Three-year-old Continental Sales Inc. is unique in the distribution business. It's a national sales organization formed by four regional rep groups—Wybel Marketing Group Inc. (Midwest), Faherty & Associates (West Coast), Melman-Moster Associates (New York, New England and the Mid Atlantic) and Southern Territory Associates (Southeast and Southwest)—which are all partners in the company, while continuing to represent their own publishers.

Terry Wybel, president of Wybel Marketing, described the impetus behind Continental: "I recognized that, as a regional rep group, we were an endangered species. I watched our customer base erode from 650 seven years ago to 250 in 1999. I thought the only way we were going to survive was to go national." So he approached other rep groups to see if they would be willing to join forces and cover the country.

As a result, Wybel said, "60% to 65% of what we represent is now Continental." The commission rates may be identical, but one problem that Wybel and the other members of Continental have had to negotiate is competing with their own publishers who also distribute. "Our largest publisher is Andrews McMeel," said Wybel, "and they've given us a list of dos and don'ts." Among them is that Continental can't approach for distribution a publisher that has left Andrews McMeel or one that it has already contacted.

The strictures have not prevented Continental from signing on two large religion lines, which it represents to ABA stores: Multnomah Publishing and Thomas Nelson. Continental's general trade publishers vary from powerHouse Books, which did last year's bestselling New York, September 11, to the American Cancer Society. With this spring's additions—British medical book publisher Remedica Publishing; Singapore's Editions Didier Millet, which does books on Eastern architecture and cooking; Hachette Illustrated, a division of Hachette Octopus; Mark Batty Publisher, a startup in West New York, N.J., which does high-end graphics titles; and Warwick Publishing, a Canadian house previously distributed by LPC—Continental represents 26 publishers and is growing. "So far," noted Wybel, "it's worked famously. We're generating strong commission."

Having a fulfillment arrangement with Connecticut-based publisher Weatherhill, another of Continental's clients, hasn't hurt. "The relationship we have with Weatherhill is more than synergistic," says Wybel. "We, at this point, represent a disproportionate amount of their business." And customers appreciate Weatherhill's advanced reporting capabilities, which enable them to access sales information via the Internet 24/7. Online reporting has been a boon for Weatherhill as well. COO Martin Berke estimates, "Internally, it's reduced the number of calls and e-mails by 90%."

Through its fulfillment arrangement with Continental, Weatherhill has been able to use two Connecticut warehouses— one in Trumbull and one in New Haven. Since leaving Tuttle in 1990 to handle its own distribution and that of several other Asian houses (Weatherhill is a Japanese company based in the U.S.), Weatherhill has had trouble finding new clients in recent years. "Continental brought in about $2.5 million worth of publishers in terms of net sales for the last 12 months," said Berke, who explained that the advantage for Continental is that it doesn't have to go to each of the publishers to get its commission; Weatherhill collects it.