In a piece of special-interest lobbying that would do a defense contractor proud, the publishing industry has marshaled some of its biggest guns behind a campaign to exempt books from state and city sales taxes in New York. Wrapping itself in the mantles of literacy and literature, the industry argues that the tax deters low- and middle-income persons from buying books and thus deprives them of education, enlightenment and all the other wonderful things to be found in books. Could there be a more blatant example of self-serving, obscurantist balderdash?

What the publishers want us to believe is that the best interests of the citizens of New York will be served if the sales tax on books is repealed, but that is merely a smoke screen. The only people whose best interests would be served by this exemption are those who publish and merchandise books. It is transparently obvious that the sole purpose of the legislation -- which, incredibly enough, has attracted significant support in the New York state legislature -- is to increase the sales of books and thus the profits of the publishing industry.

This campaign is directed by a five-man committee, one member of which is Louis Wolfe, the cochairman of Bantam Books. Wolfe told The New York Times recently that taxing books is "a tax on knowledge," and commented: "Americans don't usually race out to buy books as it is. And the 40 or 50 cents sales tax on a paperback book has to make people think twice." Another member of the committee, Richard Seaver of Holt, Rinehart & Winston, expressed the hope that if New York lifts its tax on books, "then maybe all the others states will follow."

To the contrary, let's hope that if New York commits this folly, the other 43 states that tax books along with other commodities will have the good sense to resist its example. To begin with, there is no hard evidence that even a sales tax as formidable as New York's -- the state takes 4.25 percent and the city tacks another 4 percent onto that -- discourages the sale of books; the tax on a $3.95 paperback is 33 cents, and if anyone at Bantam can find a single shopper who refused to buy one of its books because of that 33 cents, that person ought to be put on television and given the entire Bantam catalogue as a reward.

Which brings us to the second objection to the tax exemption. Does anyone out there seriously believe that eliminating the book tax would be a service to literacy, culture or what Louis Wolfe calls "knowledge"? Consider, if you will, what Bantam offered its customers last spring. Its trade paperback list, as advertised in Publishers Weekly, included novels by Margaret Atwood, Jim Harrison and Charles Portis, a short-story anthology, a memoir by William L. Shirer, and nonfiction by John Toland and Ross Terrill -- seven titles that Bantam presumably would represent as performing a service, of sorts, to serious publishing. But what about the other 35 new titles on the list? Would "knowledge" be served by exempting them from New York's sales tax?

It depends on one's definition of "knowledge." The rest of the Bantam list included "Putting on Your Face: The Ultimate Guide to Cosmetics," "How to Housebreak Your Dog in 7 Days," "The Cyndi Lauper Scrapbook," "Your Ticket to Law School," "The Executive Bride: A Ten-Week Wedding Primer," "Dr. Abranavel's Body Type Program for Health, Fitness and Nutrition," "Thank God It's Monday! or How to Prevent Success From Ruining Your Marriage," "No Bull Sales Management," "Goodbye to Guilt: Releasing Fear Through Forgiveness," "Vicki Lansky's Practical Parenting: Getting Your Baby to Sleep (and Back to Sleep)" and "The Silicon Syndrome: How to Survive a High-Tech Marriage." Makes a fella proud to be a publisher, doesn't it?

Ah yes, but supporters of sales tax repeal no doubt will object that Bantam isn't really typical of the business, that it's a mass market schlock house. All right, so let's look at the spring list published by Richard Seaver's Holt, Rinehart & Winston. It's a pretty good house, as publishers go these days, and this year it has published a book or two (though not many more) of merit. It has also published: "The You Can Do It! Kids Diet," "The Arthritis Book of Water Exercise," "The McGill Report on Male Intimacy," "Cash From Your Kitchen," "Decorating Cakes for Children's Parties," "Harry Lorayne's Page-a-Minute Memory Book, "Mad About the Boy: The Life and Times of Boy George and Culture Club" and "You're Smarter Than You Think: At Least 500 Fun Ways to Expand Your Intelligence." Holt is also the proud (and very profitable) publisher of Leo J. Buscaglia, PhD, the Mahatma of Hug and the author of eight titles prominently featured in the firm's spring Publishers Weekly advertisement.

For this New York should drop its sales tax? For sex manuals and pop psychology and get-rich-quick schemes and instant-cure exercise programs? This dreck should be given an edge in the competition for spending on entertainment and education by being exempt from taxation? The works of Leo J. Buscaglia, PhD, should go untaxed while those of Ludwig van Beethoven, as sold in recorded form, are taxed at 8.5 percent? Precisely what kind of scam is the publishing industry trying to get away with?

The answer is obvious: Because a relatively small percentage of the books it publishes do in one way or another foster the interests of literature, culture and "knowledge," it is trying to hoodwink us into believing that all the books it publishes are entitled to special treatment in the tax laws. What this is called is tax dodging, even though the tax is paid by the purchaser rather than the publisher; it's also a subtle form of government subsidy, since it effectively reduces the cost of books at public expense -- that expense being the $8.6 million a year in revenues that will be lost by New York state and city if this bill passes.

Do the people of New York really want to do this? Do they think it is in their interest to let the book business off the tax hook while continuing to require that other carriers of "knowledge" -- television sets, radios, audio and videotapes, phonograph records, compact disks -- be socked the full 8.25 percent? Has anyone bothered to ask whether escaping taxes in New York, which holds a disproportionately large share of the book market, will permit the publishers to raise the price of books and thus to pocket the money that otherwise would have been paid in taxes? Well, if they don't start asking these and other questions about the tax-exemption bill, they'll find themselves being taken for a long and expensive ride.