How to Ensure Your Book Makes a Fabulous First Impression (A Chat with Alex Miles Younger)


Editor’s Note: I’m pleased to feature this interview with book designer Alex Miles Younger as part of the Winning Edits Expert Interview Series.

Alex is the founder and chief creative of Unozip, the full-service book design studio you hire when you need to turn your words and ideas into a beautiful book.

Follow Alex on Twitter @Unozip.

Thanks for joining us, Alex!

Matt Gartland: As the founder Unozip, the studio that produced Seth Godin’s amazing book covers for The Domino Project, you are in a rare position to understand the role of design in the evolving new book economy.

How is the role and importance of book design changing? Is it becoming more or less influential on a book’s chances for attention and success?

Alex Miles Younger: The thing that’s going to make the biggest impact on a book’s chances for attention and sales is the marketing efforts of the author. Specifically, the author’s ability to build a following, nurture their audience, and create opportunities to talk about their book (the story or ideas) in front of new people.

Great promotion and marketing can overcome the hinderance of a poorly designed book, and a wonderfully designed book can’t save terrible writing or a lack of promotion and marketing. That said, wouldn’t you rather have both great marketing and a wonderfully designed book?

We’re biologically predisposed to like and trust beautiful things; why work against that? And beauty is only part of a well designed book. The other key element is that it helps the author start conversations around the ideas/story of the book.

As more books enter the marketplace each year the competition for our already overburdened attention is becoming incredibly fierce. Now, more than ever, you need a beautiful, remarkable cover that stands out from the crowd and helps you start conversations about the book.

MG: Many independent authors may scoff at the notion that high quality book design is a worthwhile investment. You yourself say that “There are a lot of fast, cheap, print-on-demand options out there, and they have their place.”

Why then should an indie author take premium level design seriously?

AY: Your commitment to premium level design is only taken as seriously as your commitment to high-quality writing, insightful editing, and remarkable marketing.

In traditional publishing models most authors had very little control over the creation of their book. The quality of the work was determined by the house that was publishing them and the team assigned to their book.

Independent authors have total control over the team they hire to transform their manuscript into a book, and the investment an author chooses to make into the quality of their book has a lot to do with the goals they’ve set for their book.

It’s important to remember that without the reputation of a big house behind them, it becomes the independent author’s job to prove to the public that their book is credible, interesting, and worth the financial risk of buying.

One of the most common ways we judge if someone is trustworthy, authentic, or interesting is by the way they look and present themselves. Premium level design is one of the best investments an author can make because quality design is equated in many people’s minds with interestingness and high credibility. It just helps to look good. If you don’t believe me, try and remember how many gorgeous people in high school were unpopular.

MG: Having worked with a diverse assortment of author clients, from the super high profile ones like Steven Pressfield to others just getting started, what common attitudes exist among them about the role design plays in their book’s identity?

AY: I cannot speak for them directly. But I think most authors would agree that the identity, the heart of a book, is the writing.

The role of design is to help translate the heart, tone, and essence of the writing into a visual metaphor that hooks a potential reader and gets them to come closer, to read the cover copy, to learn more about the author, to take the book seriously, to get excited about what’s inside, to preview the first few pages, and then let the words of the book take them away.

MG: What have you observed and learned about the art of writing and craft of storytelling from the talented authors you’ve worked with?

AY: Authenticity is important. Don’t try and write like someone else. The most valuable thing you can create is the thing that no one else can replicate.

MG: What’s the #1 piece of actionable advice you’d give to writers who seek to gain attention and success for their book through a unique and memorable design?

Don’t accept the safe or familiar solution. It’s what’s new or risky that sticks.


Images provided by and used with permission from the interviewee. XN4R358H96KW

  • Peter Bowerman

    Good article/interview! In my books (The Well-Fed Self-Publisher) and coaching in the self-publishing arena, I’ve always been a huge advocate of investing the resources to produce a strong cover. Covers sell books, plain and simple.

    And while my whole philosophy sells against traditional publishing, I know they do certain things well. As such, one of Alex’s comments caught my eye:

    “In traditional publishing models most authors had very little control over the creation of their book. The quality of the work was determined by the house that was publishing them and the team assigned to their book.

    True enough, but I’d assert that in the overwhelming majority of cases, traditional publishers do an excellent job of producing/designing a good book (where they usually fall down, and badly, is the marketing/promotion of that book). So having a traditional publisher in charge of the design of the book is usually a very good thing. And as this interview underscores, I’ve seen too many self-published authors fail to realize the importance of a cover.

    Yes, having total control over the creation and marketing of your book is a wonderful thing. And, in this day and age, with the rising power, potential and options in the self-publishing realm, many new self-publishers are quick to demonize traditional publishing as having nothing to offer them, not understanding what traditional publishing usually gets right: crafting a superior physical product (cover design, layout, editing, etc.).

    Remember, these people knew they wouldn’t get back a dime of their investment until the book was published, so they had to do everything in their power to make that book as polished a product as possible.

    When it’s possible through, say, Kindle, to literally be “published” in an hour, many authors will think that’s all it takes, and will upload their unedited, poorly designed and laid-out dreck, and then wonder why quick riches aren’t theirs. While being in control is a good thing, learn from traditional publishing, and incorporate those lessons into your own self-publishing journey.

    • Matt Gartland

      Hi Peter-

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Great insights all around.

      I see both sides of the book cover “control” discussion as it concerns traditional publishing. One friend published by a top house was presented with a horrible cover. He fought (rightly so) for a change, and in fact instigated the change himself, delivering the final cover used. It was 10x better, at least.

      That said, traditional publishers do (generally) have more resources at their disposal, so in many cases I’m sure the house can deliver a fine enough cover design. Whether that’s “most” or the “overwhelming majority” eludes my understanding.

      I wholeheartedly agree with your ultimate sentiments, that there is in fact much about the professional rigors of exemplary book development that indie authors should learn from a more traditional approach. Easy of access and a shiny publish button doesn’t absolve us from being conscious and professional in our execution. In truth, due to the noise these days, it demands it even more.


  • Peter Bowerman

    Hey Matt,

    Agreed. Publishers can often get it wrong on the cover, and even more so these days, with belt-tightening (i.e. corner-cutting) in full force.

    But, as a general rule, it’s one area where they do a good job – if not always ideal. And generally FAR, FAR better than self-publishing authors left to their own devices will do… 😉 Which, I suppose, was the real point I was trying to make…

    And like you say, it’s even more important today. Never has the old adage, “You don’t a second chance to make a first impression” been truer. You do a shoddy job on your first book, whether through poor/no editing, amateurish cover design or layout, etc, and the bad news can spread.

    And if you learn the errors of your ways and work hard to correct those shortcomings on your second effort, will the buyers of your first one, disappointed as they may have been, give you another chance? I wouldn’t bet on it.


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