I wish I could give you a straight answer to that one, but I’m afraid my response is, “maybe, maybe not”.
If the book is about How to Make a Million Dollars in 7 Days, or How to Lose Weight without Diet or Exercise, then probably not. Potential customers are so hungry for the content that they couldn’t care less about the design. Similarly, if your topic is A Low Budget Family Cookbook, then sophisticated design is inappropriate … a homely, somewhat amateurish presentation could even be seen as ‘authentic’ and therefore an advantage.
But what if the subject of your book is Elegant City Apartments, or Menus from the World’s Best Restaurants? Ah, now that’s different isn’t it. A certain sophistication, even glamour, is required. Your book would have no credibility if it looked as though an amateur put it together. It’s all about compatibility of content and container … a superb wine deserves better than a plastic tumbler while a rough red may seem even rougher if served in a fine crystal glass.
If you hope your book will be stocked by bookstores, then the design certainly does matter. There is a general resistance to self-published books, so the more professional they look the better your chances of having your book accepted.
What is ‘good’ design anyway?
Is it all about appearance?
Certainly not! Good design is not just a pretty face. It doesn’t have to be complex (in fact, simple is usually better), but at the very least good book design should present the material in such a way that it is easy to read and comprehend. This is achieved, for example, by appropriate choice of fonts, optimal word, letter and line spacing, balanced use of text areas and white space.
A well-designed cover will attract attention, display the title to good advantage, and act as an invitation to open the book. Cover and contents, too, should be well-matched. It’s pointless having a dramatic, exciting cover if your story is gentle and low-key.
So back to that question, ‘Does good design sell books?’ Maybe not directly, but it certainly won’t hurt your image as a writer who wants to be taken seriously.
In a forthcoming article I’ll discuss whether self-publishers should attempt the design and layout themselves, or leave it to a professional graphic designer experienced in book design.