As the publisher of his own book, Washington free-lance writer Joel Makower isn't above slipping into a neighborhood bookstore, retrieving several copies of his work from a back shelf and slipping them surreptitiously onto the "new releases" table.

Sure, he's afraid somebody's going to spot him, and he will be embarrassed, but that's one of the hazards of the self-publishing game--a game Makower, as a 30-year-old newcomer, is learning fast.

Last year Makower wrote Office Hazards, a 233-page paperback arguing pollutants and other irritants in the office can damage your physical and mental health. When no New York publisher bought his idea (which astonished him because America's millions of office workers are all potential customers), he decided to publish it himself.

Due in large part to his persistent promotional efforts, the book has gained Makower national TV and press attention, and so far it is selling well at $6.95. (Production costs to him: about $1 per copy for a first printing of 7,500.) Meanwhile, he has expanded his efforts to publish two other paperbacks of national interest by Washington authors, The Car Book and The RIF Survival Handbook. The reputation of his firm, Tilden Press (named for a favorite park near the University of California at Berkeley, where he graduated), is building.

Like Makower, many Washington-area writers--and apparently an increasing number across the country--are producing their own books: writing, editing and designing them, contracting printers, promoting the books and even boxing copies and shipping them out to buyers.

Although the figures are hard to come by, Len Fulton of Dustbooks, a Paradise, Calif., firm that produces Small Press Record of Books in Print, says he gets reports on about 40 new small publishing firms in this country each month, many probably self-publishers. "We get 500 volumes a month from small publishers and self-publishers."

"The trend is toward more self-publishing," says Greg Gore, a spokesman for the American Association of Publishers in New York. New technology has made it easier and cheaper. Many books can be written on computers, eliminating typesetting costs, and modern presses make printing small quantities of books cost-effective.

Small publishers, says Gore, can make a particular impact with specialized, regional or non-fiction books. "A book on Cedar Rapids, Iowa, can be a best seller in that part of the country."

"I think everybody wants to be an entrepreneur," adds Thomas Woll of Beaufort Books in New York, who this month is conducting a how-to workshop for small and self-publishers in Austin, Tex., sponsored by the American Association of Publishers. "In a time of economic chaos, we look to ourselves for resourcefulness."

And the reputation of self-publishers is growing. In the late '60s and early '70s, says Bill Henderson of Pushcart Press in Wainscott, N.Y., editor of The Publish-It-Yourself Handbook (which has sold 30,000 copies), "It was quite a disgrace to resort to publishing your own stuff. Even your great aunt wouldn't be impressed." A one-time Doubleday editor, he published his own novel (under a pseudonym) when other editors "rejected it everywhere." The reviews, he says, were "pretty good."

But nowadays best sellers "are lending credence to self-publishing," says Woll, who cites the example of Meadowbrook Press, Minneapolis. Founder Vicki Lansky, 40, got started seven years ago when she volunteered to compile a cookbook of recipes for babyfood as a fund-raising project for a childbirth education association.

Later editions of that book, Feed Me! I'm Yours, are still selling nationwide, says Lansky, and Meadowbrook Press--named after the street the Lanskys lived on--has since grown to 30 employes, published 20 more titles and takes in about $2 million in sales each year. (One element of her success is that instead of aiming primarily at bookstores, she and husband Bruce Lansky got their publications into shops selling maternity and baby goods.)

Most of what is self-published, concedes Henderson, is "junk. But a lot of what commercial people are publishing is junk."

Nevertheless, "The right to publish what you believe in is an essential of any democracy," he writes in his handbook. "It is not to be denied by government, local censorship or publishing conglomerates.

"If writers like Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, for example and their friends hadn't decided throughout history to bypass the moneymakers, form small presses and publish their own works, the manuscripts of many classics--and best sellers--would have rotted away in basements, attics and desk drawers."

Self-publishing, another of America's "cottage industries," should not be confused with the so-called "vanity" presses, where an author pays a firm to publish his or her book. Do-it-yourselfers are essentially in the business to make money--although there are, unfortunately, many who don't.

One of the country's most successful self-publishers is Robert J. Ringer, author of the best-selling Winning Through Intimidation and two other books. Said Fortune magazine about him last April:

"Ringer's performance indicates that a readable self-help book can be propelled onto the best-seller lists by pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into a thoughtfully planned blitzkrieg of full-page ads in major metropolitan newspapers across the country."

But you don't need Ringer's budget to get started. Self-published books range from huge hardback volumes to a few pages of poems or recipes reproduced and stapled for neighborhood consumption.

Hunting and fishing enthusiast Joan Cone, a 54-year-old Williamsburg writer, capitalized on her hobbies by collecting game and fish recipes in three brochure-sized booklets of 16 to 32 pages, which cost her about 15 cents each to print. She sold several thousand of each booklet for $1 or $2 through mail orders. Even at that price, she made money: She got a lot of free publicity from outdoor writers. "I never spent a nickel for promotion."

The hardest part of putting out a book, say Washington self-publishers, isn't getting it written and printed, though many have had to struggle to pay the costs of paper and ink. The real difficulty is in getting it marketed.

"It's like having a baby," says Vicki Lansky. "You take it the whole way." To be able to sell even 10,000, she says, "is impressive."

"You have to devote seven days a week to keep coming up with new ideas for selling and publicity," says Eric Kanin, 32, who with Andrea Lubershane formed Andric Associates of Alexandria to publish several Washington shopping and entertainment guides, including The Inflation-Fighter's Guide and Shoestring Gourmet: Eat, Drink and Be Merry on a Budget.

A big boost for the 428-page Inflation-Fighter's Guide was getting Maryland Federal Savings and Loan to buy 3,000 copies to be passed out to new depositors. The first edition sold 30,000 copies at $5.95 and made The Washington Post's best-seller list for several weeks.

You call up people, says Makower, and tell them, "Hi! I'm an author you never heard of. That doesn't pull a lot of weight. You have to talk fast. You get better the more you do."

Arthur E. Rowse, editor of a consumer newsletter, hand-delivered to Washington bookstores copies of his Help: The Indispensable Almanac of Consumer Information when he published the first edition in 1976. "My wife and I piled in the car and went around Saturdays to the book chains."

While Rowse's original Help and later editions were moderately successful, particularly after being picked up by the large B. Dalton and Waldenbooks chains, Rowse, 61, appears to have miscalculated on his latest hardback endeavor: One Sweet Guy and What He's Doing To You: The Promises and Perils of Reaganism (230 pages, $11.95).

"It may prove to be my undoing," he says glumly, though he claims it was the first book "summing up the historic first year" of President Reagan. Rowse invested an estimated $16,000 in 8,000 copies, which came off the press in November. But so far he has had difficulty either getting it into bookstores or reviewed in newspapers and magazines. (After mailing out more than 400 review copies, "to get so little response is devastating.")

Rouse recently obtained a mailing list of about 3,500 stores and other potential customers, to which he sent a publicity sheet. He's now awaiting replies.

One problem is that One Sweet Guy, and every other self-published work, is competing for attention with 40,000 other new titles every year. Only about 1,800 of them will be reviewed, for example, in The Washington Post's Sunday Book World.

A recent development, however, is the emergence of new book-distributing firms aimed at small publishers. One is The Book Carrier of Gaithersburg, which is handling national distribution of Joel Makower's Tilden Press output.

"We're trying to distribute books that book sellers have difficulty getting from other distributors," says founder Robert Carrier. "We would essentially take care of marketing, advertising, credit and collecting."

A self-publisher, however, must weigh the cost of such assistance. For a book with a cover price of $10, says Carrier, the author-publisher would get only $4, and out of that would come all publication costs. The bookstore would keep another $4.

Self-publishing, as anyone who has tried it will tell you, is not easy. The hours are long and the financial rewards often slim. But reminds successful writer-marketer Vicki Lansky, "Your book can become a best-seller without a tremendous outlay of capital."

And even writer-publisher Rowse, who may have lost one gamble, can say of Help:

"I have created a piece of property. It's sort of an institution."