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Another Industry Shakeup - STL Distribution for Sale

by Ian on August 13, 2010

STL Distribution

STL Distribution

Yesterday Biblica, an international Bible society, announced that they are looking for a buyer for their Tennessee-based Send the Light distribution division. STL purchased Appalachian Bible Co. in 2005 making it the largest Christian distributor in North America. Spring Arbor, another Christian distributor had been bought by Ingram Books several years earlier.

As a company that has made the attempt to get into distribution to help other Catholic stores, we can understand why STL isn't succeeding. As a distributor, as opposed to a wholesaler, you are purchasing product from a wholesaler who gives you an extra discount, usually 10%, for buying in bulk. This 10% is typically your entire margin and things such as shipping and credit card fees come out of that amount.

For example, as a distributor I want to buy a book from a publisher that retails for $10.

The publisher would typically give a 40% discount to stores but would give a distributor 50%. So this leaves $5 for each title as gross profit. He will then sell the title to a bookstore for $6 leaving him with $1 per book. From that dollar he will need to deduct shipping charges, credit card fees if the bookstore uses a credit card and all of his other costs if distribution is his only source of income.

When you are buying in large enough quantity and have enough stores buying from you this arrangement can succeed. Ingram and Baker and Taylor are two good examples. The problem is that with such thin margins any drop in buying by bookstores, like if there is a recession, means that your tiny margins are going to dry up unless you find something else that has a higher margin to offset the loss in your low margin sales.

Problems with STL appeared last year when it closed three of its four warehouses and moved to Elizabethton, TN. STL also announced a new print-on-demand service which should help them improve their margins.

CEO Doug Lockhart, using standard corporate speak, announced that there was no set deadline for the review, "and if a suitable ownership partner is not identified, we will continue to operate the business and work to build on the strong foundation we've established."

If your company has a strong foundation, why the heck would you sell it? I predict that STL will eventually get sold piecemeal and absorbed by the other large distributors. Ingram has had Lightning Source, a print-on-demand service, available for almost a year already.

I hope that this announcement serves as a warning to others who want to try the distribution model. Appalachian fell in 2005, its buyer is on the chopping block five years later, Spring Arbor couldn't last as an independent and was bought up by a secular distributor, we tried on a much smaller scale to serve the Catholic world and I know of at least one other distributor that failed before we started. Our efforts lasted three years and brought our company losses all three years.

I believe that it is possible for a Catholic distributor to succeed but ONLY AFTER the Catholic retail world is on firm footing. Ask any vendor and most store owners and they will tell you that right now it isn't. I'm not sure how to go about fixing this problem. The Catholic Marketing Network has been offering workshops at its conferences for years but Alan Napleton  has said that he feels like he is just offering "Retailing 101" year after year without seeing much progress.

So where do we go as an industry? Offering professional consulting to stores seems tempting but I'm doubtful that stores that are already run poorly will be willing to pay someone to tell them how to get right. Maybe offering online classes would work but someone is going to need to put out the time and money to get that started. Any ideas?

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Robbie Edgar August 19, 2010 at 12:36 pm


Can you tell me what problems appeared last year when three of STL’s four warehouses moved to Elizabeththon, TN ?


Ian August 19, 2010 at 7:39 pm

What I meant to say is that when a distributor has to close 75% of its shipping facilities, increasing the delivery time to a large portion of the country, there seems to be something wrong. We also had to move our purchasing to another distributor as the selection available from STL dropped.


Robbie Edgar August 19, 2010 at 8:30 pm


I thought that may have been what you meant but wanted a clarification before I commented.

STL moved from three warehouses in Johnson City that had a total of 85,ooo square feet and 16 foot ceiling to a facility 12 miles away that’s 191,000 square feet and 32 ft ceiling under one roof. The facility was build for a publishing company and is ideal for book distribution. Shipments still go out of Johnson City and transit time did not change. We still have a DC in Sparks NV and Waynesboro GA. 90% of our domestic shipments arrive to our customers in 2 days or less.

I was the first person that Tom Torbett hired when he started Appalachian Bible Company and just completed my 35th year with the company.

I do agree with much of your article but felt you had been misinformed about our move. It’s really been wonderful to have the much needed space and all of us under one roof.

Robbie Edgar
VP and Chief Distribution and Logistics Office


Ian August 20, 2010 at 10:13 am

Thank you for clarifying the consolidation. I’m glad that it has had a positive effect on the company.


James February 2, 2011 at 6:33 pm

I am not surprised. Their customers, physical bookstores, are having a hard time of it in competition with internet stores. Generally, Christian stores are operated by people with a commendable mission, but little business skills.


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