Books are the most important tool for the educational, cultural and intellectual growth of a society, therefore it was rather disappointing to have witnessed, during the last two decades, the closing down of most of Malta’s independent bookshops.
These bookshops were essential to the local publishing industry’s infrastructure because they acted not only as points of sale, but also as cultural and marketing agents – which today the Maltese book market is lacking. Amazon has in the past been responsible for taking away a large chunk of revenue from independent bookshops, but nowadays, all over Europe, independent bookshops are making a comeback. Despite the surge of online book retail, the independent brick and mortar bookshop is still a perquisite to every book industry infrastructure.
As more people opted to buy books online, local bookshops took a hit and Maltese consumers increasingly became less exposed to Maltese books. Local publishers are now adapting to this market environment by increasing their investment in online websites, pushing home the concept of purchasing Maltese books online. As part of our long-term vision, the National Book Council has supported publishers by investing in the Malta Book Festival to turn it into a major source of revenue for publishers, thus successfully hitting record sales in 2016, and preserving the record sales rate in 2017.
Our sales target for the Book Festival this year is to double it. If on the one hand other new sources of revenue for Maltese publishers are the planned (such as the long-awaited education licences and peripheral book fairs such as the Book Festival on Campus), we believe that no measure other than the creation of a permanent bookshop that acts as a cultural and marketing agent can satisfy the need for a literary space. It is there that, among other things, Maltese literature can have the kind of exposure it both deserves and needs.
Valletta’s last standing bookshops, two of them part of the Agenda book-chain, which practically dominates the retail book industry, are just a handful of pockets of resistance in an increasingly gentrified city. Yet, these pockets are a far-cry from what the local publishing industry needs in terms of exposure and commercial activity. Currently, Valletta provides ample infrastructure for theatre and art, but authors and publishers, which collectively form part of Malta’s biggest creative sector in terms of economic value, are under-represented.
Unfortunately, the exponential rise of property prices in Valletta has basically created a situation where the local publishing industry is prohibited from penetrating the capital city and representing itself equally to other cultural sectors that enjoy an all-year round presence. Currently, Valletta is the only capital city in Europe without a bookshop that doubles as a cultural space. The National Book Council sees it as its proper duty to address this deficiency. Here, it is not only the economic survival of the local publishing industry that is at stake. Given that the local publishing industry is not just a commercial industry, but the main seed from which the intellectual and cultural development of a nation can grow, a book centre that actively promotes its authors and literary-heritage in the capital city is a perquisite for our society itself.
The current government has acknowledged this problem and in order to address it, it has allocated a 16th century baroque palace in Valletta to the National Book Council. We intend to restore the palace to its former glory and turn it into an exceptional book centre accessible to all and free of charge. Apart from hosting the offices of the National Book Council, the palace will be used as a space for a museum of literature, a centre for literary activities and a bookshop leased to a private entity (on the condition that it acts as a cultural and marketing agent).
This new book centre will be a great asset to the local book industry, a major source of revenue for local publishers, a new hangout for youths and a historic attraction for the general public. The book centre will also open its doors to schools and children and serve as an educational hub for the general community. There is no doubt the successful implementation of this project will be one of government’s most important cultural and educational milestones.