It’s Almost 2009. Do You Still Need a Phone Book?

phone-books99.jpgLast year about this time I wrote about the insane waste that phone books represent in an age where almost everyone has a decent internet connection. I mentioned that, as a longtime shareholder of AT&T, I was particularly outraged to see the company spending money printing these useless tomes and dumping them in my building, plastic wrap and all – not to mention the absurd environmental cost and utter disregard for any principal of waste control.

Well, here we go again. This morning about 100 phonebooks in plastic bags showed up in my foyer and will undoubtedly sit there for weeks until (hopefully) finding their way into the recycling. I’d estimate about 3 of them will actually be used. Last year I found a use for 2 – to prop up a portion of my cracked bed-frame.

Commenters on last year’s post brought up two interesting points – that some local governments may actually require the printing and distribution of phone books, and that AT&T probably still makes money selling ads in them. News flash to local businesses – get a website and learn to use Yelp.

Now, I can’t find any proof that municipalities require phone books (if you can please leave a comment), so I have to assume that there is still profit in the industry, otherwise they’d have phased them out. So therefore, what we’ve got here is a reluctance to give up on an old practice perhaps for fear of change and and certainly for fear of disrupting a proven revenue stream. But is there a better way?

It turns out that the Yellow Pages are printed by many independent publishers and not necessarily by the phone company, or AT&T, who may just pay to slap their name on the book. The industry is expected to have a phenomenal $17 Billion+ in revenues this year which means that countless small businesses still regard an advertisement in the yellow pages to be a worthy expense.

I find this quite surprising as I thought most people I know haven’t used the phone book for anything other than a furniture aid in years. The rise of localized search engines and sophisticated mobile devices mean no business is out of reach for me in seconds. Isn’t this the trend everywhere?

Apparently not – Yellow Pages revenue is expected to continue to grow in 2009. My scientific survey of 5 people at a coffee shop found that 2 had in fact used the phonebook in the past month, which means some people actually find them useful. But others vocally complain, like me.

So why not make the phone book a paid-for service? If people don’t want one, they shouldn’t have one dumped in their foyer. If people do want one, they should pay for it. Something modest like $5 – after all, people will pay for coupon books, which is essentially what the phone book is. Could there be a revenue sweet-spot for yellow pages companies that would result in better profits and far less phone books printed? Or is this a waste problem that could only be addressed by government action? Or is the reality simply that many people actually want them and I’m out of line suggesting they give them up?


Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of has grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.

16 responses

  1. phone books are like newspapers; nobody under 35 uses them, but there are still a lot of people over 35 in this world. And they will never be pay-as-you-go’ the advertising rates are determined by the guaranteed circulation.
    On the other hand, they make great insulation and you could build yourself a nice garden shed out of them and the advertisers would never know.

  2. Well, yes and no. To clarify, many states require that the White Pages be delivered on a regular basis, but the Yellow Pages are advertiser-supported, so there’s no requirement to deliver.
    Most publishers don’t want to deliver to consumers who don’t want to use the books, so you can usually opt-out by going to their sites or calling them.
    Don’t bother with the sites that are taking third-party lists, most publishers won’t accept them for privacy reasons.
    FYI, we did “student on the street” interviews at a college in San Diego and found that 80% of the students had recently used the books (and no, they weren’t senior citizens!). That’s hardly a qualified statistic but even we were surprised by the result. A more dependable stat is our usage study for 2007, which showed that US consumers referenced the print directories over 13.4 billion times.
    Basically, people want information in many formats, including online and print, via cell and the radio and yes, even newspapers. Hard to believe but there are still people who can’t get online at work. It’s not an either or proposition. Full disclosure, I work for the Yellow Pages Association.

  3. Hey everyone- You can stop delivery of unwanted phone books, at least to your own residence. Here are the numbers to call:
    Verizon (Superpages / Idearc):800.888.8448 (option2)
    Dex (Yellow Pages): 877.243.8339
    Yellow Book: 800.373.3280
    AT&T/Yellow pages formerly SBC/Bell South: 800.792.2665 for AR, KS, OK, MO, and TX. All other states: 800.848.8000- press option 1 and then option 1 again.
    Good luck out there in the uphill battle of waste reduction!

  4. I called the number given me by Yellowbook twice. All I got was disconnected. I think these places want to create the impression that you can opt out, but in fact they want more copies out there, unwanted or not. Mine go straight into the recycle bin. What a stupid waste. I hate these companies. They are totally corrupt.

  5. I am a plumbing company owner. The Yellow pages still have a use however it is rapidly decreasing in ROI. Most homeowners are over 35 yrs and some still use the books. I can tell you they are very expensive and are a dying dinosaur. There online products are way too diluted at this time. Google for a plumber in your town and see how many directories and aggrigators show up. Way too many. All in all the print yellow pages won’t be around much longer

  6. I am the owner of a small organizing business in a relatively small city. My yellow pages listings still pay for themselves at this point, but just barely. So much depends on who your customers are and how they find good and services (of course this is rapidly changing right now), and also the size of your business and what your advertising budget is. I expect (hope!) to phase out of advertising in the yellow pages in the next two years, maybe sooner.

  7. I am a small business owner and yes internet is on the RISE, but so are the prices and to top it all off I am competing with Hundreds maybe even thousands on the internet. In the phone book I get the best bang for my buck, and compete with ONLY a handful. SO yes people still use the Phone book.

  8. Hey, i dont wanna pay for a phone book, i dont have a computer the the public library says i cant use theirs till i pay my $8 fine, which after 6 month i still cant pay. I can see how wastfull it is. But if they treat them like the for rent book and restate book at store font and refill that i think people who want them can get them and people who dont use them can just keep walking….. but they would take up a lot of room… I just moved by the way and i am looking for an omaha one any idea where to find one i hear they just droped them off like a week before i moved here and they are all gone. and i am only 22 so yes young people use them!

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