RECENTLY, AS I was standing outside one of Cambridge, Massachusetts' most popular public policy bookstores, two intelligent looking young men stopped to survey the store's window display. After scanning the titles one turned to the other and said, "I just love this bookstore. There's absolutely nothing here I'd ever buy. It's perfectly safe."

Reviewing the catalogues of many public policy presses, the average American bookbuyer would probably agree. Titles like Wage Indexation in the United States: Cola or Uncola; American Federalism: A New Partnership for the Republic; or Ill Fares the Land: Food and Hunger in the World are hardly best seller candidates. Nevertheless, public policy publishing is flourishing these days. Sidney Kramer Books in downtown Washington, a bookstore that specializes in policy areas, has been around since 1968.

"There's no question about it," says Bill Kramer, its president and owner, "public policy books are on the increase -- both in the number being published and in the number being sold. We feel so strongly that the market is mature that we now advertise in yellow pages outside of Washington, and have created a whole separate division of library wholesale services called Booklink to serve the market."

Books about social, political and economic issues are hardly a new phenomenon. Mainstream houses like Basic, Norton and Pantheon, among others, have always carried a selection of titles on policy issues. University presses publish scholarly works in the field, and large commercial houses generally include one or two such offerings on their lists.

What is different today is the increasing number of presses specializing almost exclusively in what have come to be known as public policy books. These presses are by nature partisan, their books often polemical. And unlike commercial publishers who judge success in terms of profit, public policy presses are not usually troubled when a book loses money. If the book has influenced government decision-making at a local, state or national level, it is deemed a success. The major audience for these books, therefore, is not the two young men I overheard outside the bookstore; it's the academic experts, businessmen, lobbyists, consultants and, most importantly, politicians who set the nation's course.

The presses that seek such influence include publishing houses like Ballinger Books, a subsidiary of Harper and Row in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Routledge & Kegan Paul in Boston, and Boyd and Fraser in San Francisco, as well as presses associated with think tanks and foundations funded by the right, the left and the center. On the right these include the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Cato Institute in Washington, the Hoover Institution in Stanford and the Institute for Contemporary Studies in San Francisco. In the center are the Brookings Institution, World Watch Institute and the Center for Defense Information -- all in Washington. On the left are the Center for Economic Priorities in New York, and the Institute for the Military and the Economy and the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. These and literally hundreds of others now compete for the ear and allegiance of "opinion makers" all over the country.

A look at three representative presses highlights the special nature of the field. On Harvard Square

BALLINGER was originally founded in 1973 as a subsidiary of J.B. (for Ballinger) Lippincott. Its original charter mandated the publishing of books in the social and behavioral sciences with a policy cast. In 1979, Lippincott was bought by Harper and Row. Unlike many of the think tank or foundation presses, Ballinger says its books do not adhere to a particular ideological line nor do they service a particular group of scholars or researchers.

The house publishes about 50 titles a year and carries a backlist of about 500 books, many of which are on national security, economics, and nuclear issues. A big seller this year is by William Arkin and Richard W. Fieldhouse, both with the Institute of Policy Studies Arms and Nuclear Studies Research Project. Their book, Nuclear Battlefields: Global links in the Arms Race, ($28.95; paperback, $14.95) sold 12,000 copies in the first week it appeared. That's a number-one best seller in policy publishing.

Another popular title has been Exchange Rates, Trade and the U.S. Economy ($38), edited by two AEI scholars, Seven Arndt and Thomas D. Willet, with Richard Sweeney, professor of monetary theory at Claremount McKenna College.

Editor-in-chief and publisher Carol Franco predicts that, "Over the next years the key issues for us will be international relations, which is always of interest, how to keep the U.S. competitive and a strong economic force, and education. Because there's great concern about retraining workers in smokestack industries, we think books that suggest "how to prepare people for future employment will be of interest."

Franco says she will be downplaying criminal justice, health policy and, for the moment, energy issues. "To some extent the market is glutted, and the funding isn't there to do research in these areas. There aren't as many interesting books coming out."

During the upcoming year Ballinger will be publishing books like The Entrepreneural City by San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros, Megamergers, by Kenneth Davidson of the Federal Trade Commission and Toward a More Effective Defense: Report of the Defense Reorganization Project, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies of Georgetown University. The New Right

THE INSTITUTE for Contemporary Studies in San Francisco sometimes seems a poor cousin to its fellow conservative nonprofit foundation, the Hoover Institution in nearby Stanford. At Hoover, 70 in-house researchers and scholars produce about 20 book titles a year. ICS has a staff of only 14. ICS cannot produce its own materials in-house but decides upon subjects it feels are of essential importance and then seeks out well-known experts who will either write books on the subject or serve as editors for multi-author collections.

Clamor at the Gates: The New American Immigration ($25.95; paperback, $10.95), edited by sociologist Nathan Glazer and published in March is the most recent ICS collection. With contributions by architects of the Simpson-Mazzoli bill, it discusses issues relevant to that and other immigration legislation. ICS usually prints about 5,000 copies of its titles, occasionally more. Nuclear Arms: Ethics, Strategy, Politics, edited by former undersecretary of the Navy, James Woolsey did so well that it quickly went back for a second 5,000 printing, while Crime and Public Policy, edited by James Q. Wilson, has sold about 6,000 copies. And on the Left

ON THE LEFT of the public policy spectrum is the Institute for Policy Studies founded in 1963. Like most public policy think tanks, IPS publishes, in addition to books, smaller reports, which are not generally available in bookstores but are sold or distributed to a variety of partisan lobbying and political organizations. IPS' affiliated scholars also publish with a number of commercial publishers and the organization enters into co-publishing ventures with commercial publishers (Nuclear Battlefields, for example, was co-published with Ballinger).

"We provided the book and designed the maps, which are very expensive to produce, and Ballinger gave us a bigger piece of the action than it would have given other authors," says Robert Borosage, IPS director. Rather than target a particular piece of legislation, Borosage explained that the Institute generally examines larger social issues such as relations with South Africa, in In Whose Interest: A Guide to U.S. -- South Africa Relations by Kevin Danaher, a former IPS fellow, or food policy in Ill Fares the Land: Essays on Food, Hunger and Power, by Susan George, an IPS food specialist.

In Whose Interest?, published a few weeks ago, has sold 400 out of its 4,000-copy printing, and Ill Fares the Land, a January title, has sold about 2,500 copies. Most of IPS' books are marketed through an in-house direct mail service which prints book catalogues and distributes special promotions of IPS titles and those of other similar organizations. Outreach Efforts

BECAUSE they measure the success of their books in terms of influence rather than sales, public policy presses have developed distribution networks that include but do not depend on the nation's commercial booksellers. When it publishesa title like Thrifts in Crisis, Ballinger may not have high hopes for distribution in B. Dalton, but because of special deals with a limited number of bookstores, Ballinger can be relatively sure its books will get into Sidney Kramer and other more specialized outlets. "Certain bookstores give us standing order plans," says Carol Franco. "That means that within a certain category of books, they'll automatically take several copies. For the bookstore's willingness to do that, they get a bigger discount than we ordinarily give."

Ballinger also rents lists of bookbuyers from a variety of organizations, advertises in appropriate journals and publications (with a direct response coupon included) like Foreign Affairs, The American Economic Review and The Harvard Business Review, and tries to have a presence at meetings and seminars, like the Allied Social Sciences Association meeting, the meeting for public policy presses.

The fact that much think-tank publishing is financed by grants that subsidize outreach programs allows public policy presses to send out hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of copies, free. When it published Nuclear Arms: Ethics, Strategy, Politics, for example, ICS provided Sen. Robert W. Kasten Jr. (R-Wis.) with complimentary copies that he then distributed to the entire Senate. Similarly IPS printed 20,000 copies of Changing Course and estimated that some 5,000 were distributed free to church groups, opinion leaders, editorial boards and members of Congress. Making use of a grant from San Francisco's Lurie Foundation ICS has also launched a pilot program within the senior high schools in San Francisco, providing teachers with some 500 free books and urging them to use ICS materials in their classrooms. Looking Ahead

THE GROWTH in such publishing is attributable to a variety of changes in both the political and publishing climate, according to Victor Navasky, editor of The Nation, -- a publication that generates a great many progressive policy offerings -- and a long term observer of the publishing scene. He asserts, "Books that are now published by so-called public policy presses often used to be published by larger mainstream houses. That's no longer true. Mainstream publishers aren't interested in publishing books unless they believe they will sell trade paperback rights. And trade paperback houses that used to publish denser, middle books -- books that wouldn't sell very many copies but that were nontheless candidates for serious reviews -- just aren't publishing those books anymore. Thus many trade hard cover houses won't publish these books.

"Secondly, book store chains now dominate the bookselling market and these chains purchase according to nationwide ordering patterns that preclude ordering these kinds of books. Thirdly, university presses, candidates for think tank books, have pressures on them to beak even that have driven them to look for books with greater sales potential."

"Finally," Navasky concludes, "there are other kinds of materials being generated today by think tanks, magazines and foundations that fall short of being books, but that still have limited audiences that are interested in the information they provide."

The rush to get material in print so that it can influence legislation or other government policies is also a factor, says Ballinger's Franco. "University presses and commercial presses have a lead time that can be as long as one to two years. We can get a book out in six months and other presses can publish in three months. Thus many authors will choose a policy press rather than a university press of trade house if timeliness is important to them."

Equally important are changes in the political climate. The growth of right-wing foundations and thank-tanks is commonly cited as one of the major factors in determining this publishing trend. When neoconservatives like Irving Kristol and Samuel Huntington came up with their theory of "value-intellectuals" -- left-wing intellectuals who, they said, were tearing down the traditional intellectual pillars of American society, and who needed to be countered by right-wing intellectuals of the American Enterprise Institute variety -- they planted the seeds of many more conservative public policy presses.

The fact that these organizations have been successful in shattering the liberal consensus that has dominated American politics since the New Deal has played an important role in generating interest in public policy publishing. Debates about the appropriate role of government and the types of policies regulatory bodies should promote do not only take place in op-ed pages and the halls of Congress. They have spilled over into publishing. As Bill Kramer of Sidney Kramer books puts it, "Washington is a place that operates on power and money, and people are always interested in debating where that power and money will go."

Like all publishing, public policy publishing will have its fads (industrial policy, for example, is out this year, nuclear policy may be peaking, and education may be on the rise) but most observers believe that the phenomenon will be with us for a long time to come.