A blog about books. Oh, and some other stuff too.

Free Societies and Selling Magazines: My Thoughts on the Rolling Stone Cover Controversy

“If all printers were determined not to print anything till they were sure it would offend nobody, there would be very little printed.” 
― Benjamin Franklin

Original image found at examiner.com

Original image found at examiner.com

When I was in university, music was an all-consuming part of my life. I still remember the excitement we felt each month as we waited for the most recent issues of our favourite music magazines to appear at the local corner store. Popular issues would sell out in a matter of hours, and woe betide you if you had a class that prevented you from picking up a copy. Perhaps you would be fortunate enough to borrow one from a housemate — once they were finished with it, of course. The covers were iconic and reflected the people who wrote songs that had something to say to us. I had a friend who spent a goodly portion of his essay-writing time papering his university dorm walls with Rolling Stone covers, a concept that left me more than a little uneasy at the thought of all those eyes staring out at me.

I was reminded of these feelings when I heard about the controversy brewing online, on the airwaves and in print about the most recent cover for Rolling Stone magazine. If you aren’t aware of what’s going on, Rolling Stone has released their monthly cover in advance of publication as they normally do. What makes this month different is that they have chosen a rock-star-style portrait of the Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The tagline reads, in true Rolling Stone fashion, “The Bomber: How a popular, promising student was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam and became a monster.” No, I’m not going to show it here – if you wish to see it, you can Google it like everyone else. What has caught me off guard was a genuinely curious question from one of my staff: “Are we going to be selling it here?” she asked me. “It’s kind of despicable what they did…” A few patrons in the store overheard her question and echoed it themselves. “Will you want to carry it?” they inquired. “You always have such good taste – it seems to go against the grain a bit.”

An interesting question, and some  interesting viewpoints, to be sure.

My world is a lot more complex now. I come from education, and specifically from libraries where we encourage students to look at what they are reading with a critical eye. We teach lessons on how to identify bias and viewpoint and ‘spin’, and provide a variety of resources to illustrate the meaning of perspective. In short, we encourage students to look at all sides and to never trust a single source, and not to judge a book by its cover. At the same time, I also run a bookstore, and there are financial considerations to consider. Will my staff be comfortable selling this item in store? Do I risk alienating some of our customers for carrying it? Is this something that the owner of the store will want to weigh in on before a decision is made? Does it bring down the ‘tone’ of the store if we have it so prominently displayed on our shelves?  So many questions, and not really enough answers.

After long conversations with a number of people and some pretty intense personal reflection, I think I have my answer. To aid my thoughts, I replaced the context of this discussion – a controversial figure on a cover of a magazine – with another issue that might also be considered controversial and then asked myself what I thought. Substitute the figure of Henry Morgentaler or Viola Desmond on the cover of the magazine, and ask yourself if you want the magazine banned. For me, the answer was pretty clear.

Let’s first recognize that I am absolutely welcome to have my own views and insights about this cover decision, as are my staff (and we all have very definite views about this – just come and ask us!), but in the reality of daylight, my role in the bookstore is the same as it would be in a library. I am to provide materials that inspire and encourage my patrons to read, in order to challenge what they are thinking, to provide information that they require, and even to entertain them upon request. Just because I may not like a book does not mean that I won’t carry it in my store. My role is not to play Big Brother with my reader’s options, or to actively prevent them from receiving information that they wish to have. Having said that, I still reserve the right to enact the caveat I once outlined to my nieces so long ago, in that if it is harmful to your physical, emotional or social well-being, then I will not be silent. In bookstore terms, asking me for books on how to start a meth lab will still result in a refusal and likely a phone call to the authorities.

Purchasing this edition of Rolling Stone with this specific cover is a choice. If you do not approve of the cover, vote with your pocketbook and don’t purchase it. I will not be offended – as mentioned, I have my own views about this cover. Like the Mayor of Boston wrote to the publishers of the magazine, I believe that this is a poorly thought-out marketing strategy, and I wish someone might have been a voice of reason in the cover discussion. However, I will have it on my shelves. If you want to read the story behind the cover, come and find me. I’ll make sure you have the choice to read it.

Thoughts? Comments? Concerns? Leave ’em in the comments. Just be respectful, my friends, and recognize that diverse opinions are what keep life interesting. 

4 Responses »

  1. I had to go look for the cover because I rarely pick up magazines. I agree that it is in bad taste, and the mayor of Boston had a great response.

    It’s tough that you had to really think about the cover and selling it in the story. It’s not something that occurs to most patrons of book stores, the thought that the employees put into the displays.


    • I really didn’t think it would be an issue until several people commented upon it – it’s a new reality, I suppose.


      • That’s a really insightful comment as well, today there is such a short window of opportunity to have an authentic response on non-response to something before the hype of the media sets in. I think this issue has definitely been hyped by the media and that could well have been the strategy of the magazine, – but really which magazines or newspapers are not using sensational images and headlines to sell these days.

        I read the front page of a News website everyday, but often don’t even click on any headline, because the stories are so despondent or negative, its the cultural pages I find myself at, but I’m all for there being a choice, we each learn (and are capable of learning without media guidance) the impact of the choices we make as we travel life’s path

        I’m more shocked by some of the content of the book I am currently reading Philipp Meyer’s The Son, and wondering if I am learning anything by having to read of such brutality that was the norm in certain regions not so very long ago in our history. Thankfully I have Billy Collins Aimless Love going at the same time, when I need to pour a little love on all that scalping.


  2. Great blog, Jenn!


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