The Malta Independent 13 November 2018, Tuesday

The Publishing wizard

Malta Independent Sunday, 31 January 2010, 00:00 Last update: about 5 years ago

Merlin Books have cause to celebrate after winning a string of prizes at last week’s National Book Prize. Josanne Cassar meets publisher CHRIS GRUPPETTA to talk about the new generation of writers and the resurgence of the Maltese book

I’ve only really “spoken” to Chris Gruppetta via Facebook, but we immediately fall into easy conversation when we finally meet face to face to speak about the prizes which Merlin Books have scooped up at this year’s awards for books published in 2008. (The awards should have been held in December, but they had to be postponed.)

With five first prizes and three second prizes going to his publishing house, Chris is, understandably, one happy man.

“We won a prize in each and every category we submitted a book for. I’m extremely pleased for Mark Scicluna, a young illustrator whom we ‘discovered’. He won a prize for illustrating his very first book Meta l-Milied ma Giex, written by Clare Azzopardi, which also won first prize in the literary prose for children category. This is the first time that someone just starting out was recognised in this way.”

Merlin have a knack for unearthing new talent, and a look at the winners reads like a who’s who of Malta’s new generation of writers: Clare Azzopardi, Lisa Falzon, Simon Bartolo and Loranne Vella. But they are also proud to have on their books someone like Trevor Zahra, who placed second for both his novel Il-Hajja sigrieta tan-Nanna Genoveffa and his autobiography Il-Genn li jzommni f’sikkti.

When I ask Chris which of the prizes was the most unexpected, he doesn’t have to think twice: Wied Wirdien (Bartolo/Vella).

“This is the second part of Fiddien, an adventure trilogy aimed at adolescents. When the first part Sqaq l-Infern came out in 2007 we were surprised that it didn’t win anything in last year’s awards because it had done so well in terms of sales. So we weren’t really expecting that the second part would win this time.”

A cursory look at the adjudicating panel in each category reveals several familiar names who have been published by Merlin.

Chris smiles – he can see where I’m going with this:

“That can work both ways. There are also several judges whose manuscripts were rejected by Merlin. However, we have no idea who the judges are going to be and it was only when I opened the booklet on awards night that I saw the names. What worries me most to be honest is not that a judge might be biased for or against you, for personal reasons. What concerns me more is that in publishing there are two trends of thought – you are either very elitist or you believe in books which are popular. Unashamedly, I admit that I see nothing wrong with a book being popular, or ‘for the masses’ – so what? As long as it’s written well and it gets people, especially kids, reading, it’s a good thing. We are always saying that people don’t read books in Maltese and we hold conferences and seminars and so on… but instead of just blaming the people, could it be that the books are not attractive enough? People complain that Maltese books are ugly, and to be honest I used to look at a Maltese book next to an English book, and realise they’re right.”

On the other hand, I tell him that from the last book fair I got a completely different impression. There seems to be a whole new wave of readers actively searching for books in Maltese, helped in no small measure by a group of young writers who are producing some very good contemporary literature. I also find it curiously interesting that many of these writers who write so well about “their” Malta in very readable, colloquial Maltese, are actually based overseas.

Chris is nodding in agreement, “one of my most important working tools is Skype because many of my authors live abroad. And yet, they are writing some of the best Maltese language books around. The way I explain it is that they feel it is a way of staying connected to their country. In fact, by leaving Malta they have improved. Pierre Mielak has been writing since he was 15, and yet when you read what he is writing now, there’s no comparison. When he used to live in Malta you could tell he was a good writer but he’d write about the usual stuff – since he’s been away, all the new influences have seeped into his writing.”

Although they have now branched into adult fiction, Merlin still pride themselves on being primarily a publication house for children’s books. Even here, however, they have tried to push the envelope, not only through innovative content which reaches out to adolescents, but also by presenting the books themselves in a polished, creative way. With a talented designer such as Pierre Portelli on board, each book is like a work of art. Their book launches are mini events – as anyone who has been to a launch of the Fiddien trilogy can testify. For the first book, for example, they held a treasure hunt with clues taken from the book.

Mention the idea of one of these books being used in the national curriculum, however, and Chris almost shudders. “One sure way to kill a book is to dissect it and analyse it as a text,” he points out.

The publisher’s role, Chris explains, is very similar to that of a producer in a film. He works with the author, illustrator, editor and designer and brings them all together until they come out with the finished product: the book. It is at the marketing stage, however, that Chris really comes into his own. With his background as a lawyer and a Masters in publishing, he seems to drift effortlessly between logical thinking and a creative flair.

“I love it! Part of our endless production team meetings is spent on discussing how we can make our book launches more fun.”

Because there is no such thing as a literary agent or a professional reader in Malta, another part of Chris’s job is that of reading all the manuscripts which land on his desk.

“The easiest ones to decide on are either the really, really bad ones or the bloody good ones. The most difficult ones are the in-betweens – those which could be good with a bit of editing, or what is worse, which are good but which I don’t know how to market. At the end we are a commercial company, so I have to be able to sell it.”

One area which is still relatively new in publishing is the role of a good editor – “abroad, authors take it for granted that their books will be edited, but here there is still some resistance to it, especially among established writers. For example, a book which I really enjoyed was Alfred Sant’s L-Ghalqa ta’ l-Iskarjota (not published by me) and yet, it could definitely have used an editor. This is someone who would point out places where a paragraph is a bit dragging, or a sentence which is not clear enough”.

While the output of Maltese literature is encouraging, Chris still feels that there are too many authors concentrating on short stories.

“People prefer novels – this is true the world over not just here – so I keep telling them, stop writing short stories, otherwise, you can’t complain that people don’t read enough books in Maltese. Look at Guze Stagno’s Ramon u z-Zerbinotti, his third novel, which has just gone into its second print run – that shows how well it has been received.”

While this has been a good year for Merlin, Chris still feels that the book awards themselves could use with a bit of a makeover.

“This is the only acknowledgement there is for us in the industry, so we definitely want them to continue. But if we want it to be an elitist evening for the chosen few, fine, we’ll keep it like it is, held as a formal event at Castille with a power point presentation and the Prime Minister handing out the prizes. But how many people knew that the awards were held, how many care? If we want it to be reported in the papers we need to make it entertaining. In the UK, for example, the book awards are a glitzy affair with a red carpet and each publishing house is seated at its own table. But imagine someone who doesn’t like reading coming across our awards ceremony on Education 22, for which it was filmed – it will put him off Maltese books for life!”

NATIONAL BOOK AWARDS (2008)

Short stories and novels in Maltese

First Prize

Bronk Productions

Javier Vella Sammut (n.d.p), Xandru Mizzewweg u Gay

Second Prize

Merlin Library Ltd

T. Zahra, Il-Hajja Sigrieta tan-Nanna Genoveffa

Short stories and novels in other languages

Allied Publications

P. Grech, Dead End

Non-Fiction in Maltese or other languages

First Prize

Klabb Kotba Maltin

O. Friggieri, Fjuri li ma Jinxfux

Second Prize

Merlin Library Ltd

T. Zahra, Il-Genn li jzommni f’sikkti

Non-Fiction: Books of a religious nature

in Maltese of other languages

A. Sammut, Santa Liena Imperatrici Awgusta

Textbooks

M. Debono, A Miracol Mostrare, Merlin Library Ltd

Poetry in Maltese

First Prize

PIN

J. Sciberras, Gabra ta’ leggendi

Second Prize

C. Bezzina, Meta siket il-bahar

Research of a biographical and historical nature

First Prize

PIN

J. Muscat, Sails Round Malta

Second Prize

Gutenberg Press

W. Zammit, Printing in Malta

General research in Maltese or other languages

First Prize

Malta University Press

C. Briffa, Il-Letteratura Maltija

Second Prize

Allied Publications

R. Vella, Cross Currents: Critical essays on Art and Culture in Malta

Literary Prose for children

First Prize

Merlin Library Ltd

C. Azzopardi, Meta l-Milied ma Giex

Second Prize

Wise Owl

N. Portelli, Lilla Mormija Barra

Prose for Adolescents

First Prize

Merlin Library Ltd

S. Bartolo u L. Vella, Wied Wirdien

Second Prize

Merlin Library Ltd

L. Falzon, Xi Mkien Iehor

Non-fiction for children and adolescents

PIN

A. Sammut, Il-Fjuri

Translations and Books in another language

for children and adolescents

Uptrend Publishing Ltd

F. Attard, Milly Molly il-Bandli

Prize for the book in Maltese with the best presentation

X’imkien Iehor, Merlin Library

Prize for the book in another language with the best presentation

Antique Collecting in Malta, Midsea Books

Best illustrator for children’s books

Mark Scicluna

Special Prize for Translation

Klabb Kotba Maltin

Victor Fenech Il-Profeta

Prize for Creativity

Adrian Grima and Immanuel Mifsud

Rih min-Nofsinhar

Special Lifetime Achievement Prize

Pawlu Mizzi

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