I am now in my third-year as executive chairman of the National Book Council and I can say it gives me great satisfaction to look back at what we have done so far. When I entered office in July 2013, the NBC was still bereft of administrative and management structures, the funds available did not amount to more than around €55,000 annually and thebook fair, reduced to a commercial bazaar, had considerably declined in popularity along the years.
After three years of hard work, we have successfully built a solid and robust Book Council with enough funds to execute its projects, professional staff members and a daily running system which ensures the permanency and stability of the entity.
Surely, if I were to leave the NBC it would become a completely different entity, but if the current staff members were to be retained my mind would be at rest as I am convinced that the basic and necessary services and projects executed by the Book Council would keep being executed.
This was a completely different situation when I entered office in the council in 2013, when no structures were in place and very little was actually going on, even in terms of preparation for the book fair.
The Malta Book Festival, previously referred to as the Book Fair, has increasingly gained in popularity as we transformed it into a major national-cultural event and since then, sales and attendees to the event have increased considerably.
The commercial element of the Book Fair was conserved, but the event was changed into a cultural festival giving the book sale aspect a cultural and national context which in turn attracted more people.
We are aware that we live in a free market and if we want to convince people to buy books we have to compete aggressively against several factors which are constantly trying to attract the attention of consumers.
The National Book Prize has also been drastically altered. We have built a professional adjudication system based on set rules and criteria and we have expanded the prize by introducing the shortlist. The shortlist is promoted throughout the media and the winners are not only promoted locally, but also abroad in foreign book fairs.
We are also acting as agents for National Book Prize winners, selling their rights in international book fairs and to foreign publishers as part of our overall aim to export locally-produced work to various parts of the world. Winning the National Book Prize has never been as prestigious and special a feat as it is today.
We have also introduced public lending rights payments to authors, something which had been on demand for so long and which has nowadays become an established practice all over Europe and even beyond. With this scheme in place, authors are paid for every single instance when their books are borrowed from public libraries: it is really and truly a public practice which compensates authors for the use of their books.
As NBC we are trying to merge the world of film, TV and broadcasting with that of literature. In order to do so, we have signed a memorandum of agreement with PBS ensuring a permanent collaborative effort.
Together with PBS, we organise the NBC PBS Short Film Contest which annually subsidises a short film based on a locally published story. We also produce the weekly programme, Xi qrajt dan l-aħħar?, which airs every Monday on TVM just before the eight o’clock news, featuring an author, publisher or academic speaking about his or her latest reads.
We hope that by merging the world of literature with that of TV and film more people will be interested in reading books.
In collaboration with Għaqda tal-Malti – Università, we also created the Book Festival on Campus – the only book-selling event which takes place at the University campus apart from the annual Agenda book sale and a couple of other charity book sale events held by students.
It is indeed a pitiful shame that for so many years the administration of the University has allowed the campus to evolve into a year-round commercial bazaar and party area when supposedly it should act as a place where cultural and academic activities take place on a regular basis.
We are contributing to change this monti approach to our University campus by actually doing something culturally and commercially relevant to the world of university: promoting books and reading.
We have also been part of the Ministry of Education’s drive to supply all public schools with much needed books for extra-curricular reading. There are large investments going on in the purchase of books for schools and these investments are also helping local publishers to thrive.
Surely, we hold authors’ rights very highly on our agenda and we also want publishers to keep growing and thriving. We hold yearly consultation seminars with both authors and publishers and I personally hold meetings with several people in the field on a daily basis to ensure I keep abreast with what is happening and how our stakeholders feel and think.
We are in touch with all concerned parties and we are very active in analysing each situation occuring in the local book market.
Something which I have yet to devote more time to is the legislation which will officially and legally enact the National Book Council. I admit I didn’t, or rather, couldn’t, give this much priority during my first term in office since my priority was writing an anti-censorship Bill. However, the consultation process on the Book Council Bill is already over and it is now my responsibility to start drafting with the lawyers.
The anti-censorship Bill resulted in Bill 113 which has passed the second reading in Parliament. Somehow, government is still procrastinating on this Bill. I honestly don’t know what is taking it so long to push this Bill at committee stage so as to finally get it done and dusted with.
I suspect this is the usual government procrastination on book-related matters since for men and women in power, issues relating to books and culture more generally tend to be overlooked and end up being shelved indefinitely, out of sight and out of mind.
We have already made great efforts as a Book Council to change this philistine attitude in government and civil service structures, and I can say with confidence that this is a government which truly takes the book scene seriously. However, we still have a long way to go.
Next in line after Bill 113 passes from Parliament, is a law which is currently being designed and which will also guarantee more rights to local authors.
Mark Camilleri is a historian and executive chairman of the National Book Council.