ONCE upon a time, most publishers were small. In the latter half of the 19th century, the activity of publishing in the United States was associated strongly with the whims, the fortunes, and the risk-taking abilities of single individuals, or, as in the case of Harper Brothers, members of the same family.
This rich period gave us many of the firms that are leaders in the industry today - names such as Henry Holt, Houghton Mifflin, Little, Brown & Co., and Alfred A. Knopf, one of the last firms of any great significance to be associated with the personality and the tastes of a single individual.
While publishing firms, as institutions, have now grown to skyscraper proportions and the fashion in bigness is seemingly irreversible, the personal and individualized nature of the business has remained constant. Books are still written by individuals, and they must first touch the sensibilities of other individuals - usually editors employed by the publisher - before they can be published. These editors and their superiors in top management stand in for ''the publisher,'' who no longer exists in the sense he once did.
Franklin Nelson Doubleday captured, in his small book, ''A Publisher's Confession,'' the essence of publishing as he saw it in the early 1900s: ''The truth is, it is a personal service that the publisher does for the author, almost as personal a service as the physician does for his patient, or the lawyer for his client. It is not merely a commercial service. Every great publisher knows this and almost all successful authors find it out, if they do not know it at first.''
It may be that the new generation of small publishers is discovering this for themselves. If they cannot establish lasting empires, they do have a special opportunity to cultivate that peculiar relationship between author and publisher that is the corollary of a modest setting and a more intimate approach to business.
Among the newer houses founded the last 15 years, the most firmly established is David Godine. With a list of 40 books to his credit in 1983, Godine is justified in saying, ''We are not small anymore.''
The firm is housed in spacious if untidy offices in the basement of a historic Boston mansion just off Commonwealth Avenue. Godine, now in his early 40s, presides over a youngish, hardworking staff that sees no contradiction between computer-based inventory and the faintly Dickensian aspect of the surroundings.
Godine, recognized within the industry for his love of fine printing and inspired book design, began his list in 1969 with a test in the public domain - ''Specimen Days,'' by Walt Whitman. Lavishly illustrated with beautifully produced photographs of the poet throughout the stages of his life, that volume remains in print today. The list has expanded to include original fiction by novelists such as Andre Dubus and Arthur Cohen, children's books, translations, and most recently paperbacks purchased for reprint from other publishers' hard-cover lists.
Godine's operation, however, has been far from problem-free. Distribution is an obstacle for most small publishers, due in part to their lack of clout with bookstores. As he puts it, ''Just getting paid can be a problem. The smaller you are, the worse it is. Bookstores can get your books from a wholesaler, but they can't afford to have Random House, a publisher with which they have a very large account, put them on credit hold. On the other hand, you, a small publisher, can wait a long time, and not be able to do much about it.''
Looking tired, but cheerful, Godine touches on the issue of author loyalty. Writers, he concedes, don't necessarily stay with small publishers who may have given them their start. He has lost at least one writer he valued highly. ''We couldn't pay the money he wanted; and the problem was, he hadn't earned out his previous advances.'' Still, Godine insists, his philosophy of publishing is most assuredly author-oriented. ''We're looking for writers to publish, and we're willing to support an author's flawed book. If we can reprint all of a writer's work, acquire his other titles for paperback reprint from another publisher, we'll do it.''
Godine also laments rising production prices but knows there isn't much he can do about them. ''Our illustrated books have to be wonderful. Authors come to us especially for that. But, like everyone else, we now charge more for our books. Ten, fifteen, even four or five years ago, we could buy paper on consignment. Now all accounts expect payment in 90 days, and interest rates have shot way up.''
In spite of Godine's worries, he has no doubts about remaining in business. A new distribution agreement with Harper & Row has proved satisfactory, and he is looking forward to expanding to perhaps to 55 to 60 titles. But he notes, ''Beyond that I wouldn't want to go, because it would mean I would not have the time to read all that we publish. And I never want to lose the sense of what it is I am doing.''
Friday, Part 2: The high risks of small publishing.