The Chairman’s Message
2019 was an eventful and challenging year in which the Council kept growing, receiving as much as an 80 per cent increase in its public funding for its recurrent expenditure over the previous year totalling €910,000, and an additional €600,000 in capital funds for the restoration of its newly acquired government premises in 8, Old Mint Street, Valletta.
We closed the year with a national crisis of historic proportions, which has deeply affected all aspects of the Maltese society, including its economy – and the book industry. The National Book Council cancelled its National Book Prize ceremony at the Auberge de Castille, the seat of the Prime Minister, where the ceremony has been traditionally held. The decision was made after officials in the Office of the Prime Minister were implicated in the investigations of the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia. The decision by the Book Council was unanimously supported by the book industry stakeholders, despite its potential negative economic repercussions. The National Book Council was also the first public entity to formally celebrate the legacy of Daphne Caruana Galizia in an event at the 2018 Malta Book Festival.
One of our main aims is to increase the industry stakeholders’ revenue, mainly when it comes to publishers and authors. Last year’s substantial increase in funding allowed us to further invest in marketing and audiovisual productions, as well as to increase the value of the National Book Prize prize money – which will have been disbursed by the time this report is published. The execution of our strategy is progressing very well thanks to sustained public funding support. Admittedly, I had strong qualms about some decisions made by newly-appointed bureaucrats in the finance department of the Ministry of Education. My qualms were made public in order to strengthen the autonomous position of the National Book Council. I can confirm that the disagreements have since been resolved.
For a few years now, the book industry has been struggling with a drop in sales in brick-and-mortar stores. The increasing sales at the Malta Book Festival along with purchases of books for schools made by the Literacy Agency have been offsetting these losses.
The Malta Book Festival has sustained an exponential increase in book sales ever since 2014. Sales during the 2019 Malta Book Festival matched those in 2018, partly due to reduced exhibition space in Sacra Infermeria Hall as a result of emergency restoration works. Restrictions notwithstanding, we adjusted by utilizing the MCC Republic Hall (that has a capacity of about 1,200 people) for the main school shows. We also organized shorter visits as compared to previous years.
The Malta Book Festival may face further challenges in the next few years. The Republic Hall, which usually hosts big theatrical shows, will be taken up by Cirque de Soleil – an event publicly subsidised by the former Ministry for Tourism, under the direction of the now disgraced Minister Konrad Mizzi. Our position is very clear on this matter. The National Book Council has been the most regular and consistent client to the MCC along the years, even during times of severe recession. For this reason, we expect the MCC to remain loyal to the National Book Council and provide access to all halls at the MCC during the first two weeks of November, during which the Malta Book Festival has traditionally taken place. The Malta Book Festival is an event of national importance and the government should support it further by enacting a subsidiary legislation to allow for these dates to be permanently booked on an exclusive basis. These particular dates – right after the mid-term school holidays – have been set following many years of market analysis. Our aim is to keep them secure on a permanent basis. We also have informal agreement with Żigużajg, in order not to clash with their shows on the same dates.
2019 was increasingly busy for us in terms of our legislative and policy work. For the first time ever, we have convened a National Writers’ Congress and presented a charter of authors’ rights which was unanimously approved by at the congress. During the writers’ congress we have promised publishers to introduce tax-incentives so as to incentivize royalty payments. Our promise is in the process of being fulfilled: the legislation for the tax-incentives has been drafted and we are awaiting its publication by the Ministry of Finance.
The National Book Council has also been trusted by the government to redraft Malta’s copyright laws to bring them into line with the recent European Union Directive on copyright and related rights in the Digital Single Market. This EU directive will significantly impact on the book industry, and it is in our interest to ensure that the transposition of the Directive is beneficial to our industry. There is already an informal agreement between publishers and the Ministry of Education over the Education Exception, as brokered by the National Book Council, and the agreement between both parties and the National Book Council is set to be signed in 2020.
In 2019 the National Book Council has also received the first capital allocation to restore its newly acquired premises in Valletta, the 16th century baroque building. We have successfully prevented the further deterioration of the building (the timber beams supporting the upper roof were giving way and as a consequence stone slabs were collapsing on the building). The restoration of the roof is progressing quickly and is due be completed by early 2020. One of our biggest constraints with the project is a bureaucratic lag in the Contracts Department and the Procurement Department of the Ministry. We are also challenged by the fact that two small basement level rooms of the building are still to be transferred to the Ministry of Education. The Lands Department and the Housing Authority are currently coordinating this process (an old lady lives in one of those rooms is to be provided with alternative accommodation). We hope that the said departments keep cooperating with us to ensure that the process is finalized. Our ultimate aim is to turn the palazzo into a new point of sale with a culturally-oriented bookshop, a literature museum and the National Book Council offices: a functional book centre in a beautiful historical building.
We have retained our momentum in other operations such as literary exports and translation. Maltese literature is ever-spreading across borders. Lou Drofenik has been one of the most promoted authors in 2019, together with other National Book Prize winning authors. Further public funding will enable us to expand our export work, a field where we are experiencing ever increasing success. Additionally, for the first-time ever, the National Book Council has commissioned its first-ever feature film based on a prize-winning Maltese novel.
I am also proud to say that in 2019 I have consolidated the final stages in building a strong team of employees and associates who are highly skilled and can guarantee continuity and growth. Further investment in human resources will be made in 2020 so as to keep consolidating and developing our team.
Looking back from 2013, I am incredibly proud we have come this far. The National Book Council has grown from a minuscule entity with hardly any funds, into a strong and influential organization which sustains the book industry, and protects the interests of publishers and authors. We will keep implementing our vision by expanding our stakeholders’ revenue opportunities through our public projects, and by ensuring that the book industry keeps growing and sustaining itself. We look forward to 2020. We will be working on the required and significant legal reforms, to keep sustaining growth for the book industry despite the challenges we face.