You would expect to find great literature in a bookshop. You might not expect to find great images, particularly among the cheap paperbacks - but you do. Ever since the Picador imprint of the early Seventies, book design has become increasingly inventive. Now, publishers are once again raising the production standards of their paperbacks, particularly fiction.

This is partly because it is becoming less economic to publish new authors in hardback, partly because bright new publishers such as David Campbell - the man who brought the Everyman's Library back to the bookshelves - are producing beautifully made hardback novels to sell for as little as pounds 6.99.

Peter Dyer and Conor Brady are working for two publishers, Vintage and Cape, on their paperbacks. The two London- based designers, whose studio is called React, commission and design about 200 book jackets a year. (They also design record sleeves, and posters for Sadler's Wells and the Royal Opera House.) 'The margins on paperback novels are very tight, so we can only push the design so far,' says Dyer, perhaps the most-respected young book designer in Britain. 'To keep the costs right down, we only work on the covers of the books; mostly you'll find that the text is a direct reduction of the larger print found in the hardback edition of the same book, which is why it doesn't always look so hot.'

Increasingly, however, there is no hardback. 'Publishers are releasing first novels - or 'orginals', as they call them - as high-quality paperbacks. The jackets have gatefolds, and the quality of the paper is high. But even then we have to concentrate on the packaging: our job is to make you want to pick up that one particular paperback from the hundreds in the shop. It will still need a good blurb, though; it's rare for people to buy a book solely on the strength of the cover. The book's editor takes over to some extent where the designer leaves off.'

Typical of Brady and Dyer's work is The Acid House by Irvine Welsh, a Cape Original novel due out in April. The cover is in acid green and red and features a 'mad' dog, photographed by Robert Clifford. The cover image is repeated on the spine so the book is recognisable end on.

'The colours are pretty lurid,' says Dyer, 'but they reflect the ideas contained in the story. And anyway, we want it to jump out from a crowd of paperbacks. We trawl the degree shows every summer looking for new design talent among illustrators, painters and photographers. The last two or three years have been very strong on new talent in photography.

'Designing paperbacks is a little like moving the furniture. You have to keep moving to keep the books looking fresh. What we do is really no different from packaging designers working for shops and supermarkets.'

There is no doubt that good packaging sells. 'I think the first paperback list that people began buying on the strength of the covers rather than their content was the Picador list of the Seventies,' says Dyer. 'They were like rock album covers - Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch and so on. I bought a lot of them, but I didn't always read them. In fact, I still don't read many of the books we design; there's simply not enough time to plough through four novels a week. The editor briefs us and we take it from there.'

The real limitation on Dyer and Brady's work is the fact that they are not encouraged to work inside the books. 'Sometimes there's a mismatch between the cover and the pages,' says Brady. 'Often you get pages where the margins are far too tight. It would be nice to be able to design a book all the way through, including the pages.

'We would try to avoid making the pages too arty. There are a lot of highly self-conscious page layouts in paperbacks at the moment, where the designer has placed page numbers halfway up the outer margin and used other annoying graphic tricks. All we would like to do is to create clear, clean pages of elegant type with decent amounts of white space around them. I hate gimmicks inside the covers, unless the nature of the book calls for a strong intervention by the designer.'

The most stylish of high-quality paperback editions - such as Abacus Original and High Risk, a new American list designed by Rex Ray, to be launched in the UK by Serpent's Tail in late April - make strong use of photography and flamboyant lettering. Both those editions retail at pounds 7.99, and have gatefold covers. The cheaper books - from, say, Viking and Minerva - sell typically for pounds 4.99 and have covers as original as those by Dyer and Brady (hard, cool lettering, white spines and impressive photography), but the quality of the paper reflects the lower price.

These styles suit new novels, where the designers help to create a style or image for a first-time author. Famous, dead authors are just as well served by the elegant hardbacks produced by Everyman's Library. Designed by Barbara De Wilde and Carol Devine Carson, the jackets of the new editions are decorated only with type and typesetters' devices.

'People know, more or less, what they're getting with Jane Austen or Henry James,' says Dyer, 'so there's no need to sell the book hard with an adventurous cover. Instead, Everyman has concentrated on making books that are nice to hold, comfortable to read, long lasting and that look good as a collection.

'But, even then, you can always introduce a new audience to a long-established author by designing an adventurous cover. We're doing that with Dostoevsky.'

Where is paperback design likely to go next? 'Well, upmarket, to a large extent,' says Dyer, 'as more new authors are brought out first in paperback rather than hardback. As to imagery - who knows? We've been asking some interesting painters to work with us on jackets, and sometimes I'd like to make use of pure graphics - Penguin did that very successfully in the late Sixties. But, for the current lists at least, it will be mostly photography by fresh talent.'

(Photographs omitted)