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From Farm to Table: The Making of a Folio Edition

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

If you’ve ever found yourself drooling over the gorgeous slipcases, book covers, or interior designs of a Folio edition of a book, you know that they are something special. For readers who haven’t had the chance to experience one in person, chances are that you’ve seen them featured somewhere on the internet, among the various roundups of most beautiful books. Folio editions are swoon-worthy additions to any bookshelf, from readers who are diehard collectors to those who simply want to add beauty to their personal collections.

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What goes into a Folio edition? How are books selected for the treatment? What’s the history of The Folio Society? Let’s take a peek behind the curtain to see how Folio editions move from farm to table.

A History of The Folio Society

The Folio Society began in London in 1947, with the aim of publishing special editions of the best books from around the globe. Folio Society chooses books based on their timelessness, noting that “The books we select for publication are timeless – we know they will be enjoyed and appreciated now and in the future. Because each book is considered as an individual object of value in its own right, there is a variety to our aesthetic – the only uniformity is in the quality of every single book.”

Folio celebrates the book as a printed object. The artistry isn’t just what’s inside the book; rather, it includes the presentation of the book itself, utilizing strong typography, illustration, and design.

“Folio has always been conscious of its place in the history of fine press printing. Our founder, Charles Ede, set Folio up to follow in the traditions of those wonderful private presses of the early twentieth century. That is still at the heart of what we do, whether we are producing a facsimile of an illuminated manuscript by William Morris, or A Confederacy of Dunces,” said Tom Walker, publishing director for The Folio Society. “We go to any length to make the finest edition of any book – and that craftsmanship is what sets us apart.”

Folio Editions include classic and contemporary fiction and nonfiction, facsimile editions of invaluable works like the Magna Carta, as well as a broad range of children’s literature. Children’s literature has been a particular area of growth in recent years, which Walker attributes to lending itself naturally to thoughtful, lush design.

“[I]t’s such a natural category for an illustrated book publisher. It is such a joy to be able to illustrate The Hundred and One Dalmatians, or to work with Charles van Sandwyk on his How to See Fairies,” he said. Recent Folio editions of children’s literature include The Velveteen Rabbit and Sophie’s World.

What Makes Folio Books Special

Attention to Details

Because Folio is a small publisher and is highly selective of what books they  work on, they can dedicate more time and attention to creating a package in a way that traditional publishers simply can’t. They publish roughly 50 books a year across all categories.

There’s not a single method for how Folio works with their editions, and each book sees unique attention. Editors select the best translation of non-English texts, as well as work with authors to create the crispest version of their story as possible. Each book also gets an introduction that works to add context, insight, and even companionship for the reader. Folio Editions “aspire to give our readers an enhanced experience of their favourite books.”

Typography is a key part of Folio editions, as are the illustrations and unique pieces of art commissioned. Well-known and beloved artists, as well as emerging talents, grace their pages.

Readers who love book design will notice the attention to detail in the object itself, too: decorative head and tail bands, slip cases, and binding that allows both for visual pleasure and for reading ease aren’t spared.

Folio uses researchers and librarians who add even more context and story to the books. For nonfiction especially, utilizing researchers has meant that there are new photos and artifacts discovered that can be included. For Working by Studs Terkel, Folio was able to publish an illustrated edition, making it a unique piece of literary—and cultural—history.

Title Selection

“The selection process for Folio books is a closely guarded secret! In fact, there are any number of ways we agree titles for our list,” said Walker.

While it’s a secret, it’s not one made without any consideration of what it is fans and readers would love. In fact, Folio utilizes their dedicated audience in helping them choose what books deserve to see a Folio Edition.

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“[W]e have an unusually close connection with our readership, and they are very engaged with recommending books,” said Walker. “We will often send them lists of possible books as well, when we are unsure.”

Folio also considers the ways books build upon one another and how they can help elevate that intertextual conversation and connection.

“[W]e have a strong history with specific genres such as crime or classic fiction, and the new titles we publish often follow naturally from the last; so I am Legend follows The Shining in the same way that The Velveteen Rabbit follows The Little Prince, or Kindred follows The Left Hand of Darkness,” said Walker.

But above all, Folio editors all need to be on board and have passion for a title before it proceeds. By being true fans of the book, the Folio team can put together the pinnacle edition.

Walker explained, “Folio editions work because they are conceptualised and designed by people who are willing to go to sometimes ridiculous levels of detail in order to get the book just right – that mentality is what sets us apart, and allows us to speak with our readers on a peer to peer basis.”

And it’s that attention to detail that attracts readers to special editions of books like Folio’s. They’re not priced for the average consumer and instead are intended to reach readers who have a unique passion for a title, as well as dedication to poring over every detail of story and wanting to have even more.

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We are delighted to reveal our latest limited edition: Kitagawa Utamaro's Studies from Nature. Utamaro’s (c.1754–1806) Studies from Nature, rarely seen and never before reproduced in facsimile, are five superbly bound and illustrated books of insects, shells and birds. The elegant depictions of nature are paired with kyōka; playful, erudite and often erotic poems on the sentiments of love. This remarkable publication also includes a commentary volume with a full translation and newly commissioned essays on the poetry and the artist. Our production director gathered a team of paper makers, craft printers and specialist binders to reproduce these editions. After months of trials Smith Settle, a Yorkshire-based printer and hand-bindery, perfected the use of subtle embossing to reproduce the texture and intricate details of the shell ridges and bird feathers in the original books. Pureprint, based in East Sussex, worked to represent the mica sheen used to suggest iridescent insect wings and the natural sheen of wet shells. Limited to just 500 sets, we are thrilled that the result of a long and complex collaboration with @fitzmuseum_uk and @britishmuseum are truly faithful replicas of such beautiful treasures. Take a look at this limited edition: #foliosociety #kitagawautamaro #utamaro #japan #japaneseart #japanesepoetry #hokusai #hiroshige #limitededition #facsimile #bookofcrawlingcreatures #bookofmyriadbirds #studiesfromnature #giftsofebbtide #illustratedbook #beautifulbook #bookstagram #booksofinstagram #bookproduction #embossing #iridescent #concertinabook #instabook #igbooks #poetry #lovebooks

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“I think people buy Folio editions because they have the same affection (or obsession!) that we do for the books themselves,” said Walker.

Just as each book is different, each author’s relationship with Folio differs when their book is selected by the publisher for treatment. Some are highly involved, while others choose to keep distance. But one thing Walker notes is common among all authors is “surprise and delight.”

Folio Editions and The Future

Book collecting and fascination with books as objects has been around since the printing press. Despite being in an area of ready access to digital books, there is still a healthy environment of book collectors and those who find the printed object to be worthy of study and desire.

But Walker believes the recent uptick in passion for illustrated books has been less about longevity and more a response to digital books.

“In part as a response to e-books, but also as a wider craft movement, book design is going through a golden period now, and Folio is very much at the forefront of that,” he said.

Folio has a robust line in store for 2020, as well as into future years. But just as every book lover has that book they love slightly more than another, so do editors like Walker find some projects even more fulfilling than they should ever imagine. For him, it’s a very recent one.

from folio“In today’s case that is Doctor Zhivago, a limited edition where we have commissioned a new translation of this masterpiece of world literature. The translation is by Boris Pasternak’s nephew, Nicolas, and we have included over 60 paintings and sketches by the author’s father, Leonid, a notable post-Impressionist Russian painter,” he explained, noting that what makes it so special is not just the beauty of the object, but the fact that “it’s an extraordinary and utterly unrepeatable piece of publishing history.”

As for a dream project, it’s not something one would necessarily associate with Folio or publishers of fine books. But it is a reminder of the breadth and depth of what it is we consider to be literature—and what it is we consider worth claiming as part of literary history.

“My dream to publish a limited edition of Bjork’s lyrics, illustrated by Bjork herself,” said Walker.

Discover More About Folio

New books getting the Folio treatment are kept secret until the catalog releases, so what’s coming this spring will be made available before too long. In the mean time, you can check out all of Folio’s books on their website, as well as purchase copies of whatever titles to which you’re drawn. Their most recent title shared is Marvel’s Silver Age, sure to be a true treasure for comics fans.

If you love looking at gorgeous books but don’t necessarily have the budget for them, you will love keeping an eye on their Instagram feed, as they share the special treatment they give to each of their titles.