IT SOUNDS SELF-EVIDENT, but is nonethless interesting, to say that New England's highly diverse publishers reflect the qualities that have typified the region for centuries: tradition, reserve, entrepreneurial skill, independence. This latter quality is significant and belies the argument, so often heard, that conglomeratization is killing the independent publisher. Indeed, only two of the publishers mentioned here -- Little, Brown and New York Graphic Society -- are subsidiaries, and their parent, Time-Life, is in the publishing business anyway. The region has a solid base of established firms, but a sizeable number of smaller publishers were founded in the late 1960s and 1970s, a direct response to New York's giantism. Most of them do have national, and international, audiences: The point is, they consider it an advantage to be outside New York's orbit.

While, in success of failure, New York publishers are almost exhibitionist in their excesses, New England's avoid excess, with rare exception. While New Yorkers, locked in mortal competition, have attempted to publish many books for every taste, New Englanders take advantage of literary talents in their backyard and target some, if not all, of their list to a specific audience which has always been supportive. This is even true of the two most visible New England publishers, Little Brown and Houghton Mifflin. Founded in 1837, Little, Brown has had countless best sellers -- from James Russell Lowell's A Year's Life (1841) to James Carroll's Mortal Friends (1979) -- and maintains fruitful ties with the regions's leading journalists. Houghton Mifflin, begun five years earlier, in its early years published Hawthorne, Emerson and Thoreau, and now proudly issues Paul Theroux and John Kenneth Galbraith among other authors of local origin. Both firms actively publish histories of and guides to the region.

Several other publishers have venerable backgrounds. Charles E. Tuttle Co. first did business in 1832; located in Rutland, Vermont, its splendid list of books on Oriental subjects -- from literature to the martial arts -- benefits from New England's longstanding fascination with the Far East. Beacon Press (1902) and Bankers Publishing Co. (1903) are two often overlooked Boston firms, whose respective lists in social science, psychology and women's studies on the one hand, and books on banking on the other, build on previous successes. Peter Smith has been reprinting classic out-of-print and rare books (many of them regional) since 1929, while the Atlantic Monthly Press has, since 1917, turned its magazine article into award-winning books (Frances Fitzgerald's Fire In The Lake, for one). The New York Graphic Society, started in 1925, was moved to Boston when purchased by Time-Life in the mid-'70s and continues its sterling list of art and photography books.

It's accurate to say that New England's publishing community has doubled in the last 15 years, and it's in these "new" firms that the true entrepreneurial spirit is more readily seen. All are small, most undercapitalized, hence their lack of national visibility ("We're constantly bridging the gap between payables and receivables," said one). All depend to some degree on the region for writers and outlets. Most seek safety by specializing in certain subject areas.

One which generalizes, however, is the firm I work for, David Godine of Boston, this year celebrating its 10th anniversary with a list as diverse as that of most big publishers; yet a good 40 percent of our 1980 authors are local, including Noel Perrin and Andre' Dubus. The Vermont press bearing Stephen Greene's name has issued two enormously successful books, Putting Food By and Caldwell on Cross-Country Skiing in addition to series on railroads and Morgan horses. Nahum Stiskin founded Autumn Press in Japan in 1972, but moved back to Brookline, Massachusetts, when his 1975 Book of Tofu unexpectedly became a great success; he then published Helen Caldecott's Nuclear Madness on the eve of Three Mile Island, the sort of publishing serendipity every publisher dreams of. Penmaen Press, in Lincoln, Massachusetts, publishes letterpress editions of William Saroyan, Robert Coover and Joyce Carol Oates, often illustrated with the woodcuts of proprietor Michael McCurdy. In Boston, Seymour Lawrence has issued, since 1965, a superior literary list which is distributed by Delacorte; and in Cambridge, Alice James Books has championed women poets in many fine editions for the past eight years. In Vermont, Claire van Vliet produces extraordinarily beautiful, handprinted and hand-bound limited editions under the Janus imprint, a throwback to bygone craftsmanship.

Spurred by the success of Born to Win, Addison-Wesley's fledgling trade division has grown steadily, and last year published The Joy of Photography to great acclaim and profit. Another recent publishing entity is Cambridge's Abt Books, the 2-year-old publishing arm of Abt Associates, which issues scholarly books in business. Also outside Boston, Curtin & London specializes in how-to books on photography, while Lovell Thompson's Gambit (Alligators & Music), and Harvard Common Press (A Very Young Housewife) have had success with the light touch, though each also publishes highly serious books.

Several presses publish books on self-sufficiency and nature: Peter Jennison revived Countryman Press in Taftsville, Vermont, in 1973, after three decades of inactivity, and succeeded recently with Back Yard Livestock, How to Grow Meat for Your Famly; Garden Way, in Charlotte, Vermont, since 1971, specializes in gardening books and equipment and does much better via the mails than in stores. Several other publishers focus entirely on New England. The Boston Globe last year bought the Pequot Press in Chester, Connecticut, and finds itself the publisher of a series of biking and walking guides to the region, along with the bestselling Gude to Recommended Country Inns of New England, where the bikers and hikers find places to rest up for the next day. The Globe plans to make good use of its own writers in future books and hopes to open a New England bookstore in the fall. Barry Hildebrandt's brand new Peregrine Press in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, will publish original nonfiction paperbacks for and about New England, including Solar Energy for the Northeast. In Maine, Cumberland Press/Bond Wheelwright (1949) and Yankee Inc. (1966) respectively feature calligraphy and regional history. Berkshire Traveller Press (1966) and Vermont Crossroads Press (1973), whose names suggest their lists, round out only a partial survey of the region's smaller publishers.

It should also be noted that New England can boast some of the country's finest university press publishing. The presses at Harvard, MIT and Yale have vital trade lists which are aggressively marketed. Of more recent origin are the University of Massachusetts Press, the University Press of New England and the incipient Northeastern University publishing group. And this article doesn't even begin to address the many fine educational publishers in the region, some of whose trade arms have been discussed.

In a reversal of Robert Morley's quip "welcome home, all is forgiven," New England appears to have become the jumping off point for British publishers attempting to capitalize directly on the U.S. marketplace, instead of selling rights to their titles. Routledge & Kegan Paul has long maintained a Boston office, which distributes its dozens of new titles each year. Merrimack Book Services, in Salem, New Hampshire, distributes for several U.K. publishers, including such prestigitous firms as Faber & Faber and Jonathan Cape. Other British publishers have announced plans to open American offices in New England, while the distinguished German publisher of Brecht, Rilke and Handke, Suhrkamp Verlag, has just established an affiliate in Boston.

Finally, Robert Bentley Inc. is a small Cambridge publisher which has the good fortune to publish Volkswagen's official service manuals. Needless to say, they're highly successful. Bentley, however, decided to diversify, and over a decade ago started a hardcover fiction reprint line, consisting of out-of-print and public domain titles. Its list is now approaching 50 titles, and contains such modest novels as Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, B. Traven's Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. These sell almost entirely to libraries; yet the contrast between repair manuals and the finest of literature on one list is nonetheless delightful to contemplate.