Interview with Simona Cassano, Executive Director of the National Book Council of Malta
Serena Alessi, Director of the Italian Cultural Institute in Valletta
Simona Cassano, originally from Bari, is the executive director of the National Book Council of Malta. Simona has been working in publishing for 20 years – in Malta since 2017, and before that in Italy, England, and the United Arab Emirates. Throughout her career, she has been involved in all stages of production and communication across the publishing supply chain – from reading manuscripts to supervising marketing work.
What is the role of the National Book Council in Malta?
The National Book Council is a government body that promotes Maltese literature in Malta and abroad, making up for the lack of literary agents in the territory, and thus supporting authors, translators, illustrators and publishers. We are involved in a large number of activities: from organising national and international events, to managing the payment of public lending rights’ royalties, to being the local reference for ISBN and ISMN. We coordinate, facilitate and subsidise translations, and export projects of Maltese literature, through the Malta Book Fund and the brokering of publishing agreements. We promote the mobility of Maltese authors and publishers abroad by taking part in festivals and book fairs abroad.
The National Book Council also supports foreign publishers who publish Maltese literature in translation. Finding professional translators from and into Maltese can be a daunting task, which is why we also invest in bridge-translations from Maltese into English, with respect to works which will later be translated into other languages from their English version.
What does your role as Executive Director entail?
My job consists of planning, managing, organising and supervising all of the organisation’s initiatives and projects – including the National Book Prize, the Malta Book Fund and our participation in international fairs – and our numerous events, including the Malta Book Festival and the Campus Book Festival. Our objective is to promote Maltese literature, particularly contemporary literature, but also its classics, beyond the shores of a small island and beyond the confines of a language that is often defined as minor.
Tell us about the book industry in Malta, a country with two official languages: Maltese and English. What are some of the highlights in the history of Maltese publishing?
In the book industry in Malta, both official languages, Maltese and English, are used to write books. The choice often depends on the target audience and the subject matter of the book itself.
Malta’s literature boasts a unique feature: since its first official text, written in 1450, it has been produced in no less than six languages. Maltese and English only became Malta’s official languages in 1934, but Malta is still a melting pot of cultures. Today, the Maltese language is a symbol of national pride. For this reason, publishing in Maltese is crucial to preserving the country’s cultural and linguistic identity. Publishing in English, on the other hand, means offering wider access to the international market, which is essential, for instance, in the field of research.
Maltese publishing began to develop in the 19th century and the first book printed in the history of Maltese publishing was bilingual, Maltese and Italian. Over the course of time, several publishing houses were founded and the book industry experienced a significant growth. Today, distribution in Malta is unfortunately very limited and primarily entrusted to publishers’ e-commerce sites, stationery shops, and one single bookshops chain. Also for this reason, the Malta Book Festival is very significant to Malta’s books and publishing: it is an annual festival that also plays the role of a book fair, and is thus a unique opportunity for Malta’s inhabitants to hoard titles.
Do books in Italian – an official language until 1934, and still widely understood and spoken by the population – have a place in the Maltese publishing market? Are books in Italian sold (or even published)?
Data from 2021 indicate that 64% of local publishers publish books exclusively in English (or also in English), 47% in Maltese, and 4% publish books in Italian. This percentage may seem small, but we are still talking about books published in Italian in a country that is not Italy, and by non-Italian publishers.
In terms of sales of Italian books, these are primarily in the hands of (sadly very few) commendable initiatives, including a Maltese online bookstore that imports Italian books, or publications available for sale at the Italian Cultural Institute, thanks to an agreement between the Institute and some Italian publishing houses. There are no literary agents in Malta, so the selling of foreign rights doesn’t happen as systematically as it does in other countries.
What are the literary genres that ‘sell well’ in Malta?
Fiction and genre novels – such as crime fiction, fantasy, and historical novels – are usually very well received. Books for children and young adults, non-fiction and poetry are also popular with the Maltese public.
Maltese publishing has been slow to adapt to the new challenges of the digital era, resulting in a limited growth in e-book sales (in 2021 only about 14% of books sold were in digital format).
Does the National Book Council have contracts with Italian counterparties? Are there works being translated from Maltese to Italian?
The National Book Council of Malta has established direct contacts with Italian publishing counterparties over the years. One of these is Ediser, the service company of the Italian Publishers’ Association. However, our collaboration mostly takes shape through shared initiatives and projects with Italian publishers and other cultural organisations. We are always open to exploring new opportunities for collaboration.
And yes, we translate from Maltese to Italian. In recent years, the National Book Council has been very successful in this regard, especially with the publication of Italian translations of Maltese classics, children’s books and – more recently – even a detective story. It’s always fascinating to see how Maltese books are received in Italy: for Italian readers, it’s a true discovery of a very special place, with very close links to Sicily and Italy as a whole, just a few miles off the coast, in the heart of the Mediterranean. We will continue to work to make the wealth of Maltese literature known to the Italian and international public, and create a lasting bridge between the two cultures through the pages of books.