Twenty years ago, Raymond Fellers was frustrated.

A professor at City College in New York, he had been searching for a publisher for his collection of essays about democracy, and was having no luck. Like a lot of his academic colleagues, Fellers was unable to interest anyone in a book that would sell only about 1,000 copies, if that.

"There just weren't that many academic presses at the time," Fellers said. "If your book wasn't going to sell, nobody was interested."

This made other professors see red. Fellers, on the other hand, saw a market niche. He asked an accountant friend, Stanley Plotnick, to help him launch a press catering to short print runs of academic books.

Investing a few thousand dollars each, they rented an office from a couple friends of Plotnick's, space that happened to be located on the seventh floor of the Prince George's County Parole Board building in Camp Springs. They hired a friend of a friend named Jed Lyons, a recent graduate of Bowdoin College, to run the company, and the University Press of America was born.

Today, the company is based in Lanham and has 130 employees and $31 million in annual revenue. It has become one of the six largest academic publishers in the country.

UPA has thrived in a market segment where a book selling a paltry 2,000 copies is considered a bestseller by dealing in volume -- it has bought a number of publishing houses and now prints upwards of 450 titles a year.

And in 1986, the company got into the book distribution business by launching the National Book Network, a venture that allows UPA to ride the biggest wave in book sales today: the growth of superstores.

The economics of the academic publishing business have not changed much in the 20 years UPA has been up and running. Most sales still are made by direct mail, and most buyers are still libraries and students. Publishers earn about 12 percent of a book's cover price and most paperbacks, half of UPA's annual list, cost less than $15.

So since 1985 UPA has been on a small publishing house buying spree, purchasing Madison Books, Rowman and Littlefield, Littlefield Adams Books and Cooper Square, among others. With each house has come a backlist of old titles and front list of new ones.

UPA tries to keep the unique editorial flavor of each imprint, though support and editorial staffs are generally downsized and moved into the company's headquarters. "The idea is that there is a single editorial department doing things like oversight, copy editing and proofreading," Lyons said. "But take Rowman and Littlefield. They are well-known for books on political theory, and we continue to look for books on that subject, often by the same authors, to publish under the R&L imprint."

Scarecrow Press, publisher of bibliographic reference books, is UPA's most recent acquisition. When the buyout was announced in April, it had a staff of 17, none of whom will be moving to Lanham. Albert Daub will remain Scarecrow's president for another year, working out of his home, and then gradually hand over his responsibilities. "We're very pleased about it," Daub said. "Scarecrow will continue in the same field. I think the marriage between the two offices will simply supply better marketing for our titles." With the creation of the National Book Network, UPA has also become a player in book distribution. The network now sells volumes by 50 presses to retailers across the country, a service that has recently become invaluable to the many small and midsized publishers trying to get into the largest outlets.

Customers who took to one-stop shopping in hangar-sized showrooms for products as varied as computers and do-it-yourself-products have fallen in love with huge booksellers.

Though shoppers appreciate the convenience, small publishers have a hard time getting superstores to carry their wares. Barnes & Noble, for instance, considers the accounting and logistics costs of working with the smaller presses -- those doing less than $100,000 a year in business with them -- prohibitively expensive. Nearly all superstores require the sort of electronic processing systems that only larger presses can afford.

That's why UPA created the National Book Network. It gives small presses the strength of numbers and allows superstores a chance to one-stop shop. NBN accounted for two-thirds of UPA's revenue last year and is the second largest of the independent book distributors.

Jim Milliot, business editor of Publishers Weekly, believes both NBN and its competitor, Publishers West Group, will fare well.

"Small presses are clamoring to get into these big retail chains," Milliot said. "NBN and Publishers West are going to compete, but there is plenty of room for both of them, and there might even be room for more."

NBN now handles 50 publishers, including the output of Washington area venues like Congressional Quarterly and the Cato Institute, and presents books in the sort of slick, perfect-bound catalogues that until now were only produced by industry titans like Random House and Simon & Schuster. The spring/summer '95 catalogue has something for everyone, from the widely reviewed "American Journey of Eric Sevareid," by Raymond Schroth, to the widely reviled "Passion & Betrayal," Gennifer Flowers's tell-all autobiography. * CAPTION: University Press of America's co-director Irv Meyers, left, and President Jed Lyons. Below, the company's huge warehouse in Savage, Md.