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Can you judge a book by its cover?

Even without words, you can probably tell what kind of stories are told in the books here. That's thanks to the cover artists, whose work is largely uncelebrated. A new exhibition – and some of our top designers – would like to change that

The adage that you can't judge a book by its cover is true, it seems, about just about everything but books. Just look at the collection of jackets on the previous page. One is for a novel called My Single Friend, about a 28 year-old called Lucy with "a great job in PR", who lies on dates "with hilarious results". Another is a thriller about a hard-nosed Glaswegian detective, called Still Midnight, by Denise Mina. The Concert Ticket, about an exiled composer returning to his Russian home city, is by a Moscow-born, American novelist, Olga Grushin, whose previous literary fiction was shortlisted for the Orange New Writers award. The last is Unfinished Projects: Decolonization and the Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, by an academic called Paige Arthur. We've removed the titles from all the covers, but can you tell which is which? We bet a million pounds that you can. (Answers, if necessary, on the right.)

The truth is that, clearly, we instantaneously judge books by their covers. Once we've picked up that big-name thriller or long-awaited new David Mitchell (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, published next month with a typically fine cover), we may do a random page test before buying; we may even read the reviews on the back. But how do we identify the thriller or the David Mitchell among the tens of thousands of books on the shelves? How do we, subconsciously, steer around the chick-lit or home in on the biographies? The cover designers show us how. A bad or good cover design has the power to sink a book, or spawn a thousand imitations. And yet you won't find readers looking out for the latest design by Jim Stoddart, Jon Gray or Ami Smithson (the artist behind the perfectly-judged White Teeth).

A new exhibition at the V&A, however, shows that it wasn't always thus. Art & Design at Faber and Faber, which opened yesterday, shows how design has always been fundamental to the 81-year-old publishing house's philosophy. And, as its curator, the Faber designer Ron Costley told The New Review, the books' designers were once as famous as the authors themselves. "Early illustrators were very much artists in their own right," he explained, as we gingerly turned the pages of TS Eliot's Journey of the Magi, one of the "Ariel Poems" series from the late 1920s. Its cover, by Eliot's friend Edward McKnight Kauffer, carries an abstract design of three kings wearing bowler hats – a little joke about Eliot's previous life as a banker.

Elsewhere, we can see the work of some of the 20th century's finest artists. Barnett Freedman, a popular Faber illustrator and a poster artist for the likes of Shell, London Transport, the Post Office and Guinness, designed the cover for Siegfried Sassoon's 1931 Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, before he became an Official War Artist. There are covers by the English painters Paul and John Nash. Equally, the exhibition shows that authors were always wont to meddle in the cover design for their books. A copy of Justine, by Lawrence Durrell (1957), is displayed alongside a letter from the author to the designer Berthold Wolfe, in which an idea for the hand print on the cover is sketched out. Wolfe took on board the suggestion, and his young daughter kindly provided the inky fingers. Nearby is a first edition of TS Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939), with cover art by the author himself.

Today, only the biggest name authors are allowed any say in how their babies will be dressed to face a waiting world. "You have absolutely no input," says one author who feels stung by the process, and wishes to remain anonymous. "If you raise a question they say, 'It's all OK, we've done the focus groups.' Then later you ask what happened to sales and they say, 'Oh, the cover was wrong.' It's easy to blame the cover because the designer is never going to come back and dispute it. It's heartbreaking. You put five years of your life into writing a book, and during that time you carry around really vibrant images about what it is and how it can communicate with people. Then you have absolutely no control. I was a first-time author and it was a done deal. The cover looked really grim and disgusting. I hated it."

Horror stories, possibly apocryphal, abound. There's a rumour about a book that was rejected by Tesco because its jacket didn't match that season's colour scheme. And another about a cover that was redesigned 30 times and still turned down by a major retailer. But sometimes an author and a designer do gel. "When we were selling the proposal, I went to two or three meetings with editors at different publishing houses," says Cole Moreton, whose book Is God Still an Englishman? was published this month. "One of the questions I asked was about what the cover would look like. [By asking that] you really see what's in their head about what the book is going to be. Tim Whiting, the publishing director for non-fiction at Little, Brown, said very early on in the process, 'This is a book about who we are and what we believe in; it's about the nature of modern Britain.' From that, quite early in the process, emerged the idea of the multicoloured flag. For me, that cover [designed by Mint Julep] is doing a powerful thing. The title provokes people, to a certain degree. But the cover amplifies the title and says, 'This is about all of Britain and it's about multi- culturalism and inclusiveness.' It was very important to me that Little, Brown did say to me all along, 'What do you think of this?'"

For the designer, however, it's not always so simple. "Some authors are very good at being able to visualise their work," says Jon Gray, a freelance designer who is cited by many as the guy to get – if you can. "But the worst case is when you have an author who says, 'I really like my uncle's watercolours' or something." Gray's cover for Scarlett Thomas's The End of Mr Y won a British Book Award in 2008, and her new book, Our Tragic Universe, which will be published by Canongate on 20 May, carries a Jon Gray cover in a similar style. But he tries to avoid repeating himself. "I'm being asked to do a lot of handwritten stuff at the moment," he says, following the success of Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated, which bore a striking, handwritten Gray design. That doesn't mean that nobody else repeats his designs, however; the proliferation of books in The New Review's post bag that have incredibly familiar, retro, faux-naïf, 1930s-style covers surely has something to do with Gray's bold 2005 design for Monica Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian – the book and the cover both runaway successes.

Like Gray, Jim Stoddart, the art director for Penguin Press, insists that copycat design is a big mistake. After all, he points out, a cover is designed up to a year before the publication of the book – anything derivative is already out of date. Nostalgic covers are part of a general trend in the late Noughties for harking back, he thinks. And nostalgia has served Penguin well. You can now buy merchandise including mugs, tea-towels, deckchairs (and even books) bearing the publisher's trademark covers. And a set of Postcards from Penguin: 100 Book Jackets in One Box, was a pre-Christmas smash hit.

"I'm often surprised when I take a book off the shelves at Faber and think, 'This could have been done yesterday,'" says Ron Costley, nostalgically, as he admires the V&A exhibits. "That couldn't be said about many books now." But Jon Gray would beg to differ. "The marketplace is so saturated [with books] now that a designer's job is to make each book not look like all the books around it. I'm trying to give a flavour, an essence of that book's personality, without giving too much away. We're trying to make the cover of the book an individual product – just like the book should be inside, really."

The exhibition Art & Design at Faber and Faber is on until 30 May at the V&A, London SW7. The Penguin Decades series, published last week to mark Penguin's 75th anniversary, pairs designs by the likes of Peter Blake and Zandra Rhodes with controversial books from the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. 'Faber and Faber: Eighty Years of Book Cover Design', is published in paperback by Faber