We All Passed Our College Lit Classes Thanks to Clifton "CliffsNotes" Hillegass

By | April 15, 2022

test article image
Classical literature on bookshelves. (Richard Baker/In Pictures via Getty Images)

For procrastinators, struggling readers, and the just plain lazy, CliffsNotes were the easy way out of slogging through that important but tedious classic play or novel your English teacher was convinced would change your life. But just who was Cliff, and why were his notes so good?

Clifton Hillegass

Clifton Keith Hillegass was born on April 18, 1918 to a Nebraska mail carrier living in Rising City, where Hillegass lived until he enrolled in Midland Lutheran College in Fremont. Surprisingly, he wasn't a literature guy, earning his bachelor's degree in math and physics and briefly pursuing master's coursework in geology at the University of Nebraska before dropping out to get married and start a family, which might be why he understood the need for reading help. He served in the Army Air Corps during World War II as a meteorologist, and when he returned home, he took a job buying and selling used college textbooks.

On a business trip to Toronto, Hillegass met Jack Cole, the owner of two of the city's bookstores. Over dinner, Cole told Hillegass about the series of course outlines/study guides that he published and sold in Canada, which covered 16 of William Shakespeare's most popular plays. Hillegass was intrigued by the study guides, called Coles Notes, so Cole suggested Hillegass publish and distribute a version of his study guides in the United States.

test article image
CliffsNotes guide on Lord of the Flies. (Dr Umm/Flickr)


Initially unconvinced the study guide business could be profitable, Hillegass kept his sales job while he published the first run of CliffsNotes, which were really just a reprint of Coles Notes, in 1958. To his astonishment, all 33,000 copies of the guides sold out pretty much immediately, and by the end of the year, he sold more than 58,000 copies. He soon branched out beyond Shakespeare, initially tapping English teachers to write guides on the great works of literature, but he found their analysis too one-sided, so he started hiring graduate students instead.

The great thing about students is that they ask for very little money, making CliffsNotes very cheap to produce, with a high profit margin. In 1999, by which time more than five million of his guides were sold every year, Hillegass sold CliffsNotes to IDG Books for $14 million. On May 5, 2001, he died a very rich man.