E-books and new mediums, a threat to book distribution?
Nowadays, almost everybody has internet access. There are social networks, e-books, etc. Amongst all of this, physical books may look increasingly old-fashioned and inefficient. Why then are we still pushing book distribution instead of focussing on e-books and other new mediums?
Naturally, devotees who have talents for electronic preaching and the ability to present the philosophy in such a way that millions of people will share on Facebook or watch on Youtube, should go for it and use their talents for Krsna. As Srila Prabhupada wrote in a letter to Bhagavan dasa (24 November 1970):
“So go on with your organization for distribution of my books through press and other modern media and Krsna will certainly be pleased upon you. We can use everything -- television, radio, movies, or whatever there may be -- to tell about Krsna and outside of devotional service all these modern paraphernalia are just so much rubbish”.
One example is HG Audarya Dhama Prabhu who is attracting thousands of new people in Russia and other countries through his audio and video classes. By using his special talent for Krsna, he is being hugely successful in attracting new people to Krsna consciousness.
Still, there are many reasons to uphold the fact that books continue to be the most fundamental part of our preaching. Despite the increase of the popularity of e-books, 2015 was the biggest year in book distribution in ISKCON (highest score in book points) since 1979, and 2018 was the second biggest.
People are still eager to buy and read books. My impression is that the difficulties we face in many countries with book distribution have much more to do with the general advancement of consumerism and general degradation of social values than it has to do with e-books.
People are becoming increasingly stressed, unhealthy, impersonal and unhappy. It is not a surprise that approaching people, especially in the most "developed" countries, can be a challenge, but the problem is not in our books, it’s the current environment. During my travellings, I frequently visit small cities where people still have a simple mentality and take books fairly easily.
The truth is that new mediums, like social networks and most other electronic communication tools, are suitable to deliver small amounts of information at a time. Since there is so much to see, people’s attention is short and rarely they are interested in reading more than a few paragraphs. Such platforms are useful to spread short quotes, eye-catching photos and other attractive short presentations that can make people a little bit aware about spiritual life, but not to really transform anybody into a devotee. In other words, it can be used to give a little bit to many, reaching thousands of people, but at the same time limited in essence on how much change it can provoke in each person’s consciousness.
When it comes to delivering a profound message that can change one’s life, convincing him to abandon his futile attempts to enjoy in this material world and instead surrender to Krsna, so far nobody has invented anything more effective than books. Only a book can hold a person’s attention long enough to really make a considerable impact in his life. Videos, seminars and audio classes can also play an important role, but only devotees who have special talents will be able to do some tangible service in this direction. For most devotees, the best way to preach and make new devotees is through book distribution.
Many people tend to use e-books as an excuse not to buy our books, just like when they say that they don't have money or have only a credit card, but you should bear in mind that in most cases it is just an excuse. Anyway, our books are available electronically on websites like the vedabase.com and bbtmedia.com. When you see someone who really wants e-books, you can just give him a card with the address where they are available, and continue giving physical books to the others. It’s also possible to use e-books as a complement to the printed books. The North European BBT, for example, prints books including a redemption code, that allows the buyer to download the electronic version of the book for free from the BBT website when he buys the printed edition. Devotees use this in their presentation, and when someone prefers an e-book, they just convince him to take the printed book, use the redemption code to download the electronic edition and then give the printed copy to a friend, making the distribution in such cases double as effective.
Still, we can see that Srila Prabhupada's e-books tend to be more popular amongst devotees, who appreciate the convenience of having all his books on a tablet, but not so popular with new readers. One of the reasons is that most people need a "push" to really start reading one of Srila Prabhupada's books. They need to physically meet a devotee and be inspired by him to take a book. Without this personal interaction, it is very difficult to light the fire inside one's heart.
Despite what it may look like from the outside, book distribution (when properly done) is actually quite an esoteric process which involves bypassing the material coverings (including the senses, mind, intelligence, and ego), and contacting the spirit soul inside the body. It’s rather difficult to do that without some face-to-face interaction. Our whole philosophy is based on personal interaction, and it’s not surprising that book distribution is also highly dependent on that.
Books are always going to be special because they create a situation where a person can have physical contact with the Lord in His literary incarnation and for a few hours be fully concentrated on reading and receiving the philosophy. Even if a person just puts the book on the shelf, it will stay there emanating spiritual energy and benefiting the inhabitants, until the bomb explodes and someone reads the book and becomes a devotee.
"Many fanatic spiritual movements have come and gone, but without the flawless philosophy of Krishna, they cannot stand. Therefore I want especially that my books and literature should be distributed profusely. This is our substance, real philosophical information, not some weak sentiments. So try for this, to give all men this Krishna philosophy, and many real devotees will come with us back to Home, back to Godhead." (Srila Prabhupada, letter to Lalita Kumar, 27 November 1971)
Each of our books is like an installed deity. You don’t need to invite the Lord to descend in that particular form (like you do when installing a deity) because He is already there. However, these books are not like Radha and Krsna deities Who take offence when you don't worship properly -- They are Gaura Nitai deities, expansions of Lord Caitanya and Lord Nityananda. As Srila Prabhupada said to HH Tamal Krsna Maharaja, "Lord Caitanya is so merciful, He can even enter the house of a meat-eater and not take offence". In this form, the Lord is worshiped not by puja, but by reading. As Krsna says in the Bhagavad-gita (18.70), "he who studies this sacred conversation of ours worships Me by his intelligence". In this way, just by keeping a book on his shelf and reading it a little now and then, a person gets the merit of keeping and worshiping a deity of the Lord.
Lord Krsna explains in the Bhagavad-gita (2.40) that "In this endeavor there is no loss or diminution, and a little advancement on this path can protect one from the most dangerous type of fear", which means that even if such a person doesn't become a devotee in this life, Krsna will never forget: He will make arrangements so that he can continue advancing, up to the point of becoming a pure devotee and going back to Godhead. Taking a book becomes a turning point in the journey of such a jiva, that instead of going to hell and then being imprisoned an animal body, remaining covered by the mode of ignorance for countless lives, gets the chance of starting his path back home.
Even for us, devotees, having a full set of Srila Prabhupada’s books in our houses has a much different effect than just having digital books on our tablets or phones. By seeing and touching the books one naturally becomes attracted and develops the desire to read them. And when we read a physical book, there is a more profound effect on our consciousness: the philosophy enters much deeper in the heart. For non-devotees, the difference is even more dramatic. If we could somehow convince everybody to keep a full set of Srila Prabhupada’s books in their shelves, we would not have problems to convert the whole world to Krsna consciousness.
The fact that a person pays something for the book is also very important because to pay something means to give an offering, to offer some service, which is the prescribed way to inquire about spiritual knowledge. Just by giving a donation and taking a book back home a person gets a lot of sukriti, which will help him to understand the book and accept the philosophy. E-books are a valuable tool for devotees and for follow-up preaching, especially for people who don’t live close to a temple and consequently have much of their Vaishnava association based on electronic means; yet, physical books are still the decisive factor for attracting new people. As Srila Prabhupada reveals in a letter to his German disciples (6 May 1977):
“Be assured that there is no more direct way to preach than to distribute Krishna conscious books. Whoever gets a book is benefited. If he reads the book he is benefited still more, or if he gives the book to someone else for reading, both he and the other person is benefited. Even if one does not read the book but simply holds it and sees it, he is benefited. If he simply gives small donation towards the work of Krishna consciousness he is benefited. And anyone who distributes these transcendental literatures, he is also benefited. Therefore Sankirtana is the prime benediction for the age”.
Also, it's important to understand that in the greater context, taking the whole 10,000 year period that the sankirtana movement will be present on Earth, all this technological and consumer environment that we have nowadays is just a temporary phenomenon. The whole consumeristic model is based on the exploitation of natural resources, especially oil, and it depends on the presence of a huge population living in big cities and a complex transportation system. As the oil and other natural resources dwindle, this environment will start to disintegrate, and people will be forced to go back to a more simple lifestyle, like at the beginning of the 20th century. Food production especially will become more difficult, without the abundance of machines, fuel, chemical herbicides and fertilizers (which also come from oil), forcing more and more people to return to land cultivation. Without cheap raw materials and fuel, production will be drastically reduced and become more focussed on tools and essential products, instead of consumer goods. Books, on the other hand, are always going to be there, and people will continue to read them and derive spiritual benefit. That's one of the reasons Srila Prabhupada used to emphasize more the distribution of big hardcover books, since they are more durable and tend to be passed on to the next generations.
Not that we shouldn’t explore new mediums: as devotees, we should be eager to use every opportunity to present Krsna consciousness. At the same time, we should see things in the proper context. Social networks, e-books, and other modern mediums should be explored. Especially devotees who already have the training and already spend a lot of time in front of computers can be engaged, and whatever is giving results should continue. At the same time, book distribution also has to always increase -- it is our family business, as defined by Srila Prabhupada.
HH Bhakti Charu Swami: The instructions of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu are the most important message for this world, and they have been presented in a most systematic and scientific way by Srila Prabhupada. The world is facing immense degradation, which is leading to inconceivable misery. The only solution to this problem is Krsna consciousness. Therefore, the distribution of Srila Prabhupada’s books is of the utmost importance. From our own practical experience, we have seen how Srila Prabhupada’s books have transformed our lives and freed us from the miserable influence of the Age of Kali. This individual effect, if applied in a larger sphere, can grant inconceivable collective results. It is therefore essential that the entire world has the opportunity to receive the mercy of Srila Prabhupada, and the most effective way to deliver it is through Srila Prabhupada’s books.
In Vrindavana in 1977, when Srila Prabhupada was enacting his final pastimes, he appeared very sick. For weeks on end he would eat practically nothing. Only once in a while would he take a little fruit juice or diluted milk. But Tamal Krsna Maharaja, who was Srila Prabhupada’s secretary at that time, used to read him the letters various devotees had written to him. Srila Prabhupada would become very enlivened with the news of book distribution. During this time he said that profuse distribution of his books “gives me life.” Tamal Krsna Maharaja wrote to all the devotees in all the temples of the world about how the news of book distribution was giving life to Srila Prabhupada. And so to show their love for Srila Prabhupada the devotees started to distribute books with renewed enthusiasm and dedication.
In this way I personally saw how dear book distribution was to Srila Prabhupada. You can be sure that for him book distribution was the most important preaching work. He knew that through book distribution the Krsna consciousness movement would spread. Srila Prabhupada’s main concern was that this movement spread and that people take to Krsna consciousness and become part of this movement. Therefore it is very enlivening to see how the devotees, to display their love for Srila Prabhupada and their loyalty to him, are continuing to distribute his books. (The Treasure of the Brhat-mrdanga, Ch. 10)