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Thud! Thud!

The 2001-2002 Talking Phone Book and the Verizon Super Pages have landed, not very gently, on front steps around Erie County.

For the vast majority of people, the phone book is a handy (and free) tool when ordering pizza, calling a cab or boosting a small child in a chair.

But for Buffalo's two rival phone book publishers, Verizon and the White Directory Publishers Inc., Buffalo-based publisher of the Talking Phone Book since 1968, the phone book is not quite so innocent. It is not nifty. It is war.

The companies go to great lengths to attract users. Features such as seating charts for athletic arenas, zip codes for residential listings, a calender of holidays, coupons for perms and mufflers -- they're things you'll find in every phone book across the nation. But they were once unique to the Talking Phone Book and have been adopted by other publishers, said Richard D. Lewis, White Directory's president and CEO.

"The more user-friendly the book is, the more people will use it," and the more advertisers will want to pay to get the attention of those readers, Lewis said.

Phone book innovation has not only helped the Talking Phone Book win popularity, but the competition between the books also has driven down advertising prices. According to the Talking Phone Book, a full-page ad in both books costs less today than advertising in just the phone company's book did in 1993.

Which is not to say they're giving ads away. Advertising has never been a small-potato game, and the revenue is staggering: White Directories, publishing books in 35 cities, made $80 million in revenue last year.

For Talking Phone Book's current back-cover advertiser -- Buffalo law firm Morris, Cantor, Goodman, Lukasik & Panepinto -- the spot is worth the cost. And the cost is enough that no one wants to disclose it.

"It's a high-recognition, high-profile spot. It's high circulation -- in every home and library," said Barb Buffamanti, the firm's marketing director.

Local businesses, especially those offering 24-hour services, such as tow trucks and locksmiths, agree that it is imperative to be in both books.

Phone books are a $13.2 billion dollar national industry, said Larry Small, vice president of marketing services at the Yellow Pages Publishers Association. There's so much money to be made that having two phone books in a city is not unusual.

Erie County residents who find getting two phone books irritating may be thank
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Verizon sells ad
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ful they're not living in certain areas of Southern California, Small said, where some residents receive seven to 10 phone books a year. Small said that the competition is good for advertisers because it drives down prices.

In Buffalo, the phone company's name has changed four times since Wilbur Lewis, Richard's father, started the company in 1968. The phone company has been forced to dramatically drop its rates due to the direct and feisty competition, and wants to regain what it once had -- phone book domination.

Verizon Super Pages increased the possibilities for ad revenue by selling the few open spaces left on its book: the spine and a spot on the front cover.

"We were really excited to get it," said Denise Wacker, legal assistant for Jeffrey Jayson, whose ad runs of the front cover. Verizon created extra space not even in the phone book to score Univera Health's ad: it's on a you-can't-miss-it magnet stuck on front of the book.

Phone books were once a lucrative monopoly for local phone companies, and then the 1996 Telecommunications Act ordered the phone companies to fork over their databases of listings at fair prices, making it easier for independent publishers to not only play catch-up, but leap ahead.

Tim O'Connell, a partner at Siegel, Kelleher & Kahn in Buffalo, said it is impossible to tell how many of their clients respond to their full-page ad on the back of the Verizon Super Pages because the firm also advertises extensively in other mediums and has been in business long enough to rely on repeat clients.

"If you're going to market your message, you have to use a lot of different mediums," O'Connell said, noting that name recognition is an important marketing tool.

And while the name recognition the back-page ad helps generate isn't priceless, many local law firms and other businesses are willing to shell out anything for the premium spot.

At The Talking Phone Book, sales agents keep a running list of businesses who have expressed interest in claiming the back page.

The back-page contract holder has seniority rights to the spot, but if they choose not to renew, the sales agents are ready.

"It's like in the Wild West, where everyone lines up on horseback to get land, and they fire the gun," said Robert Casio, vice president of sales.

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