In recent years, a number of Christian book distributors have been hit by the same market forces affecting the stores they serve. This summer, Send the Light Distribution (STL) closed down after 40 years in business, citing losses from the Family Christian Stores’ bankruptcy, e-book and Internet sales, and store attrition. That leaves only Ingram (through its Spring Arbor division) and Anchor as book distributors dedicated to the Christian market.
Citing now-defunct Christian distribution companies of 10 years ago, such as Riverside and Appalachian, Larry Carpenter, president and CEO of hybrid publishing company Christian Book Services (CBS), said the number serving Christian stores is at an all-time low today, down from his estimate of five at the market’s peak in the late ‘90’s. “It’s definitely a negative thing: the number is downsizing, not right sizing,” he told PW. “The real losers are the retailers—now they have much less of a choice and opportunity in distribution.”
Ingram now handles all distribution for CBS, which is still owed $52,000 from STL. One of the biggest challenges STL faced was diminished business because of the number of bookstore closings in recent years. According to the 2016 State of the Industry report from the Christian Booksellers Association, three new CBA stores have opened since December 2015, while 27 have closed.
Nevertheless, Bob Whitaker Jr., president of Whitaker House Publishing/Anchor Distribution, has a sunny outlook on his distribution program. Anchor services over 300 vendors, 100 of which are publishers. “We have weathered the storm of competition,” Whitaker told PW. “We are optimistic, there are still CBA stores out there and we’ve been satisfied in meeting their needs.”
Anchor also carries e-books, gift products, and church supplies, with the latter constituting “a huge part of our business,” said Whitaker. Digital sales, however, have eaten up a lot of the book market for distributors, especially in fiction. Fortunately for Anchor, “most Christians live on nonfiction titles—especially Bibles and Bible studies—and those items haven’t taken a hit and are more available than ever in print today,” said Whitaker.
Yet as STL leaves the business, Christian music distribution company New Day and general-market distributor Midpoint are making inroads.
New Day, which expanded into books in 2008 with just 25 titles from three publishers, has picked up business as a result of STL’s demise, increasing its number of publisher clients to 60 in the last year. While the company’s core business is still music, gifts, and toys, New Day v-p Ed Leonard said small publishers call daily in search of a new distribution channel, and he is confident in what the future holds. “Bookstore openings are not outpacing store closings yet, but on the ABA side, they’re seeing growth in indie storefronts, and that is encouraging news,” said Leonard. “I would think the CBA would follow that.”
Following STL’s closure announcement, New York-based distributor Midpoint Trade Books offered STL’s publishing clients special one-time rates, including a discounted sales and distribution fee, a waived $500 set-up fee, freight paid to ship books from STL to Midpoint’s warehouse, and expedited set-up to minimize down time. According to CEO Eric Kampmann, Midpoint has picked up 10-15 of STL’s publishing clients in the last few months.
“There’s a huge hole in the Christian marketplace,” said Kampmann. “The problem is emerging Christian authors and publishing houses don’t have a strong place in the secular marketplace; their reach is limited and doesn’t go beyond the church.” Midpoint will sell to both the CBA and the general trade, while also offering authors and publishers guidance on how to expand the reach of their books.
Meanwhile, Dave Lewis, executive v-p of sales and marketing at Baker Publishing Group, said changes in the Christian market reflect struggles in the general trade. “Christian bookstores went away dramatically in the last decade; what’s happening there is what’s happening to everybody,” he said, citing losses due to the recession, digital sales, and Amazon. “Consolidation is happening across the board.”
Despite the downsizing, distribution companies are still valuable partners to publishing houses and independent bookstores that want to maximize sales and profits. “The market has shrunk and it doesn’t make sense for publishers to have a big sales force,” said New Day’s CEO Leonard. “We ensure that the end consumer can find a product in stores instead of having to go to Amazon. We add a layer of knowledge and extra voice in the market.”