Why I love the book fair | Malta Book Fair 2012

While he acknowledges that it may not be perfect, publisher Chris Gruppetta admits that this year’s edition of the Malta Book Fair gave him a renewed sense of hope in the local reading public.

Last week's book fair was well attended, but what can be done to make it better?
Last week's book fair was well attended, but what can be done to make it better?

Another Book Fair done and dusted.

In an interview to Malta Today two weeks ago, I said that the Book Fair needs an overhaul - and some people seem to have taken objection to that. It's true however that, when immersed in the spirit of the event, things take on a slightly different hue.

And yes, I have to say that, warts and all, I do love the Book Fair. For five days a year, the Mediterranean Conference Centre in Valletta turns into a microcosm of the Maltese world of books - with the politics, deals, corridor mumblings, gossip that this entails. It is a five-day bonanza of all that is book-related, in a majestic 16th century hall stacked wide and high with books of all shades.

I love the Book Fair because it is a perfect opportunity for some good old-fashioned book browsing, for remedying the shame of being the last person not to have a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey, for checking out the new Mintoff commemorative books, for stocking up on reading fodder through the various 3-for-2 offers, 'all at €2' and '35-50% off'. And of course for having a look at the hottest, newest titles.

I love the Book Fair because creatives of all sorts tend to gravitate there, and the stand I was 'on duty' on became a watercooler-corner for longish chats on anything from the ebook transition, to the evolution of Maltese book cover design, to the abolition of censorship... and sometimes for some comfort-gossip of course.

I love the Book Fair because it's the one time every year you can walk in randomly and be sure to bump into at least a few of your literary heroes, your favourite illustrators, and probably a politician or three.

I love the Book Fair because prospective, round-eyed authors and illustrators come over to publishers' stands to pitch their manuscripts and portfolios - which for someone in my line of work is the perfect way of keeping ears to the ground with what's new and fresh in the creative world.

I love the Book Fair because it's an excuse to throw a party - this year our wine-and-pastizzi on-stand do for creatives was a vibrant affair, and security had to almost literally throw us out when doors closed for the night and we were still drinking and nibbling and chatting and exchanging books.

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And it is precisely my love for this annual celebration of books that makes me want to see it transformed. Looking around the hall, sadly there is very little eye candy. This year visitors were welcomed with an unexpected, arresting, visually provoking installation art - in the form of a tower of books reaching up to the ceiling - by renowned Danish artist Marie Louise Kold. But beyond that, it was back to ordinance shelving and tables.

I find it deeply ironic that in what is meant to be ground zero for the creative industry that is publishing, creativity does not spill into the visual design aspect.

The National Book Council has its work cut out for it because of course it cannot 'impose' creativity. It can and should lead by example - as it did this year by commissioning Kold's work - but beyond that it is, to a certain extent, at the mercy of participants.

I refuse to accept however that more cannot be done to incentivise creativity: prizes for best-designed stands, incentives for exhibitors who go to the effort of organising on-stand (or off-stand, for that matter) activities and events. As things stand - perhaps because of venue limitations - events have to be "smuggled in" and work within very tight, imagination-stifling restrictions.

The various mini-exhibitions held each year at the fair surely deserve more than just A2 blow-ups velcro'd onto panels - and in an industry chock-a-block with creative and visual artists, these areas should be show-stopping oases of design and visual experimentation.

This year an extensive programme of interviews with various people from all corners of the literary and publishing world was organised, in a cordoned-off area at the far end of the hall. I attended - or at least dropped in and out of - as many of these interviews as possible, and I have to say that most were hugely interesting, sometimes provocative debates with interviewers and interviewees chatting informally and amiably.

And yet, attendance for most of these was poor - most visitors weren't even aware these were being held, as there was no signage and, crucially, no advance publicity. I would have expected these 'chats' to be marketed as the centrepiece of the Fair, with a visually intriguing setup, and plenty of slick marketing well in advance across all social media, print and TV.

Comparisons are odious and this will smack of immodesty, but I cannot help compare them to a similar event at previous Fairs - Merlin's own Tsek-Tsik event - that for three years running packed the 250 capacity Temi Zammit Hall, as well as to Trevor Żahra's annual literary evenings at the Fair that likewise are invariably standing room only.

The organisers are understandably jubilant about the record turnout this year. Undeniably 20,000 visitors are a force to be reckoned with and cannot be discounted. That is, 20,000 people who were exposed to books, many of whom left the Fair with at least one book - and some of whom at least, one hopes, will actually read them. And hats off to the Council for pulling in such record crowds - possibly one of the larger cultural turnouts in Malta, save for Notte Bianca and a few others - with a minuscule budget.

The Ministry responsible for the Book Fair needs to start taking the Book Fair seriously and give the Fair a realistic budget, as the current situation does not reflect well on the importance of books and literature in our society.

But of course attendance figures are not everything, else we would be abolishing most arts and music festivals. I would be far more impressed with ratings on how many of these left with an upbeat impression of the Maltese book industry, as against those who felt we haven't moved on with the times but are stuck in 1982.

Change, it was said this year, is in the air for the Book Fair. And the risk, as often, will be that of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. There are mumblings about turning the Book Fair into an arty-farty festival, without its commercial element. This would be a grave mistake. For the simple reason that a book fair without publishers - and publishers will have no incentive to take part and invest in something that does not at least cover part of their costs - is a dead book fair.

The best-cited example in these cases is the world-famous Edinburgh Book Festival. Yet even there, one of the biggest tents in Charlotte Square is a pop-up bookshop. Of course, titles for sale there tend to be the newest, most exciting titles in contemporary literature.

A revitalised book fair would, yes, keep its commercial element - that Maltese visitors look for and that keeps it going - yet make this only one of the many facets of the fair. The others would be a strong, highly marketed programme of exciting, innovative events; stand and hall design that exploits interdisciplinarity by roping in the visual and performance arts - with which literature has such an affinity; and a spotlight on all that is new, fresh and excellent about Maltese and international literature and books.

See you at the Malta Book Fair 2013!

Chris Gruppetta is publisher and editor at Merlin Publishers.

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