McPhee Gribble was founded in 1975 by Hilary McPhee and Diana Gribble. McPhee had gained some experience at Meanjin, Penguin, McKinsey and Heinemann, and had established herself as a talented editor. Gribble was an architect and a gifted manager of people, who took on the responsibilities of production and design. Initially, the company packaged books for other publishers, including Heinemann and UQP.
Commissioned by John Hooker to package a series of children's books for Penguin, McPhee Gribble also developed the Practical Puffins series. This highly successful series eventually comprised more than thirty 'punchy little books for children', which translated readily to overseas markets. (McPhee, p.150-152)
However, it was the publication of McPhee Gribble's first title - Glen Tomasetti's Thoroughly Decent People (1976) - to critical acclaim that ousted the company from its 'protective zone' of packaging, and launched one of the most prestigious independent Australian publishing houses of the 1970s and 1980s. 'A new era for McPhee Gribble began' when the company licensed the paperback rights for Helen Garner's Monkey Grip (1977) to Penguin: 'we knew we'd made a mistake'. (Gribble, p. 108) Thereafter, the company published its own paperbacks, such as Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey's Puberty Blues (1979). But it also continued to package titles for other publishers such as Rigby and Penguin.
Championed by Brian Johns at Penguin Books Australia, McPhee Gribble went on to publish an innovative and eclectic literary list in the 1980s, and it played a significant role in launching or developing the writing careers of contemporary Australian authors such as Beverley Farmer, Helen Garner, Drusilla Modjeska, Sally Morrison and Tim Winton. The successful works of Garner, Modjeska and Winton - including Garner's Honour and Other People's Children (1980), and Winton's In the Winter Dark (1988) and Jesse (1989) - would soon become synonymous with McPhee Gribble, as would Brian Matthews' Louisa (1987), a fictionalised biography of Louisa Lawson. A few books on Aboriginal issues were also to emerge, for example, Elsie Roughsey Labumore's An Aboriginal Mother Tells of Old and New (1984).
From the outset, McPhee Gribble sought to establish a general list: 'fiction and non-fiction, children's and adult's books, both literary and "popular" -- the mix was essential'. (McPhee, p. 159) Many of these books were co-published with and distributed by Penguin. Early on McPhee Gribble also sought to trade rights for its Australian-originated titles overseas. An early achievement in this regard was the sale of rights for Helen Garner's Monkey Grip to Carmen Callil at Virago in the UK. As a consequence of their connection with Callil, McPhee Gribble soon also traded rights in America. The first American title to be published by McPhee Gribble was Wallace Stegner's Crossing to Safety, acquired from Random House. (p. 193)Ultimately though, the copublishing arrangements that were in place with Penguin Australia did not provide sufficient income for the company to expand its operations. Finally, McPhee Gribble was sold to Penguin Australia in 1989. As Diana Gribble co-founded her next venture, Text Media, Hilary McPhee travelled with the imprint to Penguin Australia where she became Penguin's McPhee Gribble publisher. Three years later McPhee left Penguin (she later joined Pan Macmillan as its Publishing Director), at which time editor Sophie Cunningham was promoted to manage the imprint.