Someone (may he perish and never publish) once spoke of university presses as publishers of books in the smallest numbers at the highest cost for the least profit to sell to those who can least afford to buy them.

Today these univeristy preses, which convened this week in Baltimore, produce one in 12 of the 40,000 new books published each year in the United States. Nearly one in 6 of the half-million American books in print bears the imprint of a university press. And better than one in 5 National Book Awards has gone to univeristy press books over the last three decades.

Still, a quality product isn't always snapped up in the market place. Last year, university press sales came to about $60 million, but that was only a sliver of the $4.6 billion book market.

"That's not as much as we spend for lipstick, mascara and the other decorative arts," noted Jack Goellner, director of the Johns Hopkins University Press. Yesterday the scholarly bookmen ended a two-day meeting at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University, where it all began in the United States. Johns Hopkins is celebrating 100 years as the oldest, continuous, non-floating university press in America. Nearlly 500 were there from the member institutions of the Association of American University Presses.

They were leaner and hungrier than in the palmy, fat days of the 1960s when the government, in the wake of (See PRESS, B4, Col. 1) (PRESS, From B1) Sputnik, poured its largesse into education. Then libraries had so much money that they were looking for more books to buy for their shelves.

"Suddenly libraries had money to spend and that's always nice for publishers," said Nancy Essig, the marketing specialist for the Johns Hopkins University Press.

If the times are leaner today, the university publishers - with the long perspective of scholars - now feel they may be healthier.

"After the flush days of the '60s, we went into a crisis - or what we called a crisis. But then we decided it wasn't a crisis but a chronic condition. Now we see that it is not chronic but a way of life for scholarly publishers," said Jack Putnam, summing up the state of university presses today.

Putnam is executive director of the Association of American University Presses, which represents three-quarters of the 100 scholarly publishers in the United States.

If the scholar-publishers don't measure success by best-sellers, they still enjoy the profits from occasional successes in the marketplace. Winners support the losers for the university presses, who try to publish as many good books of sound scholarship as they can this side of bankruptcy.

David Riesman's "The Lonely Crowd," with more than a million copies sold in all editions, still enriches the 70-year-old Yale University Press. The University of Tennessee Press has "The Book of Merlyn" by T. H. White for $9.95 a copy. Columbia University Press has its encyclopedia - and Johns Hopkins University Press has its skeleton in the book closet.

The scale model of the human skeleton is one of Johns Hopkins all-time bestsellers with more than 25,000 copies sold at $42.50 each. Goellner likes to point out that the skeleton is protected by John Hopkins copyright but "the patent is held by God."

Although the university presses have not wavered in their commitment to scholarly studies, some of their publications are finding a wider audience among non-scholars discovering the delights of good research in a field of special interest.

There is, for instance, "The Well-Tempered Lyre," which turns to be a less-than-sober study of songs and verse of the temperance movement by George W. Ewing. It is published by Southern Methodist University Press. The University of Wisconsin Press has published "Blue-Collar Aristocrats: Life Styles at a Working Class Tavern." One section was reprinted in Playgirl magazine under the title "Revolt of the Blue-Collar Wives." Sociologist E. E. LeMasters spent five years hanging out in a tavern to conduct his research.

One of the publications of the University of Alabama is a study of New Orleans' "Storeyville district." It has been translated into a film in Louis Malle's "Pretty Baby."

But whatever the popular successes, the scholar pressmen remain dedicated to contributing to man's body of knowledge.

Joseph D. Duffey, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, speaking at the Baltimore convention, pointed out the need for community in research. A monograph that sells only a few hundred copies, he emphasized, can be significant as succeeding generations of scholars refer to its findings and build upon its research. With their backlists of thousands of titles more likely to be kept in print than those of the commercial publishers, the university presses preserve such scholarships.

What's ahead for gentleman publishers in these days of escalating book costs?

Weldon A. Kefauver, director of the Ohio State University Press and retiring president of the association, sees increasing emphasis on regional studies and experimental learning tools.

And he is dismayed by the projections of a shrinking college-age population with more and more Americans taking adult education and having more leisure to pursue special interests.

If they want to find out about the American railroad car, Johns Hopkins University Press has a handsome nine-pound book by John White Jr. of the Smithsonian Institution. Or lacrosse, anyone? Bob Scott, Johns Hopkins' very successful coach, has a study of "Lacrosse" in both paperback and hardback.