Motivated by the first Women and Labour Conference in Sydney in 1978, and drawing on a wide range of publishing expertise and experience, five publishers - Diana Gribble, Hilary McPhee, Sally Milner, Joyce Thorpe Nicholson, and Anne O'Donovan - established Sisters Publishing Limited in Melbourne in 1978 to pursue a feminist vision of publishing women's writing. Each woman was a director and shareholder, with provision for more women to become involved at a future date without undue complexity. (Pat Healy became a director in late 1980; O'Donovan resigned in March 1981.) In 1979, Sisters also launched Australia's first feminist bookclub, Sisters Bookclub, to bring the best of women's writing around the world to its membership.
Sisters determined to publish across the whole spectrum of writing of interest to women, but especially in areas badly served by mainstream publishing: poetry, short stories, literary fiction and radical ideas (Sisters Archive, S0005, Baillieu Library). They invited a group of women to act as an editorial board and determined that Sisters would be 'a very low budget operation' that aimed to 'finance small-run specialist books with the proceeds of more popular titles'. Sisters operated as a business (not a collective) and their first priority was to 'reach a point of solvency where [they] could take on a full-time paid director' (Sisters Archive).
Sisters 'recognised that one of the fatal flaws of independent publishing was distribution so they decided to address this head-on'. They went straight to their market with a mail-order book club concept and found a regular group of subscribers. Quarterly issues of the Sisters News usually offered two Sisters Publishing titles, plus up to ten of the best feminist books that they could buy in from other publishers in Australia or overseas. Australian titles came from a range of imprints including their own; many overseas titles came from Virago and Women's Press in the UK. Ultimately, over one hundred titles were offered to subscribers and many Australian- and overseas-originated non-fiction titles were included in the selection. Overseas-originated fiction titles included Marilyn French's The Women's Room, Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time and Margaret Atwood's Surfacing.
Sisters own publications also were well received and critically acclaimed. Poetry titles by Rosemary Dobson, Jill Hellyer, Judith Rodriguez, Jennifer Strauss and Fay Zwicky among others, dominated the Sisters list and sold surprisingly well. Sisters first novel was Beverley Farmer's Alone (1980), a pioneering novel that offered 'a haunting record of a young woman's anguish alone with the pain of rejection by her [woman] lover'. Another important manuscript published by Sisters was Emily Hope's The Legend of Pope Joan (1983), which contained two parts: the first a fictional account of Pope Joan, and the second an essay providing evidence for the legend.This title offers a valuable illustration of the type of book best published by a feminist press like Sisters - a very well written book of major significance, though one that was unlikely to be published by a 'mainstream' publisher because it offered little chance of commercial success.
Although their commitment to Sisters remained 'undimmed', the Sisters directors often battled to find the time and energy to build the Sisters list and operate the bookclub. At the beginning of 1983, exhaustion prevailed and the mailing list was passed on to their largest customer, Murphy Sisters Bookshop in Adelaide.
Sources: Sisters Publishing Archive, S0005, Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne; Joyce Nicholson 'Successful Sisters, Sisters Publishing: Problems of a Feminist Publishing House' in Refractory Girl Writes, 24/25, October 1982, pp. 77-78; and Sisters News 1-17, 1979-1983.