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'Sisters' Spawns a Family Feud

Naturally, there would be a sequel to the 1994 bestseller. But two? The original authors have one and a brother-in-law made another.

June 01, 1997|From Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA — Sisters are inseparable. Mothers and daughters share an unbreakable bond. And some in-laws battle out their differences on the bestseller list.

The family that topped book-selling charts in 1994 with the warm and fuzzy coffee-table book "Sisters" now is facing off with rival photo-essay tributes to women and their daughters.

At No. 1 on the New York Times' bestseller list is "Mothers and Daughters," by Carol Saline and Sharon J. Wohlmuth, who also collaborated on "Sisters."

Wohlmuth's brother-in-law, Buz Teacher, holds the No. 7 spot with "Daughters and Mothers," commissioned by his publishing company, Running Press, which launched the successful "Sisters."

The listing that appeared in Sunday's New York Times was based on sales during the week before Mother's Day, May 11.

"It's obvious what they were doing," Saline said recently, still bitter at what she believes is clear imitation. "For them it was a business decision and people do business in different ways."

Said Teacher: "Those people who have heard the whole story find irony in it. . . . I do too."

"Sisters" hatched at a 1993 brunch between Wohlmuth, a former Philadelphia Inquirer photographer, and Saline, a senior writer for Philadelphia Magazine whose son is married to Wohlmuth's stepdaughter. Both women wanted to honor sisters "who have made the highs in life more meaningful and the lows more bearable," Saline wrote.

"We both just knew a book on sisters would be incredible," Wohlmuth said from her Philadelphia penthouse apartment.

After the project was rejected by New York publishing houses in 1994, the pair turned to Philadelphia's Running Press, founded by Wohlmuth's husband, Larry Teacher, who has since retired from the company, and his brother, Buz.

"Sisters" turned into Running Press' biggest hit since the 1970s, selling about 1 million copies and lingering on the New York Times bestseller list for 63 weeks.

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Sequels were the obvious next step.

"We assumed we were doing their next book with them. We assumed that incorrectly, it turned out," Buz Teacher said.

Still busy touring with "Sisters" in early 1995, Wohlmuth and Saline caught the attention of New York publishers and, amid a whirlwind of offers, accepted a $2.75-million two-book deal from Doubleday.

The authors' agent, Ellen Levine, said she asked for a bid from Running Press, but the publishing house declined.

Buz Teacher remembers it differently. He said Levine pressed for a multimillion-dollar bid in one day, a situation he said "just didn't feel comfortable."

Then in early 1996, Running Press hired writer Lauren Cowen and photographer Jayne Wexler to create "Daughters and Mothers," for release in the key book-selling weeks before Mother's Day 1997, and a few weeks before Wohlmuth and Saline's "Mothers and Daughters."

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The copycat publishing doesn't end with Running Press versus Doubleday. No less than a dozen such relationship-celebrating books will be in bookstores by next spring. The flood of coffee-table books includes tributes to best friends, gay partners, lesbian partners, fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, and HIV-positive women.

Each mimics the successful "Sisters" formula--glossy black-and-white photos and nostalgic essays detailing the pain and glory of relationships. Each features about 30 families or couples--a few big names, some less-than-ideal relationships and the obligatory tear-jerking tragedy.

Saline and Wohlmuth found out about Running Press' book when one of their subjects, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said she was approached by another team doing a sequel to "Sisters." Ginsburg, who also appeared in 1996's "Mothers and Sons," was interviewed for both mother-and-daughter books, but appeared only in Doubleday's edition.

"She was confused. Was she working with the 'Sisters' people or not?" Saline said. "We have encountered this kind of confusion everywhere we went."

In one bookstore, Saline said, the Running Press book was displayed in the wall spot reserved for her book, and at some book signings, women have brought the other book by mistake.

Running Press said the timing of the similar books was coincidental but part of the business.

"To sell over a million copies, the way we did with 'Sisters,' and with the success of 'Mothers and Daughters' . . . there is nothing to regret," Teacher said.

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