success at best. Garns died in 1989, years before his Numbers Place would take over the world as Sudoku.
In 1984, Garnsâ€™ puzzle was introduced in Japan by Maki Kaji, the publisher of Nikoli magazine. Numbers Place became â€œSuuji wa dokushin ni kagiru,â€ which roughly translates to â€œthe digits must be single.â€ A couple of years later, Kaji shortened the name to â€œSudoku,â€ and modified the rules to create a more symmetrical grid. The importance of the name change cannot be overstated. It gave the puzzle an exotic cache that, years later, would make it irresistible to Westerners. Kaji trademarked the name â€œSudoku,â€ and to this day carries a business card that says, â€œFather of Sudokuâ€.
If the story stopped here, Sudoku would probably have been one of a number of popular Japanese puzzles, while Garnâ€™s Numbers Place would have likely disappeared in time——except that in 1997, a retired (I guess only retired people have the time to think up these things) Hong Kong judge from New Zealand named Wayne Gould, stumbled on a partially completed Sudoku puzzle in a Japanese bookstore. Gould became obsessed with Sudoku, and spent the next six years developing a computer program to generate puzzles on the quick. He then pitched Sudoku to The Times of London, who published Britainâ€™s first â€œSu Dokuâ€ puzzle in November 2004. Soon after, the U.K., and then continental Europe, fell to Sudoku.
Gouldâ€™s computer program was essential to Sudokuâ€™s viral-like growth. Before Gould, crossword and other puzzles were hand-crafted by freelance â€œconstructorsâ€ and then vetted by puzzle gurus before they were published. What Gould did was make it possible to quickly produce an unlimited number and variety of Sudoku puzzles that would eventually support the rapid global expansion to any newspaper in the world, regardless of whether they had a puzzle expert on staff. In recent years, this has also made it possible to produce Sudoku puzzles and games for mobile phones and other portable entertainment devices.
The Conway Daily Sun in New Hampshire was the first newspaper in the U.S. to publish a Sudoku puzzle by Gould. In April, 2005, the New York Post became the first major American daily to run Sudoku. In short order, every other major newspaper in the U.S. followed suit — except for the New York Times. Ironically, in spite of its crossword snobbery, it was the New York Times that gave Sudoku the credibility it needed to grow beyond the readers of daily tabloids and entertainment magazines.
In June of 2005, after Sudoku began to take off in the U.S., St. Martinâ€™s Press was worried that they would be left behind, and they called their star crossword author, Will Shortz, to beg him to deliver three Sudoku books of 100 puzzles each in ten days. Working with a computer programmer in the Netherlands, Shortz gave St. Martinâ€™s what they wanted. Shortzâ€™s first book was an immediate bestseller, as were every one of his Sudoku books since. According to Publishers Weekly, by the end of 2005 Shortzâ€™s books accounted for 30% of all Sudoku titles that sold at least 100,000 copies; by the end of 2006, Shortz had authored an astounding 59% of all Sudoku bestsellers on the PW list. St. Martinâ€™s was now trying to keep up with demand, printing a million copies of Shortzâ€™s books every month.
In case you didnâ€™t recognize his name, Will Shortz is the crossword editor of the New York Times. He is worshiped by millions who hunger for his wit, elegance, and erudition — and canâ€™t function without tackling his puzzle in the Times every day, especially the monster published in the Sunday magazine section. Once Will Shortz lent his enormous prestige and standing (and that of the New York Times, in a way) to Sudoku, it became okay for legions of educated â€œword nerdsâ€ to surrender to it.
There you have it. The recipe for success is short and simple:
1. a great idea
2. an even greater name
3. a mindless machine to produce a never-ending supply of engaging, addictive content
4. a revered prophet to come down from the mountain to give his blessing
Now you try it.
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