Council has its ‘books’ in order, says new head Mark Camilleri

The new chairman of the National Book Council says the 2013 book festival ended with a €5,000 surplus for the first time ever: he now wants to make it bigger and better

Mark Camilleri
Mark Camilleri

The National Book Council will be registering, for the first time in so many years, a €5,000 surplus which the council's new chairman says comes in the wake of repeated deficits.

Mark Camilleri was for some time a household name when he was dragged into court, together with award-winning novelist Alex Vella Gera, to face criminal charges of obscenity for the now notorious 'Li Tkisser, Sewwi', a short story he published on university pamphlet Ir-Realtà.

After his acquittal, he was subsequently appointed chairman of the book council under the new Labour government. His role in the anti-censorship campaign of the day earned him the national honour of the medal for service to the Republic.

Now into his first year at the helm of the council, Camilleri is planning "radical reforms" to the annual book awards that are the highlight of the council's calendar.

"It's a competitive event that has been controversial since its inception," Camilleri says. "Personally, I sympathise with several authors who are sceptical about the awards, even though I might not agree with their respective positions. The problem has always been with the adjudicating system."

Adjudication for the national book awards has always been affected by the lack of lucid and well-defined academic and artistic criteria, Camilleri says, pointing to the last awards held under his chairmanship as a case in point.

"The system we inherited could not be changed once the call for submissions had been made by the previous council. Now that we are in a position to organise from scratch and in detail all aspects of the awards, we are working on radical reforms to improve this prestigious event. We will not only revise the system of the book category entries but, more significantly, they will bring into play internationally-recognised literary criteria to be used by the various adjudicating boards," Camilleri says.

The annual book fair has been the most important book event in the Maltese calendar for more than 30 years, providing an opportunity for publishers and authors to showcase their new publications and local bookstores to sell their stocks to the public. But Camilleri complains that the national book council remains underfunded.

"Public institutions cannot deliver their full potential unless they get their administration and finances right. An institution cannot, for example, guarantee the permanence of an initiative if this initiative is being financially mishandled, resulting in excessive financial losses. This was the situation with the Book Fair until 2013.

"The previous years' book fairs used to exceed the budget allocation of €40,000, putting at risk the fate of the book fair itself. It's no secret that officials of the previous government administration had, last year, informed book fair participants of the possibility that the next fair would not take place, simply because the 'money was running out'. And when I entered office in July, I actually found out that preparations for the Book Fair 2013 had actually been kept on hold."

Camilleri says the last book fair had to make the necessary trims to the set-up had to bring his own grandiose plans down to earth in the process.

"I opted to work on the council's finances and administration to secure the book fair's survival," he says, refusing suggestions that its lacklustre attraction was down to a lack of ideas.

"Looking back, I can say that the results of this initiative proved positive. My fellow councillors and myself carried out a rigorous cost-cutting exercise on commercial contracts and retained the same amount and quality of service. We increased incentives with a new literary journal for emerging authors and book donations to libraries. We re-branded the event, naming it the National Book Festival, as opposed to Fair, emphasising the celebration of its literary-cultural aspect, and downplaying, to some extent, the commercial one."

Participation fees for all exhibitors were reduced and for the exhibitors who opted to use a smaller stand, participation-rates were reduced by almost half compared to those of the previous book fair.

"Instead of exceeding the budget allocation by €20,000, as was done in 2012, the National Book Council made a surplus of €5,000. Now, we can say with confidence that the National Book Festival is here to stay and with government's €94,000 budget allocation for Book Fest 2014, we have more funding for new exciting initiatives. This government takes education and culture very seriously and people like me appointed to positions of cultural management have a great responsibility to bear: we are being pressed from politicians to deliver and rightly so."

Abdullah alhrbi
Lol spoken like a true Apparatchik hand on heart ! This government takes education and culture very seriously and people like me appointed to positions of cultural management have a great responsibility to bear: we are being pressed from politicians to deliver and rightly so." Takes culture seriously sure pull the other one why won't you. Fancies himself a cultural manager does he our Mark now?Yes he would say that he did the old belt tightening exercise but aproper analysis of the last book festival would show that it was a creative flop. Some branding that was lol. The chairman seems to draw on a very retro '70s vision of the world. He also has a very weird take on what it means to enter into dialogue with authors, publishers and the expectations of the readers. It seems his mantra is more of My WAY is the ONLY Way. What he should also explain what sort of 'cultural management' he is promoting now that the Book Council has taken to competing with the private sector by turning publisher. I wonder what the enlightened Chairman of the Book Council will be spending his 5000€ on. I have a feeling this is going towards his little pet project. Pst pst pst.