A Look at Auburn Publishers: With a Focus on the Firm of Derby & Miller

The period of the late 1840s to early 1850s catapulted Auburn’s publishing industry to a new height. The first book that was published in Auburn was in 1815, the same year Auburn was incorporated as a village; and the industry slowly grew through small printers and self –publishers until the establishment of Derby & Miller in 1848.

James Cephas Derby was born in Little Falls, NY in 1818, the oldest of four brothers, all of whom would have careers in the book industry. He first came to Auburn in 1833 to apprentice at the firm of H. Ivison & Co. booksellers. Henry Ivison’s store sold books and stationary, with a bookbindery in the rear. Derby was initially meant to learn the bookbinder’s trade, but Ivison determined that he “couldn’t bind worth a cent,” and was better adapted to wait on customers in the store- selling books rather than binding them.

Derby recalled Ivison’s store in his memoir:
“The bookstores were the natural resorts for the intelligent class of the community, who usually met there to discuss the topics of the day or to learn of what was new in the book world, and among those who frequented our store were the professors and students of the Auburn Theological Seminary, who were good patrons as well. The books most in demand besides theological and school books were the then famous Waverly novels and the works of Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving.”

Derby also recalled his early encounters with William Seward, with whom he would become close friends, and meeting Washington Irving:

“The book store was generally the resort of cultivated men of the stamp of Mr. Seward. As a clerk there I often waited upon him, especially when any new or important book was received and appeared for sale.”

“I remember one day, Mr. Seward, then Governor of the State, came into the store, accompanied by a fine-looking gentleman. The former asked Mr. Ivison if he had a copy of Washington Irving’s latest work, receiving an answer in the affirmative, at the same time being furnished with a copy which he purchased, turned to his companion and said, “I want your autograph in the book.” The gentleman then took a pen from Mr. Ivison’s desk, and writing his name in the volumes, handed them to Mr. Seward. That was the first time I had ever seen Washington Irving.”

In 1837 Derby went to work for a rival bookstore, run by the Hon. Ulysses F. Doubleday, which was located opposite of the Western Exchange Hotel. After a year, he went back to Ivison’s store, and in 1840 with Ivison’s financial backing, opened his own bookstore. J. C. Derby & Co. was located in the old Doubleday store. His endeavor was successful from the start.

In 1844 Derby put out his first publication, Conference Hymns, with Tunes, adapted to Religious Meetings for Prayers. In 1848, Derby made Norman C. Miller a partner in the business. Miller was a clerk in his store, and the name of the firm was changed to Derby, Miller, & Co.

In 1850 the business enlarged and the name was changed to Derby & Miller.  With this change came a shift in focus to exclusively sell their own publications.  

By 1853 business was booming. The Auburn Daily Advertiser noted on January 3, 1853:
“It would hardly be fair to wish them an immediate increase of business, for although they keep four steam presses constantly employed on their publications they are not able to keep up with the demand for their books. They are, however, about to add largely to their present facilities for making books and we therefore take this occasion to hope that their business will then be correspondingly increased.”

Up to 1853 inclusive, Derby & Miller had printed and published more than one hundred different books, consisting of school and law publications, standard histories, biographies, and miscellaneous works of a popular nature. The same year a co-partnership was formed as Derby & Miller of Auburn, and Derby, Orton, & Mulligan of Buffalo.

In December 1853, Derby moved to New York City to continue his publishing business.  In 1861 he was appointed Librarian of the Department of State by William H. Seward, and spent the next decade in public service.

In 1872 Derby became the manager of the bound book subscription department of the New York firm of D. Appleton & Co.  The subscription book department was an extremely important branch of the publishing business before modern transportation systems, and when many areas of the country were too remote to support a local bookstore.  Publishers depended on traveling agents, who carried books to homes.   
William H. Seward’s Travels Around the World was secured by Derby for publication by D. Appleton & Co., and had the largest sale of any book of travels ever published in the US and perhaps in Europe, at the time.  The publishers paid Seward’s estate more than $50,000 in copyright sales of the book.

The second largest firm in Auburn’s book publishing history was the one, through several name changes, that James Monroe Alden founded.  Their first book was published under the imprint of Alden & Markham in 1846. John E. Beardsley joined the firm by the early 1850s, and the name was changed to Alden, Beardsley & Co.  They were second to Derby’s firm as an upstate publisher.  The business depression of the late 1850s caused the failure of the firm, last known as John E. Beardsley.  They were best known for publishing Bibles, biographical, children’s and miscellaneous works, with nationwide sales.