Feb 2, 2018

Whats in a Name, CliffsNotes

If you attended any organized school, you likely have heard of CliffsNotes. You maybe even used them. Cliff Keith Hillegass dropped out of a Master’s program studying physics and geology at the University of Nebraska in 1939, got married, and took a job working for the Nebraska Book Company.

During 1958, Cliff met Jack Cole, the co-owner of Coles Toronto book business which published a series of Canadian study guides called Coles Notes. Jack agreed to sell Hillegass the US rights to the guides.

Catherine MacDonald, was a co-founder of Cliff'sNotes (original spelling) with her first husband, Cliff Hillegass. She typed an initial mailing to college stores of about 1,000 letters. Catherine operated the fledgling publishing company out of the basement of the family home and during the first few years shipped over a million Cliff'sNotes with a tiny staff including the couple’s children. They divorced in 1967.

He designed the first yellow and black cover himself, with a visual pun of an outline of mountain cliffs. He used graduate students to write the guides. Cliff never wrote any of the guides. He paid modest fees to its writers and no royalties, sold printed booklets for pennies a copy.

The first run published in 1958 comprised 16 of Cole’s Notes’ Shakespeare study guides, funded with a $4,000 loan. The study guides were a hit, selling a reported 58,000 copies in the early going allowing Cliff to expand his enterprise. From his first Cliff's Notes, a summary of Hamlet, in 1958. He eventually published more than 220 titles and sold more than 50 million CliffsNotes worldwide.

The company was selling more than 5 million pamphlets annually and reaping multimillion-dollar profits. Cliff retired from CliffsNotes, selling the company to IDG Books for $14 million. He died at age 83 on 5 May, 2001.