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Folio Fans: The anatomy of a unique publisher

This is a guest post by Toby Hartwell, the former Managing Director of The Folio Society. I love his description of the success of The Folio Society.

It may not come as a surprise to those of you who are aware of The Folio Society that this bastion of traditional hard back publishing is also home to some very interesting fans. They are core to the continued survival of Folio and rejoice in the relationship that they have with the publisher. Folio is probably alone as a book publisher in having such a strong direct relationship with its customers at the heart of its business model. Over the years it has engendered the perfect breeding ground for passionate and enthusiastic followers of its brand. For those unfamiliar with The Folio Society, the company has, for the last 67 years been publishing beautiful illustrated editions of some of the world’s greatest books. In a sector where roughly 95% of book sales are at prices below £20, some 95% of Folio books are priced at above £20 and many of them are hefty three figure prices. Arguably, if you look at the publishing sector as a whole all Folio buyers are already book super fans in some way.

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Folio essentially operates as a membership organisation and has, over the years, managed to engage with a large audience and through smart use of data and effective direct marketing create a passionate group of loyal fans. Many of them will happily spend hundreds and often thousands of pounds a year on Folio editions.

The Folio Society was founded in 1947 by Charles Ede in conjunction with Christopher Sandford (of Golden Cockerel Press), and Alan Bott (founder of Pan Books).The firm’s original mission was to produce “editions of the world’s great literature, in a format worthy of the contents, at a price within the reach of everyman.” Essentially in an economically challenging post war period this was a brave venture. Charles Ede described the early years as ‘biblically lean’.

Perhaps unwittingly, though, he was an early proponent of the Curve.

After a shaky start Folio’s fortunes changed. This coincided with the publication of a ‘presentation volume’, a beautifully produced Folio edition that was given away free each year to enrol new members. This was an edition every bit as desirable and costly as the other twelve books being published annually for purchase.

Thus ‘free’ became the basis for attracting and retaining a steadily growing body of ardent fans of Folio.

Over the years the number of the titles published annually grew and membership recruitment was bolstered by other offers and special prices on other publisher’s titles, but the annual presentation volume remained free.

Community is, I believe, an essential characteristic of fan clusters. As with many such groups Folio fans are unified by their zeal but are a hugely diverse group; from every walk of life and demographic.

Folio lovers enjoy sharing their passion with other converts, whether at events or meeting up at Folio’s Members’ Room in London where in recent years, the unofficial ‘Saturday Salon’ has become a very popular informal meeting group for those who can travel there and the envy of those abroad who can’t. Online, librarything.com which bills itself as ‘a community of 1,800,000 book lovers’ hosts a group of 1,200 Folio fans, the eponymous Folio Society Devotees. These are the fans who will have spent many hundreds of thousands of pounds on Folio books over the years.

On their varied threads you can read the views and opinions of these true Folio super fans who discuss every imaginable facet of the publisher’s activity. They have christened their self-confessed addiction, ‘FAD’, Folio Acquisition Disorder and almost revel in the fact that its most dramatic consequence is that they have an unquenchable and often irrational thirst for buying Folio books and spending lots of money doing so.

A typical thread on the Devotees site makes make for entertaining reading:

“A three-pipe problem, would you say, Watson?” he said, slowly.

“I should jolly well think so, my dear Holmes,” I murmured, and I confess I raised the glass of sherry to my lips in the hope that my companion would answer his own question.

“Seldom, Watson, has so much vice and hopeless degradation been laid before us in a single exposition.” My friend continued to fix me with his penetrating gaze. “Drink and tobacco are one thing, but this new evil – FAD, our good doctor calls it – can apparently strike almost without warning. Persons who previously were content to adorn their leisure hours with a cigar or the occasional administration of a seven per cent solution . . .”

I felt compelled to interject. “My dear fellow, have I not warned you about that particular vice on numerous occasions?”

“. . . persons at once considered the very pillars of our society,” he continued, affecting not to hear my plea, “. . . indeed that class that ventures to call itself educated, can be rendered almost upon the instant . . .” (and he snapped his fingers for effect) “. . . incapable of any meaningful social function.”

I hastily slid the Folio edition of ‘Into the Dark Continent’, which I had been reading, down the side of the cushion I was leaning on. “I agree with you, Holmes, insofar as it is well known among my profession that smoking, for example, is entirely beneficial to the well-being of the human body. But surely, you exaggerate the dangers of . . . of . . .”

“FAD, my dear Watson.”

Do this core of super fans replicate all aspects of Curve-like behaviour? In many cases yes and sometimes no. Their love of Folio books is not blind. The rules of brand positioning and understanding customers’ needs remain very valid. Get the title and the overall book design right, add some sizzle such as the signed editions by Sir David Attenborough or illustrator Quentin Blake for example and a thousand copies of a one off £500 book will sell very quickly.

There are many motivations for the Folio fan, whether collecting, building a library, enjoying the feeling of exclusivity or the more intangible emotional almost fetishistic relationship they have with these beautiful books. The physical aspect of the books, the book as artefact is very important; part of the appreciation is in the joy of display and the enjoyment of the tangible. I remember in a research group hearing a long term Folio member being asked how his relationship with The Folio Society made him feel. He paused for a second and then said ‘F, S?’ ‘Frightfully superior I think!’

Recognising fans’ fervour for your brand and not relying simply on feeding their addiction is important. This does not require costly giveaways but more considered items or experiences. Basically it’s not about value but more about what is valued. Sometimes trying to boost sales with non Folio giveaways was met with howls of derision by members, reflecting that this was more than a materially based relationship for many. By contrast when we introduced personalised packing cards, signed by the person responsible for despatching the carefully packed books it generated much appreciative correspondence and often requests to forward letters of thanks to the person concerned. Many fans relish the potential to be involved in some way in the day to day and the potential for dialogue on all aspects of the business.

I was always struck by the emotional attachment that the biggest spenders had with The Folio Society. It was a relationship by which many of them defined their lives. As Managing Director, I received many letters (notice letters, not emails) that expounded on how Folio books made the writer the person they were. Heady stuff and a reminder of the potency of a direct relationship that is an essential requisite of the fan relationship. If you are selling books through Amazon or, in fact, anyone else, you are at arm’s length and on a very practical note you don’t own the data about your buyers habits or demographics, the lifeblood of maximising the fan relationship and identifying the followers who could become future fans.

So in many ways Folio does conform to the Curve behaviour and is a good example of fan behaviour. Most of the long term high spending fans came to Folio through the avenue of ‘free’. For some, their addiction, as they describe it, is a painful pleasure, an unquenchable but costly desire to purchase Folio books, often only dulled when they run out of space, money or time. Typical of letters I received was one from a 97 year member apologising for ceasing to buy Folio books after 30 years due to his fading eyesight. The final line of his letter to me simply said ‘ I don’t know what I will do with myself now I no longer have the excitement of waiting for my next Folio order to arrive’.

Toby Hartwell is a director at forward thinking inc, a strategy consultancy, and was formerly the managing director and marketing director of The Folio Society.

Nicholas Lovell