Every activity in this world has a but attached to it and book distribution is no exception. The reason for unavoidable downsides to every endeavor is very simple – we all want different things.
It’s fine to say that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander but it never works in real life, or we wouldn’t need this saying in the first place. I mean we can make a conscious effort to comply with logic of this statement but it still doesn’t *feel* the same not matter what logic says.
What is good for one purpose, therefore, is not so good for another, and so we shouldn’t be judgmental when people do strange things from our POV because it might suit THEM perfectly. Therefore Kṛṣṇa says that one should neither praise nor criticize activities of others (SB 11.28.1). Despite the apparent difference, it’s one and the same material nature acting uniformly, according to another translation of that verse.
Still, in the conditioned state we can’t avoid having different perspectives but there’s a but for this statement, too – if we take fully Kṛṣṇa conscious POV then differences disappear. This is how we are supposed to unite around ISKCON despite our external disagreements. From this perspective, book distribution is absolutely perfect, especially if done the way Śrila Prabhupāda taught us.
Just think about it – it serves all our needs in every respect. Spiritually it’s a pinnacle of saṅkīrtana because it introduces formerly lost souls to Kṛṣṇa’s service. Materially it enables us to maintain and support our movement. Also materially, it engages all our senses in active service and thus fully shields us from the influence of māyā.
Those who have tried it know that there’s no substitute for book distribution, nothing will ever taste the same and nothing will ever taste better, at least not in this world.
It takes less than five minutes to realize that we are not the doers and neither we are enjoyers of our actions, it all happens strictly by the will of the Lord. Any idea that we can control anything here disappears in about an hour. Place, time, circumstances, people we meet, words we say, choices we make, donations they give – nothing is in our control, we have to surrender ourselves completely, one hundred percent, and without any reservations.
Then the mercy starts flowing. There cannot be any better feeling in this world than being instruments in Kṛṣṇa’s hands, but that is not all yet. With a bit of experience we realize that even this mercy isn’t exactly Kṛsṇa’s. We are too far removed from Him to claim He engages with us directly, and this is also obviously not the case as He doesn’t appear in His personal form.
The mercy flows to us through our guru, he is the only source of our power and it’s only by his grace that we get Kṛṣṇa’s attention and material nature starts moving for Kṛṣṇa’s supreme pleasure – saṅkīrtana. We also get to see the power of paramparā – from our guru up to Lord Nityānanda. He is the source of the ability to preach and glorify the Lord, t all happens only by His power, and when He gets involved, Lord Caitanya starts to appreciate our efforts.
There’s still more to it – Lord Caitanya is also Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī and by His grace we finally get the opportunity to please Her, which is our ideal position as followers of Rūpa Gosvāmī. I don’t know much about that, though, but what we all can learn very fast is value of the full surrender to the lotus feet of our guru. That is immediately open to everyone who takes a book and offers it to others.
Of course sometimes it doesn’t feel like anything special but if we take book distribution seriously Kṛṣṇa will very soon put us in the position where we start seeing all those things, for real, not just in theory.
What can I say? It’s absolutely perfect, yet there’s always a but, and it comes from having ulterior motives. I have a couple of examples in mind here.
First, is that book distribution is only a method, a tool, a stage, and this means that it should lead to something better and more advanced. One way this attitude could manifest is when we rely on book distribution to build a society and a temple, and then give it up and have members pay for our maintenance instead.
It is perfectly possible to develop this way, every religious tradition eventually learns to live off the congregation, including ISKCON, but I don’t see people being nearly as ecstatic in this position as they were when they depended solely on preaching. It just doesn’t feel better. When ISKCON devotees first went to India and saw Gaudīyā Maṭhas they immediately felt the difference, it’s as if life was sucked out of temples like that. Well, humans get used to everything and eventually many of us settled for non-preaching, too.
Another way ulterior motives manifest is more subtle, I bet most of us are not even aware of it. We assume that books are meant to be sold. It’s true, of course, we need people to make voluntary donations, it’s their sacrifice to Kṛṣṇa since they don’t know how to properly serve Him yet. It is also true that if they pay good money for our books they come to appreciate them more, Śrila Prabupāda explained this to us right from the start. We are not Christians leaving their Bibles everywhere as if they have no value whatsoever.
Still, money should not be involved in preaching. It’s only a temporary substitute for those who don’t know better, for those who do not really understand the value of listening to devotees praise of Kṛṣṇa. Since money is the most valuable thing for them, we take that instead. Still, saṅkīrtana is congregational chanting, not congregational chanting for money.
What is good when preaching to ordinary people is not necessarily good when preaching to devotees, or performing saṅkīrtana with other devotees. We do not charge for having a kīrtana together. We do not charge for sitting on Bhāgavatam class, we do not charge for our association, yet we think it’s okay to charge for books, and I mean books meant strictly for devotee consumption, not for outsiders.
It’s demeaning to devotees we give these books to because we assume that they don’t know their value and so we take their money instead. It would be wrong to think that you *bought* a book, too – no one can buy anything spiritual. If you want to share some spiritual topics with people you should not charge them for that. It becomes similar to much criticized Bhāgavata Saptaha. Śrila Prabhupāda said that if there’s exchange of money in reading Bhāgavatam there’s no exchange of devotion, it’s becomes useless and poisoned. In Nectar of Instruction there’s a famous verse (NOI 4) describing loving exchanges between devotees and none of those involves money. There’s giving gifts but no selling things
One could say that publishing books requires a lot of effort and materials and those do not come cheap, there are costs involved. That is true but I would posit that it’s better to find sponsors to publish books the way people find sponsors to build temples, and then give books away for free just as temples do not have cover charges. If we start charging for books then instead of sponsors we’ll have investors and instead of preaching we’ll have business. Similarly, Śrila Prabhupāda condemned priests who charge people to see the Deities.
What are books anyway? It’s just a vessel to record the knowledge we want to share. Before Kali Yuga such vessels were not needed, and with the spread of the Internet electronic copies are practically free to make and distribute. What’s there to charge for? Computer and Internet access needed to type up the book? Personal maintenance? I’m not sure these things need to be invested in and recouped by sales afterwards. I don’t know of any devotional book that could be considered a financial success anyway, not unless they are meant for general public and distributed by saṅkīrtana devotees.
This is not to say that every author in our movement has ulterior motives, this just an awareness exercise. As I said in the beginning – what we see as bad from our position might not look the same for others, we shouldn’t be judgmental. However, the ease with which devotees produce books and put them up on Amazon suggests that awareness is not always there. Lack of awareness is a dangerous thing, it means ignorance, it means space for anarthas to hide in deep recesses of our hearts, and we don’t want that.
Actually, I could also say that we write books for other devotees because we forget that there are billions of people out there who need to be introduced to Kṛṣṇa or we consider their fate as less important than our desire to share whatever pops up into our minds, ie we deviate from saṅkīrtana mission and indulge in self gratification.
Ideally, our only business in this world should be saṅkīrtana, everything else is not important.