By Chris Gruppetta
If someone were to ask me for advice on whether to become a publisher in Malta, I’d say don’t. And not just because I’d have yet another competitor. The very fact of survival has become a skill in itself.
Let’s get the basics out of the way: Malta is a tiny country, well under half a million people. It is a bilingual country, with the consequence that locally published books compete against the brute force of the entire publishing output of the English-speaking world, a lot of which is imported into Malta.
Typical print runs of 1,000 or even — more recently — 500 copies mean economies of scale are not really possible. Since joining the EU in 2004, Malta has suffered a brain drain of unprecedented proportions, including the vast majority of its young authors. And for a number of historical and political reasons, self-publishing has a legitimacy not seen possibly anywhere else in Europe.
And yet — and yet — over the past decade we have published some of the most exciting, freshest, sexiest books Malta has ever seen. A new generation of authors, cosmopolitan, well-travelled, unburdened by colonialist complexes — most notably Pierre J. Mejlak, winner of the European Sea of Words Award from among 200 authors from over 40 countries, Clare Azzopardi, and duo Simon Bartolo and Loranne Vella, whose teenage fantasy trilogy Il-Fiddien smashed all sales records in Malta and has just been optioned for a movie deal — has taken Maltese writing to previously unattainable heights.
Where, until the mid-nineties, the prevalent genre was insular and nostalgic, the new wave of Maltese literature has been pushing at the boundaries of what we can write — and read — about.
This, sadly, is happening with — some would say in spite of — a grim backdrop of resurgent censorship and state interference. In perhaps no other country does the government actively publish books and compete as much with the private industry. The government even publishes its own textbooks, which it then imposes as set texts within all state schools—thus cutting off private publishers from an important source of revenue.
Even more chilling is the fact that an author and his publisher are currently facing the prospect of jail time for a sexually explicit short story. Published last year in a university magazine, the University Rector and Chaplain — the latter still a figure of some influence in heavily Catholic Malta — brought the story to the attention of the police, who hauled the author and publisher to court charged with obscenity. The case is still sub judice, however, given the worrying court judgment earlier this year confirming the banning of Scottish playwright Anthony Neilson’s play Stitching, many in the Maltese cultural scene are very worried at this resurgent tendency, especially considering that to date, no senior government official has spoken out publicly in favor of freedom of expression and against this blatant censorship.
This is of course harming the publishing industry, as we have all had to put publishing projects on hold until the courts confirm or otherwise whether the inclusion of sex scenes is suddenly deemed to be “obscene” and therefore illegal. Likewise, a number of authors have opted to take a sabbatical from writing — or at least from submitting manuscripts for publication — until they have a clearer idea of what they are “allowed” to write. Unless the issue is resolved urgently, many in the creative industries are talking of a generation of self-censorship.
The last two years have seen a number of high-profile publisher bankruptcies and closures, so that the number of publishers has been seriously depleted. And among those that remain, a shocking number adopt suspicious practices such as asking authors to contribute financially — sometimes to the tune of thousands of Euros — to the publication of their book. No serious publisher that I know of, overseas, would be caught dead peddling this glorified form of vanity publishing, yet in Malta it is depressingly common, and the practice is — if not approved of — at least condoned by the authorities and most book organizations.
So is it all doom and gloom? Luckily not. Swaths of the publishing industry have professionalized beyond recognition, Maltese books are starting to travel beyond our borders, manuscripts are getting the rigorous editing and packaging they deserve, and a reading market that is getting more sophisticated by the minute is voting with its Euros and giving young authors recognition and notoriety. As long as they don’t wind up in jail, that is.
Chris Gruppetta, former Chair of the International Young Publisher network, runs Merlin, Malta’s largest publisher and three-time winner of the Best Publishing House Award.