You wouldn’t know it to look at the products, but the school yearbook business is kind of shady. There’s a good chance you and your kid’s school are paying way too much for yearbooks—sometimes thousands or tens of thousands a year too much.
Here’s how the traditional yearbook business works: When big yearbook providers sign up with a school, they ask the school to predict how many books it will need for the year. These estimates are due months before graduation. Because class sizes and demographics shift from year to year—and because some kids have stopped buying yearbooks altogether, thanks perhaps to Facebook—yearbook advisers don’t have much to go on when they’re making their guesses.
For schools and for parents, there are big costs to guessing wrong. If a school orders too few yearbooks, some kids who want a book will go without. That’s why schools tend to err on the side of guessing high—and then get stuck with unsold yearbooks, and a huge bill to the yearbook company. To cover costs of overprinting, some schools add an extra fee to the yearbooks—$10 or $20 per copy that you, the parent, must pay. Even so, lots of schools end up in hock to their yearbook providers. For instance, over the last few years, George Washington High School in San Francisco, one of the largest schools in the city, has had to eat the cost of so many unsold books that it now owes its yearbook company $50,000, according to the school’s yearbook adviser.
When Aaron Greco, a young tech entrepreneur, started sniffing around the yearbook business a few years ago, he was surprised by these shenanigans. The fundamental problem with the yearbook business, he realized, was that big yearbook providers were producing their books using offset printing—an expensive printing system that’s great for books with large print runs but that leads to high costs and little flexibility for yearbooks, whose print runs number in the hundreds or low thousands. Over the past decade, we’ve seen the rise of digital on-demand printing, which is now commonly used for photo books (the sort you order from Shutterfly or Blurb) and self-publishing. Greco had a brilliant idea: Why not use the same printing process for yearbooks?
Thus was born TreeRing, Greco’s four-year-old yearbook startup, which now serves 2,000 schools across the country and will produce about 200,000 yearbooks this year. By printing yearbooks on demand, TreeRing beats traditional yearbook companies in pretty much every way.
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.