Local book publishers are calling for urgent government support as they struggle with the double pressures of dwindling sales and the rising cost of paper.

The price of paper has doubled since 2017 while sales of local books have dropped by half, according to data collected from leading publishing houses.

We are feeling the pinch. This is unprecedented- Joe Mizzi, Midsea Books

They are calling for financial support, possibly in the form of aid to cover the cost of paper and assistance to boost the visibility of local publications.

“We are feeling the pinch. This is unprecedented,” said Joe Mizzi from Midsea Books.

Mizzi said he had collected data from leading publishers, including Merlin Publishers, Midsea Books, Kite Publishing and Horizon, to get a snapshot of the realities faced by the local publishing industry. 

'Book dumping' is a problem

Taking 2017 as a baseline, the figures showed a doubling in paper costs since then and a drop, by 50 per cent, in sales.

As with other industries, he said, local publishers were seeing hikes in the cost of raw materials – in this case, paper and ink – but this was made worse by the drop in sales brought about by changing reading habits and competition from international publications.

Another obstacle is “book dumping”: other companies importing container-loads of books from abroad, often paying for them by weight and selling them cheaply in massive book sales.

Chris Gruppetta, from Merlin Publishers, said rising costs meant his company would not be taking part in the National Book Festival this year as the expenses involved in setting up the stand mean it was not financially feasible.

He explained that, as a publishing house specialising in Maltese language books, Merlin faced additional challenges.

“We live in a bilingual country with a focus on English. Local publications need to be given more visibility,” he said.

“We need help at government level,” he added.

Price of paper up 50 per cent in past year

During the virus pandemic, newspaper publishers were granted a subsidy of €500,000 between them to offset some of the cost of paper.

Mizzi, a member of the National Book Council board, also pointed to the lack of quality books shops.

He agrees with the need for more support.

David Bezzina, director of Horizon publishers, said the price of paper has gone up by 50 per cent in the past year alone.

“We can absorb some of the cost but not all as we cannot price a book, such as a novel, at more than, say, €12 to €15 as,  otherwise, people will simply not buy it,” he said.

He explained that distributors took 50 per cent of the revenue from sales, which made the profit margins even tighter for publishers even as they face rising costs.

Measures to promote local publications

National Book Council chair, Mark Camilleri said that over the past few months he had been negotiating with the government to get paper subsidies for the local publishers. Discussions are still in progress and the Ministry of Finance was reviewing the matter. 

Camilleri said there had been an increase in the number of authors over the years, including self-published ones, but the number of copies sold by each had declined.

He said that, while local and international publishers were facing many hurdles, a lot was being done by the council to push local talent on various platforms, both locally and internationally.

Several initiatives lend more visibility to local publications and offer financial support to authors and publishers, Camilleri said.

These included the Malta Book Fund, through which each author could be allocated up to €5,000, the National Book Prize, which included cash prizes ranging between €2,000 and €4,000 each, the Public Lending Rights Scheme, through which authors are paid each time their book is borrowed from a library, and the annual National Book Festival, which this year will be held between November 23 and 27.

€5 voucher for students at book festival

This year, the festival will take place after the National Book Prize ceremony – to be held on November 4 – to give more visibility to the winning authors in a space that expands their audience.

A €5 voucher to spend at the festival will be given to all registered students who attend – some 10,000 in all – in a move supporting publishers, Camilleri said.

He said the council also produced podcasts that included interviews with people from the publishing world.

“We also shed light on local literature during our participation at the London Book Fair in April,” he said.

“There are a lot of connections to have our local literature exported in various languages. Foreign publishers are also showing interest in what is being published locally.”

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