At Greenbrier High School, the yearbook staff spends months planning a yearbook that will leave their mark on the school.
Facing the pressure of deadlines during the year, students design pages, sell advertisements, take photographs, choose the number of pages, the amount of color to be used and what the cover will look like. They are the unpaid employees of a $70,000 business venture between the school and a publishing company.
And in the spring, the product will be the talk of the school.
"You want it to be a real account of what happened," said Greenbrier senior Rainne Sullivan, 17, who has been on the yearbook staff three years. "It teaches people how to work under pressure. Yearbook's more than a class."
Throughout the nation every year, students thumb through the color and black-and-white pages of yearbooks that capture the moments of the school year. But yearbooks, while evoking sentiment, are big business dependent to a large degree upon the work of students.
Nationally, yearbook publishing is about a $500 million-a-year industry with four major competitors -- Jostens, Herff Jones, Taylor Publishing and Walsworth Publishing. Jostens controls roughly half the market.
"This is a product that's basically put together by 15-, 16-, 17-year-old kids," said Tom Tanton, director of marketing for Herff Jones. "There's an adult -- a yearbook adviser -- who's responsible for that, but very often that person is new. There's a great deal of turnover among the yearbook advisers throughout the country."
Technology has moved the design of yearbooks from cut-and-paste to computer formats and digital images, Mr. Tanton said. At the majority of schools nationwide, yearbook is taught as desktop publishing, graphic arts or journalism.
"There's a whole range of skills kids learn," Mr. Tanton said.
At the high school level, yearbooks on average cost from $35 to $55. At middle schools, the average cost for pupils is $20 to $30 per yearbook. Some elementary schools even sell hardcover yearbooks for $10 to $12, said Jostens yearbook sales representative Steve Vollenweider. And schools, which typically set the student price, can spend anywhere from $20,000 to the more than $70,000 Greenbrier spends to produce a yearbook.
"The setup cost is intensive," Mr. Vollenweider said. "Just to get that first one done is horribly expensive. It's like getting one automobile manufactured. Once you start printing out more and more, it gets less expensive."
Publishing cost is driven by the number of yearbooks ordered, number of pages in a book, the amount of color used and the design of the cover. Advertising sold by students helps offset the cost for schools.
"It's like a small-business venture," Greenbrier yearbook adviser Judy Teasley said. "It's probably one of the best learning experiences around."
But the lesson can be a hard one at times. Last year, for example, students at Glenn Hills High School in Richmond County almost didn't get a yearbook because of a $22,000 debt that past yearbook staffs at the school had accrued with Herff Jones. Glenn Hills Principal Calvin Holland, who was not principal when the debt accrued, did allow a yearbook to be produced, and the school has produced a debt-free yearbook for two years now with Jostens.
But it's still paying off the debt it owes Herff Jones, Mr. Holland said. The debt has taught the school and students a lesson about financing a yearbook.
"You have to be organized in what you're doing, and you have to have a plan," Mr. Holland said. "You can't make a book for $70 and sell it for $40."
Next year, Columbia County schools will be required to get three competitive quotes before a publisher is selected. School advisers will submit price quotes to the principal, who will approve the recommended publisher, said Pat Sullivan, the school system's controller. But the decision doesn't necessarily have to be based on cost as long as the adviser can justify his recommendation.
Because many schools stick with the same publishers for years, it might not be getting the best price and product for the students who purchase the yearbooks, Ms. Sullivan said.
Those in the industry said the majority of schools actually make a profit off yearbooks -- usually enough to upgrade computer equipment or purchase other supplies. In cases where schools have debts, it can be because the school is not charging enough for the books to cover the production expense. And, representatives said, the yearbook sales representative should make sure a school remains within budget.
The money a school pays includes service visits from the publishing company's sales representative -- to guide, train and work with school advisers and students and to make sure the staff can cover its costs.
But while a yearbook staff might learn some real-life lessons about financing and producing a product, yearbooks still are more than a business.
"I think that it's got the potential to be the one linchpin in keeping a lot of the school spirit alive," Mr. Vollenweider of Jostens said. "There's so few places in the schoolhouse now that you can keep that school spirit alive over the generations."