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Interview with Sheri Gee, Art Director at the Folio Society

May 7, 2015

Founded in London in 1947, The Folio Society publishes carefully crafted editions of the world’s finest literature.

‘Beautifully crafted, imaginative editions of the world’s great works of fiction and non-fiction, Folio Society books offer a rich literary experience to readers of all ages. 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.’

We recently talked with Sheri Gee, Art Director of the Folio Society about the whole process of finding and commissioning illustrators.

What goes in to the process of choosing an illustrator for a particular book?

I start by reading the book, and while doing so I try to be mindful of what could and should be illustrated and how that ought to be shown, considering what style would best suit the narrative, genre, style of writing and the market. This might bring to mind a host of names, of people that have worked on our commissions before or who I’ve been dying to find the right book for.

Also, I have a strong database of illustrators work that we’ve built up over the years – it’s my absolute go-to when commissioning. As Art Director, in choosing an illustrator, I have to consider how action-packed or otherwise the book is. Some illustrators are great at action, others have an art in charging a quiet moment with necessary atmosphere. Books with a high proportion of conversation can be especially difficult to maintain visual interest. I find a lot of crime books can be oddly low on action, with a lot of retrospection.

Once I’ve come up with a handful of names, or perhaps just one contender, I need to present spreads of previous work to the team – the editor and Marketing. If a book is out of copyright, and everyone in-house agrees with my vision, I can go ahead and approach the illustrator to commission, however for the in copyright titles, we’ll have to get approval from the author, estate or rights holder.

How much direction do you give an artist on the choice of subjects from the book?

Generally I give very little direction here. I want the illustrator to read the book and be inspired by it and for that to be communicated in their final illustrations.

Obviously we’re looking for main characters and themes to be represented and for the scenes to be spread fairly evenly through the text, plus there might be some technical problems in placing certain illustrations close to their references, but the reason for choosing the illustrator is largely because we want their vision.


Illustration by Sam Weber from The Folio Society edition of Dune

How long does it take from the decision to print a particular book to going on sale, how far ahead are you planning now?

This can differ but as a rough rule of thumb, we’re looking about 18 months to 2 years ahead, though that’s not to say that the publishing team aren’t considering projects further ahead.

The Folio Society has always paid minute attention to all elements of a book design together. From the choice of typeface, through binding to the paper it is printed upon. Is there a set way of dealing with that process for each book or is it a more organic process with illustration influencing the design of the book and vice versa?

I think each book is its own entity, unless it’s part of a series style. The design will be driven by the period or content of the book as is the illustration direction.

Once I’ve commissioned an illustrator, aside from the internal illustrations, I’ll talk to them about possible techniques for the binding (printing, blocking, full bound, quarter bound etc) and ask them to work on binding designs. Their final polished design will then influence my binding typography which in turn may feed into the internal typography. In addition, Editorial, Production and Design meet early on in the process to discuss each book and review the choices to ensure a cohesive book.

Has the rise of the eBook affected the Folio Society in any way?

Book lovers love the physicality of the book, so in that respect, I don’t think the rise of the ebook has affected the buying choices of the Folio reader. However we have noticed a rise in publishers trying to compete for the hard back classic market!

What would you say are the most important skills for an art director?

Being able to sniff out amazing talent and to then remember them for when the perfect book comes up! Sometimes it’s years before ‘the book’ is on the list. Aside from that, I think it’s important to encourage and affirm the illustrator’s work and at times to guide if it’s needed.

Are there any novels that you personally would like the FS to produce?

In many respects, it’s largely impossible for me to find the time to read for pleasure (titles that I’m not working on), but working at Folio has introduced me to so many amazing books and authors that I otherwise might not have read, if I hadn’t needed to, for art direction. For that reason it’s hard to reel off titles that I’d love to see Folio editions of. There is one title I’ve suggested a few times. I had been introduced to reading a particular author through Folio and was blown away by one of the titles we hadn’t published. I’m pleased to say it’s now on the list for Spring 2016, which you’ll just have to wait to hear about!

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