The book is dead. Long live the book

It’s obviously that time of year again. A while back I opened the front door to find two books on the door step: a Yellow Pages and a standard phone book.

That was a week ago. They’re still there, getting soggy. Unloved, unused, taking up space, wasting tree. I’m not alone. Walking down the hill to work today I saw four phone books either binned or just left, and I wasn’t looking particularly hard either.

libraryAsk yourself: when was the last time you used either of these? For me it’s been a while. And why? Well, it’s not about the content – both guides are pretty comprehensive as a rule. Instead it’s about the fundamental process behind what it is you need to do with these bits of content.

I downloaded a copy of Microsoft Live Search mobile for my new smartphone last week – it’s a very slick application which released for the UK fairly recently. I was all ready to have yet another app sitting there for a couple of weeks before I got bored and un-installed it, but I’m bowled over by how useful it is. You really can find information on location-specific stuff – accurate, comprehensive information – via a GPRS or WIFI connection, in real time.

This kind of functionality kills the Yellow Pages dead. And that’s a beta application on a 2×3 inch screen, so it’s hardly perfect. Once you throw in Google Maps (or Google..) or any of the other search/local search providers, the concept of a physical directory is not only dead, it’s dead and buried, dug up again, cremated and scattered to the wind.

With 67% of people in Britain (6.5Mb PDF) accessing the internet and 4/5 of these with broadband, it’s hardly suprising that the web is the first place any of us go to find out basic (contact) information. Why spend any time at all fooling around in a 1000+ page directory when you can get this stuff straight away online? Who knows.

The debate continues, as it has (and will) for some time – about the future of books. We dabbled in eBooks when I worked at Waterstone’s Online, way back. In the latest copy of Stuff Magazine, two of the staff battle out the pros and cons of the book vs the ebook. Devices such as the Sony Reader, the iLiad and the Amazon Kindle – all claiming to be “the new book” keep the conversation bubbling along. Andrew Marr tested ebooks for a month and said: “Overall, I am reluctantly impressed with my ebook…” but also made the good point that they’d be better if they smelt a little musty 🙂

Books (obviously) aren’t dead: in fact it’s pretty well accepted that books do what they do infinitely better than anything else, which is why they’re still around, er, **** years later. As a user interface, the book is near-perfect: compact, easy to use, cheap, requires no battery power. Where it fails is where it comes up against what the internet is so blindingly good at: searchability, browsability, comparison, linking. The battleground (it it is such a thing) isn’t an even place: “reading” vs “looking up” isn’t a fair fight. But nowadays there’s something wrong with the notion that we should still be mass-distributing directories to everyone with a phone…

6 thoughts on “The book is dead. Long live the book”

  1. I work at Yell, home of UK Yellow Pages so have to admit an interest here. We recognise that people need to access our local information in different ways and at different times, you are probably aware of our very successful website

    More recently we have launched our very own mobile service, which has application and browser based versions, this means that now anyone with a mobile phone and mobile internet can access our information quickly and easily directly from their mobile. As you would expect as well as numbers and adresses for more than 2 million business listings, the service offers maps and turn-by-turn walking or driving directions – all for free. It also has a load of other features, such as click to call, save to contacts and even send to a friend.

    To get mobile service on your mobile just text ‘mobile’ to 80248, or for more info just check out

    It’s interesting to read your views on the Yellow Pages directory. It is still a well used product (almost a billion times a year) and is an important way for advertisers to promote their business. Just for your background, not only does each Yellow Pages directory contain an average 51% recycled fibre content but old directories can easily be recycled too, depending on the facilities offered by your local authority.

    Hope you don’t mind me butting in!

  2. Hey Martin, thanks very much for commenting. The mobile app is winging its way to my mobile right now and I’ll let you know how I get on. Will be very interested to see how it compares with Windows Live.

    I’m truly intrigued about the usage figures for the directory. Out of interest, how do you know the usage figures, and do you know anything about the demographic of users? Really interested to find out more. I probably ought to do a bit of hat-eating too: a billion uses a year is pretty compelling. 😉

  3. Hi Mike

    Well I spoke to the people who know, and according to independent research carried out by Saville Rossiter-Base 2006-07, Yellow Pages directories are used nearly 1 billion times a year (more than any other printed classified directory). Obviously results are based on past research and are no guarantee of future behaviour. The same research also shows that 86% of UK adults agree that Yellow Pages directories are very useful and that 84% of UK adults use the Yellow Pages directory at home or at work.

    As you can see, there is still a clear demand for a paper based product and it is just one of the ways that consumers can make contact with advertisers.

    I hope you enjoy using mobile, do let me know if you’ve got any comments on the service.


  4. I’m amazed. A quick straw poll of the office seems to back up my suggestion, although a couple of people said that “they’d use the directory if they couldn’t be arsed to turn the computer on” :-).

    I’m still interested at how the 1 billion “uses” is derived (sorry to be picky): your research company would obviously know how many have been distributed, but do you track when people make a call? And are the users mainly older? I’d be suprised if not..

    Having said all this, I do think that Yellow Pages have done a stirling job in re-inventing their business model: by effectively rebranding as and approaching the market holistically / across all channels, you’ve been proactive rather than reactive, which really shows in the marketing and the products you produce. But I’m sure you know that already.

    btw: I tried downloading the mobile app but my phone isn’t supported (Windows Mobile..) :-(. The web app seems ok, but not as slick as google or the Windows Live service…

  5. It’s a shame your mobile doesn’t support the mobile application – today over 130 devices are supported, a number we are adding to each week. The full list of compatible devices and more about the service can be found at

    I’m glad you found the browsable version – for those who don’t know it is accessed using your mobile’s browser at the address – this service is specifically for users who have devices that don’t yet support the mobile service. The only difference being that the application is able to offer some quite cool features that we just can’t provide in a browser environment.

    We are just about to start work on a MS version, so give me a couple of months to develop and get out the door (you will see when it’s available as a download link will appear at the top of the browse service homepage).

    As to your question on demographics, we don’t share that data but thanks for your views on our marketing. All the best, Martin.

  6. There are lots of unloved, unused Yellow Pages books lying around these days, a good indication that people are really keen to getting more information from the Internet, Google in particular.

    We actually did a random survey in Melbourne months ago as we ask people around where they go if they are looking for information and this is what we got:

    Q1. How often do you use the print version of the Yellow Pages?

    7.69% use it regularly
    23.08% once a month
    15.38% once a year
    53.85% never use it

    Q2. How do you search for products and services you’re looking for?

    92.86% use
    7.14% use Yellow Pages

    Respondent Quote: “I reckon the yellow pages is obsolete, why would you spend money on the yellow pages when they’ll just as easily find you on Google.”

    Now that really is a call for YP guys to show if they can still keep up with online competitors, or else, more trees may be needed to cut so they can print those big YP books.


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