Published On: Mon, Jul 1st, 2013

Latin Americans Snap Up Over 1 Million of Prabhupada’s Books

By Madhava Smullen via ISKCON News

The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust’s office in Brazil

After taking a dip in the past couple of decades, distribution of Srila Prabhupada’s books has come swinging back in many parts of the world. In North America, for instance, Bhaktivedanta Book Trust (BBT) sales increased by 23% in 2011, and a further 28.6% in 2012.

The often untold story, though, is the rousing success of Latin America—a book distributor’s dream because of its extremely pious population.

In 2012, the Spanish and Portuguese division of the BBT—ISKCON’s publishing arm—sold over one million books for the first time in decades.

It’s an exciting time to be in the spiritual book business in Latin America right now. Of course, the way there has been been a bit of a roller coaster.

After a strong start during ISKCON Founder Srila Prabhupada’s lifetime, the BBT in Latin America went from strength to strength, thriving even at a time when other parts of the world where floundering. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, devotees in Brazil alone were distributing nearly one million books a year.

But in the late 1990s, the managerial shifts that had shaken the rest of ISKCON reached Latin America. Major ISKCON leaders left, and book distribution crumbled to almost nothing. Debt and distrust plagued the sankirtan community.

Things took a turn for the better in 2004, however, when book distributor Aravinda Das and BBT Trustee and manager Hanuman Das made a new start at the BBT offices in Mexico City.

“Aravinda Prabhu gets the credit for the increase in book distribution,” Hanuman says. “He helped and trained the young boys and girls at the Mexico City temple, enthusing everybody and creating a book distribution consciousness. He would speak about it in class, and offer the results to the Deities in the morning. And it worked.”

Book distribution in Santiago de Chile

Book distribution increased quickly in Mexico City, and from there, devotees created travelling parties and covered the rest of the country. Then they began traveling through other parts of Central America, including Guatemala and Honduras. And finally, the sankirtan fire spread further South, to Venezuela, Columbia and beyond, igniting enthusiasm in countries that had seen almost no book distribution in many years.

Meanwhile, Aravinda and Hanuman made sure that the mistakes of the past were not repeated, by placing Krishna conscious training and devotee care above sales.

“We gave them the time and facilities to do Bhakti Sastri, take communications seminars and other courses, and learn harmonium,” Hanuman says. “All the things that we as older book distributors missed out on. And the result was very good. The book distribution increased because they felt reciprocated with and enthusiastic and inspired.”

In 2010, the BBT created its own Latin American Sankirtan Department, fully taking the responsibility of book distribution upon itself rather than relying on ISKCON management.

Today, there are steady book distribution efforts in Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Columbia, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay. Some devotees go out on their own, while others are part of traveling sankirtan parties. Some distribute to homes, offices, and shops; and others visit schools and universities. But wherever they go, they are well received.

“One advantage to distributing books in Latin America is that people are very pious,” Hanuman says. “So it’s like heaven for book distributors. People will give you the last coins in their pocket. Even if they are active in another religion, they’ll be open and polite and take a book.”

The people in Latin America are generally very pious and interested in religious topics

According to Hanuman, Mexico, in particular, is “one of the easiest countries in the world, aside from India,” and the people there are “super pious.” Meanwhile in Brazil, where there is a very large active ISKCON congregation of 5,000, people are also extremely receptive and open.

This public response, coupled with the renewed organization and enthusiasm of devotees, has resulted in sales by the Spanish and Portuguese division of the BBT jumping from 350,000 books in 2006 to 1,073,000 in 2012. And it’s only likely to increase.

Meanwhile, behind-the-scenes efforts have improved too. Today, the Spanish and Portuguese division of the BBT has one office in Spain, and four in Latin America: one in Mexico City; another in Lima, Peru; one in Argentina, and one in Brazil. It also has several satellite warehouses in countries such as Panama, Chile and Columbia.

Over thirty staff members work at the Latin American offices, including many second generation devotees. And while in the past, many of these offices were isolated, Hanuman has ensured that they now all work together as a cohesive team.

As well as the skilled book distributors, it’s also down to these staff to ensure that books get sold on the streets, by creating attractive titles and covers. In Latin America, the BBT’s pocket Bhagavad-gita As It Is sells particularly well, as do compilation books of Srila Prabhupada’s teachings made especially for the Latin market like Meditacion y Superconciencia and Karma, Samsara y el Tempo.

As well as books that are distributed on the streets, the international community of devotees will be especially thrilled to hear about the work of the BBT’s sister company in Brazil, Sankirtana Books.

For the past two years, Sankirtana has had a distribution contract with over one hundred bookstores in Brazil, including major chains Livraria Cultura, Fnac, Livraria Saraiva, and Livraria Leitura.

As a result, all of these bookstores stock books by Srila Prabhupada, including Science of Self Realization and the deluxe and pocket editions of the Bhagavad-gita As It Is, both good sellers.

“When we print the deluxe Gita, ninety per cent of our print run is sold in bookstores,” Hanuman says.

Sankirtana Books also translates and publishes works by other devotee authors, and distribute these to major bookstores too. The company is currently working on translations of Radhanath Swami’s The Journey Home, Yogesvara Dasa’s Here Comes the Sun: The Spiritual and Musical Journey of George Harrison, and Krishna Dharma’s Mahabharat and Ramayana.

With all this, the BBT is likely to have a bright future in Latin America.

Now that book distribution has vastly increased and been given a strong, steady infrastructure, the next step for the BBT is to finish some projects it has been financially unable to complete for many years.

“Last year, we finally printed the Spanish Chaitanya Charitamrita for the first time,” Hanuman says. “We had translated it in the mid 1990s, but we just didn’t have the money to print it. Now, we are in a marathon of producing the Bhagavatam to try and reprint it next year in both Spanish and Portuguese.”

Another major step for the BBT in Latin America is the creation of a fully integrated software, which has already been introduced in Brazil and will be replicated at all the other offices.

“Before, to know how many books we had in each warehouse, I would have to contact the devotee in charge of each office,” Hanuman says. “It was a very primitive system. With the new program we will immediately have information on the tips of our fingers about how many books we have, how many copies of a particular title we’ve sold, and what’s happening in each country. We’ll also be able to create and consolidate annual reports for all the offices, and find out what are the current trends in book distribution.”

Hanuman smiles. “Until now, it’s all been just intuitive, in the darkness. So this program will be very helpful for us.”