Business profile: Folio Society

Let us start with an assumption-busting fact: the Folio Society has a digital director. This makes sense; the publisher of high-quality illustrated editions may not produce e-books but it sells its titles through its website, does podcasts, has highly sophisticated digital marketing, and keeps in touch with its members in part through social media. Of course, Folio has a top digital bod (to be precise, a head of digital and creative, Jean
Marc Rathé).   

It is a fully 21st-century publisher, yet it is fair to say Folio’s reputation, both in the trade and with the public at large, may be a bit creaky. Publisher Catherine Taylor says with a laugh: “We’re certainly not sitting here in tweeds puffing pipes.”

Folio’s publishing director David Hayden—whose previous roles in the trade include the initial manager of Waterstones, Islington, working for the Japanese bookseller Kinokuniya in Sydney with a remit to open the chain’s shops across Asia, and product manager of Foyles—was hired by Folio six years ago to refresh the publisher’s image. One of the biggest strategic decisions came to pass a year ago when the company, founded on a book club model 65 years ago, started selling single editions through its website.

Hayden acknowledges that book club businesses have been challenged in the digital age, but says that a big part of the decision was more about raising the profile: “We had to stop hiding our light under a bushel. The fact was that we had done a lot of old-school direct marketing and done little in terms of brand awareness work. If you build the brand, you need to be more open access and not so closed.”

Hayden has been “very satisfied” with single volume sales thus far, and says the book club—which continues to operate alongside the web sales—has not seen a year-on-year drop-off of its 110,000 worldwide members as a result of the new model.    
 
Counter-reformation
Another reason Folio changed its model was that it increasingly has competition. A sort of counter-reformation of the digital age is the rise of “beautiful books”, “Folio-esque” handsomely designed limited hardbacks from publishers such as Penguin, Random House and Bloomsbury to name but a few.   

Folio is reacting simply, says art director Sheri Gee, by making every book it does the “definitive edition”. She adds: “The general trade publishers are doing excellent work, but because of our model, we must go further. And not just in design and illustration, but things like indexing, the best introductions, and crucially, production.”

Indeed, it is difficult to think of trade publishers whose margins would enable them to afford the extra production resources Folio uses—such as hand marblers and leather workers—and materials. For last year’s edition of Albert Camus’ The Outsider, for example, the binding used a special bespoke paper with pulp harvested in a Venice lagoon.

There is perhaps a tendency to think of Folio as a quaint legacy business doing niche books in a trade cul-de-sac. Far from it; Folio is a big global business. Revenues for 2011 were £23.9m, with two-thirds of that revenue coming from outside the UK (£9m in the US, £5m in Australia).

Another fact which might challenge assumptions is that 80% of Folio’s output is in copyright. Though the publisher still does out-of-copyright classics, the bulk of the titles it releases each year are modern classics, history, popular science and recent titles that Hayden says the company believes will be “canonical”. This year’s list ranges from Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to John Gribbin’s history of quantum physics In Search of Schroedinger’s Cat and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy.  

Hayden says: “This is one of our challenges we’re working to get across—that Folio has evolved and now appeals to a range of tastes that might surprise people.”