National Book Council deserted as resignations stultify body

The National Book Council has been left deserted after the members appointed to its board by the ministry for education, handed in their resignations in the past weeks • Council insists resignations were for 'personal and medical' reasons

Updated at 6:13pm with National Book Council reply

The National Book Council has been left deserted after the members appointed to its board by the ministry for education, handed in their resignations in the past weeks.

They include key representatives such as publishers Chris Gruppetta (Merlin) and Joseph Mizzi (Midsea), the writers John Portelli and Aleks Farrugia, as well as deputy chairperson Mark Vella, and secretary Joseph Debattista.

Now the Council, led by chairman Mark Camilleri, does not even have a quorum for the board appointed in 2021 – sociologist Maria Brown, Heritage Malta spokesperson Daniela Attard Bezzina are the last two members still on board.

NBC chairman Mark Camilleri
NBC chairman Mark Camilleri

The resignations reflect an unhappiness with Camilleri’s inaction over matters affecting the economic viability of publishing houses: among them the rising cost of paper and newsprint, and a recent introduction of new costs for the distribution of printed material by Maltapost, the sole postal operator on the island.

Camilleri, an educator who was assistant head at a state primary school before his appointment, is a published author of detective fiction. His three-year appointment in 2021 came hot on the heels of the expiry of the contract for his predecessor, and namesake, who broke ranks with the Labour Party soon after the election of Robert Abela as prime minister a year earlier.

“Camilleri’s appointment came at a particularly difficult time for publishers,” said an insider with knowledge of the resignations, referring at rising costs of paper following the Russian war in Ukraine, as well as other related publishing costs.

“The Council is supposed to help the publishing industry, not simply encourage reading – which is the remit of the national literacy agency – and nobody is aiding the handful of publishers whose living is simply earned from book publishing.”

A former board member described Camilleri as a “pleasant person” who lacked gumption in bringing forward urgent matters affecting publishers’ livelihoods, to the government minister. “He lacks leadership qualities that are necessary in this kind of position, and simply working towards hosting the annual book festival, is not sufficient in these trying times.”

The Malta Book Festival in 2022 was marred by the absence of one of Malta’s leading publishers and trailblazers for the publication and design of the modern Maltese novel, Merlin Books, which is led by Chris Gruppetta – now a former Council board member.

That year, Gruppetta, an active voice in the industry, bluntly said that the Maltese book industry was reeling from a hike in printing costs due to the post-war inflation that had plagued so many sectors of the economy. “Between the much higher cost of producing books – due to how paper costs shot up – and the higher cost of sourcing our stand... literally, the materials for building it, which due to current inflation increased significantly, and the drop in book sales this year, we calculated it didn’t make financial sense to take part and we would literally lose less money by not taking part than taking part,” Gruppetta had told MaltaToday.

Different insiders who spoke to MaltaToday have placed the problem of the board’s resignations at the feet of Camilleri, who appears to avoid confrontation and exercises a caution that his predecessor lacked. “He does not barge into ministers’ offices with his demands, like his predecessor would do,” one source said.

The same source also believes Camilleri does not act independently without government approval. “The Council did not even convene frequently, with the few decisions taken being unilateral and then not advantageous for the publishing industry. The Council’s symbolic presence creates the impression that it supports publishers but it’s not achieving anything substantial.”

Camilleri’s namesake predecessor has been credited with many accomplishments when he headed the NBC, introducing public lending and copying rights for authors as well as significantly upgrading the impact of the Malta Book Festival with celebrity authors flown in for the annual event. A leading anti-censorship activist from well before 2013, Mark Camilleri later became an outspoken critic of the Muscat administration, briefly campaigned for Chris Fearne to take the Labour leadership, then broke ranks in 2020 after Robert Abela assumed leadership in 2020.

In 2021, Camilleri clashed with the education ministry when he was told to step down his position after an online tiff with one of the lawyers defending the Caruana Galizia assassination suspect Yorgen Fenech. Camilleri refused. After serving in the role for eight years, his contract was not extended.

He later filed for damages against the National Book Council, claiming his successor had prevented the Council’s designated book reviewer from penning its critique of his polemic ‘A Rentseeker’s Paradise’, alleging political discrimination.

National Book Council reply

The National Book Council has acknowledged the resignations of several board members in recent months but clarified that the majority of resignations were not related to the motivations listed in this article.

“Four of the five individuals mentioned cited personal or medical reasons for their resignations. Only one board member explicitly stated in his official resignation that ‘the sector and the local book industry are not being given the due attention’. Additionally, it should be noted that Council Secretary Joseph Debattista resigned in November 2021 for personal reasons and was promptly replaced by Matthew Borg. Replacements of the board members who resigned are currently in the last stages of approval,” the Council said.

The NBC added that it is “actively addressing” the issue of rising paper costs and has publicly raised this matter on multiple occasions, most recently on 12 September during the press conference where the Council launched the official programme of the Malta Book Festival.

“The entire board has been deeply involved in all relevant activities, including the creation of an amended comprehensive survey of the current publishing industry launched since 2019 with the NSO. Every year, the National Book Council invites all publishers to participate in this vital survey, although it is unfortunate that some major publishers consistently fail to do so. Our ultimate goal is to present a factual and concrete study report to the authorities, which will result in subsidies for the book industry to offset the rising costs,” the Council said.

It said that on 23 August 23, the National Book Council contacted MaltaPost and subsequently offered to arrange a meeting between the Council’s board and MaltaPost's leadership to discuss the recently introduced higher costs for the distribution of printed material. “Regrettably, this effort was deemed futile by one of the publishers,” the Council said.

The NBC insisted its activities extend beyond organising the Malta Book Festival. “The Malta Book Fund awards €120,000 annually to different publishers and authors to support the publishing of new books, as of last year also funding reprints of books no longer available in the market and the translation of books from Maltese into other languages, and into Maltese.”

A new initiative was the creation of a funding opportunity via a public call for publishers, authors and illustrators to attend in person the London Book Fair. It highlighted several other initiatives undertaken by the Council, including the National Book Prize, the Novels for Youth Literary Contest, and the Doreen Micallef Poetry Contest. It also manages the Public Lending Rights and ISBN agency for Malta.

“The National Book Council is a public entity, and as such, we are committed to upholding all applicable public procurement regulations. We take great pride in executing all projects entrusted to the National Book Council with the highest level of diligence and unwavering seriousness. The Council is still committed to support all its stakeholders in negotiations with the authorities and relevant agencies for the betterment of the Maltese publishing industry,” the statement ended.