LONDON — BRITAIN'S nationally circulating ``quality'' Sunday newspapers are beginning to multiply at a rapid rate. Three months ago there were three: the Sunday Times, the Observer, and the Sunday Telegraph. By the end of January, there will be five, and another, hitherto regarded as ``popular,'' will be trying to push its way up-market.
The first newcomer into the field was the Sunday Correspondent, launched by a group of journalists aiming to make use of new electronic technology to produce a serious broadsheet. It was modeled on the Independent, a national daily that began printing three years ago and now is a respected rival to the Times and the Guardian.
But Andreas Whittam-Smith, editor of the Independent, was nurturing plans of his own. Soon after the Correspondent began appearing, he announced that a Sunday edition of the Independent would be launched in January 1990.
Meanwhile, publishers of the Sunday Express, a raffish broadsheet strong on sensationalism, decided to move into the ``quality'' end of the market, where rich advertising is to be found. The Sunday Express will relaunch early next year.
Charles Wintour, a leading commentator on the newspaper industry, acknowledges that there is a strong public appetite for serious Sunday journalism but wonders whether there are enough readers to sustain so many papers. ``Something will probably have to give,'' he says.
Already the Sunday Correspondent, which is well written but has been criticized for dullness, has its work cut out competing with the Sunday Times, which has well over 1 million readers, and the Observer and Sunday Telegraph, each with roughly half that number.
Wintour thinks the Correspondent and the Sunday Independent will probably fight a ``battle royal'' to stay in business.
Meanwhile Robert Maxwell, publisher of the Mirror Group mass-circulation newspapers, is planning a weekly paper to be published simultaneously in several capitals. He says it will appear in mid-1990 and be called the European.