Publishing is always a funny business -- sometimes funny ha-ha, sometimes funny peculiar -- but never more so than when the summer mail brings the fall catalogues. Another book on Marilyn? New advice on how to guarantee financial security by turning your measly savings account into tuna-fish futures? Cats and cancer, witches and whales, more Nazis, fewer feminists: now that the orders are in, teh cliche-drained copywriters can head for the beach.

Groans from various quarters -- cries of "it's pretty dismal" or "there's nothing" -- must, as usual, be ignored; fall 1981, like all the years before it, is brimming with titles which the paperback houses, book clubs, book reviewers and, yes, even book buyers are waiting to pounce on.

Meanwhile, as booksellers are busy scarring their fingers opening the beginning avalanche of stubbornly stapled cartons and brushing insidious book-bag lint off their clothes, here's a book at what the major trade lists for the upcoming season have to offer.

There are a number of different ways in which a book can be characterized as Big: by the author's previous track record, by the ad budget or the advance sales, by whether a house is "high" on a book and really "behind" it, or by whether the wholesalers are enthusiastic and the paperback and book club people are paying through the nose. Biggies

Taking these criteria, it becomes hard to miss the bigness of John Irving's The Hotel New Hampshire (Dutton/Sept.) or Rabbit Is Rich (Knopf/oct.), John Updike's new episode in the life and times of "Rabbit" Harry Angstrom. This pair of novels, by the men who put the words "Garp" and "Bech" in the language, will certainly be joined on the fiction side of the best-seller list by Stephen King's Cujo (Viking/Sept.), a thriller-chiller about a rabid Saint Bernard dog, and Colleen McCullough's An Indecent Obsession (Harper & Row/Oct.), her first book since The Thorn Birds .

It's one more time around for Irwin Shaw and Joyce Carol Oates; their novels, respectively Bread Upon the Waters (Delacorte) and Angel of Light (Dutton), are late summer titles that probably won't have disappeared by the first cold snap. Though who knows if the same will hold true for the much-discussed debut novel by former Wunderkind Joyce Maynard. Baby Love (Knopf), also out in August?

Further down the line Mary Renault is offering a sequel to The Persian Boy -- Funeral Games (Pantehon/Dec.) -- and Walter F. (The Vicar of Christ ) Murphy has The Roman Enigma coming from Macmillan in October. Two movies stars who have also made their mark as accomplished writers are represented this fall: Dirk Bogarde's Voices in the Garden (Knopf/Sept.) is his second work of fiction; David Niven's Go Slowly, Come Back Quickly (Doubleday/Oct.) is his first. Both Rona Jaffe and former Washingtonian John Coyne have seized upon the same idea for creepy fiction, the popularity of "Dungeons and Dragons" type fantasy games: Jaffe's Mazes and Monsters will be released by Delacorte in September and Coyne's Hobgoblin by Putnam the following month.

Nicholas Meyer's Confessions of a Homign Pigeon (Dial/Oct.) sounds like Auntie Mame or Travels With My Aunt. , except that the irresistible relative here is an uncle James Clavell has a novelette (all of 96 nearly blank pages) called The Children's Story being published by Delacorte in September. It appears to be vaguely inspirational and when best-selling authors (Clavell wrote Shotgun and Noble House ) get the urge to shift gears and write this sort of thing, well, everyone just hope to hope for the best.

Good word-of-mouth has begun in the book community about a novel with a Chinese background, Bette Bao Lord's Spring Moon (Harper & Row/Oct.), by the wife of foreign policy heavyweight Winston Lord. No less a personage than Publishers Weekly executive editor Barbara Bannon, taking a moment off from feverish activity on PW 's Fall Announcements issue, singled it out as "quite exciting." (In general, Bannon believes it to be "a very good season for fiction.") Network correspondents Bernard and Marvin Kalb depict the final days of Saigon in a first novel, The Last Ambassador (Little, Brown/Sept.) while Robert Moss, late of The Spike , is going it solo with Death Beam (Crown/Oct.). (As you might have heard, this novel used to be called Death Star until George Lucas strenuously objected, saying that he had secured rights to that name for his Star Wars series.)

Chaim Potok, Jill Robinson, Robin Cook, Silvia Tennenbaum, Thomas Berger, Jim Harrison, John Masters, Larry Woiwode, Herbert gold, Robert Daley, Dan Jenkins, Phyllis Whitney and Alfred Coppel are a few of the numerous others who have a claim on our attention for executive editor describes the new novel by Robert Stone, author of Dog Soldiers. A Flag for Sunrise (knopf/ Nov.), which takes place in a Central American country as it's about to topple into revolution, is the top pick of a couple of book-review editors, too. Receiving a different sort of comment is Red Dragon (Putnam/Jan.) by Thomas Harris, who wrote Black Sunday . Said a member of the new-book purchasing group at Baker & Taylor, the influential coast-to-coast wholesaler. "It's pretty disgusting. They take fingerprints off of eyeballs!" But it's already sold to paper for megabucks, and Baker & Taylor expects it to be a winner.

In addition to the Irving, Updike, etc., sure bets, the buyers at Bayker & Taylor think well of Howard Fast's The Legacy (Hougton Mifflin/Sept.), volume four in the Lavette family saga. September also brings Eric Ambler's 18th novel. The Care of Time (Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Sept.), set in the Middle East. Be assured that it's practically a rule of thumb that if fiction about foreign intrigue isn't set in the Middle East then it's going to take place in Latin America (revenant SS officers are a sub-genre). Washington-based correspondent Tad Szulc has chosen a mythical Latin America country as the backdrop for his first novel, Diplomatic Immunity (Simon and Schuster/Sept.), which has as its heroine a former CIA director's daughter-turned-ambassador. the new fiction season. Plus, there are story collections from Donald Barthelme. Richard Yates and, in book form for the first time, the late T. H. White. Traditions by Alan Ebert and Janice Rotchstein is a fat commercial novel that Crown has high hopes for in September: at spans decades, etc., etc., but one veteran observer at a large paperback house thinks it's "being oversold." However, one can't blame Crown, which hyped Scruples and Princess Daisy to success, for trying. SLEEPING GIANTS

Yet, in addition to Big books and Less Big Books, what about the Big Little books, the sleepers and long shots? The title mentioned most frequently in this category is on the Farrar, Strauss list. Easy Travel to Other Planets by Ted Mooney, out in September. Everyone who's read it has been impressed by this haunting, original first novel about a woman and a dolphin. Mooney, by the way, is a native of Washington and a former managing editor of Fiction. Celia Gittelson's Saving Grace (Knopf/Sept.), Rita Kashner's Bed Rest (Macmillan/Sept.) are three others that appear to have caught the fancies of people in the book-watching game. But my favorite line of catalogue copy for new fiction describes Charles Nelson's The Boy Who Picked the bullets Up (Morrow/Sept.): "a bitchy, witty, moving gay novel about Vietnam." That'll be a tough act to follow.

If fiction has a touch of glamour that nonfiction does not, then the nonfiction has the safety of numbers -- and safety is what the publishers have in mind, covering themselves for having taken chances by cloning how-to's and how-not-to's, movie star bios, life-crises books and kitty humor. One catalogue, straightfaced, even displays a half-page for Creative Chainsau Projects, so there is something for everyone.

As for Bigness, one can feel in regard to the nonfiction lists much as Gulliver did in Brobdingnag. Tom Wolfe and L. L. Bean. Betty Crocker and Fran Lebowitz: we know that Bean has "the right stuff," but The Fran Lebowitz Microwave Cookbook? Actually, it's Betty who's figured that microwave ovens are here to stay, and Random House is bringing out her definitive volume on the subject in September. Random is also home base for Social Studies, Lebowitz's new compendium of wisecracks, as well as the The L. L. Bean Guide to the Outdoors, by Bill Riviere and the staff of the famous Maine store. Wolfe, however, is, as always, on the Farrar, Straus list; his From Bauhaus to Our House (Sept.) apparently was at one point titled Underneath the I-Beams, Inside the Compound. I think he made the right choice.

Gail Sheehy has got the folks at Baker & Taylor worked up about Pathfinders (Morrow/Sept.), which describes and interviews people who have overcome crises in their own lives. They also like The Mind's I (Basic/Sept.) by Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett, which tackles the question of the existence of the human soul. (Hofstadter is the author of the intricate Godel, Escher, Bach; one early judgment on this new work is that "it's an anthology with heavy padding.") Another on the Baker & Taylor list of potential stars is David Attenborough's Life on Earth (Little, Brown-/Oct.) but they're pretty sure this exploration of natural history byways "won't take off until PBS shows the 13-part series after the first of the year."

Baker & Taylor's choice for a nonfiction "sleeper" was mentioned by a couple of other observers polled unofficially: DMSO: The True and Remarkable Story (Morrow/Oct.) by Barry Tarshis is the story of a new drug not yet fully sanctioned by the FDA but which many people believe a modern miracle prescription for everything from herpes infections to arthritis. It first got national exposure on a "60 Minutes" segment.

The people at B. Dalton, the chain booksellers, are confident the The Walk West: A Walk Across America 2 (Morrow/Nov.) by Peter and Barbara Jenkins will do as well as its predecessor. Not a New York-Boston corridor type book. A Walk Across America sold hugely across the country and does have at least one fan in Washington: said Ronald, now President, Reagan, "Peter Jenkins is an inspiration to us all." So much for mass-transit aid. LIVES AND TIMES

Biographies of Elizabeth Taylor, Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand and Laurence Olivier are coming; Merle Haggard has written about himself, and the Muppets now have a Boswell in christopher Finch, who's done Of Muppets and Men (Knopf/Oct.). Thomas Hoving, no puppet, has produced the story of how famous museums tried to muscle each other out in the attempt to acquire a famous medieval treasure. Called King of the Confessors (Simon and Schuster/Oct.), it "reads just like a detective novel," says Lorraine Shanley, editorial director of Quality Paperback Book Club, a division of Book-of-the-Month.

Howard Teichmann, who once did, among others, Alice Longworth, has written Fonda: My Life (New American Library/Nov.), with the full cooperation of the subject, Henry. It's an "as told to" while daughter Jane's Workout Book, available the same month from Simon and Schuster, is an "as stretched by." There are collections of the letters of two much-loved writers, Tolkien and Thurber.

Pierre Salinger's marathon ABC special, "America Held Hostage," has been turned into a book of the same name (Doubleday/Nov.) and Richard Queen, the hostage released early for medical reasons, has Inside and Out (Putnam/Sept.). Meanwhile, V. S. Naipaul and Kate Millett both will have books recounting personal observations of Iran today.

author of a controversial biography of Jefferson, Fawn Brodie completed Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character (Norton/Sept.) before she died last winter. Rowland Evans and Robert Novak are timely with The Reagan Revolution: An Inside Look at the Transformation of the U.S. Government (Dutton/Sept.). In September Elizabeth Drew publishes Portrait of an Election: The 1980 Presidential Campaign (Simon and Schuster) and Jack Germond and Jules Witcover will have just done likewise with Blue Smoke and Mirror: How Reagan Won and Carter Lost the Election of 1980 (Viking). Teddy White will have the last word on the subject; however, it isn't due until next year. POTOMAC FEVER

The current trend in publishing seems to be lots of Washington books, so also on the shelves will be: Tribes on the Hill: An Investigation into the Rituals and Realities of an Endangered Species -- The Congress of the United States (Rawson-Wade/Oct.) by J. McIver Weatherford; Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Test Ban (University of California Press/-Nov.) by Nobel prize-winner Glenn T. Seaborg; The Hidden Election (Pantheon/Oct.) edited by Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers; Watershed: The Presidential, Election of 1980 (Times Books/Nov.) by John F. Stacks; All the President's Kin (Macmillan/Sept.) by Barbara Kellerman; Presidential Anecdotes (Oxford/Sept.) by Paul F. Boller Jr.; The New Kingmakers: An Inside Look at the Powerful Men Behind America's Political Campaigns (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/Sept.) by David Chagall; The Rise of Political Consultants (Basic/Sept.) by Larry Sabado; and American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony (Harvard/Oct.) by Samuel P. Huntington.

In addition: Laid Back in Washington (Putnam/Dec.) by Art Buchwald; Presidential Saints and Sinners (Macmillan/Oct.) by Thomas A. Bailey; The Road From Here (Knopf/Sept.) by Senator Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.); The Best of Smithsonian (Harmony/-Mov.); and The National Museum of American History (Abrams/Sept.) by Shirley Abbott. Two more with Washington connections: Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way: The Story of Ted Turner: Sportsman, Entrepreneur, and Media Magnate (Times Books/-Sept.) by Christian Williams and The Nuclear Barons (Holt, Rinehart and Winston/-Sept.) by Peter Pringle and James Spigelman.

Erica Jong on Witches (Abrams/Sept.), Andrew Tobias on another supernatural phenomenon, The Invisible Bankers (Linden/Simon and Schuster/Dec.) and Jane Alpert on her own '70s vanishing act, Growing Up Underground (Morrow/Oct.). Betty Friedan on what now for feminism, The Second Stage (Summit/Oct.), Delia Ephron in a follow-up to How to Eat Like a Child, Teenage Romance or How to Die of Embarrassment (Viking/Sept.), and Barbara Tuchman essays, Practicing History (Knopf/Sept.).

Who else? James Beard (following rival Craig Claiborne's healthful example), Michel Maccoby (on being a leader), Alison Lurie (on theories of clothing and dress), Ellen Goodman (columns), Rene Dubos (the relationship between man and nature), Harry Reasoner (television memoirs), David Halberstam (pro basketball), Edward J. Epstein (the international diamond trade), Eddie Fisher (himself), Stephen Jay Gould (measuring intelligence) and Maya Angelou (continuing her life story). GOINGS ON

Two very different travel books are garnering advance praise: Andrea Lee's Russian Journal (Random/Oct.), about a year in Moscow, and Jonathan Raban's Old Glory: An American Voyage (Simon and Schuster/-Nov.), which tells of his trip the length of the Mississippi in a 16-foot boat. A part of Lee's book ran originally in The New Yorker, and that estimable magazine's writers are, as usual, thick as leaves on the ground in the fall lists: John McPhee, Janet Malcolm, Jervis Anderson, Garrison Keillor, Kennedy Fraser, Andrew Porter and George W. S. Trow are just some of The New Yorker -affiliated types with books out in the next few months.

Descriptions like "absolutely marvelous" and "gripping" were heard around the Book-of-the-Month Club, reports Lorraine Shanley, about former Time correspondent Donal Neff's Warriors at Suez (Linden/Simon and Schuster/Oct.). Johnny Blackwell's Poor Man's Catalog (St. Martin's/Sept.) is a "grab-bag sort of thing" that seems to be pointed toward popular success, along with the second edition of The Next Whole Earth Catalog (Random/Fall). Stephani Cook's Second Life (Simon and Schuster/Sept.), which tells of the author's seemingly insurmountable physical setbacks, is also drawing notice and the verdict is that on the circuit Cook "will be an impressive performer."

For whatever it's worth, one veteran publicist thinks that "attention isn't always translating itself into sales anymore," but that doesn't stop the presses from rolling. The title of one book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Schocken/Oct.) by Harold Kushner, might be a way of looking at the publishing industry, yet autumn and its attendant sales always help to give writers and readers a boost.

In case you're curious, by the way, the catalogue copy that charmed me the most on the nonfiction side of things accompanied a new edition of Adelle Davis' Let's Stay Healthy: A Lifelong Guide to Nutrition (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/Nov.). Said it of the author, "Over 70, she died a few years ago." But she's watching us from the great health-food store in the sky.