THE LONG-haired blond in the pink satin nightgown bends backwards until her neck is parallel to the floor. Her mouth droops open like a jungle flower, and her big eyes glisten in a dewy swoon.

Arching over her, nuzzling her neck as he props up her spine, is a khaki Adonis with cheekbones big as cue balls and a seamless teak suntan above his military uniform.

The flash-gun fires, but the models hold the pose of woozy rapture. "Face!" yells the photographer, and their faces, misted now with exertion, turn in concert toward the camera. Again and again they writhe in careful permutations of desire -- at $100 an hour each and $200 for the studio time.

In an hour that shoot will be over, and another set of models will crowd into the grimy studio above New York's 23rd Street. The passionate postures will have become a glossy sheaf of black-and-white "reference photos" for the cover artist, who within a few weeks turns them into a painting full of florid clouds and panting landscapes. The picture then goes to the publishing house, where an art director will lay in the swoopy coils of type. And in six months, a new paperback will hit the racks with a title like "Love's Breathless Torment."

Complicated? Sure. Expensive? Certainly. But the modeling process, used by virtually every paperback artist, is only one of a score of sophisticated techniques by which publishers try to survive the annual scramble for attention -- especially in the crucial fall season when the trade press sells 60 percent of its volume.

It's a jungle out there. Last year alone, America's $7-billion publishing industry disgorged some 33,000 new titles. One-third of them were sold in stores, including more than 200 novels a month. And in most cases, booksellers decided to stock them or not after seeing nothing more than the jacket (as they are called in hardcover) or cover (in paperback), which salesmen brought around as early as six months before publication.

Gene Light, art director of Warner Books, believes that "you only get about 30 seconds on the stands" to snag the buyer. So each fall bookstore racks explode in a browser-blinding cacophony of bold designs and blazing lacquers, and even a modest paperback display is a vicious ocular blitz of glimmering foils, glossy embossed papers and peekaboo holes (called die-cuts) revealing a yet more lurid second cover within. (For a lavish example of the state of the art, see Pocket Books' packages for V.C. Andrews' novels.)

Twenty years ago, book jackets were an incidental consideration, says Robert Scudellari, vice president/graphic arts for Random House, who oversees the production of more than 600 designs a year. But then came the era of conglomerate takeover, seven-figure megadeals, movie tie-ins and monstrous overhead. With the advent of display advertising for large retail outlets, jacket appeal became even more important. Even the most literary hardcovers began to be packaged aggressively, and paperbacks published with a huckster gusto befitting breakfast cereal.

No wonder that the stolid pigments of the past gave way to the hysterical hues of Light's design for "Audrey Rose," a multi-million seller on which a 10-year-old Brooke Shields walked out of a tombstone and into a screen career. The new "point-of-purchase" attitude has evolved to the point where a cover can now cost $6,000 to produce, take six months to decide on and add as much as $1 to the price of a hardbound book and 20 cents to a paperback. Between the time the manuscript is bought and the book is in the stores, the jacket design may have changed half a dozen times -- along with the title, the price, the salesmen's attitude and the author's blood pressure.

"Sometimes," says Scudellari, "the hype begins so early that we start working on the design before there's even a manuscript." Random House already has artwork for Truman Capote's long-awaited "Answered Prayers," which seems unlikely to arrive much before Halley's comet. "We've done this for Woody Allen, with the hope that it will induce him to think harder about it."

But in most cases, the process begins with a "cover conference" at which the book's editor explains the contents, the art director takes notes and the promotion staff has its say. The cover will depend on these factors as well as the size of the press run and the reputation of the author.

At a biweekly cover conference at Bantam, 13 executives including art director Len Leone convene around the big table. In two hours of candid haggling the group of editors, copywriters and representatives from promotion and marketing will settle the fate of five books, operating with a haste that might seem brutal to laymen, but is necessary at a house which puts out some 500 titles a year.

The diary of a teen-age heroin addict, judged to be "pretty grim matter" by one of the editors, takes longest, provoking such repartee as "I don't know if you really need the needle," and "Do we tell what the book is on the cover or do we tease?" Finally the group agrees on a stark black-and-white photo cover and a blurb invoking "Go Ask Alice." This draws a small sigh of content from the copywriters, who, in their incessant shuffling of cliche's, are urged to compare new titles to previous best sellers.

The next book up, a fat, sprawling romance set in Singapore, is a snap, with everyone agreeing to emphasize "the beautiful Eurasian" and the cover quote from saga-maestra M.M. Kaye, despite one editor's plea for "a real bodice-ripping clench." The title will be large, but when one person asks "Shouldn't we play the author's name up," a cynic speaks for the group: "No. No one cares."

A second romance (a fat, sprawling saga set on two continents, involving a "Polish flower-grower from Long Island" who joins the RAF, falls in love but runs into class tensions) proves more difficult. "We've already done the torn photograph," complains one editor, but another suggests, "How about a painting on a clay tablet, see, and then you break it to show broken families." "Too subtle, too sophisticated," says an executive, and they settle for two faces, "rich, important typography" and smaller figures in the background.

A third romance, a fat, sprawling saga set on two continents and covering several generations, is a real problem. The original title, by any standards, is a four-word catastrophe. "Everybody persuaded me that the title was wrong," says the book's editor, so I made up three more." She hands copies around: "Horizons of Love," "The Years Between" ("It's a title I've had on my list for a long time," she says, "but it's not very hot") and "The Tango Years." Several people swallow hard, and the title question is postponed. There is some additional throat-clearing when the editor insists on "a gorgeous hat" on the cover. "You're talking Edwardian then," someone says, "but how do you focus in on the generational aspect of it?" A sluggish debate ensues, with the copywriters asking, "What's it like?" and the executives mulling over how to use enough faces to suggest the passage of centuries while downplaying the Latin American aspects of the story. "I remember when people used to say, 'You can't sell a book about Australia,' " says the gorgeous-hat editor, "and I still say you can't sell a book about Mexico." In the end, the problem is left in Leone's lap.

After the first conference, things sometimes go smoothly. A simple jacket can cost as little as $200, and some powerful designs arrive with ease. Gene Light, art director at Warner Books, got his cover for "Sybil" by experiment, taking a color picture of his secretary and cutting it into 16 vertical strips. "Total design time, seven minutes," says Light, and the book sold millions.

He found the jacket photo for Andrew Greeley's current best seller "The Cardinal Sins" in a photo magazine. Intrigued by the naked female back swaddled in lush red drapery, Light bought the rights from the photographer (who is also the model). He then cautiously prepared two other all-type covers for presentation to the author, a Catholic priest. "I was afraid I might offend him" with the denuded dorsal, says Light, "but he took one look at it and said, 'Will that sell the book?' I said, 'Yeah,' and he said 'Go with it -- I've seen worse in the Vatican.' "

But just as often, the jacket will involve months of debate and aggravating compromises between artistic and marketing criteria (most frequent complaint: "I can't read it from across the room"). Sometimes the committees are wrong. One of the most famous graphic images in America -- the big knot-muscled leg on the cover of Jim Fixx's "Book of Running" -- almost fell down in conference. "They wanted something that wasn't so muscular," says Scudellari. "In fact, they wanted all the stereotypes -- not just one pair of legs, but women's, children's. One guy said, 'That leg isn't even pretty -- no women will buy it.' " But Scudellari held his ground, and was vindicated at the cash register.

Sometimes handsome designs are squashed for the sake of sales. The Random House jacket for "Gorky Park" began as a set of sketches by the celebrated Paul Bacon, who completes more than 100 projects a year -- recently including "Sophie's Choice," "Noble House," "Ragtime" and "The Glitter Dome" -- and created the jacket for "Catch 18" before the publication of Leon Uris' "Mila 18" forced Joseph Heller's title up to 22.

For "Gorky Park," Bacon hand-lettered the type above a drawing of the Moscow park with spires in the background and "two rather ambiguous looking figures looking rather ambiguously at something ambiguous. . . . a very literary best-seller design." "Too literary," says Scudellari, "it wasn't getting approvals," and the spires were too foreign-looking. After six months of conferences, Bacon's design was scrapped for the fur hat, red star, branches and blood puddle. "Much more of a merchandising look," Scudellari says. Indeed: A suggestive litter of inanimate objects has become a thriller-jacket staple that might be called the Lawrence Sanders Syndrome.

The same tendency prevailed in the case of "Traditions," this season's big show-biz saga from Crown Publishers, where then-editor-in-chief Carole Baron and art director Jim Davis broke the rule that photos are used only on non-fiction by pioneering "The Scruples Look" -- dark background, striking type and a female face. (Most recent imitation: "Women's Work.") Davis, after 21 years in the business, has a deft touch. When Bacon submitted the type-only design for "The Spike," Davis knew that something was missing, went out to a dime store and bought a little American flag, cut it, glued it to the artwork and had a winner. For "Traditions," he commissioned a handsome logo (see illustrations) printed in gold on deep maroon stock. But Baron wasn't sure it would sell. She wanted a symbol which could be used in bookstore displays and advertising, and picked a rose. Four months, more than $3,000 and dozens of combinations later, Davis got the jacket that is now selling nicely.

Sometimes a publisher will change the whole package. A novel Crown bought as "The Rise of the Wolf" sounded too much like World War II. It got a new title, "Mission MIA." Then Baron decided that the jacket made the story of a woman's plot to find her MIA husband look like a satire. She told Davis to kill it. "I went home and got sick," Davis says. "I usually do." The new cover employs the stencil type presumed to signal Vietnam to buyers ever since "Dispatches" and "Fields of Fire."

Such decisions are made subject to fluctuating fashion. Racks have sagged with white covers, red covers or intermittent flurries of swastikas as publishers indulge in Reichsploitation.

In the '50s, red was thought to be the optimum hue and any earth tones, especially orange, brown and ocher, were presumed deadly. The rough-textured papers of the period meant that black was rarely used because it looked muddy; and white was avoided because it would yellow and was susceptible to smudging by even the most hygienic of thumbs. But all the rules have changed since the '60s, as new laminated papers made black and white suddenly popular and yielded rich colors, and photo processes replaced metal type.

Then, as now, the general rule is to make "the bigger books more visible," according to Bacon. "You'd think it would be the other way around," but "the larger the press run, the simpler the design and the bigger the type." That's why new jackets from four different houses -- "The Hotel New Hampshire," "Indecent Obsessions," "Bread Upon the Waters" and "Sixty Stories" -- have a very similar format.

Abstract art is anathema (for an egregious example, see Tom Wolfe's "From Bauhaus to Our House"), and is generally used only by intellectually secure houses like Farrar, Straus & Giroux. "We're not going to convert someone," says art director Doris Janowitz. "We're trying to appeal to people who already know the author."

But nothing changed the marketing of books like the paperback revolution. Len Leone, the dean of paperback designers, is still turning out 40 covers a month after 27 years with Bantam. "I remember the day they decided to go up to 35 cents. They said, 'We've got to call it a Bantam Giant!' " says Leone, who broke the rules in the '60s by putting a naked embrace and a white cover on William Goldman's "Boys and Girls Together." After a discouraging showing in hardcover, it went on to sell 2 million copies, and white became associated with a big book. Leone also pioneered the multiple-cover concept after a conference to decide the color for "Future Shock" ended in stalemate.

"What are you guys gonna want," Bantam head Oscar Dystel complained, "six covers?" Leone replied, "What's wrong with that," and the result was "Selectacolor," a half dozen versions of the same design. The practice spread, aided by the use of "dumps," the cardboard racks displaying six or nine covers simultaneously. The incorrigible Leone created a nine-cover dump for Ruth Harris' 1979 novel, "The Rich and the Beautiful," each compartment showing one-ninth of an underdressed lady. It was widely regarded as overkill.

Besides the visual effect, the technique allows a beleaguered designer faced with a large number of characters to split them up, a few on each cover, as Milton Charles, art director at Pocket Books, did with John Irving's "The World According to Garp" and Herman Wouk's "War and Remembrance."

Sometimes hardcover and paperback designers agree on the same art for both editions. Sometimes it's a standoff. That was the case with Judith Krantz' "Princess Daisy." As soon as Bantam acquired the reprint rights for $3.25 million, Leone found a portfolio with "six gorgeous shots of this very sophisticated chick." He took them to Crown, but was rebuffed. "They had a high-key blond against a white background -- you got an almost invisible color. You know why? Because 'Scruples' had a light image on a black background, and they wanted to do something a little different. That's ridiculous!" For the Bantam edition, Leone got six different covers, each a portrait of the woman from a slightly different angle, and "this way," he says, "you're having the chick on the newsstands move for you."

Movie tie-ins add another complication. Charles at Pocket Books created the paperback and movie art for "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" and "The Betsy," both with considerable success. But often the soft cover will simply reprint the film company's art, as in the case of the Pocket reissue of "True Confessions." Movie art is cheap -- "in most cases we don't pay anything at all," Charles says -- but does not guarantee sales. Photos of Robert Redford and Jane Fonda appeared on the Pocket cover for "The Electric Horseman," and "the book didn't sell at all," says Charles, who blames "a very bad script."

Sales depend on a bewildering complex of variables, including size. "One of the criticisms you get is that it doesn't have a 'big book' feel," says Gene Light. He was worried about the heft of the paperback "The Cardinal Sins," and pasted a cover over galley proofs. "See," Light says, palming the paste-up, "too thin." Since the price will be $3.75, "I'm going to bulk it up a little," increasing the type size and hence the number of pages.

But the prevailing philosophy is summed up by Milton Charles: "We believe that covers are the significant thing and that if the book doesn't sell, it's the cover's fault." Designers say that they make no attempt to give a distinctive look to their lines, and end up solving common problems in common ways. Most difficulties spring from having too much information for the limited size. The simplest solution is "wrap-arounds," artwork which introduces the main characters on the front and carries the context or period setting around back, but each art director has his own preferences. Charles likes step-covers (in which the first cover is slightly shorter than the second) and die-cuts: Both "add suspense."

Of course, a plain pitch can work wonders, as did Charles' design for Peter Straub's "Ghost Story." The blue-and-silver foil cover "has every corny, subliminal and obvious symbol available," and sold 1.8 million copies. (It'll be haunting the racks again when the film is released in December: The movie art did not arrive in time for the reissue.)

Most genres allow the designer a wide latitude. For Westerns, Leone says, the only general rule is radical realism: Comic-book gunplay is "passe',' and the characters on the cover "have to look like they slept in those clothes." Horror/occult offers even more freedom, although black backgrounds and a dribble of crimson never hurt sales. "If you can frighten people, you've got a winner," says Light, whose covers are forthrightly gruesome. Charles prefers a ghastly elegance ("You never want to disgust the reader. I wouldn't show a pig or a rat, but a skeleton is charming.") embodied in the pallid eeries he commissioned for the V.C. Andrews novels, and now selling as posters at $5 each.

But nothing moves the browser like soft-cover love. Mass-market paperbacks are a $700-million annual business, and about one out of five is a romance. They make up 18 of Charles' monthly average of 40 titles, and although he regards many of them as "popcorn and pulp," read by women who want to escape "terrible marriages," he takes them very seriously.

Charles believes his audience is "highly educated artistically" because of exposure to TV graphics. Consequently, communication by cover is "a science" of generating "the correct subliminals" to get a book to its "natural audience." The loopy typefaces called swash type are essential. (And can even be used to broaden the audience for non-romances. Charles snuck it onto the cover of "Garp": "that was a little subliminal trick.") As for color, "green is so negative that you would never use it on a romance -- or probably on anything else," and "violets, purples signal a hotter kind of romantic book." Pastels are "less intense," and a woman can use Charles' Cleavage Index to predict the contents: "The depth of the cleavage indicates the degree of sex."

Then there is the type and degree of "clinch," as the forms of embrace are called. These range from conventional "bodice-ripping" to the thigh-baring audacity of Warner's new "Bold Breathless Love." The art by Elaine Duillo, one of the few women in the business, was pretty explicit even for Gene Light, but he liked it so much that he violated the title-on-top rule. However, the current climate of Moral Majority faddism will probably mean less flesh in future seasons. "You used to show as much as you could get away with," says Light, "but now that they're sold in supermarkets, we have to be more careful." Leone agrees, and says that the most popular configuration is "the almost-kiss. The act of snuggling or kissing is not cool anymore." And as for the Climbing Clinch, where the woman is shown creeping up the male's leg like berserk libidinal ivy, it's "out of fashion," Leone says, because it's "a female put-down. You couldn't counter it by putting a man climbing up a woman's leg." Leone believes that "you don't have to show sex. A woman should be able to carry these things on the subway and feel comfortable and not embarrassed."

Artists depend so heavily on their models that it's hard to alter the paintings. Often, Light says, "I'll say, 'Can you just move that hand down?' and they can't! They have to reshoot!" (Some of the busier artists avoid this problem by keeping file drawers full of pictures of body parts in various configurations.) Light prefers to let his artists choose their models and work up various poses ("I'm also buying their brains"), and Leone will not get involved in a shoot unless it's a very unusual project.

But Charles has exact prescriptions for models. "The young Hepburn is the look, and the male is Gregory Peck or Clint Eastwood -- prominent nose, prominent chin. They can be mean, but they're never going to hurt the woman." Once armed with a precise description of the characters, Charles sits down with the artist to go through "head sheets" from Zoli, Ford and Wilhelmina until, like a latter-day Darwin, he finds the fittest. And not just pretty: "Say the woman looked like Debbie Reynolds and the man like Paul Newman -- you would have a hard time selling it -- they don't symbolize sensuality."

Apparently the public agrees, and Pocket is expanding in the mush market. In addition to the Silhouette Romance series, there are Special Edition romances ("100 pages longer and sexier") and a First Love series using photos of cover models for Seventeen. "At 12 years old, they identify more with a photographic image, with other beautiful kids that age." Youth was not clamoring for this line, so its success will depend on "jacket appeal only," and Charles gets daily computer printouts of sales. "I know within 48 hours whether the book's gonna take off and whether the cover's an asset."

Ultimately, however, all this high-tech hustle can amount to nothing if booksellers snub the results. In that case, the cover is either scrapped or reworked. Sometimes they are given a choice of two covers, as Light did for "Darling, No Regrets" and sellers voted for the darker ""Scruples look."

Writers are not always delighted with the results, and Scudellari believes that art directors should avoid them: "If you introduce personalities, it's the weakest part of the process." Too many authors, he says, are looking for highbrow austerity, and "you can't believe the amount of requests" for a jacket like "The Collected Stories of John Cheever." Paul Bacon says, "publishers almost invariably try to keep the authors away from me."

Some are easy. Leone at Bantam was worried about William Buckley when he arrived to approve his cover photo. Leone had prepared six alternatives, but Buckley just "turned to me and said, 'You know what you're doing, which one do you like?' Man, I coulda kissed the guy!" Some are genuinely helpful. Jerzy Kosinski "comes in and out all the time," Leone says, and took a number of pictures in a Manhattan sex club to help the artist design the cover for his next book "Pinball." And when Kosinski didn't like what Bantam had come up with for the cover of "The Devil Tree," he went out and took his own photo which ran on the cover. Others are quietly contrary, like Philip Roth, who nixed a Bantam plan to repackage all his work with illustrations. "He liked the pristine qualities associated with an all-type jacket," Leone says.

And some are outright impossible. Leone knows something about author clout, and has endured a best-selling romance writer who gets to hire her own decidedly peculiar artist. But he was unprepared for J.D. Salinger.

Back in the '60s, Leone had become very excited about "The Catcher in the Rye," and planned a major design effort. "Then we got a memo from Salinger," the first of many, all relayed through Salinger's agent because the reclusive scrivener would not communicate directly with anyone. First, "He wanted a watercolor of a boy with a red baseball cap sitting on a park bench." A few days later, Salinger had reconsidered. "Now he thought maybe just a cap sitting on the bench, with no boy at all." Then a third notion: "He was thinking that maybe we ought to just have a bench! I began to assume that this was not going to be easy."

It wasn't. Salinger wanted to see watercolors of all three situations, which Leone dutifully caused to be painted. Meanwhile, Salinger had a friend who did calligraphy, "and he sent us a note saying 'this sort of lettering is kind of nice.' It was awful! A kid in grade-school could do better!" While Leone was stewing, Salinger struck again. He had decided that he wanted red lettering on a green background and no illustration. "Horrible!" Leone moans. "It vibrates! And then he sends us samples of this hand lettering. I don't think he cut them out, I think he bit them off with his teeth!

"Then he wants to see the galleys, and they're all set in Times Roman a severe typeface used by the Times of London ." Salinger decided on that face for the cover. "Can you believe it?" Leone groans. Worse yet, "I had his name large, but he wanted to make it smaller, and then we had to do 'Franny and Zooey' with that sick hand-lettering he sent us."

No matter how keen the authorial whines, the aggressive jacket is here to stay. Following the big-bucks bull years of the '70s, "the brakes have been put on considerably," says Bacon, who expects that budget retrenchment will limit artwork to three or four flat colors and larger typography. But no one is expecting graphic restraint. As a sales tool, "jackets have not reached their full potential," Scudellari says. "Most major publishers aren't as astute with graphics as most corporate or marketing people."

Leone believes that "the artistic photograph should be able to play a far greater role," Light predicts "more hardcovers that are a harder sell," and Bacon fears that "trade jackets are going to start looking like paperback covers, with cutouts and girls' legs sticking out." (This month Newmarket Press brought out "A Glorious Way to Die" -- a hardcover book with a promotional quote on the jacket.)

But don't expect a rush of new ideas. Warner's Light often promises himself that "I'm gonna try to get a new look. But every time you do, it'll go down the tubes." And besides, he says, "you can't try an innovation on a book you've paid a million dollars for." Scudellari agrees: "There's a lot of tunnel vision going on, based on the reality that people don't buy new images."

"We ask our artists to communicate," he says, "but it's a bit of a shame that we only infrequently ask them to create."