There are book readers and there are book lovers. There are folks who see reading as a casual pastime to while away the hours on the beach, and there are those who see books as objects to be loved. There's no shortage of books for either kind of bookworm. This week, you get to take a look at the inner working of a specialty publisher.
The Folio Society is a publisher of finely crafted works of literature. It was founded in London in 1947 with the belief that beautiful works of literature should be accompanied by equally beautiful physical volumes for book lovers to own, hold and read. The titles they publish are hand-picked and span the literary spectrum, but the one thing they have in common is that they are painstakingly realized in some of the most gorgeous volumes seen today.
I had the chance to chat with The Folio Society's marketing director, Jean-Marc Rathe, about their science-fiction and fantasy titles. Here's what he had to say about The Folio Society's mission, their process, title selection and book production.
Hi Jean-Marc. Can you tell us about The Folio Society's mission?
The Folio Society was founded in 1947, in the aftermath of the Second World War, in ration-weary Great Britain. From the outset, the intention was to create ‘editions of the world’s greatest literature in a format worthy of the contents.’ In those early years we published just a handful of titles per year—our first was Tales of Tolstoy—and by and large they reflected the literary canon. Today, we produce dozens of new editions every year, bringing to new audiences both the established classics but also assorted nonfiction titles, enhanced by our award-winning picture researchers, and contemporary fan-favourites—books like Frank Herbert’s Dunethat have enormous cult followings. However, we always remain true to our original ethos, to present beautifully bound editions that will excite established fans and intrigue new readers.
For each book, our production and editorial teams consider typography, illustrative content, paper stock and printing methods, and of course, bindings that stand out, in materials ranging from cloth and buckram, to luxury paper and leather. We also commission introductions from leading contemporary writers to enhance many of our editions, be it in fiction, history, science, children’s literature, poetry, philosophy, travel or other genres.
What is your role at The Folio Society?
As Marketing Director, my role is to present our full range of books—both new and existing titles—to our customers worldwide and to bring in new customers through multiple channels—whether direct marketing; advertising, PR or social media. Our customers put forward great ideas too—they are enormously engaged and enthusiastic. One example was our limited edition of The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner back in 2012; it was a Folio member who suggested we undertake the first edition to be published as Faulkner had originally intended—with colorised text in the famed first part narrated by Benjy. The result was an edition of 1,480 that sold out within weeks.
As Marketing Director, the interaction with customers and members is one of the things I enjoy most. In fact, membership is one of the unique things about Folio. Throughout our history, membership has been at the heart of Folio—and today, anyone who buys four books from us is entitled to membership for a full 12 months—which brings with it, among other benefits, access to member launch prices on most new editions and special member-only sales throughout the year.
Our members certainly appreciate these benefits, but for new customers who just want to buy one or two books a year, there are frequent special introductory offers to let them discover Folio; however, you don’t need to be a member to buy one of our books. Anyone can purchase any of our titles whenever they like.
The list of science-fiction and fantasy titles you publish is loaded with an impressive selection of classics like The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. How does The Folio Society select the science-fiction and fantasy titles to include in its catalog? Have there been any titles you tried to get but couldn't?
Our goal is to publish works of importance in any genre: books we feel have an aesthetic potential and which stand the test of rereading and reimagining. The idea of a ‘classic’ literature is always contentious, particularly when it comes to science fiction and fantasy, but there is an enormous wealth of wonderful writing and the sort of fiercely imaginative storytelling within these genres which our readers admire as much as we do ourselves. This can make for some tough decisions. But we canvas our customers, do external research and rely on the expertise of our editors to select the titles—and thanks to this process we have published such books as Dune, The Foundation Trilogy and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. We haven’t to my knowledge been refused rights to any titles in this area—and I think that is partly because illustration ties so naturally with writers like Asimov, Atwood, Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick.
Can you tell us how The Folio Society goes above and beyond the average process of book production to make its volumes?
When we gain the rights to produce a Folio edition of any book, a long and painstaking process begins. All books are rekeyed, then carefully typeset and designed in-house. Each book is double-proofread. Books are printed sheet fed and then sewn in 16 pp. sections, with additional head- and tail-bands and blocked cases.
We then have the complex process of choosing multiple materials for each title. The materials on which the text is printed, the illustrations are presented and in which the books are bound are of utmost importance, and sourced from only the finest suppliers. And they vary from book to book. One may be specialty paper, the other quarter-bound in leather with cloth sides—all of these decisions take time and are made to respect and reflect the specific nature of the text. Many readers may be surprised to know that the binding material for A Clockwork Orange, designed to look and feel like alligator skin, is actually a very special kind of paper, and the design is enhanced by metallic orange blocking. Finally, all Folio books are presented in slipcases—some featuring illustrations—which protect the bindings from wear and the page tops from discolouration.
All of the volumes from The Folio Society are accompanied by insightful introductions and eye-catching illustrations. How do you select the person who does the introduction? How do you choose and commission the art that goes with each volume?
Our editors select introducers who they feel will be able to bring new life into classic works; often writers and thinkers who have been personally influenced by these books and bring an intimate appreciation of their value, at the same time as providing a literary and cultural context. Our introducers can also bring with them a readership who wouldn’t necessarily have known about an author; Patti Smith writing about Wuthering Heights for example, or Paul Krugman on The Foundation Trilogy.
The Folio Society is almost unique in illustrating adult fiction with artwork by many of the world’s best illustrators. Our award-winning Art Director Sheri Gee always starts by reading the book considering what style would best suit the narrative, genre, style of writing and the market. This might bring to mind a host of people that have worked on our commissions before but she is equally on the look out for new talent. She considers how action-packed or otherwise the book is and indeed books with a high proportion of dialogue can provide their own challenges. Samples of the illustrator/s work are presented to the team—we frequently agree, occasionally argue, but always aim for the best result in order for each illustrated book to become a collector’s edition.
You latest science-fiction title is Frank Herbert's classic Dune, which is accompanied by a tasty handful of illustrations by artist Sam Weber. What is the genesis of how The Folio Society came to publish this particular title?
Dune has long been one of the most requested titles from our readers, so it was really only a matter of time before we decided to publish our own edition. It is of course amongst the greatest of science-fiction novels: a masterpiece we knew we could transform into a stunning edition. Sheri’s choice of Sam was an inspired one, and with Michael Dirda’s powerful introduction we have published a version of which we are very proud.
What can science-fiction and fantasy readers and collectors expect next from The Folio Society?
There’s no doubt that we will be publishing many more books in this area, starting this May with Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. There is, happily, such a wealth of books within the genre that we will have plenty more to choose from in the coming years.
Image above right: Sam Weber for The Folio Society edition of Dune © 2015