We can discuss a lot of different aspects of two schools of book distribution in our society, one of them is sales techniques. Everybody uses them and everyone needs to know them, especially the beginners. Their overall value also need to be put in perspective, they are not substitutes for Lord Caitanya’s mercy.
Both schools of saṅkīrtana eventually died. In the US the Radha Damodara Traveling Sankirtan Party was a leading light and once it was wound up the rest of ISKCON followed. RDTSP had lots of problems from the get go and it always got into someone else’s hair. I suspect that there were plenty of people who quietly sighed a relief when it was finally gone, even if it meant practical death of book distribution.
Perhaps the principal complaint is the one that is directed at ISKCON in general – we want to present ourselves as more saintly than we really are. We are too self-righteous with our four regs and we are too dismissive of wisdom of other people. Everything appears easy for us until we bloop just like everyone else. RDTSP was all about flaunting renunciation in everybody else’s faces. They were all strict brahmacārīs or sannyāsīs and they never missed a chance to remind gṛhasthas that they were in māyā, to the point that it became intolerable.
Basically, they pitched their sannyāsīs against temple presidents because all their manpower came from poaching best devotees from temples. They would just raid the brahmacārī room, tell them that temple life is māyā, and invite them to join the most ecstatic preaching program ISKCON has ever seen. Next day the temple president would be left scratching his head because he’s got no people left to carry daily activities, especially his money bringing book distributors.
RDTSP also gave a lot of grief to women and left a mess for the whole ISKCON to clear up for the next two decades or so, but I don’t want to go into that. Eventually things were brought to Śrīla Prabhupāda for the final decision and it was made – Tamāla Kṛṣṇa Gosvāmī was relieved of his RDTSP leadership and banished to China. That was the beginning of the decline and RDTSP never recovered in full. Disappearance of Viṣṇujana Svāmī didn’t help either.
It had to be done even if RDTSP leadership was essentially right – married life IS māyā and the only safe spiritual position in this world is at the forefront of pushing Lord Caitanya’s mission. It worked for them but, unfortunately, it didn’t work for anyone else, and we need ISKCON as the house of the whole world to live in. Devotees like Tamāla Kṛṣṇa Gosvāmī or Viṣṇujana Svāmī are liberated souls very dear to Śrīla Prabhupāda and Lord Caitanya, they don’t need any special accommodations but we do, we need safety of a temple life, we need creature comforts, we need services suitable for our conditioning, we need compromises, we need gentle and nurturing ISKCON, we need to be neophytes, we can’t jump to Tamāla Kṛṣṇa’s platform yet. When we try we get in trouble. Some might say that it was too big of a bite even for Tamāla Kṛṣṇa and Viṣṇusvāmī, but that’s what happens when you hunt a rhinoceros, there’s no shame but only glory in that.
One thing that affect us, the hoi polloi, is imitating their book distribution techniques. They might have been able to get away with anything completely unaffected but imitating them brought disaster to anyone else. Devotees in those days cared relatively more about numbers than about quality. A sold book is a sold book, it gets tallied regardless of how it happened, and Śrīla Prabhupāda was glad to see big numbers, no need to tell him of every hook and crook deployed to achieve them.
Sales techniques were deployed correspondingly, but not by everyone, of course. Sometimes professional salesmen were seen hanging around devotees, trying to get a secret of our skills and quite often it was incomprehensible to them – we didn’t do anything special, our books were distributed by divine mercy, not by sales tricks. It looked differently to us, however, especially to those not on Lord Caitanya’s good list yet.
If we can’t be sufficiently humble, if we can’t get on Lord Caitanya’s good side, if we are total neophytes, we put our faith into something else – appearance, presentation, approach, closing methods etc etc. We need these clutches just to stand on our feet while real saṅkīrtana devotees don’t even touch the ground, so to speak.
It’s not that they don’t use the same methods but they are certainly not conditioned by them and can stretch them seemingly at will, doing absolutely outrageous stuff from sales gurus’ perspective. Here’s what I think happens – they sell books and we learn tricks from watching them, by how they USUALLY do it. Their techniques, however, are only manifestations of a good sale, not its causes. Just like a pure devotee offers his obeisances when he enters a temple room we can offer obeisances, too, but it won’t make us into pure devotees, not right away.
So, yes, you need to look presentable or at least trustworthy, you need to find some common interest with the person you are trying to sell to, you need to put a book in his hands as soon as possible, you need to augment your conversation with subtle physical contact, you need to close the sale within the first minute or two and if doesn’t happen you need to move on, but doing that won’t make you into a saṅkīrtana devotee, not right away.
The thing is, this “scientific method” works and if you can master it you can sell plenty of books, it has been done. Maybe not everyone can be trained as it often goes against people’s nature but you can always find enough examples to make it look like a clear possibility. This is where wigs and karmī clothes come in, this is where talk about yoga or history comes in, and all the other misrepresentations of what our books are actually about. It works, if the goal is to exchange a book for money.
There are obvious and often heard complaints about this approach – we cheat people, we break their trust, we leave scorched land in our wake and damage our reputation. These are all fair accusations. It is also fair to say that no one knows the real value of our books, not even we ourselves, and yet we all get benefits regardless of the reason we got them. Simply holding Bhagavad Gītā in one’s hands brings him enormous spiritual benefits, and if he gives money and takes it home he is as good as saved, no matter if he doesn’t find information about ancient flying machines there. All these negative material reactions do not matter in the face of Lord Caitanya’s causeless mercy, He won’t take them seriously and He will eventually reel them in.
This debate will probably never be settled because we are talking about relative things here – no one knows the real value of our books, as I said, so there must be some cheating involved by definition, everybody would have some personal motives for buying them, it’s just a matter of which motives and how many of them, and who gets to decide when it becomes unacceptable?
For the contrast I should probably talk about devotees who, apparently, sell books by Lord Caitanya’s mercy alone, but not today. Well, strictly speaking it’s Lord Nityānanda’s mercy but I bet for most of us the difference is imperceptible.