When schools sign up with TreeRing, they don’t have to pay anything to the company—TreeRing’s only economic relationship is with parents who buy the yearbooks, so schools will never end up in debt to the firm. What’s more, the school doesn’t have to make a guess about how many yearbooks it needs, because TreeRing prints a book only after a student orders it. Digital printing also lets students customize their books—in addition to the “core” yearbook produced by the yearbook class, kids can add more pages that they design themselves. Finally—because schools don’t have to bake in the cost of overprinting, and because TreeRing prints books in the spring, when there’s excess capacity at on-demand printing facilities—TreeRing’s yearbooks are often cheaper than those offered by traditional yearbook providers.* TreeRing sells
a 140-page hardcover yearbook—the average size for a high school—for around $50. That’s about $25 less than the price of a traditional high school yearbook.
Then I wondered if working on TreeRing’s yearbooks might be more difficult for schools’ yearbook staff and students. But I saw the firm’s Web-based software, which works on even the most ancient machines, and which is drop-dead easy to learn. What’s more, because TreeRing saves all its pages in the cloud, schools don’t have to worry about backing up their stuff, and they can’t lose months of work when computers crash. TreeRing’s model also lets parents and students share photos with the yearbook class online. For instance, if the yearbook staff didn’t send a photographer to the baseball game but a parent happened to get a great shot of a senior sliding into home plate, the staff can use that photo in the book.
And there’s one more thing: Because TreeRing’s books are printed on-demand, the company doesn’t impose stiff printing deadlines on the school’s yearbook staff. Big yearbook companies often want a fully completed yearbook several months before graduation—so events from the spring, like prom, can’t be in the book. TreeRing takes just four weeks to print and deliver books, so the yearbook actually includes most of the school year. (Like traditional yearbooks, TreeRing delivers its books just before school ends, but kids can always order copies later.)
Some traditional yearbook firms have begun to add features that compete with TreeRing’s books. For instance, Josten’s, the granddaddy of the yearbook biz, now lets schools add customizable pages to their books. But Josten’s only allows up to four custom pages, and it charges $15 extra for the option. TreeRing’s books come with two free custom pages, and parents can buy more for $2 per page, and there’s no limit to how many they can add. What’s more, Jostens still uses a network of sales reps to sell to schools—which is more expensive than TreeRing’s online model. And it still requires schools to sign a contract that includes an estimated print run, which leads to expensive overruns.
The CEO managed to convince me that TreeRing’s model was better than that of traditional companies. But I did wonder one more thing—was his business doomed in the long run? As more and more of our kids’ lives move online, they no longer need printed books to remember what happened in school. You can always just flip back on your Facebook timeline—and Facebook has the added benefits of including just your friends and making you the center of attention. So why buy a yearbook?
Predictably, TreeRing believes there’s a big future in printed books, despite Facebook’s intrusion into our lives. They point out that even though we all take pictures on digital cameras, photo-printing companies like Shutterfly are experiencing huge growth. “People still want printed things, but they need to be curated—they need to be valuable,” says TreeRing. In addition to letting kids add their own custom pages to their yearbooks, TreeRing also adds social-networking features—for instance, kids can offer testimonials and even “sign” each other’s pages before the book is printed. (Your pre-printed “signature” is your photo and your name in a handwriting font, though you could also include a picture of an actual handwritten note.)
In this way, their CEO sees TreeRing’s books as the perfect yearbook for the digital age. If you’re the kind of kid who wouldn’t normally make much of an appearance in the yearbook—you’re shy, you’re unpopular, you feel you’re above everyone else at your godforsaken school—at least you’ll be able to have a yearbook that doesn’t sideline you. So maybe you’ll want the yearbook that stars you, even if, in most other things, paper is dead to you.