The Folio Society is a London-based publisher of exquisite but affordable editions of the best books ever written. A few weeks ago, they won 3 awards at the British Book Design & Production Awards: Best British Book and Book of the Year for Alice in Wonderland and Best Brand/Series Identity for their “Folio Collectables”. Though The Last Bookstore is mainly a used bookstore, we always make sure we have a few of these high quality Folio Society editions in stock, because we know sometimes you want your purchase to last forever. Also cuz *damn* they make our shelves look fancy.
Through our Connecticut Yankee post, which featured the singular illustrations of David Hughes, we were introduced to Folio Society Editorial Director Tom Walker. Here’s our behind the scenes tour of this book lover’s paradise.
Eric Larkin – I want to ask about your history. The Folio Society started in 1947, just after the end of WWII. Economically, this was a tough time in Britain. Was it a tough time to be publishing high quality editions? What were your first books?
Tom Walker – Charles Ede founded The Folio Society on the ethos that we would publish ‘editions of the world’s great literature, in a format worthy of the contents, at a price within the reach of everyman’. Folio very much evolved from the early twentieth century private-press movement and the Morris-inspired Arts and Crafts emphasis on holistic, everyday craftsmanship, the aesthetics of which would match the brilliance of the written word. The first books were printed on old mint presses in what was then Czechoslovakia. Resources were scarce in the UK at that time, and great lengths were gone to in order to achieve a suitable standard. Our first volume was a selection of Tolstoy short stories, and only three books were published in that first year.
EL – What sets Folio Society editions apart from other high quality publishers?
TW – Time. We simply have more time than others to dedicate ourselves to the tiny details which inspire a beautiful whole. From canvassing our readers’ opinions on what to publish in the first instance, to working with authors to create the definitive text, to commissioning the perfect illustrator or introducer, we are fortunate to be able to treat each of our editions with the respect it deserves, and to work with a craft mentality. The flip side of this uniqueness is our consistency: from a production perspective we are always hardback, printed on beautiful paper stock, individually typeset and with sown spines. This combination of consistently high production standards and a tailored approach to the creative elements is what sets us apart.
EL – One of the main attractions of your books is the art. How do you work with artists? Is it “Go with whatever you feel inspired by” or “We want illustrations of these 10 moments in the book” or some kind of back-and-forth process or..? And how do you pair up a specific artist with a specific book?
TW – There can never be one answer to any of these questions: selecting and working with illustrators is an art in itself. Roberti Calasso defined it in his Art of the Publisher as ‘reverse ekphrasis’, or the art of matching words to images. Every publisher faces this when they come to design a book cover. For us it is our lifeblood: not only do we select artists to work on our books, we often select books in our programme specifically to allow a certain artist to illustrate them. Ultimately we are focused on enhancing the reader’s experience of a work, and depending on the book itself, that may require a decorative approach; an interpretative approach; an abstract approach; a narrative approach – there are as many forms as there are books and illustrators. The answer to how we pair a book and artist in fact lies somewhere in the creative dialogue between the editor (who has in mind a vision of what the book currently is and could be) and the art directors, who are incredibly skillful at matching an illustrator to that vision. That process is undoubtedly the ‘hard’ bit, but the fun is to be had in seeing – and indeed driving – how the illustrator views and interprets the book. It is an exhaustive, iterative process involving various layers of early sketches and art direction as well as editor and author involvement, but as much as we can we will trust our initial judgement and allow the illustrator the freedom to illuminate the words in the way they see fit.
EL – Whenever I think of high quality publishing, I picture a workshop full of old guys in leather aprons with rulers and glue, folding and cutting and holding things up in the natural light of a window:
“Johannes – ”
“Yes, Master Nigel?”
“This one has a snicker-snack.”
“Oh dear…. I shall have to mend it.”
What’s it really like? How many distinct disciplines are involved? How many people interact with a book before it’s ready to go?
TW – That is exactly what it is like, yes.
EL – I have to ask about your wide range of sci-fi/fantasy classics: just to name a few, there is Dune with Sam Weber illustrations (I want this one), Frankenstein (with Harry Brockway wood engravings), The Silmarillion (Francis Mosley) and even Terry Pratchett’s Mort (Omar Rayyan). It’s great to see sci-fi/fantasy novels getting the respect of really nice editions. How do you choose the titles in this genre?
TW – We are all very excited about the momentum of our science-fiction and fantasy list. Its success probably shouldn’t have surprised us: after all, two of our bestselling titles of all time have been The Hobbit and The Wind in the Willows. We have broadened our publishing quite significantly in recent years though, and it is extremely exciting to be foraying into wholly new territories. As you rightly mention in your question, it is a matter of ‘respect’. We have to feel strongly that the title warrants publication in the Folio list; that it is in some way a canonical or classic work such as those by Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke. The book has to be of lasting appeal: we make volumes which will last a hundred years and the text has to be able to stand up to that. Ultimately it is of course a deeply subjective decision, but it is one based on years of experience immersing ourselves in a range of titles in any number of categories, and we plan our titles ahead for a number of years. We are consciously building a list, or library, within the genre, and although we cannot be said to be in any way completist, we certainly aim to be representative of the very best the genre has to offer. As I mentioned before, we are also in the immensely fortunate position of being able to ask our readers what they would like to see in a Folio edition, and that has become an increasingly important means of determining our future publications.
EL – What are some of your upcoming titles? Any new Limited Editions on the way?
TW – We have just published an exquisite leather bound limited edition of Poetic Edda also known as Elder Edda. [By Thor’s Hammer– check this thing out.] It is the bedrock of Northern mythology and has been beautifully illustrated by Simon Noyes. We also have coming up in the new year a wonderful Quentin Blake illustrated limited edition of Ridley Walker. We are fortunate enough to have worked closely with Quentin on many projects over the years and when he suggested this title, we were delighted.
So, yes, the arts, crafts & technologies of book-making are alive and well. There was a time when only the wealthy or the tonsured had access to any books at all, much less really fine ones. Thanks to The Folio Society, moderately income’d folks with full heads of hair – say, you and me – can own the best versions of the best books. Nothing wrong with a cheap paperback, but when you decide you want to own a book forever, you know where to go.
Kate Baylay – Illustrator. Cover for Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen published by the Folio Society, 2013