"RECOGNITION OF REALITY comes through books," journalist Theodore H. White told his audience at the American Booksellers Association convention last weekend. "Books are where ideas begin. I want you folks to sell loads of cookbooks and diet books, because those carry along the others that change ideas."

White was among a whole raft of author-celebrities imported by the ABA for its annual five-day frenzy of book browsing and buying. But he was certainly not the most famous. Former president Jimmy Carter, author of the forthcoming Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President, was the biggest draw for the daily, star-studded, book and author breakfasts. Jessica Savitch of NBC, comedian Sid Caesar, diet author Richard Simmons, soccer star Pele, journalist Calvin Trillin, and former senator Eugene McCarthy were just a few of the others on hand.

It seemed appropriate that this year's convention was held just across the street from Disneyland, that symbol of American fantasy and California show business. For despite its emphasis on books, the ABA has come to be associated with a certain amount of hype and media splash. That is what most people come to see and enjoy.

More than 17,000 people showed up. There were hundreds of publisher's booths and more foreign exhibitors than ever before.

Each morning to signal the start of business Zebra Publishing hoisted its 60-foot tall, green-and-blue hot air balloon outside the convention center. Inside the center it was sensory assault. Exhibitors' gimmicks ranged from a 6-foot-8-inch, 270-pound man dressed as Atlas and promoting Hammond's new atlas to a motley collection of fuzzy creatures advertising The Secret of NMIH, an animated cartoon by Don Bluth to be released this fall by Aurora and United Artists.

Carol Schneider, publicity director of Random House, observed, "If I've spotted one trend this year, it is that there are more animals. And I confine my remarks to furry creatures, not people."

In spite of the deepening recession and troubles in the book business (Brentano's recent declaration of bankruptcy was a grim sign that no one in Anaheim could ignore), booksellers appear to be doing what the convention is set up to do: buying. Many publishers offer convention specials at a slightly larger discount than usual. Booksellers also have an opportunity to inspect the books on publishers' fall lists, particularly important for the store owner who is isolated.

Aside from stocking the shelves, one thing that concerned booksellers was bookstore chains. Virtually every independent bookseller--and they constitute 90 percent of the ABA's membership of 5,200 stores--is feeling increased pressure from B. Dalton, Waldenbooks and most recently Crown. Controversy erupted at the meeting when the ABA board of directors voted not to support an antitrust suit filed in April by the Northern California Booksellers Association against Avon Books. The NCBA accuses Avon of illegal practices, specifically, offering more favorable discount terms to large chains than to independent booksellers. In an acrimonious general meeting last Sunday afternoon, a move led by the Northern California Booksellers to pass a vote of no confidence in the board failed narrowly.

The board's argument is that no one knows how much the suit will cost. They fear expensive countersuits by the publishers, and they point out that most of the publishers are associate members of the ABA and provide, mostly through booth rentals at the annual convention, 60 percent of the organization's funding.

The board's successful defense of its action before the full membership appeared to leave most of the booksellers present frustrated that the ABA can do nothing to combat the increasing growth of the chains.

THE BIG SELL

BESIDES ANSWERING the needs of booksellers, the convention provides publishers a chance to display their wares both to foreign publishers and to video and entertainment rights people.

Sidney Iwanter of Hanna-Barbera Productions was perhaps typical of the kind of businessman looking for something to buy at the convention. Hanna-Barbera produces "The Flintstones" and "The Smurfs." "About half of Saturday morning television," said Iwanter. He is now in the market for a successor to Smurfs. "I hate the Smurfs," said Iwanter, shaking his head in disbelief at their phenomenal popularity. "So I know if I see something and I hate it, it'll be successful."

Most of the foreign rights business conducted at the ABA understandably concerns picture books, since no one has time to do any reading. Carol Janeway of Knopf was working with several possible European buyers for a big Bruce Davidson book called Subway, full of Dantesque pictures of New York's underground.

Risa Kessler of Ballantine said she was encouraged by the advance foreign interest in Arthur C. Clarke's new novel 2010: Odyssey Two,, and a historical romance set in the West called Ride the Wind, by Lucia St. Clair. "Anything having to do with Indians and the American West is fascinating to Europeans," said Kessler. Another Ballantine title, The Space Shuttle Operator's Manual, a nuts-and-bolts engineering book, was the focus of both European and Japanese interest. "Japan is becoming a very big book market for us," Kessler said.

But many foreign publishers also come to the ABA to to sell. The Australians, flush from their recent cinema success, were ready to cash in on an increased American interest in things Australian. "There is a feeling that it's been worth the effort," said Michael Webster of Australian Bookseller and Publisher, the Aussie equivalent of Publisher's Weekly. "There's always a market for our children's books," he added. "There is this fascination with Australian marsupials, you know."

GIMMICKS AND GIVEAWAYS

MOST ABA PARTICIPANTS are there to work--selling, buying, promoting, or just getting a good look at the big upcoming books. (Some possibilities being touted at this meeting were new books by Jean Auel and James Michener, and a sexy new novel by Shirley Conran.) Yet most people spend a fair amount of time just gawking.

Giveaways at the convention have degenerated in recent years from T-shirts and canvas tote bags to buttons and paper shopping bags, but gimmicks still abound. Revlon was applying makeup to the faces of about 35 women a day at their booth promoting The Art of Beauty (paperback, $14.95, to be distributed by Doubleday). Three women at the Triad booth, set up by a small press in Florida specializing in self-help books, were serving cold cream of broccoli soup. The people at Friends of the Earth and PEI Books were providing foot massages.

In TSR's elaborate crenelated castle booth, complete with several $6,000 fiberglass gargoyles and a wizard, a Dungeons and Dragons game was constantly in progress. In addition to promoting their new adventure series, Endless Quest, TSR appeared to be providing the ABA's most popular babysitting service.

Parties also provide an opportunity for publishers to make a splash, but veteran observers said that this year the parties were more subdued than in the past. Most featured cocktails and hors d'oeuvres served in hotel suites. Silhouette Books, publisher of a steamy romance series, held a "Swept Away by Desire" party, which featured a swimsuit fashion show, to announce their recently signed agreement with Paramount Video, which will make two-hour movies based on Silhouette novels.

The University of California Press gave a tea party on the lawn of the Disneyland Hotel to launch its new Pennyroyale Alice, illustrated by Barry Moser. Alice, complete with pinafore, was in attendance, along with the White Rabbit. Guests ate raspberry tarts and drank California wine in teacups while they watched Disneyland fireworks across the street. The New York Review of Books, always a fancy partygiver, threw ades cocktail party in the posh yacht community of Newport Beach. The booksellers themselves hosted a hoedown with country music, chicken burritos and other Western fare.

WHITHER THE ABA?

DESPITE ALL THE HYPE and hoopla, the future of the ABA is uncertain. The anger at Sunday's meeting seemed to support those pessimists who think the association is in trouble. ABA critics say that the convention has lost its purpose. It's too big; booksellers can't possibly see all of it. Most of the members are finding it more and more difficult to keep their small stores in business. Publishers see the convention as an increasing expense at a time when they, too, are feeling the economic crunch.

The larger question--Theodore White's comments notwithstanding--is whither the book? Computers, software, and video equipment were much in evidence on the convention floor. For instance, Reston Publishing was pushing its software, principally a program for children called "Paint," which was developed by the Capitol Hill Children's Museum and can be used with an Atari home computer. "We want this product to go through book stores," said Reston's Niki Harden. "And we've had a lot of booksellers coming around and asking about our software."

No one at the ABA has a crystal ball, but the book business is changing rapidly. What will happen next? Stay tuned, the ABA will meet in Washington in 1984.