Don’t Lose That Number

08/15/2019

Some of you may have received this issue and asked yourself, “What exactly is a buyers guide?” The answer to that question is that a buyers guide is an enhanced, targeted phone book.

That answer leads to another question from those of you who are under 30. “What’s a phone book?”

When I started out in publishing, one of the largest companies in both publishing and printing produced nothing but phonebooks. It was a product that was used on a daily basis by nearly every American, and was an integral part of our commerce and culture. Being listed in the phonebook was an affirmation of one’s identity.

The first telephone directory was published in New Haven, Connecticut in 1878, two years after Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated his invention in approximately the same location. It listed 50 phones (they didn’t have numbers yet), belonging to 11 private homes, 38 businesses and the police department.

By 1910 there were 7 million phone numbers listed in various phone books in the United States. Besides numbers, these early books gave people instructions on how to use the devices, like which end to speak into, where to put your mouth on it and what to say when you pick it up.

A century later we were well into the Internet age, the first online phone directory having been offered in 1996, but the number of printed phone books was still on the rise. In 2010 there were 615 million books delivered, tipping the scales at more than 1 million tons of paper. The Yellow Pages sold nearly $14 billion in advertising, or about $22 per copy.

Since then the usage, and the ad revenue, has steadily declined. As far as I know, the phone companies are still distributing a book for each landline once a year, but pressure is mounting from environmentalists and others to discontinue them altogether.

Printed books in general, on the other hand, have been making a slow, steady comeback for a number of years. The number of bookstores in America and elsewhere has been growing for more than a decade, and last year enjoyed a sales increase of about 9 percent. The growth of e-books has leveled off, and may even have declined slightly in 2018.

To explain this phenomenon, analysts often compare the features, benefits and limitations of the two formats, but ultimately it gets down to intangibles. People simply like books.

People like other analog products as well, several of which are staging comebacks, and none more dramatically than vinyl records. Since 2006, sales of the old-school platters have grown every year, often by double digits, even through the severe recession of 2008-2009.

Over that span, unit sales increased from 800,000 annually to over 14 million, making 2018 the biggest year for vinyl since 1988.

As far as I can tell, the attachment people have to vinyl records is similar to what they feel for books. First of all, humans have a natural tendency to want to own things, to be able to share or lend or give them away. I think it’s closely related to the “collector gene,” which predisposes us to pursue stamps or butterflies or whatever. It’s pretty hard to curate a collection of downloads.

Old-style album jackets, with their cover art and liner notes, are perfect. I suspect that most of us baby boomers still have them on specially made shelving somewhere in the house.

Then there is all the physical business involved with playing a record. You have to handle the vinyl properly, place it on a turntable, clean the dust off it, place the needle, maybe adjust the treble and bass, and so on. It’s kind of the same way that smokers become addicted to the process of smoking as much as they do the smoke.

What about the sound itself? Some audiophiles insist that the accuracy and quality of the sound is better from vinyl than a digital recording, but after doing some research on the question, I can assure you that it is more complicated than that. Let’s put it this way: the sound on some vinyl recordings is better than the sound on some digital recordings. To go any further than that is going to take us down a rabbit hole.

One thing I can say for certain is that vinyl is a whole lot cooler than digital media. As much as we may admire voice activation and cloud-sized databases, I don’t think anybody finds them very romantic. Once again, it’s hard to miss the similarity between records and books.

I have been reading novels on e-readers for nearly a decade now, but I have lost none of my affection for printed books. People tend to think of the digital divide as an either/or proposition, but that is hardly the case, at least for me. I still buy printed books, and I receive them as gifts. It’s a nice break from electronic screens to read a real book now and then.

It’s also nice just having them around. There are at least 1,000 books scattered throughout my home and office, which I find somehow comforting. I’m not a very social person, but the books feel to me like a connection, not just to the people who wrote them, but to all the other people who have read them.

Studies have clearly shown, by the way, that children who grow up in homes with books around do better in school, even if no one reads those books. I know what you’re thinking, but the effect still holds true when you control for socioeconomic status.

But let’s get back to the buyers’ guide. Earlier I referred to it as a phone book, but 70 percent of consumers say they no longer use a phone book at all and would rather not receive one. That is not true of this buyers’ guide, which is why we continue to produce it.

I think there are basically two reasons that people in the school supply industry still want a printed buyers’ guide. The first is exclusivity.

Regular phone books include the names of thousands of people and businesses that you will never call. That makes them cumbersome, wasteful and inefficient. By contrast, every manufacturer included in the buyers’ guide is relevant to dealers, whether those dealers sell products from a particular manufacturer or not.

The other, and more significant reason, is that the buyers’ guide is about more than whom you buy from, it’s about what you buy.

The lifeblood of your business is products. You know, things like books, and records.


You can e-mail Kevin at kfahy@fwpi.com

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