Trying not to Work

Oops. Missed out 6 down, right next to 5 across/down. Oh, and four downs in the penultimate row.

Back in 1976, we were quite a grown-up lot at 209 Daventry Road – five second year students, three boys and two girls studying at Warwick – more Terry and June than Rik Mayall’s The Young Ones. We had proper Sunday lunches with some Liebfraumilch. We generally did more working than drinking, but sometimes went to the pub across the road, and once we got over our shock at not having to queue at the bar for fifteen minutes like on campus, some of us developed a taste for M&B mild. Our default man-lunch was cheese and pickle sandwiches on white. There were two cars between five of us, which meant that we non-drivers could normally cadge a lift to or from campus for lectures or to work in the library, if we were flexible about when we travelled.

One of the girls bought the Daily Mail each day, and our lunchtime routine was to tackle the crossword on the back, next to Peanuts. It was a gentle introduction to cryptic crosswords, and applying our combined undergraduate brain power we could usually finish it. It was an agreeable enough activity.

But ultimately pointless, of course, and one day as I was struggling to solve an anagram, my mind went off on a tangent. Rather than simply juggling the letters on paper, was there a systematic way to solve anagrams? I soon realised that there was.

If you took every word in the dictionary and arranged its letters alphabetically, and then arranged the transpositions in alphabetical order, attached to their words, and grouped by word length, you would have a book which could unscramble any anagram of a word in that dictionary.

Perhaps most people would have left it there as an idle thought, or assumed that such a book already existed. But I like to try things. I checked the crosswords section in a few bookshops to see whether there was such a book, and found nothing. Perhaps I could be the one to write it? So I noted down the publishers represented there. There were several books available which styled themselves as crossword dictionaries, where words were grouped alphabetically by word length, so a solver could, say, find all the seven-letter words beginning with ‘p’ grouped together.

Pan Books published The Modern Crossword Dictionary which was our regular companion as we did battle with the Daily Mail crossword. Probably the best selling crossword aid at the time – which had the advantage of the best word list, and of Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary being the standard reference for serious crossword solvers – was Chambers Words, published just two years earlier in 1976, with the extra attraction of an introduction by Frank Muir. There was also a rather creaky looking volume published by Barrie & Jenkins called The Crossword Companion sporting a jacket looking like it hadn’t been updated since the first edition in 1952.

If I thought that looked old fashioned, there was also a splendid volume called The Quickway Crossword Dictionary, published by Frederick Warne & Co, (best known for Beatrix Potter and the “Observer Book of..” series) and Compiled by Colonel H. W. Hill C.M.G., D.S.O. (if you please), and Revised by his son.

I reasoned that it made sense to concentrate on publishers who already had a crossword dictionary in print – firstly because they already sold books to crossword solvers, and secondly because that would provide me with a ready made word list: otherwise I would have to compile one from scratch – something I was keen to avoid.

So I approached Pan Books, Chambers, Barrie & Jenkins and Frederick Warne with my proposal, enclosing a few sample pages of the six-letter section to illustrate how it would work. I had no computer or typewriter, and my letters were untidily handwritten.

I knew it was a long shot, and was disappointed but not surprised before long to receive rejections from Pan, Frederick Warne and Chambers. The first two were routine rejection slips which showed no evidence the publishers had given the idea serious consideration, but I found the letter from Chambers especially irritating. It said that they had “of course” considered publishing an anagram dictionary, but had come to the conclusion that there was insufficient demand.

But after a few weeks, I was very excited to receive a letter from Nancy at Barrie & Jenkins saying that they might be interested. It seemed at first that she hadn’t fully understood the concept: she wrote that she had consulted a mathematician who had said there were billions of possible combinations for 6 up to 15 letters, and that any book attempting to include them all would be enormous. I had to reassure her that only those combinations corresponding with actual words would be included, so the book would be only twice the length of a list of all the words in the dictionary.

Being twenty-one, I was impatient for rapid progress. I had no idea how many meetings and approvals publishers needed about production, marketing, finance, everything, and every day the postman failed to bring a letter from Barrie & Jenkins provoked a stream of angry muttering. I used the time to work on my word list, and to work out the exact content of the book.

The word list was compiled by editing the list in The Crossword Companion and adding in more words from more comprehensive sources – the finished volume would contain some 50,000 words. The dictionary would include only words from six letters up to fifteen letters – I reasoned that solving anagrams with five or fewer letters was insulting the reader’s intelligence, while a standard crossword grid wouldn’t usually contain words longer than fifteen letters.

But how would I compile the book? It had been pretty laborious, just putting together a small sample to demonstrate the idea to publishers: writing each word on a piece of card, adding its alphabetical transposition, putting them all in order, then writing them all out again. By now I was in the final year of an Economics degree – I would need to do some actual study. This was also the time of punk rock, there were gigs to attend. Compiling this book manually would be a great deal of work, so I made tentative enquiries with the University of Warwick computer department.

They were very supportive of an undergraduate with a project: they confirmed that writing a program to sort the words would be a simple matter, and offered, at a very fair rate, the services of in-house punch card operators to input the words. These operators worked very fast, and would be able to complete the task in a fraction of the time it would have taken me.

Eventually the letter I had been waiting for came through: Barrie & Jenkins wanted to publish the book. I was thrilled. I asked the Warwick computer department to start work, and in April 1978 I received the contract, and visited Barrie & Jenkins office in Highbury to sign it and meet my editor Nancy. She was friendly and humorous, taken by surprise when a mere boy turned up, having assumed from my shaky handwriting and from the dull subject matter, that I must be at least seventy.

She explained that they had decided to publish my book because they saw it as a back-list book – i.e. one that would never trouble the bestseller lists, but would tick away over a number of years selling steadily. She asked about my career plans: accountancy seemed too dull a reply, so I muttered something about pop and rock music journalism. She contemplated my unworldly features and replied that it was a tough business.

The contract provided for an advance of £250 – a princely sum for a student in 1978 – with half to be paid on signature and half on delivery and approval of the manuscript. I blew most of this on a Honda Camino moped (which I could ride without passing a test provided I displayed an L-plate), and have only understood how much this terrified my mother since I had children of my own.

My last term at Warwick was hectic, juggling production of the book, my finals, preparing to begin my ‘proper’ career as an accountant at Deloitte Haskins + Sells, and in my spare time managing the Students’ Union secondhand bookshop. I don’t recall how long it took to produce the manuscript, but there was barely a month between receiving the advance for signature, and the advance for delivery.

The helpful fellows at the computer department, Rod, Mike and Gerry, pointed out that when their program had finished churning out the book, I would have what they called ‘machine readable text’ – i.e. computer tapes could be used to typeset the book directly, bypassing old fashioned mechanical typesetting. This would avoid the need to input the text again, so also make it less likely that mistakes could creep in during production.

This was a revelation. I pointed the opportunity out to Barrie & Jenkins: after what I imagine were frenzied enquiries around the antiquated British printing industry, they came back with a request for the data to be supplied on paper tape. Even in 1978, that was a near-redundant medium, magnetic tape being the standard: the response from Warwick was really? Yes, really.

Not only was I providing the material for the book: I was doing a chunk of the production work for them. Surely that must be worth something? I had no idea how much to invoice, so I plucked a figure out of the air, and asked the publishers for £400, and they paid it. I had paid Warwick just over £200 for their work, but as they had effectively written the book for me – apart from the idea and the word selection – the money I received from production felt like a windfall.

To put this sum into perspective, I started work that year as a trainee accountant at Deloittes on £3,000 per annum, so £400 exceeded one and a half month’s salary. Not amazing, but useful, and three years later it was a decent start towards the deposit on my first flat, in those happy days when a twenty-five year old with an unspectacular salary could get on the property ladder.

On 30 November, The Crossword Anagram Dictionary was published. (After the contract was signed, the publisher had decided to add ‘crossword’ to the title, to make sure it reached its intended audience, and was properly placed in bookshops.).

I received six complimentary copies in the post. It is a wonderful feeling, for a newly published author, to open the package and unwrap the pristine, professionally produced books, to finger the fresh smelling pages, and to to gaze at your own name on the cover. I styled myself R J Edwards rather than Rik because it seemed a little drier, a little more crosswordy. Rik would have to wait until the novel.

On the morning of 13 December 1978 the phone rang at my flat in Kilburn before I had set off to work. It was Dad, telling me to buy a copy of The Guardian – he had opened his copy that morning to read a review of the book, as an editorial piece. It was a scathing review, which likened me to the Rev Casaubon in Middlemarch, but Nancy was delighted with the publicity. “You don’t read reviews”, she said, “you measure them”. On that logic, to make the editorial of a national newspaper was a pretty good result. And I could disregard the irony, and selectively quote “this scholarly monument” (The Guardian) as a review.

Of carthorses and orchestras

I made numerous vanity trips to bookshops to check whether I could spot it in stock: usually I couldn’t. I didn’t ask the staff why not, though I was tempted. But sales were ticking over quietly, and I wasn’t too disappointed by my first royalty statement, in which sales comfortably exceeded my advance. It was surprisingly boosted by a bulk sale to Mayflower Books in New York. I never found out how many Mayflower shifted, although I was sceptical – cryptic crosswords have never been popular in the US, and surely that was the main application for the book? Never mind, it wasn’t my problem – all grist to the mill.

I wasn’t so happy, though, when a couple of years later Chambers – who had “of course” considered publishing an anagram dictionary, but had come to the conclusion that there was insufficient demand – decided to publish Chambers Anagrams, organised exactly the same my book. This was doubly annoying: firstly they certainly pinched my idea – it seemed highly unlikely that they came up with the system for the dictionary independently – and secondly, because they were using words from the Chambers dictionary, their book would be sure have to have a stronger appeal to crossword solvers.

I had no recourse: apparently a text could be copyrighted, but not an idea. So instead I bear a grudge. This all happened forty years ago, but I’m patient. When I get my chance, Chambers are going down.

Anyway…my dream was to get enough books in publication steadily producing royalties so that I no longer needed to do a proper job – and I had an idea for another book. As The Guardian had helpfully pointed out, many crossword solutions are phrases, not words. Only one crossword aid so far had included phrases, Pan Books’ Modern Crossword Dictionary, and they were listed together with all words of the same length.

My idea was to compile a specialist dictionary consisting only of phrases, listed not only by length, but also by configuration. So if, to borrow The Guardian’s example, the elusive solution was “waste of time”, you need only look through the 5,2,4 part of the 11-letter section. And if the book was printed with equal spacing, so that the letters aligned vertically, and you knew, say, that the eighth letter was ‘t’, then you just skim down the eighth column looking for possible solutions.

I pitched the idea to my publishers – Nancy had moved on, and by now Barrie & Jenkins had become Stanley Paul, a Hutchinson imprint – but presumably encouraged by sales of the first book, they went for it. The contract was signed in January 1980, with publication scheduled for later that year. But the recession intervened: I was told that many planned books were dropped, but the Crossword Phrase Dictionary survived the cull to be published the following year.

I had a third and final book idea, and the ideas were becoming steadily less imaginative – or, as Nancy put it, more arcane. Crossword Dictionaries, I argued, were always arranged alphabetically from the start of the word – whereas the nature of crosswords was that you were just as likely to know the last letters of the word as the first. So why not arrange them from the back of the word?

This project started life as the Crossword Backwards Dictionary but was published in 1983 as the Crossword Completion Dictionary. Production didn’t go smoothly: the first proofs I received were in a normal typeface where, for example, a ‘W’ was given more space than an ‘I’. I had to point out that this wouldn’t work: the letters had to be given equal spacing so that the columns would align, so that the user could look down a straight line to find the letter they needed.

This was too technical for Stanley Paul’s typesetters, so I offered to supply camera ready pages – printed in typewriter capitals, albeit by computer – another useful production payday. This gave the pages a slightly home-made look, but at least it did the job.

I celebrated publication with my own review sheet

The horse I was flogging, if not yet dead, was certainly starting to look tired. But all three books continued to produce worthwhile royalties. And in 1983 I had another idea: The Scrabble® Bonus Book, which would enable the user to, um, cheat at Scrabble by showing all the words that could be made with seven or eight letters, which might be used to score a 50-point bonus for playing all one’s tiles in a single turn.

Stanley Paul decided that they’d had enough of a good thing by now, and turned the idea down. So I tried a few other publishers, and Longman, heavyweight publishers of academic books, expressed interest. In the end, they didn’t go ahead because the necessary approval from J.W. Spear & Sons, who licensed Scrabble in the UK, was not forthcoming.

But Longman had their eyes on the dictionary market, and were interested in publishing a companion to their successful Crossword Key. Their idea was to publish a much larger Anagram Dictionary, using their own word list, with a selection of phrases thrown in. Stanley Paul were kind enough not to raise any objection, and the new book was published in 1985 – an impressive volume it was too.

Craig said “sausage” wasn’t in there. But it was, look!

A paperback edition followed three years later. Later an imprint called Tiger Books reprinted the Crossword Anagram Dictionary. But I had run out of ideas. The income from my four books had certainly been useful, especially during the challenging first years of my mortgage, but it had never approached the level I had hoped for, which would enable me to avoid nine to five working and coast along on my royalties. There went my dream of avoiding work.

Happily my day job was now at a level of enjoyment where that didn’t matter – and just as well. In 1995, I received my last meaningful royalty cheques. Soon after, the nascent internet was swarming with anagram solvers, crossword solvers, you name it, and the books soon went out of print: nobody needed a book for this stuff any more.

Fast forward a few years, and like J.R. Hartley, I was curious to know whether my first book was still available. By the 21st century Yellow Pages were as redundant as my own books, so I searched on Amazon Marketplace. I was pleased to find that The Crossword Anagram Dictionary was indeed available: less pleased to learn that my masterpiece was offered at 1p (+ £2.80 postage & packing). My colleague Chris knew a bargain when he saw it, and swooped in to buy it. (Later I got to set up my own Author Page on Amazon.)

And when it arrived I felt a little better about the low price: the volume was very well-thumbed – it had clearly been much used…maybe even loved? What do you think of that, The Guardian?

9 thoughts on “Trying not to Work

  1. Rik,

    A great read, thanks. What a story!

    One of our memories is at fault – yours, probably, for I seem to remember not “sausage” but “senator” and ‘treason”, the politics student’s favourite. Relax, it’s there, in our very-well-thumbed-but-not-once-since-the internet-took-off vintage copy!


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Why thanks your Biffness! My memory is that you chose “sausage” because that word featured in the Blackadder episode featuring Dr Johnson‘s dictionary, but I could easily be wrong.


  2. And I thought that you had become a nutter more recently. It seems that you have been afflicted since the age of 21.
    Actually a brilliant and fascinating read. Know what you mean about “more Terry and June than the Young Ones”. The flat I shared with 3 other Northamptonians fresh from Grammar School was in the East End and although we had some wild parties, the 4 of us planned the weekly menu on Thursday night and then all shopped at Caters on Friday evening for our food for the following 7 days. The flat was £10 a week between the 4 of us.
    £3000 wow. My articles were £750 a year but with an extra £50 per year and £50 per exam passed. Mind you I am talking about 1971. Before that you had to pay for Articles!


    1. Yeah, nutter me, menh-ull! Happy days, love your organised student life. Luckily I wasn’t paid by exams passed, I would have starved.


    1. You’ve certainly entered into the spirit there, Clive! Unfortunately I forgot to pack my invaluable tomes for our trip to the Lake District, so I’ve had to fall back on those newfangled interweb thingies. But I managed to work out your message. After rejecting geeks tofu iron and feet suing rooks, I at last understood that you were saying “funkier stooges” as in the phrase “in 1973, Iggy Pop decided to get himself some funkier Stooges”. If by some slim chance I’ve got this wrong, I’d welcome a hint to point me in the right direction.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Now you’re just being coy with your stroke of genius up there in the Lake District! Must be all that rain. By strange coincidence, I bought a single by Iggy Pop and the Stooges around that time, but I can’t remember why.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Of course, SoG, thanks! Just goes to show you can’t beat a good old-fashioned book!

        Hmm…Lust for Life maybe? Now that’s a good one. Or Real Wild Child?

        Liked by 1 person

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