How book distribution started in ISKCON
In the very early days of ISKCON, there was almost no book distribution. There was only Srila Prabhupada, personally selling the few copies of the first canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam that he brought from India. In October 1966, he obtained two second-hand mimeograph machines, that allowed devotees to print the first Back to Godhead magazines in the west, as described in the Lilamrta:
“Downstairs, the printing of the first issue had been going on for hours. Raya Rama had typed the stencils, and during the printing he had stood nervously over the machine, examining the printing quality of each page, stroking his beard, and murmuring, "Hmmmmm." Now it was time to collate and staple each magazine. The stencils had lasted for one hundred copies, and one hundred copies of each of the twenty-eight pages and the front and back covers were now lined up along two of the unvarnished benches Raphael had made that summer. A few devotees collated and stapled the magazine in an assembly line, walking along the stacks of pages, taking one page under another until they reached the end of the bench and gave the assembled stack of pages to Gargamuni, who stood brushing his long hair out of his eyes, stapling each magazine with the stapler and staples Brahmananda had brought from his Board of Education office. Even Hayagriva, who usually didn't volunteer for menial duties, was there, walking down the line, collating.” (Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta, vol.2, ch. 21)
Despite the historical significance, these first numbers of Back to Godhead had a very limited reach, since only one hundred copies of each were printed (the mimeograph was a very clumsy copying technology, not suitable to print in high-volume). At the time, the main preaching method was to chant in the streets. In many cases, devotees would do harinama for up to eight or ten hours a day, and maintain themselves with donations from the people. In these early days, “to go on sankirtana” meant to chant in the streets. Later, the distribution of books started to increase, and gradually it became the main preaching activity. As Srila Prabhupada points out, his books are “spoken kirtanas”.
“Book distribution is also chanting. These books I have recorded and chanted and they are transcribed. It is spoken kirtanas. So book distribution is also chanting. These are not ordinary books. It is recorded chanting. Anyone who reads, he is hearing. Book distribution must not be neglected”. (Srila Prabhupada, letter to Rupanuga, 19 October 1974)
Srila Prabhupada had received this order from his spiritual master and upon arriving to the West he started to impart it to his disciples. The first time that Srila Prabhupada saw his guru maharaja, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura suggested that being an educated boy, he should preach the message of Lord Caitanya in English; but it was in 1935, at Radha-kunda that the direct order came: “If you ever get money, print books”. Srila Prabhupada comments that before leaving this world, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura was disgusted by seeing his disciples fighting over the best rooms at the Bagbazar temple:
Srila Prabhupada: I like very much to receive the report of my book sales. I think it also gives encouragement to the devotees who distribute the books. Here at Mayapur my Guru Maharaj was printing one paper. It was selling for only a few paise. Sometimes whenever one brahmacari would go to Navadvipa and sell even a few copies, I would see my guru maharaj become very much pleased. Even if the brahmacari was not a very important member, my guru maharaj would become very, very pleased with him. He personally instructed me that books are more important than big temples. At Radha Kunda he told me that since constructing the big marble temple at Bagbazar, there have been so many difficulties. Our men are envious over who will live in which room. I think it would be better to take off all the marble and sell it and print books. He told me this personally. So I am always emphasizing book distribution. It is the better kirtana. It is better than chanting. Of course chanting should not stop, but book distribution is the best kirtana. (Letter to Srutadeva, 24 October 1974)
“So I took up this from his mouth, that he is very fond of books. And he told me personally that "If you get some money, print books." Therefore I am stressing on this point: "Where is book? Where is book? Where is book?" So kindly help me. This is my request. Print as many books in as many languages and distribute throughout the whole world. Then Krishna consciousness movement will automatically increase”. (Arrival address, Los Angeles, 20 June 1975)
At first, as a family man in India, Srila Prabhupada was focussing his efforts on printing his Back to Godhead magazines. When one librarian friend called his attention to the fact that most people don’t keep magazines after reading them, recommending that he should start to print books instead, Srila Prabhupada took it as an instruction from the Supersoul and started working on his commentary on Srimad Bhagavatam.
Srila Prabhupada single-handedly published the first three volumes of the Srimad Bhagavatam in India and brought 200 sets with him to the west. He was personally selling these books little by little, using the small income to maintain himself. At the same time, he was working on more books.
For Srila Prabhupada, to publish these first new volumes in the United States was not less heroic than his struggle to publish his books in India. But still, when boxes with thousands of hardcover copies of Teachings of Lord Caitanya and Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead printed at Dai Nippon (as well as copies of the Bhagavad-Gita as It Is, printed by Macmillan Company) arrived to the temples, the devotees didn’t have any idea about how to distribute them.
HG Mahatma Prabhu: At this time there is no big book distribution in ISKCON. Although temples occasionally sell big books at the Sunday Feast, no one thinks it’s possible to sell big books on the street. We distribute Back to Godhead magazines for 25 cents, and although we have small books, we don’t bring them because we think they are too expensive to sell (we have to get 50 cents for them).
I have never been one to be happy with the status quo (although sometimes that gets me into trouble) and I begin thinking that we should try to distribute the hardbound Krsna Books that have recently been published. This is such a big way of thinking that it’s difficult for any of us to take it seriously – myself included – since Krsna Books sell for $8 and we are scared to ask for 50 cents for a small book. Yet on Thanksgiving Day we decide to go door to door and bring Krsna Books along with our magazines. We figure it will be fun and exciting to show people the book and the pictures – and that alone will be our reward for our boldness. Of course, we know there might be a remote possibility of selling a Krsna Book, but we don’t expect it. Yet we are excited about trying to “shoot the rhinoceros.” So off we go.
As we go house to house we feel blissful and enlivened showing the Krsna Book to everyone. After an hour we return to the van as planned. As the last devotee approaches he yells from a distance, “I had a major unforeseen accident.” We have no idea what he is talking about, but the huge smile on his face makes us suspect the impossible might have happened. “I just sold a Krsna Book!” he screams wildly.
We’re in total shock. Our whole world turns upside down. We go crazy. We bang the walls of the van; we yell; we laugh. The impossible has just happened. (Article: The Hidden History of Big Book Distribution)
Then, in 1971, the first stories about the distribution of big books started to circulate. One devotee distributed a Krsna Book at a gas station in exchange for gasoline, another distributed two in a shopping mall, another distributed a few going door to door, someone else by stopping people in front of a department store, and so on. Srila Prabhupada was encouraging devotees to distribute big books for a long time, and when they saw that it was indeed possible, a new fever started in ISKCON. Whoever distributed a few hardcover books would become completely ecstatic, experiencing a burst of bliss and euphoria which didn’t have a material counterpart. Gradually, Krsna started revealing newer and better ways to distribute books. In a short period, the distribution grew to the point where there were cases of devotees distributing hundreds of big books per day.
“This, our book distribution is the most important task in our society. Therefore I am giving so much stress and I am working so hard on this. Because this is my life and soul according to the order of my Guru Maharaja. And by his grace it is to some extent successful. And I took it seriously. I take it seriously still now. That is my life and soul. I never tried in India to construct big temples or even in your country we didn’t. I never tried. But I was selling personally books. That is the history. Sometimes they are criticizing, “What kind of sannyasi? He is doing book business.” (laughs)” (Srila Prabhupada, Room Conversation, Bombay, 31 December 1976)
According to different memories of his disciples, Srila Prabhupada was not so much concerned with the development of techniques for book distribution, being more concerned that devotees would follow spiritual life seriously and thus develop purity and empowerment to preach. To distribute Krsna consciousness, we have to be determined about it ourselves. By being serious and firmly convinced about the applicability and benefits of Krsna consciousness in all spheres of life, we will be able to convince others.
“It is the mission of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu to act Himself and teach the people. He says, apani acari’ bhakti karila pracaara (Cc. Adi 4.41). One must first act himself and then teach. This is the function of a real teacher. Unless one is able to understand the philosophy that he speaks, it will not be effective. Therefore one should not only understand the philosophy of the Caitanya cult but also implement it practically in one’s life”. (Cc. Adi 9.51, purport)