I noticed this article from Boston today, “Bothersome business pages “, which outlines residents’ irritation over receiving print directories which go unused.
I’m seeing more and more articles on the subject — this article indicates that as consumers perceive that there’s low usage and little need for print yellow pages books, they’re also coming to believe that the books sent to them are an inconvenience and an unacceptable environmental waste. (I’ve also mentioned before how I find the print directories less worthwhile , even though I used to work for a major yellow pages company.)
Apparently the Cambridge city council and other cities are actually considering going so far as to enact laws requiring that residents must opt-in for receiving the books, or they might ban mass distribution entirely…
The Boston article does reiterate some fallacies, though, when they state:
“In the age of the Internet, it simply makes no sense for residents to get fresh stacks of phone books when they use paperless web browsing to find local businesses anyway. The shift does not cost phone book companies in the long run because they offer the same advertisements on their websites without spending extra on costly printing. Yet the companies still deliver millions of new books each year without asking residents.”
No, this is not so, and it indicates that the reporter didn’t attempt to objectivity by getting commentary from major phone book companies. First of all, not all yellow pages companies give parallel advertising to their print advertisers — often, internet ads and print ads are sold as two separate products. So, they don’t “offer the same advertisements on their websites.”
Second, it may cost the companies more, because print directories have long been one of the most profitable areas of advertising, and these companies’ internet directories do not always equal the profits they’ve been getting in print — after all, there appears to be considerably more competition in the online space where there is a much lower barrier to entry than in the legacy print directories.
The article further misses that it would increase the administrative costs for yellow pages companies if they have to maintain some sort of opt-in records for book distribution. Currently, many YP publishers contract out book distribution to low-cost contractors who are directed to deliver books to businesses, hospitals, hotels, homes and apartment buildings. The low-skilled labor only has to drop books off — no time-consuming record keeping involved.
It is an editorial piece, but I think it would be stronger if they’d at least acknowledged some of the points from the side of the YP industry while giving the opinion that print book distribution should be sharply reduced.
This article, and the phenomenon it’s demonstrating, are intellectually fascinating, though! Print yellow pages companies have a vested interest in continuing distribution of the books as long as possible since it helps to rationalize the continued advertising costs they charge from businesses. But, if there’s any truth to the assertion found in this article — that a substantial number of residents never use the books — then continued distribution of them is a bit like the Emperor’s New Clothes — it’s just giving advertisers the illusion that there’s greater usage of the books and associated worth of the ads in them.
It’s sort of generally expected that as advertisers perceive that the value of the print ads is decreasing, they’ll slowly pare back their print ad budgets, and yellow pages books may die off by a sort of attrition over the coming years. However, this article and other similar ones I’ve seen would indicate that there could be a really ironic alternate fate for print — that consumers themselves in cities and states might force them to halt their traditional mass distribution rather than mere advertiser attrition. If this happens, it could radically speed up the death of print.
I’ve mentioned before  along with other analysts  about how there are indications that usage of traditional yellow pages is dropping off, though there’s a lot of disagreement as to how much longer the print products can survive. The decrease of the print YP book industry alongside simultaneous evolution of internet business directories is going to continue to define the characteristics of accelerated business evolution in the modern age.
(See also Greg Sterling’s post about print potentially becoming opt-in .)