How The Folio Society designs incredibly beautiful books

The Folio Society art directors Raquel Leis Allion and Sheri Gee

The Folio Society occupies a unique place in the book publishing market, and has done so since it was first founded in London in 1947. It values aesthetic beauty and visual storytelling like no other publisher in the country, and arguably the globe.

The company is known for its exquisite, high-end (and priced to match) hardback editions of classic fiction and nonfiction works – everything from novels drawn straight from the canon of English literature like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to modern epics like Frank Herbert’s Dune.

They are rendered in grandiose form – as large, weighty tomes of the you-could-stun-a-burglar-with-this type that are perfectly bound, with blocked covers and spine inside beautifully illustrated slipcases with well-chosen finishes. Specially commissioned illustrations are usually found throughout the book as well as on the cover.

The Folio Society works with many iconic illustrators, including Dan Hillier, Dave McKean and Quentin Blake, as well as fresh grad students they spot at D&AD New Blood or New Designers. Illustrator styles can range from traditional painting, acrylic, charcoal, hand-draw to collages and entirely digital illustrations.

Illustration from The Folio Society's edition of Frank Herbert's Dune by Sam Weber ©Sam Weber

Art directors Sheri Gee and Raquel Leis Allion are the creative minds behind making it all happen. The pair commission illustrators, design the binding, typography, colour palette, cloths and texture for each individual book produced by The Folio Society. Both have illustration degrees and over 20 years experience between them at the company ("frustrated illustrators really", says Raquel) making for a brilliant team.

We speak to Sheri and Raquel about the gruelling yet extremely rewarding process of hand crafting (excruciatingly precisely, sometimes) the creatively diverse range of books by The Folio Society.

The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russel Wallace, The Folio Society edition 2017 

Sheri and Raquel split a book list created by the editorial team between them so they never work on the same book. Essentially, The Folio Society can cherry pick any novel it wants and can receive the rights to. Publishing a book can be timed with anniversaries, author commemorations or simply to make sure there’s a range of book genres available – everything from ancient Rome philosophy to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

There’s a mixture of history, science, fiction, non-fiction and classical collections to name a few. But not only does The Folio Society have a wide range of genres, but a wide-ranging audience to cater to, with anyone from 18 years old to 75 buying its editions online or through a catalogue (The Folio Society doesn’t sell on shelves).  This allows for a range of illustration styles and almost complete creative freedom by Sheri and Raquel with the layout of each book.

"It's really great that our readership is so receptive of the varied illustration styles that we commission. We have a largely free hand, when choosing illustrators, although obviously somewhat confined to the suitability to narrative and genre,"  says Sheri.

How does The Folio Society find illustrators?

Sheri and Raquel start, naturally, with reading the book. For fiction books, they make note of what would make the best visual interpretation – whether that be the pace, conversation, characters or action.

"It’s almost like you’re creating a shopping list in your mind, and matching that to the visual style, because there are so many illustrators all year, all of that is in our mind. We go to student shows, New Blood and New Designers, and we have students coming in," says Sheri.

An illustrator will be chosen either based on their specific style, success from working with The Folio Society previously, or because they’ve managed to be in Sheri and Raquel’s "bank" of contacts. A lot of it is based on intuition. But they assure me they don’t pick favourites, but whatever style suits the narrative.

"We usually want to get the illustrator’s interpretation of the book. We’ll give them the book to read and explain how many illustrations we need. Following that, the illustrator will read and plan what scenes they’d like to illustrate, and most importantly, how they’d like to illustrate them," says Sheri.

"In addition to that, we need to ensure the illustrations are well-spaced out across the text and make sure that the major characters are well represented, but above all it’s really important that the illustrator is excited about the project, which comes from their own scene selections and the planning stages as they envisage the final pieces."

Another great source of gathering talent is The Folio Society’s annual Book Illustration Competition run in partnership with the House of Illustration. The winner goes on to be commissioned for the design, binding and illustrations of the chosen book.

These are illustrations from last year’s winner, Alan Marks, for The Folio Society’s edition of War Horse by Michael Morpurgo. Mark illustrated the slipcase cover artwork swell as a bookmark.

Illustration by Alan Marks from The Folio Society edition of War Horse by Michael Morpurgo ©Alan Marks

"Out of that I would see people who didn’t win but who were amazing and can be used for something," says Sheri.

"Most of the books are character-based, and narrative driven, that’s what we need to see when we’re looking for work, so the competition really shows us that."

Are the illustrators given a brief?

Sheri and Raquel say illustrators are given no specific brief; instead the process is a collaborative one.

After the illustrator has read the novel, general guidelines are usually conversed via email, such as how many illustrations are needed for the novel and a list of what will make great illustrations.

"It’s really about their enthusiasm. We could be quite prescriptive and ask the artist/illustrator to do specific pages in the book, but that would dampen their creativity. It's better if they are interested in the scenes they will eventually illustrate," says Raquel.

"It has to become their project, otherwise they are not going to be enthusiastic, they’re being told exactly what to do."

A Kestrel For a Knave by Barry Hines, illustrated by recent grad David Howe, is the first illustrated edition of the book, which was released this year. It depicts the Yorkshire countryside with lonely figures of Billy and Kes over the landscape.  

Illustration from the Folio Society edition of Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave by David Howe ©David Howe
Illustration from the Folio Society edition of Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave by David Howe ©David Howe

What the art directors want to see first is illustrations for the book’s cover (binding), then "roughs" for the illustrations integrated into the book.

What happens next?

Raquel and Sheri pitch their chosen illustrator to editorial, marketing and publishing teams.

"When I’ve got a book and need to present the prospective illustrator's work to editorial and marketing, we both put together an A3 spread sheet of examples of their work,” says Sheri.

“We don’t go into the meeting without getting editorial onside first; if they don’t think [the illustrator] is right, they know the text really well, there’s no point showing it anyway.

"Sometimes the editors will choose a book that has been out of print a long time and it’s our job to make the new edition fresh and exciting."

Here is an example of of Raquel’s process behind Troy and It’s Remains by Heinrich Schliemann.

She drew a rough for historical accuracy, then created the artwork in Photoshop before the final binding took place, as seen below.

Pen ink drawing by Raquel Leis Allion
Photoshop design by Raquel Leis Allion
Troy and It’s Remains by Heinrich Schliemann, The Folio Society edition; binding design and artwork by Raquel Leis Allion

Elements of the book cover

A huge amount of thought is put into every aspect of The Folio Society’s book covers, including its colour palette and cloth type.

Using key ideas from the book’s illustrator, Sheri and Raquel study a set of colour swatches whilst deciding if print or blocking works best on the cover. Because The Folio Society doesn’t sell in bookshops, it’s important that the book cover is still translated clearly through a photograph, or something as simple as making sure there aren’t 12 grey books.

Many Folio Society book covers use the traditional technique of blocking. It sets the publisher apart from a lot of other binders and publishers, says Sheri.

"Blocking is a bit like rubber stamping, but with a metal stamp. We tend to restrict the blocking designs to two or three colours on the cloth, but there’s a vast amount you can do with that. The illustrators who can manage to use the cloth colour within their design, rather than just a background for their design, are the most clever – those that can use the cloth as an extra colour in their design."

Here’s The Folio Society edition of John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk as an example. Notice how illustrator Sara Ogilvie used the purple binding cloth as a third colour for the cat.

The Midnight Folk by John Masefield, The Folio Society edition; cover illustration by Sara Ogilvie

There are many different cloth types to choose from, like for the James Bond novels, Sheri chose something "like a 1950’s men’s suiting fabric".

Illustration by Fay Dalton for The Folio Society edition of Casino Royale by Ian Fleming ©Fay Dalton, Casino Royale by Ian Fleming, The Folio Society edition

"With American Gods (seen below) I went through several cloths, even a different coloured foil, which didn’t look right at all, so we had to start again. It’s a trial and error process sometimes, but we are all focused on getting the right end result," says Sheri

Neil Gaiman's American Gods illustrated by Dave McKean, The Folio Society Edition

Some illustrators will create their own type by hand, but most of the time Sheri and Raquel research for a new typeface online – one that suits the period or atmosphere but is also distinct. Every book can have a different typeface, including the text within the book. The only element that stays consistent is The Folio Society logo that appears on the spine of the book.

Everything has to be more precise than you’d think

Although it seems Sheri and Raquel have all the creative freedom in the world, refining each illustration is "such a detailed process" because it has to accurately reflect the narrative. If it doesn’t, people notice.

"When we get roughs in we have to show the editor in case the information is wrong, eg a girl with red hair has been illustrated with brown, or taps that aren’t period accurate," says Raquel.

Some authors won’t allow a character’s face to be illustrated at all, so it can be left to the reader’s imagination. 

Another challenge is if the narrative is slow-paced, like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple murder mystery short stories. In Andrew Davidson's illustration below, you can tell it’s an older woman but her facial details aren't shown.

"That’s the challenge for the illustrator, to pick an angle and be a movie director, and make it interesting for the person reading," says Sheri.

Illustration from The Folio Society edition of Agatha Christie's A Pocket Full of Rye by Andrew Davidson ©Andrew Davidson

Is it all worth it?

From commissioning an illustrator to producing the final artwork, the process would ideally take six months. But prior to that, Sheri and Raquel could be preparing in-house for three to four months.

Sheri and Raquel say choosing an illustrator, especially knowing it will make their career, is one of the best parts of the job.

"One of my favourite parts is getting the email with the high res images, and all you’ve seen are the roughs, and you think you know how they’re going to look but then you go, ‘Oh my goodness, come and look at this!’ It’s really good,” she says.

Illustration from The Folio Society edition of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 by Sam Weber ©Sam Weber

"We work on these every day for so many years, so it's easy to forget just how beautiful our books are."

"You’ve got to have other people’s eyes on them."

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