In the annals of publishing, 1983 may go down as the year when America's small presses ''arrived.'' Some 80 percent of the books in the United States come from 20 percent of the publishers - the giants. Centered in New York and Boston, they often seem oblivious to the thousands of smaller presses beyond the Adirondacks. Traditionally mainstream media haven't paid much attention to them, either. But that's beginning to change.
Next month R. R. Bowker, the Xerox-owned company that produces Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and ''Books in Print,'' will launch Small Press. This new bimonthly ''magazine of independent book publishers'' will be devoted to companies small enough for ''important decisions to be made by a single individual or partnership'' - in other words, the independents, which represent the only segment of publishing that is growing dramatically.
More than 50 small presses spring up each month, according to Len Fulton, co-editor of the International Directory of Literary Magazines and Small Presses (Dustbooks, PO Box 100, Paradise, Calif. 95969). The total is approaching 14,000 , estimates Bruce W. Gray, the publisher for Bowker's magazine group.
One reason for this growth is that new writers regard small as beautiful. While the giants must sell 10,000 copies of a new book to break even, the small presses can survive on 1,000. As a result, they are the first resort of beginners and the avant-garde.
Tracing their ancestry back to the Dial magazine of the 1840s, edited by Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson, the smallest of the small are often the idealistic, idiosyncratic enterprises of writers, poets, or professors. Housed in basements and warehouses, they turn out a book or two a year, and perhaps a magazine, relying on a tiny, dedicated staff not only to edit manuscripts, but also to market the product and type the shipping labels. By contrast, the largest of the independents are long-lived, profitable concerns, whose books are indistinguishable in appearance from those of the giants. These companies often flourish on regional or specialty titles.
A few small presses succeed in placing their books in stores nationwide, but the vast majority depend on local distribution and mail orders. As a rule, small press publications are reviewed only by their peers. The Pushcart Press publishes a bellwether anthology each year (see below).
The new Bowker magazine won't feature reviews but will include a column called ''Charmers,'' to highlight volumes deemed outstanding in production or content.
Bruce Gray says that if his company hadn't responded to the needs of independent publishers by launching Small Press, someone else would have. ''We want to teach people how to publish wonderful books. . . . Many of the presses have been awfully cynical about us; they think we just want to make money. Of course we want to make money, . . . but we want to help the small presses by serving them directly. They are becoming stronger and better in what they do and will make waves for the future, and we want to be there.''
Len Fulton, who has been keeping tabs on the independents for more than 20 years, says Bowker's estimate of 14,000 must include single-books publishers, house organs, and other sardines that he tosses out of his net. His own current tally of 3,500 companies represents ''85 percent of what's out there,'' he says. But he does agree with Mr. Gray that growth has been phenomenal; 20 years ago Fulton found only 100 independents to count.