Big Time Book Distribution – The End of an Era,
or the Beginning of Another?
BY: DHARMAPAD DAS
Jan 14, 2011 BRAZIL (SUN)
In the West, ISKCON has always been defined by its tradition of book distribution, and the heyday of the Hare Krishna Movement has always been considered to be those times back in the 1970s and 1980s when book distribution was at its height. Those times are over now, but the best is yet to come (or should be). And how could this come about?
The era of electronic books arrived a little while ago, to tell the truth. It is not exactly a new phenomenon. Entire books have been posted on websites, and book compendiums have been available of CDs.
But when we think of reading a book, we don't exactly think of sitting down at the computer screen and hunching over a desk. To this day, when I want to do some reading, I often save it for the evening time, and I get all nice and cozy in my armchair and turn on the lamp just right. Most people do like this. Whether or not you read the book from a CD or a website, how do you bring the computer screen over to your cozy armchair or sofa? Even laptops are still a bit unwieldy.
There is, however, a new development under the Sun.
Just as an example of the genre, Amazon. has a family of reading appliances called Kindle. They are the size of a book, and very practical and handy (No, I am not an Amazon salesperson!). They are the kind of appliance that a person could cuddle up in a chair with. They can hold several books at a time, and a whole library of books can be stored on a person's PC, transferable at a moment's notice. They are completely portable. This type of appliance is beginning to radically transform people's reading habits. I have even heard tell that the New York Times has spoken of going to an all electronic format one day, and leaving hard copy newspapers behind as a thing of the past.
For ISKCON, whose main focus has always been Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada's books, this portends dramatic changes. Can the reader imagine what the implications of electronic book distribution are? First of all, production costs would be near zero, and so would distribution costs. And the penetration of distribution would be something undreamed of, as well as the speed of distribution. Now, what about the quantity of distribution? All of Srila Prabhupada Bhaktivedanta's books would be available at a keystroke. The download might take a few minutes, but the time would come shortly, if it isn't already here, when the download time would be measurable in seconds.
What if we were to go way, way, way back in time in Dr. Peabody's time machine and set the dial to the 1920s, and inform His Divine Grace Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur that we were/are prepared to distribute the Bhagavat Gita, Chaitanya-caritamrita, the Srimad Bhagavatam, the Bhakti-rasamrita Sindhu and his Brahma Samhita to a billion or so recipients on the planet, and in short order. I would dare to say that His Divine Grace might have fallen off of his Vyasasana if he had heard that one! His Divine Grace gave so much emphasis to the Brihat Mridunga, the printing press, but the scope and penetration of electronic book distribution is light years ahead of anything that he might have imagined (or maybe not).
And what about His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada? Our Srila Prabhupada wanted so much to distribute books on the order of his Spiritual Master. If we could finally break through and distribute books in PDF files and downloads to a billion or two recipients, then he might even stop rolling over in his grave and rest in peace (figuratively speaking).
There has been some debate out and about on the durability of printed books compared to the durability of a CD. A printed book can last decades and even more, depending on how much it is used and handled. To tell the truth, information stored on CDs and hard drives can degrade with the passage of a few decades, but it can also be completely renewed with a few keystrokes; not bad at all.
This really wouldn't even have to stop the production and distribution of printed books, either. The distribution of electronic books could prime the pump so that people might seek out the printed book. Dictionaries are posted online in the hopes of having people try them out and become accustomed to them, such that people will then go out and buy them. Theoretically, book distribution could even increase over time.
ISKCON has acquired such a bad name in the West because of intrusive book distribution tactics. If the books were to be profusely distributed electronically, then ISKCON could go back to cultivating the heart and mind of the public.
The flabbergasting potential and impact of such widespread book distribution makes it worthwhile to simply give them away; charging would actually get in the way of the flow of distribution. Things could become like they were in the days before big time book distribution when the devotees would go to a park and spread out a quilt and engage in chanting. Business cards could be passed out without charging with the local center's address and the url for a free book download. It might be argued that a donation should be requested of people so that they might be engaged in devotional service, but if people are cultivated nicely, they will come to engage in service at one point or another. Back when there were practically no books to be distributed, plenty of devotees were cultivated through chanting parties.
ISKCON is at the point now where it can be supported by congregation members and the Indian/Hindu community. Now, if the books don't have to be distributed through individual sales anymore, then the alienation of the public, and especially of its own members because of the pressure to distribute books, can become a thing of the past.
But there isn't an unlimited amount of time to ponder the merits of electronic distribution and free downloads. There is speculation out there that the Internet as we know it may have its days numbered. There may be charging and fees associated with Internet use with an eye towards censorship, perhaps a tax on the number and size of e-mails and downloads, something along these lines. And there are war clouds on the horizon. This would certainly usher in limitations; rationing and the like. If we wait any length of time at all, the window of opportunity could close.
The days of big time book distribution were ushered in by Keshava Prabhu, Yogis Chandra, Buddhimanta and the entire San Francisco temple, circa 1973. Following in the footsteps of those prabhus, and in their same pioneering spirit of originality, let's have the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust/BBT leaders make Srila Prabhupada's books available in the form of unlimited, free downloads and PDF files. It might be prudent to start with at least one sample book, an important one such as The Bhagavad-gita.
The time is now, and the devotee and Indian/Hindu community at large should let the BBT know what their feelings on the matter are. We, the assembled devotees, have to make an effort to make it happen!
If the past is prologue, then let ISKCON's book distribution past become its electronic prologue!
By Dharmapad das / Dean Dominic De Lucia
Books by Dharmapad: HiddenMysteries.com