We Were the First


We were the first. Not many get to say that. Well, we do! CUP is 150 years old. So we were around before all the other university presses.

From a marketing perspective this should be a dream. Easy hook, lots of promotion, and so on. But do readers even care? Do they know or want to know that we’ve been doing this publishing thing since 1869? Do authors? What about vendors and other stakeholders? Somehow, I struggle to believe Amazon is going to see we’re 150 years old and immediately order thousands more books!

Regardless, over the past year or so, the marketing team has been brainstorming and planning how to make people take notice of the fact that CUP is the first university press to the sesquicentennial mark. Colleagues from other departments have joined in and we’ve enlisted help from a variety of people on campus. We’ve got the main stuff covered: parties, events, logos, etc. We’ll use those things to let influencers on campus and in the University Press world know about the amazing things we’re doing. But what about the outsiders? Those who might not care so much? Time to get creative. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tell people our story and, perhaps most importantly sell some more books.

150th logo basic white on red flat

Being 150 years old is also an excuse to experiment, to push out some wild and wacky marketing campaigns that perhaps only tangentially use the 150th as their foundation. Videos, podcasts, blogs—content, in other words—will revolve around the 150th but won’t be consumed by it. This catalogue is full of 150th stuff but it’s not the main purpose of the catalogue, obviously! Our new website launched just in time for the 150th and we’ll use the confluence of these two things to move boldly into a content-marketing strategy more suited to the next 150 years (Weeks? Hours?) rather than what’s been done by book publishers for the past 150.

So, we’re 150! Yay, us. And we’re telling you all about it. Lucky you. But, really, from the marketing side of things, this milestone anniversary is all about being the first again. First to try new things. First to change. First to experiment. First to tear it all up and start again. And again. And again. We’re going to the be first to try a whole bunch of crazy things in scholarly book marketing and we hope you enjoy at least one or two of them.

Martyn Beeny is Marketing and Sales Director. He likes coming first; it’s a winning thing. This post was first published in the Spring/Summer 2019 Cornell University Press Catalog.

We Were the First

150 Notable Books: The First Books of Cornell University Press

Every press has to start somewhere and produce its very first book. Tracking this book down for Cornell University Press, however, is an impossible task. In late 1869, America’s first university press was mainly a printing house. We produced lecture notes for professors, university documents, and student newspapers on a large steam-driven Hoe printing press. Most of these items were short, ephemeral, and any records vanished long ago. We do not know the name of the first item to roll off the press.

The publication chosen to represent the first book by Cornell University Press, and to be the first entry on our list of 150 notable books, is the 1869-70 University Register. This annual publication contained much of the information you would find on a modern university website. It was a directory of staff and students, a listing of fields of study and graduation requirements, and a description of the university’s founding, mission, and many fine amenities.

CUP first

The director of the press, Willard Fiske, wrote a letter to President A. D. White in August 1869 about his work on the register. He described the contents, gave an estimate for completion of proof pages, and explained his plans for raising money to pay for the publication by including a page of advertising—just as most of the British university presses were doing. Despite all the trappings of modern technology that surround publishing today, these basic elements have remained the same: develop the best possible book, produce it on deadline, and figure out how to pay for it!

In contrast to the unknown first publication from CUP, Comstock Publishing was formed in 1892 for the specific purpose of publishing a particular book. As the twenty-fifth anniversary of the inauguration of the university approached, two professors, John Henry Comstock and Simon Henry Gage, felt this would be a good opportunity to honor their former professor and mentor, Burt Green Wilder. Wilder, a Harvard medical school graduate and former Civil War surgeon, had been a professor of neurology and vertebrate zoology at Cornell since its earliest days.

Comstock and Gage contacted several of Wilder’s former students and asked them to contribute to a Festschrift, a contributed volume of essays meant to honor a respected academic—and the first such book published in the United States. The result was the Wilder Quarter-Century Book, a book of nearly 500 pages, with many plates and engravings. Contributors, in addition to Comstock and Gage, included Anna Botsford Comstock (naturalist and first woman professor at Cornell), David Starr Jordan (first president of Stanford University), Leland Ossian Howard (USDA entomologist), Theobald Smith (pioneering bacteriologist), John Caspar Branner (geologist and discoverer of bauxite), and William Russell Dudley (head of the botany department at Stanford).

These two first publications bookend (if I may) the educational journey at Cornell. The first CUP book introduced prospective students to the university and its many opportunities. And the first Comstock book showcased the many achievements of former Cornell students, out in the world, discovering and disseminating knowledge.

page from Comstock first

Karen Laun is the self-proclaimed press historian and an enthusiast of all things old and dusty. In her spare time she is a Senior Production Editor and also works in the ultramodern world of e-books as Digital Publishing Editor.

150 Notable Books: The First Books of Cornell University Press