Case Study: History of a 19th Century Sea Captain

POSTED ON Mar 3, 2011

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

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Case Study: The Sea Captain’s Odyssey by Marvin Shepherd

Design Brief: The author retired after a long career as a safety engineer and a clinical engineer at the University of California Medical Center. Marv had a connection to the Buhne family of Eureka from his youth, and set out to find out what he could about Captain H.H. Buhne, an important figure in the mid-nineteenth century development of the northern California coast. This project turned into a three-year odyssey of its own as Marv tracked down many original documents and created a multileveled book-length history of the Captain. Now it was time to publish.

Constraints: The book had to work as a narrative history while integrating the many graphics the author had unearthed. In addition there were extensive note sections, extracts and other typographic formats that would be needed.

Raw Material: The author is a seasoned writer, and knows how to tell a story straight. However, putting together a complex book with hundreds of citations and the need for consistency throughout the book and keeping the historical timeline clear were jobs for a professional editor. We agreed that a complete and thorough editing would be needed, and I put Marv in touch with Kathy Carter ( who, over the next few months, produced a polished, consistent and accurate manuscript. The author provided high-resolution originals for all the graphics, which would have to be prepared for printing.

Production Goal: We decided on a 6″ x 9″ trim size to give room for illustrations. I wanted to bring the book in under 400 pages because it was intended for print-on-demand distribution. Digital printers charge by the page, and long books can become prohibitively expensive, depending on your market.

Challenge: Create an design that would allow all the diverse elements of this history to work together to tell the author’s story.

A Complex Formatting and Layout

After looking at a few samples, we settled on Adobe Caslon Pro for the text of the book. This versatile typeface works really well for a wide variety of material. It’s easy to read and legible at small sizes. The three levels of heads are all in Fontin Sans, a modern sans serif typeface with a lot of character.

Since there were also a lot of sidebars in the book, highlighting different secondary characters in Buhne’s story, I used Myriad Pro Condensed to fit the sometimes pretty long text and remain legible.

One of the interesting typographic challenges of this book was dealing with the wide variety of formats and graphic material. Through his extensive research the author has found and collected images that even historians who helped him along the way had never seen. Original maps, portraits, land grants, photographs and other documents have a huge effect on making the story immediate and personal. There’s simply no replacement for this type of depth of research.

Here are some of the spreads from the book so you can see what I’m talking about:

The Sea Captain's Odyssey

Maps and portraits. Click to enlarge.

Here’s another one:

The Sea Captain's Odyssey

Biographical sidebars. Click to enlarge.

Typographic Challenges

Another feature of this book is the use of chapter contents pages. Each chapter opens twice, first for a detailed contents of that chapter, then the text of the chapter itself. Working out how to make this clean, clear to the reader and unobtrusive was an interesting challenge. Here’s an example:

The Sea Captain's Odyssey

First chapter open. Click to enlarge.

Each chapter also has its own notes, as you can see on the left hand page above. Here’s the next spread, after the chapter contents:

The Sea Captain's Odyssey

Second chapter opening. Click to enlarge.

Cover Design

I usually show clients three to five different cover designs, and it’s always a happy day when they pick the one that’s my favorite. And that was the case with this book. I had hit on an effect that would allow me to use a picture of Buhne’s ship, the Clementine, on the cover even though I only had a low-resolution original. It gave the cover a “historical” feeling that seemed just right. Here’s the finished cover:

The Sea Captan's Odyssey

Click to enlarge.

It took us over a year to complete this project, but it was well worth while. This is the kind of book that will be around for many, many years. It’s a solid piece of research and has gotten great reviews from historians of the era. Here’s a sample:

“This excellent biography has been worth waiting for …[Professor] Davidson tells us that when Buhne told a story, ‘I was sure that it happened just as he related it without any . . . added prose.’ The same can be said for Marvin Shepherd’s fine biography.”—Virginia Sparks, California historian, and Suzanne Forsyth, Editor, Humboldt Historian

I think the outstanding job Marv Shepherd did on this book, his dedication to turning out a top-quality product show that self-publishing has room for all kinds of authors and books. Being able to help bring this book to market was a very satisfying experience for me as a book designer.

After talking to the author recently, he tells me he’s well on the way to covering the costs of editing, design, production, indexing and promotion even though the book has only been out a couple of months. And he’s got speaking engagements lined up for the next several months. Marv is also recreating the experience Captain Buhne would have had in 1850 by sailing from San Francisco to Eureka on the tall ship, Lady Washington. It looks like The Sea Captain’s Odyssey is a success on many levels.


Buy The Sea Captain’s Odyssey on Amazon
Marvin Shepherd’s author website
ISBN: 978-0-9845207-0-1
Size: 6″ x 9″, 392 pages
Price: $24.95
Typography, book layout and graphics in Adobe InDesign and Photoshop.
Typeset in Adobe Caslon Pro, Fontin Sans and Myriad Pro
Digital printing by Lightning Source

All Amazon links are affiliate links.

Joel Friedlander

Written by
Joel Friedlander

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