Washington attorney Margaret Dean McCrory has always hankered after the literary life. She also had dreamed of owning her own business.

So it was only fitting when nine months ago, her pockets padded with a $35,000 second mortage and her spirits fluctuating between the elation and trepidation any latter-day Guttenburg might feel, she joined the growing ranks of independent publishers.

After incorporating the Dean Company, McCrory's first order of business was to find the right book to publish. Like Gutenburg, she selected one with an inspirational message, entitled "The Dandelion." The book, she claims, was written "mostly by a male Washington attorney with the help of a few other people" under the pseudonym of Joy Morgenstern.

McCrory compares the parable in "The Danelion" to that of bestseller "Jonathan Livingston Seagull." Unfortunately the similarity ends there. The Macmillian Company's "Seagull" has sold millions of copies, but the Dean Company's "Dandelion" has only sold 600.

"One of the big problems for small publishers is distribution," said McCrory, who sandwiches the publishing business between legal appointments at her downtown office.

"It's not so hard finding a good book to publish. It's not even so difficult learning from the bottom up about make-up, various kinds of paper and type as I've done," she said. "But when it comes to distributing the book . . . that is contracting the stores, selling the book and then delivering the order . . . that's when the small publisher hits the stone wall. dI found I was competing with a highly technical, well-oiled business machine. What's more, most book stores don't want to touch you if you haven't had a previous success."

Another major difficulty that thwarts the small publisher is the high cost of advertising and publicity. A two-inch, two-column ad in a major daily paper cost around $350, a sum beyond the budget of many fledgling companies. Reviews and author interviews, found to be the most effective type of promotion, are virtually unattainable without expensive and intensive republication hype. (An author's appearance on the "Today" Show reportedly sells 10,000 books across the country that day.)

Publishers of all sizes have been affected by the high price of paper. This, plus the need to compete with television for entertainment hours, has changed -- and many think compromised -- the character of the publishing business.

In part, McCrory's decision to go into publishing stemmed from a desire to recapture high standards. "I want to put books carefully together," she said. "Not something rushed on cheap paper with a lot of mistakes. I don't see why quality has to be sacrificed just because we are fighting double-digit inflation."

Despire the frustrations of being the little guy in a market where the winds of inflation even buffet the fortunes of the giants, the number of small publishers continue to climb. A survey conducted by the Gale Research Company last year uncovered 800 new publishing firms that had been established since 1977.

Phyllis Ball of the Association of American Publishers, believes small publishers to be good candidates for survival during the economic recession forecast for the 1980s. "It's a business one person can set up in a garage," she says. "There's very little overhead and no inventory. They can survive by staying small.

"Also," she adds, "most people interested in publishing have strong personalities and are very individualistic. They will cut back in unconventional ways." "It's a situation where a person with a lot of drive can build, build, build," said McCrory, whose energetic personal campaign sold 600 copies of "The Dandelion." She and two part-time employes canvassed the area's gift shops, dropping off a few copies where the proprietors consented. At one point she even considered having Avon saleswomen sell the book door to door along with their cosmetics.

"All things considered, the book has sold well," McCrory said. "I'm confident we will eventually sell all 5,000 copies."

To reach that goal, McCrory, like other small publishers who want their accounting sheets to balance, has turned to nationwide distributing companies for help. And while distributors relieve publishers of many worries, they also relieve them of about 70 percent of their sales dollars.

Increasingly, publishing companies which began in basements with high hopes of Mom and Pop handling all business matters, are surrendering their independence in the name of suvival. The growing trend is to contract out part of the book's production.

McCrory, for example, contemplates having a major paperback house publish the soft-cover, mass-market edition of the Dean Company's second book, a guide to divorce written by the publisher herself. The Dean Company, however, will publish the hard cover and trade editions and can, for a price, retain its name on the mass market edition.

Curiously, McCrory does not feel defeated by these measures. "If you don't sell in volume, you don't make it," she says.