LAS VEGAS -- Amy Tan, one of the featured speakers at the American Booksellers Association convention here earlier this month, told the crowd her biggest literary influences were not Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare but her mother and father.

About the latter, a Baptist minister, the author of The Joy Luck Club said: "It used to impress me that he could tell a simple story, called a sermon, and at the end people were so convinced it was true that they would give their money away.

"Isn't that a lot like publishing? You tell a story and you get people to give $18.95 hardback, $5.95 soft."

For four days, in a spacious convention center that everyone agreed was an oasis of calm compared to the rest of the city, more than 5,000 booksellers examined the wares at 2,509 booths stocked by publishers and related merchandisers. It was a quiet, business-like affair, but all those looking for good and true stories could find them.

The consensus was that there was no single "big book" for the fall publishing season, no dominant trend, no hot topic of conversation -- except perhaps for Vegas itself, which is not a typical spot for bookish types to gather. "America's most wonderful venue built to serve our squirmiest needs," said novelist Richard Ford, another breakfast speaker. Echoed cartoonist Matt Groening: "It's the playland America deserves."

Groening was spotted at one of the convention's biggest and, judging from the happy crowd, most successful blow-outs, a party for Jane and Michael Stern's The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste. The Simpsons creator had just signed a multi-book, many-dollared deal with the same publisher, Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins.

It was quite a difference from Groening's first ABA, about a decade ago, when he wandered the aisles looking for someone to issue his cartoons in book form and got no takers. "I'm having a good time," he confirmed. "I don't want to say I've gone California, but my inner child is dancing on top of the limo." Furthermore, he said, it was a real kick to see graffiti based on his work that he hadn't drawn himself.

The Bad Taste party featured displays of such unappealing food as Spam, Twinkies, and Wonder Bread, along with such audience participation efforts as getting people from New York to sing "New York, New York." Plus an Elvis impersonator, who resembled the King about as much as your mother does.

"I think," said Groening, "the Sterns have arrived at not the acme of bad taste, but the zenith, and they will have to fling themselves into the volcano to top it." This was a reference to the fake volcano outside the Mirage hotel, which erupts every 20 minutes.

Michael Stern, half of the husband-and-wife team that has made a career out of reporting on such retrograde topics as the '60s and lower-class American food, said he had spent the afternoon blowing up a near-life-size Wayne Newton doll and buying some artificial chest hair.

"Of all the entries in the encyclopedia," he noted, "Las Vegas is the longest and most complex. It's the extreme of American pop culture. I love it. When you drive down the Strip at night, this is modern American architecture at its most exuberant." But would he want to live there? "No. Absolutely not. Not in a million years." ANOTHER figure of sometimes controversial taste, Donald Trump, had his own party at the convention. No Elvis impersonators here, although there was a bunch of unofficial Marla Maples look-alikes, promptly dubbed the Marlettes by an appreciative crowd. (The real thing was also said to be present at the hotel, although not at the party.) Speaking of Maples, the obvious question to ask Trump was whom the second volume of his autobiography was dedicated to. "I haven't done it yet, but I think it's a good idea," he replied somewhat vaguely. His parents got the nod the first time around.

Perhaps Trump was distracted by the crush and noise surrounding him, although you think he'd be used to it by now. Even when he visited the men's room, one observer reported, six members of his entourage went with him.

More approachable was the head of Crown Books, Robert Haft. He was upbeat about the future of his larger stores, the Super Crowns, five of which are opening this spring and summer, and about the Crown chain in general. "Since we started in D.C.," he said, "book reading has increased 60 percent."

The proprietors of a smaller bookstore chain were also present, the McKenzie family of Charlottesville and Richmond. They had actually met Donald Trump. Or so they said.

Marshall McKenzie claimed to have gotten a whole three minutes with the financier. "His bodyguard was tying his shoe," he explained. "I talked to him about doing a signing in our stores."

And what did The Donald say?

"Buzz off."

Unfazed, McKenzie then made the same inquiry of "Trump's keeper -- his editor."

And what was the response this time?

"Buzz off."

Mark McKenzie, meanwhile, described a different sort of encounter with Trump. "He invited me up to his suite to talk about some projects, but I told him I wanted some more cheese sticks," McKenzie said, brandishing a handful of cheese sticks as evidence.

Trump reappeared the next morning as a featured performer at another breakfast. These chowdowns are the ABA's premier spot to expose authors to a friendly audience of several thousand booksellers, still gently dozing over eggs and coffee. Paired with Trump were novelist T. Coraghessan Boyle and actress Angela Lansbury. Promoting a fitness book, Lansbury managed in a rambling, dull speech to use nearly triple her alloted 12 minutes.

When they finally got their chance, both Boyle and Trump took jabs at her, the first indirectly ("I decided to read you my complete life's works, including some poems I wrote in high school"), the second more savagely ("I had to travel from New York five and a half hours to get here and only speak for 10 minutes, so we gave Angela a little bit of our time"). But then Trump, who was reported in a Wall Street Journal story that morning to be having serious troubles with his creditors, wasn't having a very good day. AUTHORS. Somehow, they seemed to be more prominent at this ABA. Perhaps this is symbolic of the supposed return to fundamentals the industry is experiencing: You can't get more basic than the writers themselves. Or perhaps the point was that it was impossible to compete with the glitter of the casinos, so why bother getting fancy? Most of this crowd would rather see a live author than a fake volcano anytime.

Some close encounters of the auctorial kind:

If there were an award for giddiest author at the ABA, it would have gone to South Carolina peach farmer and part-time Washington resident Dori Sanders. Her recently published novel, Clover, has been back to press four times, making it one of the year's most successful literary debuts. "It's unbelievable," Sanders said several times. "I've been in a daze." But what if her next novel turns out to be less successful? "I can handle that too. My peaches always reject me. Last year, I didn't have any. This year, I got half a crop."

To launch Mark Childress's third novel, Tender, the publisher issued invitations to a show called Nudes on Ice. An amazing number of otherwise quite respectable media people said yes, but the spectacle turned out to be a dud. Crudes on Ice and Prudes on Ice were some of the alternate titles deemed more appropriate. "This has nothing to do with my book," Childress emphasized. "But Vegas is about hype, and we are hyping the book so you will remember it."

Tender, he added while walking down garishly lit Fremont Street with the remains of a glass of vodka, isn't the roman a clef about Elvis that the title and packaging might suggest. "It's based on his myth. I don't know how Elvis lost his virginity, but I know how Leroy {his hero} did. Plus, I wanted to write about music from the inside, and see if you can translate it to the page with a scat '50s rhythm."

Ken Kesey was promoting two books, one a re-examination in script form of the famous '64 Merry Pranksters bus ride and the other a children's tale. Film shot on the bus trip was shown at a party for Kesey; it looked about the way you'd expect film shot by acidheads to look. The highlight of the evening was when a redone version of the bus (the original is destined for the Smithsonian) actually entered the room. The book's editor encouraged everyone to examine the gaily painted vehicle very carefully, saying "you can stare at it for quite a while." The crowd, who seemed to remember how the '60s were all about doing just that, followed through on the suggestion.

Steamy novelist Jackie Collins received the key to Las Vegas. "Oh, this is great," she was heard to say at a semi-official ceremony. She also was given an official branding iron of Clark County.

Actually, Collins was upstaged at her own party by its setting. The Hart Mansion is, according to its owner, the largest in the state. Toni Hart encouraged everyone to look around, which seemed remarkably trusting. Later she gave a little tour, explaining the significance of "the signing room" (a little chamber empty of everything except scribbles on the wall from hundreds of friends), the 24-carat gold bathroom, and the Elvis suite.

Elvis, it seemed, used to hang out at this house during his Vegas period in the early '70s, which means the mansion became a stop on Elvis tours. "We had a lady that came here who wanted something Elvis had touched," Hart said. "My workers gave her a Dr Pepper can. She cried, and her husband had to hold her up. She had Elvis tattoos up and down her arm."

THE CLOSEST the convention came to genuine news was the rumor that the troubled publishing house of Grove Weidenfeld (which last month announced it had decided not to sell itself and would instead remain independent) had finally thrown in the towel. Indeed, the Grove booths at the fair were conspicuously empty.

A Grove ad in the convention newspaper, however, said the firm was not at the convention because it had lost production time during its negotiations with potential bidders. It promised that Grove will be publishing 35 books this fall.

The closest the weekend came to producing genuine excitement was when people started talking about a woman who had won $25,000 playing a quarter slot in the Hilton. Perhaps she would use the money to open a little shop in North Dakota devoted to good books. Then it turned out she wasn't with the convention at all.

The convention-goers, in fact, didn't seem big on gambling. This was true despite the best efforts of those who designed the casinos. Their labyrinthine ways were summed up by Mark Levine, a Henry Holt salesman: "You ask for directions to the elevator, they're real nice, they say fine, and you end up at the $100 slot machines. You ask for the way out, they're real nice, they give you directions, and you end up at the $100 slots."

Publishing, perhaps, is enough of a gamble in itself.