These are indeed exciting times for the National Book Council. After entering into office around a year and a half ago, I have witnessed the growth of the Book Council into a solid institution with a significant budget allocation and newly set-up professional administrative structures. It is only thanks to said structural growth of the entity as a whole that we were able to deliver to the general public last year’s successful National Book Festival, which from a book-bazaar type of event, is now developing into a fully-fledged cultural event.
This event is changing from the previous ‘Book Fair’ model in several ways, but it all started simply from a divergence in perspective. Although we would like to strengthen the commercial aspect of the Festival, and we definitely would like distributors, book sellers and publishers to make more sales; we are treating the Book Festival, first and foremost, as a cultural event. This is the only way in which such an event is able to remain relevant to a general public which is becoming more demanding in terms of taste and quality.
It was such a great pleasure to witness all 50 plus events held during the Festival so well attended, as well as the influx of people browsing through publishers’ stands fishing for the latest material. Moreover the French and the Italian exhibitors have expressed great satisfaction with their experience in the Festival, so much so as to guarantee their return; news that strengthens our hope of seeing the Festival regaining an international scope as an event.
We surely have a long way to go and I am, by no means implying that we are heralding some form of enlightenment in the local book sector; nonetheless I am pretty sure that the 30,000 people who attended last year’s Book Festival did not attend to simply fish for cheap holiday paperbacks. Last year’’s Book Festival was marked by an evident shift in attitude with more and more attendees hoping to either get their hands on new and well-advertised quality material or to listen and participate in one of the several ongoing cultural and educational events.
It is true that local authors and publishers have to work around constraints which are not found elsewhere in highly developed economies and with much larger markets, but the National Book Festival is a testament to the fact that the demand for good quality reads, both local and foreign, is ever present and the Festival serves as an excellent pit-stop to quench this taste. This is why we are labouring to change the previous model of the Book Fair, by most importantly removing the bazaar component to make way for cultural and educational value. Rather than promoting the sale of large stocks of remainders, we are promoting exhibitors who act as cultural agents; mainly publishers. Furthermore, our aim is for the National Book Festival to not simply serve publishers as a quick sales boost, but also as a platform from which to promote their brand and image with the general audience, and thus affecting sales in the long-term.
I truly believe that in the past, too much blame has been apportioned to the local reader for the lack of growth in our small yet thriving book market. I feel that comments implying that Maltese people are not avid readers were largely misplaced, fatalistic and ultimately too simplistic. If one could compare the Eurobarometer Surveys on Culture of 2007 and 2013, one would find that in this gap, Maltese respondents who said that they have read a book at least once a year, increased by 10% from 45% to 55%. One can not solely rest on the results of the Eurobarometer surveys to elicit a conclusion, but statistics released by the National Statistics Office (118/2014) also invoke optimism for they show that from 2010, to 2013, the importation of printed books has risen from €7,009,000 to €10,607,000 while the private consumption of books has risen from €26,734,000 to €29,489,000. Another statistical comparison which should shed more light on this issue, even though it has been widely criticised by academics and educators, is the forthcoming results of the PISA report, which yet again will investigate the literacy and numeracy rates of 15-year old pupils in OECD countries.
Now, for the sake of clarity, I want to ensure that I do not come across as overly optimistic here, but statistics are showing slight indications that in the recent past the consumption of books and reading in general have been on the ascent.
Still, there are things and matters which go beyond the National Book Council and the Book Festival’s responsibility when it comes to healthier reading statistics. Nowadays, we know all too well, that the consumption of books and the pleasure of reading is particularly widespread in highly developed countries with strong economies and a high standard of living such as Holland, Denmark and Sweden. Economic conditions are after all a main component in determining the private consumption of culture. The National Book Festival can only exist as one such important contributing component to the cultural, educational and intellectual development of our society so long as our economy grows and people will keep having enough money to buy books.