Customers in Malta are no longer frequenting Maltese bookshops at rate that they did previously because bookshops in Malta do not provide a cultural experience, says Mark Camilleri, Chairman of the National Book Council.
“A cultural experience is mainly provided by having an interesting selection of books, creating a potentially interesting browsing experience,” he told this website. “This is enhanced in a cultural space where events take place and around which a community can be built. So, the ingredients for a successful bookshop are the reading-list, the community and cultural activities.”
Responding to this website’s previous article on the demise of bookshops in Malta, Mr Camilleri says that with the advent of Amazon, the success of bookshops is not only marked by their ability to deliver to the customer a specific product, but also in their ability to provide a cultural experience. “Bookshops in Malta have not changed their model since Amazon came into the picture, and are not adapting to changing circumstances. Nearly all of these bookshops in Malta have a similar, short-term commercial model, which is becoming increasingly challenging to preserve in the changing circumstances of the market. If bookshops keep decreasing their book shelving in favour of food and magazines, the downside trend will not be overturned. Publishers and authors want to see better bookshops and more of them not less.”
He adds that this situation is also negatively affecting sales of locally-published books. “If people are going to bookshops even less, they will be exposed to fewer locally-published books. The end result is that publishers' sales through bookshops are dramatically in decline.”
Mark Camilleri (centre) with authors Walid Nabhan (left) and Immanuel Mifsud (right)
To combat this, the National Book Council is focusing its efforts and finances in expanding the Malta Book Festival. “Book fairs and festivals are now offsetting a part of the decreasing number of sales experienced through bookshops. We have changed the branding of the Malta Book Fair which was rapidly going down in terms of sales, and changed the event from a book bazaar into a national cultural experience with many events, foreign exhibitors and literary prizes. Our model is working, although the situation is still very challenging; in 2016 we hit record sales numbers, easily surpassing figures for at least the last 10 years. We are aiming to hit another record this year round both in terms of visitors and sales.”
The National Book Council is also increasing the number of book festivals organised throughout the year. “We have organised the Campus Book Fest, the Gozo Book Fest and a new festival will be added to our annual calendar later on this year. The National Book Council is also conducting nation-wide advertising and promotion campaigns of Malta's prize-winning books. Our marketing campaigns are also being very effective at increasing book sales of prize-winning books and bookshops can easily exploit this for their own-success.”
Beyond the Maltese islands, the Council acts as an agent and broker for Maltese books and authors, promoting them to foreign publishers, with the aim of having them translated and published internationally. “We broker the contract and the funding for the translation, which we can tap locally or from funds abroad,” Mr Camilleri says. “Through my administration of the National Book Council, this is the first time ever that Malta is strategically funding the export of its literature abroad. Executing this strategy is complex, since every book and every publisher requires a particular approach. As of now we had success in exporting Maltese literature to Italy, the Balkans, the Arab world and to other countries which may be considered small economies. This year, we have prepared a publication of a novel by a London-based publisher, the first time that a Maltese novel will be translated and published in the English market by such a publisher. This will be a big event for us, not only because of the book itself, but because it will give us a push to broker more publications in London.”
Malta's stand at the London Book Fair
“Internationally, the competition is fierce, because for every person buying rights there are a hundred who want to sell, but we are having relative success. We have a stand at London Book Fair at a very good location giving us great international exposure and we hold meetings with publishers, agents and public entities. We visit the Frankfurt Book Fair, book fairs in the Emirates, and in Cairo, and sometimes we also go to book fairs selling Maltese books in English ourselves. We are doing everything it takes to export Maltese books and Maltese authors, including paying shipping and transport costs for those local publishers who want to sell Maltese books abroad. We also have a very nice selection of Maltese books in various bookshops across Europe - Brussels, London, Edinburgh and more.”
The Book Council is also planning to open its own bookshop and literary hub in Valletta. “We have successfully secured a building in Old Mint Street but needs at least €1m in restoration funds. We are still going through the paperwork and the lengthy, bureaucratic process to transfer the building to the Book Council, but the place is secured. Our aim is to restore the building and turn it into a Museum of Literature and lease parts of it to a bookshop which would run it as a cultural space and not just as a bazaar bookshop. The lease to the bookshop against our conditions will guarantee that Valletta will have a decent bookshop worthy of our capital city.”
Young attendees at the Campus Book Fest
Mr Camilleri expresses his disappointment that despite Valletta holding the title of Capital of Culture, the National Book Council’s efforts have not been recognised or helped. “We are celebrating Valletta as capital city of culture without it having a decent bookshop. We were alone in pushing for the proposal to create a national book centre which would act as a cultural agent, which is why we didn't manage to fulfil this initiative on time for 2018. Clearly, Government needs to make the Book Council and its proposals a priority, and even increase and funding with regards to the book council. Meanwhile, the Valletta 2018 Foundation needs to make more effort to collaborate with us further, since they did not help us in fulfilling our aims and objectives.”
Mr Camilleri ended the interview with a call for urgent action. “Saving the local book industry is not just a commercial end on its own. Books are the most important tool for our cultural and intellectual development, so a crisis in the book industry will directly hamper our ability to develop as a society.”
The next edition of the Malta Campus Book Fair will be held on the 21st, 22nd and 23rd March at the University of Malta.