The book’s the thing | Malta Book Fair 2012

In a world where we’re assaulted by a varied array of newfangled media vying for our attention, it’s encouraging that the Malta Book Fair – kicking off tomorrow – still seems to attract a healthy audience. But are Maltese book lovers getting the best experience possible?

Is the Malta Book Fair just a glorified book sale event?
Is the Malta Book Fair just a glorified book sale event?

Malta's annual Book Fair is certainly cause for celebration. At least, that seems to be the mood emanating from its organisers - The National Book Council - on the eve of this year's Fair, taking place between 7 and 11 November at the Mediterranean Conference Centre in Valletta.

"The Fair brings the book, which, in its many forms, is still very relevant to today's society, to the masses of people that visit it. The very nature of the conglomeration of so many books in one place enthrals and renews the love for books themselves. Book Fairs of many different types are still being held worldwide, and attendance remains very high, both abroad and here," National Book Council Chairman Gorg Mallia enthused, before going on to box-tick the benefits the Fair has to Maltese authors and publishers in particular.

"A large number of Maltese publishers exhibit at the fair. Just about all books published in Malta find themselves at the fair itself. Apart from that, there are activities related to literature, art, history, and culture (in general) throughout the fair," Mallia added. 

Crucially, Mallia also flagged an aspect of the Fair that was officially made a priority - according to the Book Council's website - ever since the annual event moved from the Naxxar Trade Fair grounds (which had housed the Fair since it was first established in the 70s) to the MCC in 2006.

Gorg Mallia

Gorg Mallia: "The Fair brings the book to the masses."

"The occasion is not just one in which books are sold (though that too is important)... but a celebration of books and their authors, publishers and illustrators."

Though a full list of Book Fair-related event still remains to be published online, Mallia promises that this year's Fair will boast a number of innovative editions to the programme: among them being a "stage space" located at the end of the MCC hall which will feature "interviews at intervals throughout the days of the fair with authors, publishers, distributors, and other people who are in some way connected to the world of books..."

But though Mallia's enthusiasm for the Fair is almost infectious - even through the cold glare of a computer screen - some key players within local literary culture would disagree that the general state of the Book Fair is an unambiguously positive affair.

Chris Gruppetta of Merlin Publishing - a regular participant in the fair - appears disheartened by the fact that Merlin's own stalls, being eye-catching affairs that incorporate installations by artist and designer Pierre Portelli, are something of an exception-that-proves-the-rule when it comes to the overall aesthetic of the Book Fair.

Chris Gruppetta

Chris Gruppetta: "The Book Fair needs an overhaul."

"The Book Fair needs an overhaul. I fully understand the Book Council's problems with implementing fundamental change, and I sympathise because the issues they face are enormous. However a Book Fair for the 21st century, in the digital age, cannot have a book-sale structure. Nowadays books can be bought offline and online all year round for the lowest of prices, so a pile-'em-high-sell-'em-cheap approach doesn't cut it any longer, I think."

However, Mallia refuses to characterise the Fair as being essentially a glorified book sale.

"Yes, there are 'bargain' book stalls - like you'll find in any fair world wide. I have just been to the Gotenburg Book Fair - easily the biggest and most prestigious in Scandinavia - and the "bargain" book stalls were the most popular, with scores of people carrying away bags full of books. But for every stand of this type, which serves the extremely important purpose of populating a lot of homes with books, there are stalls manned by publishers of the best books on the island. The fair is proud to offer something for everyone (as the hype would have it)."

But an observation by Simone Inguanez (Arts Executive for Literature within the Malta Council for Culture and the Arts) puts the differences between the Malta Book Fair and its international counterparts in perspective, and suggests that the Malta Book Fair is in fact better placed to serve as a "celebration" of book culture, unhindered by hard-nosed industry concerns.

Simone Inguanez

Simone Inguanez: "It's more than a platform of selling books."

"Book fairs are largely international trade events that bring together all members of the supply and value chain in the publishing industry... the Malta Book Fair is a non-trade event. Rather than being tailored to the needs of the industry, it is aimed primarily at the general public. More than a platform for selling books, such festival presents infinite opportunities for exchange, collaboration, development, creativity, innovation and audience development," Inguanez commented, while expressing disappointment over how the Fair tends to present itself in practice.

"The objectives of improving literacy and promoting the joy of reading are at the core of the Book Council's work (including a number of campaigns and seminars). On the other hand, the number of exhibitors who focus on excellence at the Fair is just plain disappointing. It is very sad to walk past bland stalls randomly crammed with books, manned by exhibitors looking bored and uninterested..."

Chris Gruppetta, in fact, has a suggestion that may just serve to break this impasse.

"I have been suggesting for a number of years to the organisers that exhibitors should be incentivised to spend on stand design (our stand is costing thousands, over and above the participation fee) by allocating prizes to the best-designed stand. A bit of healthy competition never harmed anyone," Gruppetta said, while also spelling out what kind of Malta Book Fair he would like to see come to fruition, in a perfect world: "I would love to see a Fair that is a breeding ground of innovation and a destination - not primarily for shopping but for showcasing fantastic new books, for meeting authors in an informal setting, for having out-of-the-box events.

"The ultimate model is of course the Edinburgh Book Festival. It would be fantastic to cross-pollinate between the arts - having visual artists set up stands (as we are doing in the Merlin stand), performance artists bring books to life..."

I was involved in the organisation of the Malta Book Fair in the 80s. During that time it was already being held at the MCC
Maltese books are generally very poor quality. There are 3 reasons for this. 1. the language as a written form is very very new - the alphabet was written within living memory 2. Maltese literature that i remember was really Theology and not literature. Shakespeare is literature. Maltese literature was just another venue for the church's agenda. 3. The material prepared for schools is such poor quality and one cannot help but know that this is the usual nepotism and corruption at work. In a free market that poor quality would never even get published. Finally - the libraries are totally debilitated. I used to take my son to the national library to instill in him a love of books - but i don't bother anymore. Books are old, in poor condition and their material mostly irrelevant. The only new books in the library were books about Scientology. Also bizarrely someone goes around sticking icons of saints in books - this is one screwed up country!