Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Rot and The Yearbook Biz

Being a yearbook photographer was one of the great joys of my high school career, so I naturally gravitated toward yearbook advising as a teacher. I've been at it for about sixteen years, and I've watched the business change.

Some of the changes are not what folks might have predicted. Technology has been about to destroy yearbooks for years, but there has always been a problem with that-- when I first started, our publisher was trying hard to sell us the newest innovation, and that was a "digital yearbook" housed entirely on a cd-rom. Many schools jumped on that bandwagon, and I'm sure those cd-roms now make excellent coasters and scarecrow decorations. Meanwhile, I can go into our archive and look at fifty, sixty, even seventy year old books and still find that the operating software (my hands and eyeballs) is still working just fine.

Meanwhile, students still love pictures. We have to provide something a little cooler than the selfies and snaps that they share daily on their phones, but as a percentage of the student body, our yearbook sales have stayed pretty solid.

Most of the significant changes are changes the yearbook reader can't see. We produce the book digitally on-line at tremendous savings (when I started, we were spending thousands of dollars annually on photo printing), and my students get practice and training in layout and design. I am one of the fortunate few to have yearbook as a scheduled class during the day, and we build our book up from scratch-- no templates or clip art or anything not produced by the students themselves. The computerizing of all this has created a hugely rich and rewarding educational experience for my students.

But other changes in the biz are not so rich and rewarding-- not for students, anyway. I'm doing one of my every-so-often look at the market to see whether it's time to change companies again, and I notice a common thread among the big companies. Let's see if you can spot it, too!

Taylor Publishing

Founded in 1938 by the three Taylor brothers, who had become interested in yearbook publishing as boys, bought an engraving company, explored some different printing techniques, and finally settled on lithography books which helped them to explode into one of the major players in the business. At times, they were bringing in customers faster than they could serve them. By the seventies the now-public company was suffering from growth without modernization. In the eighties they struggled with Chapter 11, but by the nineties had emerged from that with a strong footing in computer-aided printing and were doing quite well.

Then in 1999 the company was scarfed up by Castle Harlan Partners III, a division of Castle Harlan, Inc, a merchant bank. Castle Harlan is a "Global Leading Private Equity Firm" which is "distinguished by disciplined focus on investing in control positions in middle market private companies."

So Taylor Publishing is no longer in the yearbook business, but is instead in the making money for investors business.

Herff Jones  

Back in 1920, Harry Herff and Randall Jones started an insignia company that specialized in school hardware like letters and bars and trophies. They didn't get into the yearbook biz until the 1960s and were perhaps a little late to the digital production party, but they were an employee-owned company, which gave them a nice homegrown feel. They did try an on-line digital version of the book, but that was not such a hit (who knew that people don't like to pay for online content--oh, no, wait-- everybody!). They rebranded themselves a Varsity Brands, with the yearbook as a division of that conglomerate. In 2014, under a new CEO, they sold off several divisions (Lifetouch photography, the ubiquitous church directory outfit, is a Herff-Jones offspring).

Then in December of 2014, the whole company was bought by Charlesbank Capital Partners.

Charlesbank Capital Partners is an investment group with a "broad focus," and they have "A consistent track record of creating value in middle-market companies."

So Herff Jones is no longer in the yearbook business, but is instead in the making money for investors business.


Jostens is the 800 pound gorilla of the yearbook biz. In the late 1800s, Otto Josten looked to expand his jewelry business into school memorabilia, and by 1906 he was in the class ring business, which grew into a hugely lucrative business of Otto. In 1950 they set up the American Yearbook Company which quickly stomped all over the marketplace. The next few decades paralleled the whole industry's story-- trouble with management succession in the seventies, financial problems in late eighties-early nineties, expansion into computer stuff. Bought by Bain Capital, then soon bought themselves back and tried to make Wall Street happy, with mixed results.

Then in 2015, Jarden bought up Jostens. Jarden was a "spin-out" company of Ball Corporation that owned a variety of companies including Yankee Candle, Rival and Mr. Coffee. Jarden itself has just completed a merger/absorption by Newell Rubbermaid, putting Jostens in the same pen as Sharpie markers. When contemplating the move, Bloomberg offered this quote:

“This deal is about creating scale,” Chris Ferrara, an analyst for Wells Fargo & Co., said Monday in a research note. “Jarden is a portfolio to which Newell can apply its blueprint of integration, cost savings and selective reinvestment for growth.”

So Jostens is not in the yearbook business, but in the making money for investors business.

So what?

The effects of all these corporate moves have been visible on the local level. My school has dealt with all three of these companies at one point or another over the past few decades, and all three have been marked by a steady decrease in quality of service accompanied by an increase in cost. We dropped Taylor years ago because they increasingly made mistakes with our book. Jostens was at first a nice fit with a production plant right in State College, but that facility has been shut down. All companies have billing and business departments that appear to have no working relationship with the sales or production departments at all.

Meanwhile, longtime sales reps are pushed to get out of the field to make room for newer, younger and presumably cheaper replacements, all of whom are pushed to sell, sell, sell. None of this helps the rep's relationship with the local yearbook adviser, which is rough on everybody because those reps are the point of contact between the company and the customer. How much can you trust someone to look out for your interests when they are busy trying to protect their own back?


There are other smaller companies out there, but without naming names (because that would just be mean) some of them just don't create a very good product or offer very good tools. Jostens, for all its corporate faults, has a design product co-developed with Adobe, meaning students can get real preparation for digital publishing in the real world. That's not nothing. But beneath all of it is a sense that there is roiling and mess beneath the surface. I've had two seasoned reps pushed into retirement. I've met reps who just finished jumping from one company to another. My last rep quit suddenly this fall after just two years after leaving his previous company. Now my new rep is a guy whose LinkedIn profile tells me that he is also a recent refuge from another company.

The bottom line is that the more I read, the more I understand that none of the Big Three are as interested in helping me produce a school yearbook as they are in using me to get their numbers up. Maybe that dose of the real world is a useful lesson for me and for my students, but it's a little depressing and it makes the choosing that much more difficult.

It's also a reminder that there's free market and there's free market. All three always existed in the open market, subject to competition and market forces, but braving that sea with ships built of quality yearbooks. Now they're just the patches on ships that are sailing the free market in search of quick profits and ROI. Surviving the free market by serving customers is way different from serving investors. It's a reminder that it's not just the idea of free market schools that is problematic, but the idea of free market schools that are meant to serve investors and hedge fundies.

It's an ugly, destructive rot, and it's spreading everywhere.


  1. The same thing happened to the college textbook publishers in the last decade. I still remember when Cengage bought out a company whose book I was using and the price doubled for the same book. Ridiculous. I responded by going without textbooks in several of my courses. I simply used online articles, websites, blogs combined with handouts of my own design. I teach philosophy, so this was not that difficult.

    Lately, I've been using Oxford University Press and their textbook division for one class. OUP moved into the textbook market with much cheaper prices than the for-profit companies.

  2. Much of the pharmaceutical industry has gone through similar "creative destruction" as what Peter described above...and many of the drugs that make major money have their roots in taxpayer payed basic and applied research.

    Peter...now that you are close to retirement age, this does present a business opportunity for someone with your skills & personality: You could start a business filling in the holes left by the big companies departing the scene.

  3. I always thought this was a neat idea:

    Although I don't know anyone that uses them. The idea of letting the student design two custom pages is pretty cool.

  4. I recently read Abrams book Education and the Commercial Mindset. He described the angst in Sweden over corporate churn in their privatized school system. They are learning that schools that were started by local companies they trusted are now owned by Hedge Funds in London and New York.

  5. Our high school band & color guard started using TreeRing to publish our own supplemental yearbook two years ago. It has been really cool to have it for all of these highly memorable events, plus it has been really neat as a parent to go in and create your own customized pages of nothing but your student and their closest friends.