Statement By The Executive Chairman Of The National Book Council On The Recent Controversy About The European Prize For Literature

Publishers and authors have asked me to make a statement on the recent controversy about the European Prize for Literature. Without going into the details of the case – this is a case about a prize funded by the European Commission and administered by the European Writers’ Council, the Federation of the European Publishers and the European and International Booksellers. Local juries are composed of members of the European Writers’ Council, which in Malta’s case is the Akkademja tal-Malti. Apparently, the local jury awarded the prize to a Maltese author which was withdrawn by the administering consortium on the grounds that the book was published by a publisher that is owned by a political party.

First of all, as the Executive Chairman of the National Book Council, I am in no position to comment on how other institutions, public or private, run and administer their prizes. Similar conditions would have applied in local grants with other local public entities, for example, and still I would have no moral, or legitimate, interest to comment or interfere in any manner. Likewise, it would be madness to allow any outside interference in how the National Book Council runs the National Book Prize. My role as the Executive Chairman of the National Book Council with regards to the National Book Prize is to ensure that the adjudicators follow the rules to ensure that their decision is executed and is defended. Practically, as the executive legally responsible for the National Book Council, I have to support the adjudicators’ decisions whatever they may be – that is my role. We, at the National Book Council, take great pride in the prestige and status of the National Book Prize. As a cold and calculating executive, I can tell you two things. Firstly, that the National Book Prize is even more prestigious than the European Union Prize for Literature. We do not only provide the monetary equivalent to the winning authors, but also much more in terms of exports and marketing – which eventually directly impact book sales. So we can reassure our authors that there are even greater opportunities out there. Secondly, it is also in our interest that the European Union Prize for Literature is successful, so as to maximise the opportunities for local authors. That any author wins the European Union Prize for Literature is a welcome outcome, whatever the conditions may be. In fact, I believe the European Union Prize for Literature should even take place more often, at least once a year. Brussels should increase the Prize budget, rather than heckle about rules.

BUT. If authors want to change the rules, we can do this together – and I can tell you how. First of all, being this an issue close to your heart, let me suggest we discuss this in the upcoming Congress on 29 May, so as to also reassure everyone that I am here to represent you until Government drops the axe, or I lose your support by means of your votes. If authors feel strongly about the National Book Council having a say in how the EUPL runs its Prize, there is a process we need to follow, there are steps to be taken.

Disclaimer – I have no idea how Albert Marshall, the Executive Chairman of the Arts Council, got involved in this as the President of the local Jury. I may not be understanding the Byzantine trajectory here. But, as far as I know, the local administrator is the Akkademja tal-Malti. The Akkademja tal-Malti is not a representative organisation of local authors – it used to be the language academy before it was replaced by the Language Council. It took the opportunity, back then, and rightly so, to join the European Writers’ Council and manage the Prize in the absence of a proper authors’ organisation in Malta. The National Book Council has never had any objection to this.

What the National Book Council has done in the past was to try and get a seat in the European Writers’ Council, without prejudicing the Akkademja tal-Malti, however we were negated this opportunity on the grounds that we are a Government entity. These grounds can be easily appealed if the legal reforms we are proposing to the Maltese Government are approved and Government has an obligation to do so given these reforms have been approved by your kind selves during the last Writers’ Congress in September 2019.

The reality is, however – and I am being very honest here so that you may get the full picture, at least from my own perspective and experiences – that our best allies are not in the European Writers’ Council, but in the European Commission and its bureaucracy. And I say this with sadness, of course. From my own experience as a lobbyist during the last European Copyright Directive reforms, I have experienced way much more effort and tangible work done in the authors’ favour by bureaucrats than by the European Writers’ Council itself. In fact, the EWC took such a soft approach with regards to the authors’ interests on the said directive that another network of organisations had to be created to lobby separately from the EWC. The National Book Council made significant contributions to this network in private through our own Government and public channels. My impression is also that bureaucrats in the European Commission respect authors to a great extent and they will not be willing to get involved in a controversy with ANY author – be it a Maltese author who has been allegedly discriminated, or be it a representative from the EWC.

To conclude, the National Book Council cannot take a position on the results of the Prize. However, the National Book Council may change the rules of the Prize if we are members of the EWC. This step is only possible if the Government accepts our legal proposals. My proposal to you is simple: we should leverage this situation and ask Brussels to commit themselves to increase the funding for the EUPL on the certain conditions. This, I think, is the best we can do as the National Book Council. We can discuss this further during the Congress on 29 May.

All authors registered in the Public Lending Rights scheme have been invited to the Congress in the past few days. If you have not yet registered in the Public Lending Rights scheme, do so here. You will then be contacted via email to take part in the Writers’ Congress.

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