phone books, phone directories, phonebook
Nati Harnik/AP

Phone Books Outnumber People: Can We Escape Them?

April 01, 2009 09:00 AM
by Shannon Firth
Despite concerns that they are a waste of paper, the phone book industry keeps providing them, year after year—and they outnumber the people who use them.

Phone Book Publishing Frenzy

According to Associated Press, two phone books are published for every one person in America. The Anchorage Daily News estimates that city residents receive “four books for every man, woman and child.” While magazines and newspapers may struggle with online competition, The Yellow Pages remain a marketing force, earning $17 billion a year.

Many who receive the phone book every year whether they want it or not, like Alaska resident Susan McDonald, are frustrated by the extravagant surplus. McDonald said, “It’s not just bothersome it’s a waste.”

And Scott McGhee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has measured the weight and thickness of the phone books he received, and then multiplied by 300,000 to make a point. McGhee estimated there are about 1.2 million books in all of Anchorage and that all of Alaska’s phone books stacked together would stretch across 34.3 miles and weigh 631 tons.

But Joe Towslee of ACS Media, an Alaskan publishing group, counters criticism that the books waste paper with the claim that his company’s books are made with 56 percent recycled content and that his company has been recycling for the past 15 years. When asked about the number of phone books, he asks why cell phone companies don't merge and provide unified coverage: “It’s called competition.”

Minnesota and Hawaii have argued for distribution of phone books on an “opt-in” basis meaning  publishers could only leave phone books with residents and businesses who requested them. While this type of legislation passed in Norway, thus far it has failed in the United States. Alaska, Hawaii, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina and Washington state have all tried and failed to pass laws limiting the production or distribution of phone books.

Background: Why so many phone books?

Paul Collins, a writer for Slate, explains that phone book distribution exploded after the 1984 break up of AT&T. Collins wrote that, “Regional Bells raided each other’s directory territories, and private tomes proliferated at double-digit rates of annual revenue growth.”

But today, Collins said, “Ask anyone under 30 about phone books, though, and you might as well inquire about Victrola needles.” Bill Gates has estimated that in five years, no one under 50 will use phonebooks.

Opinion & Analysis: The phone book opponents and the advocates

However, The Economist predicts a slower decline for phone book usage, claiming that information in phone books is “more extensive and reliable,” and also that small businesses are loyal to phone book companies because they bring in customers. Debra Hardy, accounts manager of a boat supplies company in England, adds, “Lots of people don’t have computers, and we don’t want to miss them.”

After a tripping over a stack of phone books one morning, Huffington Post writer Olivia Zaleski wrote about ‘6 Ways To Stop The Phone Book Delivery Blitz,’ offering practical advice on how to stop the phone book madness.

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