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Steve Borg | Thursday, 04 June 2009

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The book trade, Malta and the EU

During a PBS televised during this European Parliament electoral campaign, when representing the Labour Party, I mentioned how the government had lost all its willpower in ensuring that Malta was represented in the European fora of the cultural industry where important decisions were being taken.
In the debate I referred to the publishing trade, a massive economic sector that generates around €23 billion in annual sales. The European industry revolves on three entities – the European Writers’ Congress (EWC), the Federation of European Booksellers (FEP) and the European Booksellers Federation (EBF). Most EU27 countries are members in all three, including Cyprus, Estonia and Slovenia that all gained EU membership with the Malta group. The only Member State absent from all fora is Malta. This is an unacceptable situation, especially when one remembers that Malta has the highest illiteracy rate within the EU.
On state and Nationalist party television, we are given the impression that, thanks to this government, Malta quite naturally utilizes the most competent human resources available that shall help advance this industry by attracting a market segment to our shores. Eurostat statistics, however, expose our sad reality.
An excellent Maltese language publication – and they are more numerous than one may think - may have a run of two thousand copies, that could possibly be sold within two years. I shudder when I realise that Malta is losing the opportunity, through being absent from the major European book expositions, of exhibiting literary works by local writers, photographers and graphic designers, that may be translated in other European Union languages. This would help disseminate their works into new territories and also increase their meagre local royalties.
Meanwhile, while Malta is being flooded by books arriving from overseas, at times bought by the cubic metre, from warehouses in the United Kingdom, Maltese writers, publishers and booksellers have to strive through their own efforts to remain active since their limited run of copies printed keeps their price per unit relatively much more expensive.
This government, despite its false pretences that it is an internationalist approach, remains cocooned with an insular approach since the key players in these fora do not seem able to think outside the box. Let us take, for example, the Finnish writer Arto Tapio Paasilinna, whose works have been translated into eighteen languages. Or the Slovene playwright Ivan Cankar, translated into seventeen languages. We all have a right to enquire the role of the government’s contact points doing in this regard.
In my profession as a librarian, I have met many a decision-taking government-appointed bureaucrat, who seem to be unable to distinguish a clay brick from a hardbound book. The Castle may be the name of a pub in Paceville and not one of Kafka’s masterpieces, and what a pity about Virgil and Schopenhauer. Do they play for Milan or Inter?
In an interview published on The Guardian (8 Dec 2008) the current Nobel Prize laureate, Jean-Marie Gustave le Clézio spoke clearly about information poverty:
“Joint publication with developing countries, the establishment of funds for lending libraries and mobile libraries, and, overall, greater attention to requests from and works in so-called minority languages – which are often clearly in the majority – would enable literature to continue to be this wonderful tool for self-knowledge, for the discovery of others, and for listening to the concert of humankind, in all the rich variety of its themes and modulations.”
He could have easily been speaking about Malta. The apologists, even though deep down they are aware that this is actual reality, would definitely state that I am exaggerating. However, following a number of parliamentary questions, it is now public knowledge that the Government’s voted expenditure for books for 2008 includes the purchase of ten books for Senglea, nine for St. Julians and six for Cospicua, amongst other shameful data. This attitude taken into context would then qualify when the Maltese book trade is simply absent from the European fora. Our key players are simply disinterested or oblique to this market.
Maltese publishers who have managed to improve their product content and presentation by great personal efforts remarkably, are absent from meetings when purchasing orders are taken. Any student of the science of librarianship would know that publications regarding Maltese literature, archaeology, ethnography, culture and history are of European, and not only local, interest. Rather than proposing a reading culture, Malta under the Gonzi administration is being inundated by gaming and gambling centres that seemed to be sprouting everywhere. You can witness these sad developments even in the remote villages away from the tourist resorts.
The local situation is pitiful and undermines the spirit of the Treaty of Lisbon that aims to further disseminate literary works from all over Europe throughout the EU27. As a prospective Labour MEP, I shall strive to see that Malta becomes a member of these entities, since this proactive approach would result in more royalties, book orders for exportation, help disseminate our people’s intellectual prowess and naturally generate more employment in the local publishing industry.

Steve Borg is a PL candidate for MEP



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The book trade, Malta and the EU

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