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When Steven Shulman's kid cousin came home carrying textbooks papered with ugly ads for insurance and the local pizza joint, he wondered: What if national advertisers paid for graphically catchy book covers in exchange for free distribution at public schools?

Several school years later, Mr. Shulman and his business partner, Michael Yanoff, are distributing millions of Michael Jordans, Golden Arches, Chuck E. Cheeses and other youth icons on covers used by 21.5 million students in 31,000 schools nationwide.

"It's not a complicated idea," Mr. Shulman said of his 5-year-old Cover Concepts Marketing Services, based in Braintree, Mass. "Students have to cover their books under local ordinances in most public school districts, and the schools are happy to receive the covers each fall."

Mr. Shulman, Cover Concepts' director of operations, would not disclose annual revenues. The company distributed 40 million covers in the 1994-95 school year and plans to double that in 1995-96.

Advertisers pay for the printing and distribution of the covers, while the schools sign a contract with Cover Concepts stating that they will use no other company's book covers.

Cover Concepts isn't the only marketer hoping to make cash off this end of the classroom.

River Vale, N.J.-based novelty and high tech fabric marketer Lady M Promotionals is trying to carve an environmentally sensitive niche in the business: washable and reusable book covers that require no scissors, tape or parental dexterity for assembly; they also carry paid advertising.

Lady M President Martin Levy said he is in talks with Walt Disney World, the NBA and NHL, fast-food franchises and retailers including Barnes & Noble Bookstores; Sears, Roebuck & Co.; Target Stores; Wal-Mart Stores; and Kmart Corp.

Regardless of what they look like or where they're sold, however, it seems book wrappers have got the numbers on kids. Simmons Market Research's Custom Media Studies division found Cover Concepts after the 1989-90 and 1990-91 school years had up to a 74% brand recall on Nike covers and recall rates higher than 50% on Nestle Quik covers.

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