In the Facebook era, will printed yearbooks survive?

(Courtesy of Jostens Inc.)
(Courtesy of Jostens Inc.)

One historic school ritual of graduating — or simply finishing one grade and moving on to the next — has been getting a copy of the yearbook, and passing it around for friends to sign and scribble in. But has the Web — and particularly social media such as Facebook and Instagram — done away with the traditional printed yearbook?

Apparently not completely.

“I’m definitely buying a yearbook,” says Rachel Klevan, a high school senior at Newton North. “Who knows whether Facebook or even the Web will still there in 10 years?”

She’s not the only yearbook fan in her family, according to Bryna Klevan, her mother; her brothers, Andrew and Marcus, in fifth and seventh grade respectively, also want copies of their yearbooks.

Susanna Kemp, an eighth-grader at Michael Driscoll School in Brookline, says it’s “kind of an obligation to buy” a yearbook.

“There’s just a more special feel to having a paper copy,” Kemp said. “You can sign a paper copy, but you can’t sign an electronic yearbook. Social media is nice for the present, but I don’t think social media is good enough for memories. You don’t usually look at posts from a year ago. In 20 years I doubt I’ll look back at any posts on social media from eighth grade.”

When it comes to college yearbooks, though, a number have disappeared over the past decade.

Purdue University’s Debris yearbook, for example, ceased publication  after its 2007-2008 edition. The University of Virginia’s Corks and Curls yearbook hasn’t been printed since 2009. (A 2013 effort to revive it has been unsuccessful so far.) Others went online, like University of Missouri at Columbia’s Savitar, in 2006 — but only briefly, ceasing even online publication a year later.

Yet oher yearbooks persist as printed books. Sales remain pretty steady for MIT’s Technique yearbook, according to Sara Liu, managing editor for the 2015 MIT yearbook.  (Full disclosure: I was a photographer for that yearbook from 1969-1973).

“We generally sell around 600 copies, with the exception of the 2013 yearbook, which sold over 700 copies due to aggressive advertising on our part. I believe most of our sales are driven by parents,” Liu said.

Yearbooks — including yearbook-type word-and-picture anthologies — are big, or certainly big enough, business. Big enough that companies like Entourage Yearbooks and Jostens focus almost entirely on them along with calendars, mugs, and related paraphernalia.

“Over 90 percent of our business is school yearbooks, and yearbook-related services,” says Elias Jo, chief executive of Entourage Yearbooks. Entourage does yearbooks for thousands of schools and other organizations, including an estimated 250 schools and colleges in the greater New England area.

“The college market — percentage of yearbook sales — is shrinking dramatically, high school shrinking somewhat less,” Jo said. “However, there’s a growing market elsewhere.”

Also, yearbooks themselves are smaller, Jo said. “Page counts are down about 10 percent over the past five years.”

Edmund J. Sullivan, executive director of the Columbia Scholastic Press Association at Columbia University in New York City, sees a variety of factors hurting yearbooks, including reduced consumer spending on discretionary items such as school yearbooks, and the impact of major curriculum changes on what other activities schools choose to do.

“Student publications will probably converge into a digital format that subsumes the functions of student newspapers and literary-art magazines within interactive websites or mobile apps,” Sullivan said. “Yearbooks will still most likely publish in print, because there is still a market for print on at least an infrequent basis. The ‘year-in-review’ aspect of the best yearbooks is still an effective closure device for students for their school experience.”

And while printed yearbooks haven’t been displaced by the Internet, they increasingly have digital aspects.

“You’ll see yearbooks with URLs, QR codes, or Facebook handles, so people can continue their yearbook experience online,” said Jo of Entourage Yearbook.

Other changes, according to Jo: Rather than printing hundreds of copies of the same yearbook for everyone, there are now more short-run versions — “like one for the band, another for the sports teams, with each group having more pages just about them.”

Also, says Jo, “Thanks to just about everybody having a digital camera, we see more people making yearbooks who never did before, like day care, pre-school, and kindergarten, along with events like holiday parties. Many parents aren’t making prints from the pictures they take, these yearbooks are like photo albums of their kids.”

In fact, some see social media as good for yearbooks.

“The yearbook business is thriving thanks to social media,” says Jill Teut, corporate communications manager for Jostens Inc., a major yearbook printer (whose customers include 65 percent of middle schools and high schools in the Northeast).

For example, Jostens’ ReplayIt app enables students and parents to upload and share pictures with the yearbook staff for possible inclusion in the yearbook, and each yearbook purchase includes access their school’s digital Time Capsule, allowing them to access all photos that had been uploaded to ReplayIt.

Not to mention there are several companies busily digitizing pre-digital printed yearbooks for web access.

Last but not least — and speaking as a former yearbook photographer and editor — helping create a yearbook is a great way to gain experience in everything from photography to writing, production, layout, and working with a team on a well-defined year-long project, along with getting access to and experience with a professional-class tools — cameras and, these days, design software.