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On the cover of author and Lounge columnist Zac O’Yeah’s latest novel, Mr Majestic: The Tout of Bengaluru, published late last year, a brassiere-and-bindi-clad figure towers above goggle-eyed pedestrians and policemen. The jacket illustration, by artist Paul Fernandes, depicts a film cut-out that stops daily business in the bustling Majestic area of Bangalore. And it’s exactly the sort of reaction Krishna Gowda seeks to avoid at his independent bookshop, The Bookworm, in the city.

“It’s a nice cover but I felt a little embarrassed recommending the book to my customers," he says. In order to spare his genteel buyers a cover so blatantly bosomy, Gowda went so far as to request the publishers, Hachette India, to issue an alternative jacket.

Hachette complied. And now, at a few independent book stores in Bangalore, like The Bookworm and Blossom Book House, O’Yeah’s novel bears a bright yellow, bland typographical dust jacket—the erstwhile “yellowback" treatment meted out to publisher Hodder & Stoughton’s crime genre.

“Since it is a novel set in Bangalore and the feedback came from a bookseller from the city, we agreed to an alternative," says Thomas Abraham, managing director of Hachette India.

Multiple covers targeting different readerships aren’t new. In 2009, Random House India released two versions of Rujuta Diwekar’s Don’t Lose Your Mind, Lose Your Weight—one, ostensibly, for an apple-shaped body type and the other for a pear-shaped one. But this is the first time an Indian publisher has incorporated bookseller feedback.

“In the West, retailers’ views on covers are commonly sought. After all, they buy a lot of the stock and want the book to do well too," Abraham says. Thus far, the lead time between a finalized cover and the publication date has been too short to solicit reactions from distributors and retailers before copies are ordered; but as covers are now being finalized earlier to allow for e-books to be launched simultaneously, publishers have time to take these measures to ensure a cover “works".

Since books are indeed judged, and sold, by their covers, it makes sense that jacket art is big business, and keeping things fresh is an indicator that publishers are on top of their game. In the last few years, Indian publishing has grown. Pan Macmillan and Simon & Schuster were late entrants in a market shaped by Penguin, HarperCollins, Hachette and Random House.

Aleph Book Company was founded in 2011. Westland’s Duckbill imprint is a year old, while Bloomsbury India opened its offices in Delhi in September. Rupa Publications launched its Red Turtle imprint in February and is set to release business books under its new Maven imprint later this year.

More publishers and imprints mean more books and more competition for readers’ attention. The design of a book, from its cover to binding to the quality of paper used, has never been as important, and publishers big and small are eager to get it right.

When amassing large sales is the order of the day, publishers do prefer the straight-and-direct approach over esoteric designs that could potentially alienate readers. For money-spinning best-sellers, it’s the author’s name that sells copies, not the jacket art. For instance, not one of the covers of Chetan Bhagat’s six books, each of which has sold more than a million copies, has been particularly inventive; rather, they’ve adhered to simple, tried-and-tested guidelines.

Rupa Publications’ creative director Maithili Doshi Aphale explains: “The Chetan Bhagat covers need to appeal to the masses. They are ‘A for Apple’ kind of covers so the common man can decode them instantly. One Night @ The Call Center uses phones and 2 States: The Story of My Marriage literally shows two states, two people. The colours are usually bright, so they stand out in a shelf."

Smaller publishing houses, however, have more room to be experimental. “There need not be conversations about how the mass market will respond, because we don’t have to appeal to it," says Nia Murphy, a freelance designer with Tara Books in Chennai.

These days publishers also need to ensure that their books look good on virtual book stores, in thumbnail size. “Because a huge part of sales are through the Internet, we have for some time looked at how covers work at a much smaller scale," says David Mann, art director, Bloomsbury Publishing, UK. This has led to a preference for bigger fonts (and clearer typography), says Doshi Aphale.

The India Kindle store offers over 1.5 million books priced in Indian rupees, over 300,000 of which are exclusive to the store. For e-books on Kindle and the iPad, some of the design elements, such as the font and text size on pages, will no longer be important because readers will be able to customize the settings on their devices to suit their needs.

Vinayak Varma, illustrator and self-professed e-book reader, says that in future the digital platform will open up a lot more possibilities for designers. “It’s only a matter of time before animation and interactivity get into the books themselves. Not unlike those magic newspapers in the Harry Potter movies," he says.

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