Is America becoming a nation of innkeepers? A look at the lodging guides filling bookstore travel shelves would suggest so.

Certainly the proliferation of new guides and updated versions of older ones -- usually thicker than the year before -- attests to the growing interest among many travelers in finding places cozier to stay than a busy convention hotel or a chain-run highway motel.

Almost overnight, small inns and bed-and-breakfast establishments, mostly family-run, have emerged by the thousands as attractive alternatives, offering friendly, personal service; a relaxed atmosphere; distinctive accommodations; and, very often, excellent bargains. The Washington area is one of the regions where B & Bs are booming.

A big problem for the traveling public, however, has been how to find these small independent establishments. They don't have toll-free reservation numbers or money to advertise the way the national chains do.

A number of guidebooks have attempted to provide the necessary information, but with varying degrees of success. Nevertheless, they are almost essential for travelers who want to sample America's new homespun lodgings.

Here, then, is a look at the most popular of the small inn and bed-and-breakfast guides, along with suggestions for picking the right book for you.

It's important, before looking for a guidebook, to be clear on just what type of accommodation you are interested in. The terms "inn," "guest house," "home stay" and "bed and breakfast" are often used interchangeably to mean anything from a swank resort hotel to a householder's spare room with a shared bath.

"We think the public is very confused now," said Sarah W. Sonke, director of the Washington-based American Bed and Breakfast Association. The association is an information clearinghouse for the industry and also publishes one of the most complete listings of current establishments.

Her organization is trying to achieve a national uniformity in terminology. In its annual publication, "A Treasury of Bed & Breakfast," these distinctions are made:

*Host homes: This is the most basic of bed-and-breakfast places. A homeowner, wishing to make extra money or meet new people, takes in occasional paying guests in from one to three guest rooms. Breakfast -- continental or a hearty spread -- is provided.

Host home accommodations vary in quality from basic rooms in a suburban home for a modest fee to luxury suites in country mansions, a New York penthouse apartment or a cabin in a Chesapeake Bay yacht -- at, of course, a higher price.

The majority of host homes belong to one or more of about 170 regional reservation services nationwide. The services generally inspect the homes to make sure they are suitable, and they handle inquiries and take reservations from prospective guests. Unlike bed-and-breakfast homes in Europe, there's usually no identifying sign in the window, and advance bookings of several days to a week or more is a standard requirement.

*Bed-and-breakfast inns: By the association's definition, these are small, commercial establishments with from four to 12 guest rooms, often in restored historic structures. They serve breakfast but usually no other meal. Unlike a host home, they are businesses expecting to make a profit.

*Country (or urban) inns: These are larger inns -- some approaching hotels or resorts in size and facilities -- and may have been in business for generations. They may have complete restaurants, serving lunch and dinner as well as breakfast.

Most bed-and-breakfast guides list host homes and bed-and-breakfast inns (by whatever named they are called) and exclude the larger country inns. And several of them add host-home reservation services. Country inns generally are described in specific country-inn guides -- yet another type of guide (not discussed in this article).

Some other points to consider when buying a guide:

*How recent is the book? A guide may appear on the market and then be updated only infrequently. The bed-and-breakfast industry is growing fast, so look for a guide that is current. Some are published in annual editions, which appear on the market between now and March.

*Are you looking for recommendations? A few guides try to include as many bed-and-breakfast establishments as possible. These can be handy resources, but the author probably has not visited very many of the places mentioned, and the innkeeper may have provided the descriptive material. Other guides are selective: The guidebook author, who writes the descriptions, includes mostly places he or she has seen and recommends.

*Do you need a national listing? As more bed-and-breakfast places get started, the 50-state guides get thicker. These are useful if you do a lot of traveling throughout the country. But if your getaways are mostly limited to the East Coast, you probably won't need two-thirds of the book. You are better off buying a regional guide (though often they aren't as easy to find as some of the nationally published books).

Among the top guides:

*"A Treasury of Bed & Breakfast," edited by Sarah W. Sonke. (The American Bed and Breakfast Association, $14.95):

Private homes of from one to three guest rooms make up the majority of entries in this very extensive annual guide to the United States and Canada. The rest are small inns of no more than 11 rooms. The 1986 edition, due out in February, is expected to have a total of 3,000 listings, including about 90 in Virginia and 30 in Maryland.

Each lodging is briefly described, including price range and approximate location. Most of the host homes are represented by a reservation service, and the phone number is provided.

A sample entry in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains is a "bright, cheerful" guest room in a contemporary hilltop home "with a commanding view of mountains and surrounded by 250 acres of farmland." The price is from $40 to $60 a night for two people, including breakfast, and the room has a separate entrance and private bath.

To date, the guide is sold mostly through mail order and selected outlets.

For information: American Bed & Breakfast Association, P.O. Box 23294, Washington, D.C. 20026, (703) 237-9777.

*"The Complete Guide to Bed & Breakfasts, Inns & Guesthouses," by Pamela Lanier. (John Muir Publications, $11.95):

Despite its title, this guide's focus really is small inns, mostly places with under 30 guest rooms -- including more than 30 inns in Virginia and 25 in Maryland. It is a good, basic resource for inn fanciers.

The 1985 edition listed 1,800 small inns throughout the United States and Canada. The 1986 edition, due out in March, will add another 600 for an impressive total of 2,400.

Mixed in with these inns are some host homes. But travelers interested in this type of accommodation are directed to the fairly complete listing of reservation services.

Details on each inn are limited, but informative. Included are room rates, credit cards accepted, accessibility for the handicapped and whether children and pets are welcome.

An innovative and useful section sorts the inns out according to special amenities offered. Among them: inns with fine antiques; those that are unusually comfortable; inns for families and for farm vacations; inns with golf or fishing; and places set in areas of historic interest.

*"Bed & Breakfast U.S.A.," by Betty Rundback & Nancy Kramer. (Dutton, $9.95):

This is an excellent, readable guide principally to private host homes -- many of them respresented by reservation services -- and to selected small, family-run inns.

Less inclusive than the two books previously described, it nevertheless provides more useful information about each place it does list. And it goes on to add sightseeing and other attractions in the vicinity, which is rare in this kind of guide.

The text is gossipy, but fun and quite good about touching on the qualities that make a host home or inn interesting. Of the Conyers House, an eight-room inn in Sperryville, Va., authors Betty Rundback and Nancy Kramer explain that it is a restored 1770 country store, "eclectically and elegantly furnished," with a host who is a "cosmopolitan raconteur" and a hostess who is an "avid horsewoman."

Included in the 1986 edition, on the market this month, are about 700 host homes and inns and 144 reservation services in the United States and Canada, including 28 entries for Virginia and 14 for Maryland.

While most guidebooks include rates only as an indication of what a guest should expect to pay, this one promises that 90 percent of the places listed guarantee their rates to book holders for the year of publication. If they don't, they are dropped from the book.

Rundback, whose first edition of the guide in 1975 was only 16 pages long, takes in bed-and-breakfast guests herself in two rooms in her home, Trails End, located on a knoll overlooking Lake Wallenpaupack in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains.

*"The Complete Guide to American Bed and Breakfast," by Rik Barnes. (Pelican, $11.95):

Making its debut with the 1986 edition, now in bookstores, this guide seems strangely mistitled. It is neither complete nor really a guide to bed and breakfast.

It is, rather, a large (but still incomplete) guide to American inns, from very small -- the two-room Countryside in Summit Point, W.Va. -- to much larger -- the Maryland Inn in Annapolis (44 rooms) and the Martha Washington Inn in Abingdon, Va. (77 rooms).

Host homes are excluded, although there is a listing of reservation services in the appendix.

The author's intent, and a good one, has been to find inns "with a personal uniqueness in attitude and style," and he has listed about 1,500 -- 22 in Maryland and 29 in Virginia.

Sadly, however, he has not supported his choices with enough descriptive information to be useful in picking a place to stay. A reader searching for uniqueness will find only this drab entry for the charming Alexander-Withrow House in historic Lexington, Va.: "Built in 1789. Completely restored in 1972. Furnished with period pieces."

*"Bed & Breakfast American Style -- 1986," by Norman T. Simpson. (Harper & Row, $10.95):

Author Norman T. Simpson, who has written several country-inn guidebooks, has chosen to limit the places he includes to those either he personally has visited (90 percent) or associates have inspected.

Obviously, this reduces the number of places listed, but he has managed to include more than 400 small inns and some host homes in the United States and Canada -- though there are few in the Washington area.

This is a guidebook for travelers who want an expert's strong opinion about a place, and Simpson provides this, reporting at good length on each entry.

Citing the same Alexander-Withrow House discussed above, he describes it accurately -- and far more attractively -- as "an exquisite guest house" set in Lexington, "one of the most interesting and off-the-beaten path areas in the South."

*"Bed & Breakfast America: The Great American Guest House Book -- Eastern Edition" and " -- Western Edition," both by John Thaxton. (Burt Franklin, each $7.95):

The publisher expects for the first time to divide the 1986 version of this annual guide, due out next month, into two editions -- eastern and western -- because of the number of new entries. (If there is a last-minute decision to retain the one-volume format, the price will be $8.95.)

As in the earlier single-volume edition, they will be guides principally to host homes and small inns in the United States and Canada. Some the traveler can contact directly; others are represented by a reservation service.

In the 1985 edition, the guide contained more than 400 listings, each given an informative description. There were about 40 listings in Virginia and a dozen in Maryland, among them the five-room Strawberry Inn in New Market, near Frederick.

As the author points out, New Market is an antique center -- 45 shops in a half-mile -- and the Strawberry Inn, a restored mid-19th-century Victorian home, "looks like one of them."

*"The New England Bed and Breakfast Book," "The Mid-Atlantic Bed and Breakfast Book," "The Southern Bed and Breakfast Book," each by Corinne Madden Ross. (East Woods Press, $8.95 each):

These three fine regional guides to host homes and small inns are published every other year, and a new edition of each is scheduled for this spring. (Previous editions were called "Guest House" rather than "Bed and Breakfast" books.)

The books are quite selective, but author Corinne Madden Ross makes up for the limited number of listings with complete and entertaining descriptions of the lodgings chosen. She also has written informative and useful essays on sightseeing and recreational possibilities.

While the regional format is excellent for travelers who don't need a guide to the whole country, there is a drawback for Washington residents. In Ross' guides, Maryland (16 listings) is included in the mid-Atlantic book and Virginia (17 listings) is in the southern.

Two final notes:

*Some state tourism offices have begun to publish free lists of bed-and-breakfast places and reservation services. Two in particular are California and Massachusetts, where B & Bs are very popular.

For a copy, contact the tourism office in the capital of the state you are interested in visiting.

*The American Bed and Breakfast Association publishes a "Bed and Breakfast Basics" package that includes a list of 31 B & B guidebooks available by mail from the association; a list of host-home reservations services in North America; and tips on how to become a B & B host and how to be a good B & B guest. The price is $5.

For a copy, write the association at P.O. Box 23294, Washington, D.C. 20026.