Reforming the book industry during the hardest-ever economic crisis in history

I sincerely hope the government comes to term with the necessity of taking the matter at hand with the serious approach it deserves

Everything we have done at the National Book Council since 2013 has gravitated around one single and main objective: to boost the revenue streams of the publishing industry stakeholders, giving priority to publishers and authors.

In order to achieve this, we had to develop a roadmap which first of all involved rebuilding the entity itself. From a starting budget of €50,000 a year and one employee, we developed to a team of seven employees and an annual budget of €1 million a year, excluding salaries and capital expenditure.

The most obvious and immediate challenge was to renovate the annual book fair, which we rebranded into the Malta Book Festival. This was an outstanding success, as year after year the Festival went on to consistently hit all-time record sales.

Meanwhile, we started building a legal framework on par with EU standards, which was also meant to increase revenue streams. We introduced Public Lending Rights at our public libraries, and we are currently lobbying the University of Malta to adopt the same legal framework to introduce a PLR scheme at its Melitensia section. We are positive that an agreement will be found with the University of Malta and that they will comply with EU law under our direction.

Having built the entity’s financial and adminitrative foundations, we then started a legal process to reform the book industry and bring it into line with EU standards. We introduced a legal notice to formally regulate the National Book Council. This was only the start, as in 2018 we initiated a very long consultation process with our stakeholders meant to implement the necessary legal reforms.

After lengthy consultations with publishers, in 2019, the National Book Council convened the first ever National Congress of Authors, where more than 150 authors had showed their support to the bills being proposed. It is the first time in our history that book industry stakeholders mediated between each other to find a common ground and adopt a coherent policy on their legal and financial affairs.

This process was concluded in August 2020, when two bills have been drawn up and published: a bill which which would give the National Book Council the autonomy it deserves, and the copyright reform bill which will transpose the EU Copyright Directive on the Digital Single Market. The former bill is a consolidation of the already existing legal notice, while the latter will introduce new legal rights for publishers, authors and also press publishers.

Simultaneously, we drew up a legal notice, which has been approved by the Ministry of Finance, to introduce tax incentives for publishers and authors. This financial reform will give publishers a 100% tax break on all royalties paid to authors, while simultaneously make authors’ royalty payments tax free. The long-term plan is to eventually create a publishing tax-free industry, which would not only alleviate the local industry, but hopefully also attract foreign publishers to set up house in Malta and bring in foreign direct investment into our industry and our country.

As of now, the new post-Muscat government administration has refused to acknowledge the parliamentary bills. It is surprising how the government has taken this position notwithstanding the huge support of the industry’s stakeholders. The government should be reminded that it is the National Book Council’s legal obligation to adopt such positions publicly and push for the Government to act.

Additionally, the Ministry of Economy is not only ignoring the National Book Council’s position and requests (through which we represent the publishing industry stakeholders), but it is also forging ahead to arbitrarily impose the transposition of the EU Copyright Directive without our consultation.

Our position on this matter is clear. The Ministry for the Economy, with its politically appointed copyright board, does not have the legitimacy nor the expertise to arbitrarily impose any legal reforms on the publishing industry.

Instead, what should happen for the sake of the industry and the arts industry in general is very clear: the copyright board should be disbanded and the National Book Council should take the lead in transposing the EU Copyright Directive.

This is the only way to create the appropriate structures for the Directive to be implemented through our bureaucratic system.

It would be wise to avoid an approach similar to the conservative government in the UK where the art industries are treated with an unrealistic and detached approach. The government should be aware that the publishing industry is not only providing a net contribution to the economy, but it is crucial for the educational, intellectual and cultural development of our society.

Allowing legal reforms to be implemented by bureaucrats who have no expertise in the field will spell disaster not only for our industry, but ultimately for our society.

I sincerely hope the government comes to term with the necessity of taking the matter at hand with the serious approach it deserves.

We have made our demands in a diplomatic and amicable manner, so the government has no excuses or claims of being under fire by our industry. It is actually us who are currently under fire, without the government’s support and with no recognition whatsoever during the hardest-ever economic crisis in our industry’s history.