Bible Publishing’s Most Influential Person? An Interview With J. Mark Bertrand

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Is this Bible publishing’s most influential person?

They call it The Bertrand Effect. 

When J. Mark Bertrand writes a review for his BibleDesignBlog about various Bible editions or even proposing suggestions for improvements, his loyal readers aren’t the only ones impacted by The Bertrand Effect. Bible publishers also sit up and take notice.

Since BibleDesignBlog’s humbly beginnings in 2007, Mr. Bertrand has become Bible publishing’s most influential person.

At least that’s what I was going to assert.

Corresponding with some people in the Bible publishing industry for this post, a recognized veteran in the field who has a deep appreciation for Mr. Bertrand’s work, kindly disagreed. Bertrand isn’t Bible publishings most influential person. Instead, he’s Bible production’s most interesting person.

Semantics aside, The Bertrand Effect is clearly felt, from the Bible publishing world (and related entities) to the consumer.

What follows is my unedited interview with Mr. Bertrand, addressing Bible publishing, design, quality, aesthetics and beauty.

Read on, and find out why Bible design and quality matter—perhaps much more than you realize.

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Mark, thanks for taking the time for this interview. For those who aren’t familiar with your BibleDesignBlog, briefly share what it is. 

At Bible Design Blog, I write about the physical form of the Good Book. I keep the focus narrow layout, printing, binding because this is a topic that doesnt get a lot of attention, despite the impact design and production choices have on the reading experience. 

“Bible” and “design” might seem incompatible to a lot of people. What to you mean by “design,” and how does it relate to the Bible? 

The Bible is a book, its impact mediated for better or worse through design choices. Many of the features modern readers assume are original to the Bible for example, chapter and verse numbers, red letters indicating the words of Christ are later additions which have had a major impact on how we read the text. Im trying to encourage better choices when it comes to Bible design, or at least more deliberate ones.

Is Bible design a.) something most of us take for granted, or b.) something we simply don’t even think about? 

Good design is mostly invisible. Readers dont notice unless something goes wrong. If you look with fresh eyes at traditional Bible layout of the past hundred years, something has clearly gone wrong. The Bible started looking more like a dictionary than a novel a book meant for looking things up, not a book meant for reading. So thats how we started using it. 

Do we tend to think of the Bible primarily in utilitarian terms? If so, why? And what’s the corrective?

Inot sure whether the view is utilitarian, but many people whove grown up with the Bible see it primarily as a tool for study. They expect lots of footnotes and cross-references, chapter and verse numbers, section headings, explanatory notes. These are all useful things for the scholar. They can really get in the way of deep reading, though. The corrective is to start thinking of yourself first and foremost as a reader, and to look for Bibles that make reading easier.

Is there a compelling historical rationale for why we should care for Bible design, typography, quality, etc?

Only if we want people to read the Bible. All of these factors aid in that goal, and I cant help thinking that our indifference to good design has contributed to the fact that we dont read the Bible. Design isnt the entire solution, but its part of the puzzle. 

Most people who buy Bibles don’t care much for its aesthetics or quality. In layman’s terms, why should someone care about it? Or do they care, but perhaps are simply unaware of it?

I disagree that they dont care. When I put a thoughtfully designed, well made Bible in someones hands, they can tell the difference immediately. Reactions run the gamut joy, surprise, appreciation but there is rarely indifference. The problem is, most readers dont have physical access to quality Bibles, so they have no frame of reference. Brick-and-mortar stores dont stock quality Bibles anymore as a rule, and online youre often buying sight unseen based on a manufacturers description and a photograph of the packaging. Bible Design Blog is proof that, if you show them whats involved in quality production, people care. 

How would you describe your interest in Bible design: hobby, passion, obsession, other?

Two factors influence my approach: my first job was as a typographer (a passion that has endured through the desktop publishing revolution and the emergence of e-books) and Ive been a lifelong reader of the Bible. My professional instincts led me to be dissatisfied by the way the Bible was being designed, and I discovered a minority report in the Bible publishing tradition that reinforced this feeling. Passion might be the closest word, but its also a professional interest that I share with many designers, bibliophiles, and Bible teachers and readers.

How does your wife deal with your interest in Bible design? Any humorous marital stories about your interest in Bible design (hopefully peaceably resolved!) you can share?

My wife Laurie is an extraordinarily talented designer. Whereas Im a copycat when it comes to aesthetics, good at reproducing what Ive seen, she has a talent for making things fresh and beautiful. So she doesnt have any trouble appreciated what Bible Design Blog is all about. Her opinion is usually the first one I seek when a new Bible arrives on my doorstep.

If you could make a living out of your interest in Bible design, would you do it? Have you ever had compelling job offers regarding Bible design?

I dream of making a living in Bible design and publishing, so naturally I would jump at the opportunity. The fact that Bible Design Blog has never made any money is one of the things that prevents me devoting more time to it. (Gotta pay the bills.) Ive done some consulting work for publishers, though. There have been job offers in the past, but typically what publishers are looking for is people to do the work of design, rather than cast and oversee the vision. My days of working as a professional typographer are long past, but if I had a team of typographers, Id know what to do with them!

On average, how many Bibles do you receive gratis from publishers and binders per month?

I have no idea. If youre mathematically inclined, you could probably figure it out by counting up the editions Ive reviewed during the calendar year and dividing by twelve. But I am not mathematically inclined.

Let’s say someone says, “Okay Mark, I’m beginning to see how Bible and design fit together, and I’m beginning to care about it. But I have limited discretionary income (i.e I receive various government assistance just to make ends meet) and I don’t want multiple editions of the same version littering my home and emptying my pocketbook! Nor do I want to get the next best thing a year from now, rendering my next purchase a paperweight. But I’m looking for one Bible (and only one!) for everyday use that’s good quality, a faithful and readable translation, combines good aesthetics, paper, binding, typography, etc., yet is relatively affordable. Are there any standouts? Or am I asking for the moon?

Fortunately this is an easy question to answer, though it would have been hard five years ago. Were spoiled for affordable choices. The ESV Readers Bible would be my first recommendation, followed by the Single Column Journaling Bible. Both are lovely hardcovers with single column settings. Ive written about a number of quality editions that wont break the bank, so I encourage people with such questions to check the site.

A lot of people, notably those 35 years old and younger, predominantly use their phone or e-reader to read Scripture during corporate worship. I’ve even seen designated Scripture readers for Sunday corporate worship—even pastors—using their phone. Does it matter whether one uses a physical Bible versus an e-reader for corporate worship or individual daily reading? What’s the big deal? 

The reason I advocate for physical books isnt that I think e-books are wrong, or in any way harmful. Its just that technology isn’t a zero-sum game. Sometimes the best technology for the job isnt the new one, its the old one. Smart phones make the Bible text readily available in the most unlikely places, and thats a good thing. But if I have a choice, and have the option of reading from a well-designed physical book, thats what Ill do. 

Someone recently predicted the death of the novel I think it was Will Self based on the fact that e-readers provide too many distractions to allow the kind of deep reading the novel requires. I suspect the widespread replacement of physical Bibles with e-books has had a similar effect. At the same time, though, some studies suggest readers get deeper into the text while reading on screen, and given how isolated from the outside world we can be during screen-time, thats easy to believe. 

Are you a Luddite?

Im using wi-fi right now that doesnt let me send and receive e-mail via Mail, so to write and send these words I created a Pages file in iCloud on my phone, then opened it on my MacBook Air to input my answers. When Im done, Ill re-open the document on my phone and e-mail it. So no, I probably dont qualify as a Luddite. 

Over time, though, Ive become skeptical of the facile assumption that newest equals best. For people sold out to that idea, skepticism is hard to understand. It gets miscategorized all the time.

What are you most encouraged about with the present state of Bible publishing? Conversely, what most discourages you about the Bible publishing industry? What do you see in the crystal ball of Bible publishing and design in the next five years?

Physical books are nearing the end of their popular lifespan, going the way of most other physical media. One consequence is that people who do buy physical books expect more from them than before. That expectation is probably going to strengthen over time, meaning publishers wont be able to sell badly designed, poorly manufactured Bibles. The mass market that eats those editions up will have switched over to e-books entirely. Publishers who take that reality seriously and are already striving to do good design and produce quality physical editions encourage me. 

As Christians, why should we care about the quality, typography, aesthetics–in a word, the beauty—of our Bibles? Are there any theological correlations?

Absolutely, but let me say this: we dont do ourselves much of a service by seeking theological arguments to compel people to go along. Theres a part of me that sees a constantly-distracted twenty something skimming through the Bible on his phone and wants to smack it out of his hands with a sturdy physical Bible while shouting: The Incarnation, baby!And I think theres a good case to be made that the more of our preaching and worship and reading that comes digitally, via disembodied media, the farther we get from the reality of a God who took on flesh and dwelled among us. Theres another way to go about this, though. Embodiment as compulsion may be a dead end, but embodiment is also a path to pleasure. The joy of a well made book is a better argument than any diatribe against either bad physical editions or gone-tomorrow vaporware. 

Dr. Johnson refuted Berkeleys idealism (the physical world exists only in the mind) by kicking a rock. My theological argument throughout the history of Bible Design Blog has been the physical book itself. 

(Want to learn more about the integral relationship between the Bible and design? Read J. Mark Bertrands musings and occasional rants at bibledesignblog.com.)

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