If there are 8 million stories in the naked city, then the American Booksellers Association convention, a teeming preview of the autumn book season, must be a naked city, at least for the weekend. Not much penetrates this four-day hothouse of shop talk: not the death of the ayatollah or the blood in the streets of Beijing; not, for many hours, news of the Salman Rushdie hoax over at the Radisson; not explosives, in case anybody wanted to protest "The Satanic Verses," possibly because of metal detectors and book-bag searches at the doors; and not, everyone was openly thankful, the heat. The nearly 24,000 publishers and booksellers thronging the Washington Convention Center through tomorrow, like business people everywhere, have their eyes and brains on product. Selling books is an odd business. Think of it this way: If Kellogg and Quaker Oats and Post together made 50,000 kinds of breakfast cereal and tried to make a profit by selling no more than a few thousand boxes of each kind, they wouldn't. Publishers do, sometimes. Here's where booksellers come to listen and pick and choose between granola and Cap'n Crunch. "My publishers told me to come and I came," former judge Robert Bork says. "I'm in the people's hands." The Free Press is bringing out his call to alarm, "The Tempting of America," this fall, and the jurist is getting a first taste of book tour. He doesn't seem reticent. "A lot of people have come to know me, and I like that." So too his publisher. The book says the American judiciary is being used -- and the Constitution subverted, in Bork's view -- as an instrument of political change. Nearby, women are passing out abortion-rights leaflets. Literary agent Esther Newberg, resting her feet for a few moments off the convention floor, has a story to tell: She has a double first novelist this fall. Henry Holt will publish John Camp's "The Fool's Run," even as Putnam's publishes John Sandford's "Rules of Prey." Sandford is Camp's pseudonym. "They're both fighting to be the first first novel," Newberg says. Another of her authors, Roy Blount Jr., also has his first novel coming out, from Villard. "First Hubby" is about a man who "through a series of misadventures" finds himself married to the president and is none too happy about it. "He gets in fistfights -- very bad form for a First Lady," Blount observes. He says he is often reminded there was once a movie with the same plot, starring Fred MacMurray. "It's very hard to work in the shadow of Fred MacMurray," he says. Prentice-Hall is extremely eager to talk about its forthcoming "US Atlas," another brainchild of the information specialist and Access Guides creator Richard Saul Wurman. Thanks to a special binding process called "Otabinding," publisher Katherine Cowles explains, the national road atlas lies perfectly flat. You can follow your highway route from page to page rather than jumping alphabetically, and with the design's "zoom-lens effect," you can find regional and city maps displaying key areas along the way. At Naiad Press, Barbara Grier is exuberant about the growing good fortunes of her detective novelist Katherine V. Forrest, whose books feature Kate Delafield, a lesbian homicide detective on the Los Angeles police force. Her latest, "Murder at the Nightwood Bar," has been optioned for film by Tim Hunter ("River's Edge"), and Grier says all the actresses in Hollywood are "screaming in all directions, saying 'Not me!' " Chris Black and Thomas Oliphant, the only Boston Globe reporters who have not yet produced books on Michael Dukakis, have written "All by Myself: The Unmaking of a Presidential Campaign." Their publisher, Globe Pequot Press chieftain Charles Everitt, avers that the title refers to the first words the infant Dukakis is believed to have spoken. Everitt says the authors got a three-hour interview with Willie Horton and a copy of a memo to Dukakis from former North Carolina governor Jim Hunt warning the candidate about the very tactics that were used to defeat him. "And he ignored it," Everitt declares. Coffee House Press of Minneapolis is a small literary publisher that sprang from a letterpress operation -- a fine printer -- and has kept up the tradition, not just with its books but with its broadsides. One of them says: "Books are delightful society. If you go into a room and find it full of books -- even without taking them from the shelves, they seem to speak to you, to bid you welcome. They seem to tell you that they have something inside their covers that will be good for you, and that they are willing and desirous to impart to you. Value them much." During flusher days of publishing, the ABA offered megabuck-crazed publishers the perfect occasion to throw a lot of money around on ornate booths with swans and fountains and on lavish parties in mansions and on yachts. Book-bags, posters, free books and tastings of ice cream or linguine still serve as talismans of hype, but judging from this subdued convention, these are more George Bush-like times, businesslike and low-key. Lackluster, many said. Sluggish. Quiet. Others told brighter tales, or at least embellished ones, of enthusiastic crowds, pads filled with book orders, deals cut. Although the traditional major hoedowns were not yet underway at press time, the weekend's earlier parties were of a piece with the convention mood: restrained. Big cocktail parties with groaning boards could fill any dance card, but the private dinner with old friends in the business seemed to be tempting more people than usual to quiet evenings. Perhaps it was the heat. Houghton Mifflin took over the Phillips Collection Friday evening for a mobbed supper party to honor some of its fall authors (Tracy Kidder, Calvin Trillin, Rick Atkinson, Thomas McGuane). Nearly 1,000 people arrived on considerably fewer invitations, their body heat defying the museum's cooling system. The guardians of the masterworks swooned in fear as drinks and food and human limbs were pressed and jostled against Renoirs and van Goghs. The word was that Putnam's fete for Tom Clancy, Art Buchwald, Robert B. Parker and others at the Folger Shakespeare Library across town was cooler and more civil. The second most crowded social event Saturday night -- after Random House's full-court spread at the Library of Congress for Nancy Reagan's fall book, "My Turn" -- was Harcourt Brace Jovanovich's garden party for Umberto Eco and Alice Walker at Prospect House, where folks conversed under the roar of jets. But the food was superior at the Mexican Embassy, where booksellers lined up to taste "Mexico's Feasts of Life," preparations from Diana Quintana's recipes in the new book from Council Oak Books of Tulsa. At the book party Holt threw in his honor last evening at the Willard, former attorney general Edwin Meese III was genially greeting guests and chuckling about the experience of being a writer. It's different, he said, from writing "legal briefs and executive memorandums." Hard to say what progress he's made on "Witness to History," his Washington memoir, but he said he did have a thousand pages of material in hand. His publishers have their fingers crossed for fall publication. Anyone who has ever been to a major U.S. trade show may remember the vastness of the place, the white intensity of the atmosphere, the wearying feel of the slow trudge down the great bright ways between the rows of wares. It's no different at the Washington Convention Center. Here, huge backlighted billboards reproduce book covers under the prominent names of publishing houses, drawing throngs of onlookers. There's so much that catches the eye that making progress across the floor is extremely hard for all but the bored and cynical beyond belief. It could, and does, take days to see even half of everything enough. And then, in the foreground, are the knots of conversation in every corner, as business or at least the business waltz takes place: one on one here, close up; two on one there, going through a catalogue; five gents standing in a circle of deference around a possibly famous person, certainly a talker. Here, if you were a bookseller, is where you might notice that three more Nixon biographies will be published this fall -- Tom Wicker's from Random House, Stephen Ambrose's from Simon and Schuster, and Roger Morris's from Henry Holt. Or where you might learn that Robert B. Parker has completed the mystery Raymond Chandler never finished, "Poodle Springs" (Putnam's). Or that radio storyteller Tom Bodett (handle: Alaska's answer to Garrison Keillor) will have his first book out from Morrow. Or that Doubleday's Harriet Rubin has a new line of "new age business books" -- Currency, the imprint is called -- coming this fall. Here, too, is where you might see, in the Harper & Row booth of a morning, executives in their crisp British shirts and Ferragamos, on their knees, arguing about the best way to build a fetching pyramid of a would-be best-seller, the modestly conceived "Our Kind. Who We Are, Where We Came From & Where We Are Going. The Evolution of Human Life and Culture," by Marvin Harris. A lady dressed up in a cone of green fabric whooshes by, wishing everyone "Merry Christmas" and handing them a tree-shaped something. Bridge Publications, in one corner of one hall, has its trademark monster palace of frightening images, reflecting the epic instructional gothics of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder and bestselling author ("more than 83,000,000 in print"). A team of storm-trooper types -- actors, really -- could be spotted marching down the main aisles, holding up a Hubbard book, "Final Blackout," somehow set to flames with a pocket lighter. "A blazing bestseller," beams actor Jeff Pomerance. Warner Books brought back its extraordinary booth from last year. Booth is perhaps an inadequate word for this many-roomed classical palace spanning 18 standard exhibit spaces, an arched and faux-marble affair where you expect to find people dressed in togas. Dressed more like Ann Taylor were two from the Warner ranks, having a smoke during a lull in traffic. They like their booth. "We think it has a certain, oh, I don't know, grandeur," said one. Next year, said the other, they'll probably be called Time Warner, even though they prefer TimeWarn. It didn't bother Phil Zuckerman, president of Applewood Books, to have his booth across the way from Warner's. He and his colleagues in the Globe Pequot family were doing a land-sale business, they said, writing more orders for books Saturday morning than they'd expected to write in the whole convention. Zuckerman publishes a series of little books, drawn from the past, in charming new editions -- Ben Franklin, Thoreau's "Walking," the 1830s manual "The American Frugal Housewife," "Roberts' Guide for Butlers and Other Household Staff" and such. Another Globe Pequot imprint, Austin Pierce, is bringing out jigsaw puzzles of the states, for use as teaching aids. The best-selling item at the convention itself was the American Booksellers Associations's own fund-raising T-shirt -- more than 800 of which had been sold at $5 apiece by day's end yesterday. The T-shirt says: FREE PEOPLE WRITE BOOKS FREE PEOPLE PUBLISH BOOKS FREE PEOPLE SELL BOOKS FREE PEOPLE BUY BOOKS FREE PEOPLE READ BOOKS The B-Double-D Ranch, home of Bantam Doubleday Dell, is a big spread of Convention Center real estate, but Random House Inc., with its many publishing entities, occupies a regular borough of the city. The company even printed its own map of the realm to guide conventioneers through. They snapped up lots of reading copies and, even quicker, audiotapes of John Le Carre reading "The Russia House." The catalogues of the Random trade houses are so numerous that they are distributed as a bulky ensemble in a cellophane wrap. "Sani-sealed for your protection," observed Susan DiSesa of Pantheon. "Safe bookselling." Here comes Bud Fairbanks, a Random House regional sales manager, dressed in a Julia Child apron ("The Way to Cook"). Fairbanks has been coming to the ABA for 36 years, he thinks, and remembers his first time, in the basement of the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago, when 1,600 people were there. "You knew everybody then, you don't know anybody now." For 25 years it was in Washington, at the Shoreham, and Fairbanks thinks it shouldn't be anywhere else. (It won't be in Washington again because the Convention Center is no longer big enough.) "Washington is what makes it go. It's the seat of the country, the head, the tail -- all the body parts. Washington is exciting, Las Vegas is the pits." The ABA will there convene again one year from now.