The man who brought off the greatest coup thus far into the current publishing season by nailing down the North American rights to the English translation of three books by Pope John Paul II - tends to deprecate his achievement.

"There was spirited bidding at the Frandfurt Book Fair" last month where the deal was struck, admits Werner Mark Linz, president of Seabury press, a relatively modest religious book house with ties to the Episcopal church.

"All the publishers went in the Polish direction when in fact the gold was buried in the Italian direction," Linz said. He explained that the works of the former Archbishop of Krakow, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, had never been published in the prelate's communist native land but came out in Italy instead.

"There's a great Irony about the way these things work out," Linz said. "After we announced that we were publishing the English edition (of the pope's works), we've been asked by Polish - American groups in the Midwest - Chicago an Michigan - whether we would consider publishing them in Polish." The suggestion is under active consideration, he said.

Linz keptbacking away from questions about how he managed to bring off the deal. Yes, he admitted, it was "something of a coup in the publishing world, but that's of interest onlyin the publishing world."

He declined to put any figureson the deal - either what Seabury paid the Italian publisher for North American rights or the tidy profits Seabury expects to turn.

Seabury's involvement actually is part of a three-continent English translation package, linked together with Cassels Publishers for the Australian rights and St. Paul's Publishers in England (which has distribution rights for the rest of the British Commonwealth except for Canada).

Linz described St. Paul's as "affiliated with the largest religious order in Italy," which in turn, he said, has ties with the Italian Published. Linz acknowledged that his company faces uncharted territory in dealing with its new author. "I really don't know what happens to an author who at one point is elected pope,"he said.

While there's little likelihood of the traditional promotional tours for Seabury's latest author - the interviews, the guest shots on the talk shows, the autograph parties - Linz does have a dream: "We would love to present a Polish edition of the book he wrote in Italian to the pope at some time."

The first of the pope's three books "Sign of Contradiction," is now being translated. Linz said, with the completed English manuscript expected before the end of the month.

The publishers are on what Linz called "an accelerated publishing schedule. It usually takes us nine months; we're going to do this in nine weeks."

The book, which will run to 250 pages, was "developed from a (spiritual) retreat which he (Wojtyla) gave for the papal household at the request of Pope Paul VI a couple of years ago," Linz said.

It includes such chapter headings as "Meditation as Mystery," "The price of Redemption," "The Mystery of Man: Truth," "The Mystery of Man: The Priesthood," "The Mystery of Man: The Church."

Its basic theme is mankind's encounter with the whole truth of Christ today - truth contradicted by the world," Linz said.

Since Seabury's bare announcement last month that it had secured rights to the Wojtyla boosk, "we've had an avalanche of orders," said Linz.

he publisher predicted that, in addition to the obvious religious interest, the volume currently in the works "would have a general reader audience because of its literary quality."

Whatever the reason for the empty pews in the churches these days people are buying religious books. Religious volumes are among the hotest items in the publishing business. A couple of years ago, for example, the heavy tome of German theologian Hans Kung, "On Being a Christian," rested on the best-seller list for weeks.

There are close to 50 million Catholics in the United States, and it is not unreasonable toexpect a sizable number of them to lay down the $8.95 for a book by the pope. In addition, the ecumenical climate of today may assure a substantial market in Protestant and some non-Christian circles as well.

Linz would not speculate on how much the pope might reap from his literary efforts. "It's safe to say," the publisher suggested after a long pause to find a delicate way of phrasing it, "that he will receive the customary royalties - around 10 or 15 percent. I imagine he will designate it for some charity."