I received a notice today from Send the Light Distribution: “We are saddened to announce that effective with the date of this letter, we are putting our company in receivership because we have run out of funds to be competitive with the current supply chain for Christian products.”
STL was the largest Christian distributor (books, Bibles and other bookstore products) in America in 2005. Today they’re closing shop, unable to “operate the business profitably.”
Their customers, mainly brick and mortar bookstores, will have to find a new source for the 70,000 items STL stocked. Their 500 vendors will need to arrange and pay for shipment of their inventory to … where? Another distributor?
STL doesn’t “own” the inventory in its warehouse; vendors ship their inventory to STL on consignment. STL pays the vendors after their products are sold to retailers and STL itself is paid. In the case of receivership, “secured debt” is paid first; which means vendors (publishers and other companies that produce Christian products) are last in line, receiving pennies on the dollar if they receive anything.
So what went wrong?
I don’t know specifically. I doubt that STL did anything wrong, other than fail to be a relevant piece of the unstoppable seismic shift that has changed how we produce, distribute, sell, deliver and receive, not just information products (books), but all products.
There was a day when publishers shipped books to distributor warehouses, distributors shipped books to bookstores (real bookstores with walls and windows and doors), and bookstores sold books to readers who walked into bookstores because that’s where you went to buy books. That day is no more.
Today it’s easier to Google a subject, select a book from innumerable suggestions, read a free chapter and then order the book or its digital equivalent from Amazon, along with your monthly supply of laundry detergent and a new pair of sneakers – all at a discount – all from your phone.
Is that bad?
I don’t know the answer to that one either. But I know it’s reality. The biggest failure in this new world we’ve built is the failure to stay relevant. STL didn’t fail because it did something wrong; brick and mortar Christian bookstores haven’t turned into an endangered species because they’ve done something wrong. They simply ceased to be relevant. That’s what I’m sad about.
When I talk about “new publishing” (and I talk about it a lot) I’m not just talking about “new publishing”; I’m talking about “new everything.” From authors, to publishers, to distributors, to retailers, to readers; everything has changed. How we tell our stories, how we share them with the world, how we reach and touch our “tribes”; that’s where we have to stay relevant or watch our light and our voices fade into the digital noise that now engulfs the world.
What hasn’t changed, for all of us in this particular industry, is the why. “To advance the Christian faith and carry out the Great Commission through the effective distribution of Scripture-based and wholesome media.” That was George Verwer’s vision and mission when STL was born in 1957. That’s what hasn’t changed.
That’s why we pivot when technology pivots, why we pivot when mediums move from print to digital, to audio, to video, why we pivot when the world decides consuming information and buying books from their phones is easier than driving to the store. Whatever environment technology or markets or the Internet giants have cast us into, our stories must continue to reach the world. It’s our Commission.