In an unusual move in the book world, the publishers of "Katharine the Great," a biography of Washington Post Co. board chairman Katharine Graham, have returned publishing rights to the author, Deborah Davis.

According to Peter Jovanovich of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, publisher of the book, the decision means that "we no longer have the right to sell the book." The author, he said, was free to sell it to another publisher. He said that the "couple thousand" copies of the book still in the HBJ warehouse would "stay there," unless the author wanted to buy them. However, he said it would be "impossible" to recall any copies that have already been distributed. The book had an initial print run of 25,000.

Neither Jovanovich nor the firm's lawyer, Richard Udell, would say why they were returning the rights. However, the book has created considerable controversy since its publication last fall.

Several reviewers and people mentioned in the book have complained that it contains numerous factual errors, and that one of its primary theses, an effort to link the Washington Post to the Central Intelligence Agency, has been denied and ridiculed.

Three magazines -- New York, New West and Book Digest -- which had intended to publish excerpts from the book changed their plans after having paid for the material because, in the words of one editor, it would "not be responsible."

Washington Post Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee was instrumental in the decisions not to run the excerpts, said two magazine editors. David Frankel, a researcher at New York magazine, said he contacted Bradlee to check items in the book about him.

Bradlee's denial of the material about him was "decisive," Frankel said.

Davis refused yesterday to discuss the book or the publisher's action. In previously published stories, she has said that she made no effort to talk to Bradlee before the book was published, partly out of concern that the theme of the book would be revealed to him. An article in this month's Washington Journalism Review says that her intention in writing the book was "to examine the relationships between the press and government intelligence and to explain how they affected what got into print." She is quoted saying, "The Washington Post makes mistakes every day," when asked about possible errors in her book.

According to Udell, the publishing firm double-checked the book for libel. Jovanovich said no lawsuits have been filed against them, and that "the author's responsible for the material in the book . . . it's not our position to judge the author . . . We take our responsibility by returning rights to the author."

Repeated efforts to reach Davis' agent, Elaine Markson for, comment were unsuccessful.