IF THE Three Wise Men had come bearing gift books, they would have needed more than a couple of camels. Whole sections of Washington bookstores are currently groaning under the weight of this season's glossy, colorful offerings. Many of these titles represent a substantial investment by their publishers -- and their purchasers. Paying $20 for a good novel or a solid work of nonfiction is difficult enough; paying $69.95 for an art book can be a tremendous leap of faith.

Yet why is that art book selling for $69.95 in the first place? When you consider gift books, remainders and the entirely different category of "instant" remainders, then proceed to throw in a little discounting, browsers sometimes end up mightily confused about what they should be paying. One book will sell for $29.95, another for twice that -- and there will be no obvious factors (such as the number of color plates) to explain why. How are gift books published, which customers are they aimed at and, above all, where do they get their prices?

The answers often have to do with a side of publishing that is largely invisible to the consumer: the number of copies printed. Take one of the season's most heralded titles, Georgia O'Keeffe: One Hundred Flowers (Knopf). It sells for $100 -- a price that would have been unthinkable for a mass-appeal title several years ago, but which is not preventing the 55,000-copy first printing from being gobbled up.

Actually, buyers of O'Keeffe should consider themselves lucky that so many other people want the same title. In general, the larger the printing of an illustrated book, the lower the price. If only 3,000 copies of O'Keeffe had been issued, it might easily, the publisher says, have been a $400 book.

The process works in reverse, too. The most expensive book of the season is Robert Ellsworth's Later Chinese Painting and Calligraphy: 1900-1950 (Random House). The three-volume work is, according to the publisher, "a remarkable cultural event." It comes in an elaborate clamshell case, contains 850 plates, and sells for $850 -- moving it rather far out of the impulse-buy category. How was that sum decided on, especially considering that the set had been announced as recently as last spring at a price $100 cheaper?

"There's a standard formula that takes a mark-up over design and production costs, incorporates the booksellers' discount, the advertising budget and general overhead, and allows the publisher to establish a fair price," explains the book's editor, Susan Ralston.

"One reason the price came out so high was that the production values are very high. It uses top-of-the-line materials. So were the editorial costs -- in two languages. Random House spent more than a half-million dollars on plant and production costs alone." As for the last-minute $100 jump, that was due to the book's becoming even more elaborate in the final stages.

Random House printed 3,000 sets. If there had been three times as many, the price might have been only $650, because the costs could have been spread over a greater number of copies. "It's totally a question of volume," says Ralston. "This book does not have a tremendously large market. It's elitist" -- hence the necessarily small edition.

Duncan DeGraff, the Random House trade sales representative in the area, says, "I gave everybody the opportunity to buy this, but in the real world only a few stores have that market." A number of stores that didn't take the book ended up stocking pamphlets describing it.

What's Selling Where

THE FIVE Washington stores that ended up stocking a single copy of Later Chinese Painting were Olsson's in Georgetown, Calliope, the Freer bookstore, Franz Bader and Bartleby's. Says Olsson's senior buyer Jim Tenney: "There's great interest in Chinese art and culture, and this seems to fill in a gap. I imagine we might be able to sell the one copy we ordered." And if he does? "I'll just reorder one. I'm going to play this close to the vest."

To sell his copy, John Thomson, owner of Bartleby's, says he plans to discount it. "I'm perfectly happy to make a little less money to move it quickly." Beyond the set's obvious appeal to collectors of prints, Thomson points out that for "anyone interested in the subject, it's an essential reference tool. But, said one potential buyer (who ultimately decided not to spring for it): "It's a lot of taxi cabs rides down to the Freer library."

Print run also plays a large role in The Oxford Illustrated Dickens, which is shaping up as one of the major success stories of the season. A carton containing the 21 hardcover volumes sells for a mere $160, and many local booksellers said earlier this month that they were well on their way to selling out.

It wasn't always so popular. Oxford had first published the set in 1952, and kept it available until recently. But only 200 sets a year were sold, mostly to institutions. If you had tried to get a set from a bookstore, it would have cost a minimum of $500.

The Dickens set was reissued after Oxford noticed that several firms were doing inexpensive and successful reissues of hardcover classics. Consequently, the publisher decided to get a piece of the action itself. Seven thousand sets were printed for this country and Britain (along with as many as 10,000 more copies of the most popular individual titles, to be sold separately). That brought the price way down. "It was a big risk, but it seems to have worked," says Laura Brown, Oxford's director of trade marketing.

In fact, she reports, it's working even better than expected. "Overwhelmingly, people are buying the complete set. My theory is, you go through cycles in reading Dickens, and discover deeper and deeper levels in the complete works. You read Bleak House in school, and then later, you can rediscover it from a new perspective. It's that kind of richness that makes buying the whole set more sensible than buying separate titles."

In the Washington area, Oxford placed about 400 sets -- almost exclusively, it says, with the independent bookstores. The average shop placed an initial order of between two to five sets, but there were exceptions. The Waldenbooks on Pennsylvania Avenue (an exception to the no-chain rule) bought 10 and sold five by Thanksgiving, astonishing its buyer. The three Olsson's stores ordered 67; by Dec. 1 they had sold almost half. Bartleby's bought six and sold them all.

"The price is incredible compared to what it was the last time it was in print," says Bartleby's owner Thomson. "The bindings are a little inferior, but the overall product is still only a few dollars more than the paperbacks." He adds that he's still not sure how deep the interest in Dickens really is, but meanwhile he's going with the flow: he reordered 10 copies.

Of course, there are a few places where the set isn't catching on. "I've been in stores where they complain they're not selling it," says Oxford sales representative Jerry Kallman. "So I try to find it, and it's on the Young Adult shelf. Why? Damned if I know. There's some strange people out there." And there are also stores that, he says, only bought the set because he insisted. "Then they try to see what they can do to not let it sell, to prove themselves right."

Nostalgia at $85

A THIRD gift book where a large edition proved critical is The Art of Rock: Posters From Presley to Punk, by Paul Grushkin (Abbeville). At 512 pages and with 1,500 color illustrations, it's as big as a coffee table. The price: $85.

"This book is a better value at $85 than a $4.95 paperback is at its price," asserts Steven Pincus, Abbeville vice president of sales and marketing. "It was extremely expensive to produce, and the costs went well beyond the paper, the printing and the binding. There were months of color separations and color corrections, and it was expensive to secure the permissions."

A total of 25,000 copies was printed. "Over the long haul," says Pincus, "we will surpass 100,000 copies worldwide." And if the first printing had been, say, only 7,500 copies? "It would then be a $150 book."

The Art of Rock is not a book that the Washington browser will necessarily spot in tremendous stacks. The distribution on this particular title is comparable to a very wide, very shallow lake: most stores took a couple of copies, but few took more than that. Abbeville is hoping to sell about 500 copies in the Washington area by Jan. 1.

Who, exactly, will those 500 buyers be? Jeff Capshew, a hardcover buyer for the B. Dalton chain, agrees that the book "is expensive, but I think it brings back a lot of memories. It's real nostalgic. I saw some of these covers, and I remembered what I was doing when I first was listening to those bands." The D.C. Daltons that are stocking it most heavily, he says, are the stores in the upscale malls: White Flint, Mazza Gallerie and National Place.

Jim Tenney of Olsson's, who ordered a dozen copies, sees the market as being "the yuppie and the dink {double income, no kids}." He adds, "I hate to see someone shell out $85 for a book on rock art, but that's strictly up to the customer." ::