When the letter comes, you get the message right away. It's on the front of the envelope. At the top left: "Marquis Publications." At the bottom right: "Who's Who in America." In the middle and in red: "Personal Data Requested."

My God. I'm in Who's Who.

I would not do, I decided, as one friend had done. When he was general manager of a television station in Richmond, he furnished his den with a small blue spotlight and a copy of "Who's Who in America." The spotlight was trained on the book, which was opened to his biography.

I would draw the line on spotlights. Dear Friend:

It is my pleasure to inform you that your name has been brought to our attention for consideration for inclusion in the forthcoming Seventeenth Edition of Who's Who in the South and Southwest . . . We congratulate you on the accomplishments that have brought your name to the attention of our editors . . .

Actually a friend had brought my name to their attention. She was in Who's Who in America. A biographee. The former editor of Holiday and Realite's, she belonged in Who's Who. What rankled was that I had been left out.

Given a choice between men asking why he had no statue and men looking at his statue and asking why he had one, Simon Bolivar said that he would choose the former. I was not of the Simon Bolivar persuasion. I asked my friend if she could do anything about getting me in Who's Who.

"Sure. On the back of the form they send you every year is a place to put down the name of a person who deserves to be in Who's Who." She would put my name down anyway. The upshot was an extended correspondence. With the third letter, I was home free. Dear Marquis Biographee:

. . . Here is a copy of your biographical sketch as it will appear in the Seventeenth Edition of Who's Who in the South and Southwest. On behalf of our entire editorial staff, may I extend our congratulations for the accomplishments that have led to your inclusion in this important biographical directory . . .

Although the Seventeenth Edition will list for $57.50, you may reserve as many copies as you wish for $46 . . .

A brochure describes "Who's Who in the South and Southwest" as "An Authoritative Biographical Guide to Men and Women of Outstanding Regional Merit." Actually, I would have preferred the first team. If Who's Who in America were Saks Fifth Avenue, Who's Who in the South is Sunny's Surplus. In fairness, however, such merit as attends putting out a journal of limited circulation for an organization of uncertain funding was nothing if not regional. And no occasion for spotlights.

Unseemly displays can be managed, however, without spotlights. Johnny Carson and James Garner are in the big Who's Who, and they talked about it on the "Tonight" show. Their consensus: When you amount to something, people know about it. And when you're a bum, people know about that, too. Being in Who's Who doesn't change a thing.

Easy for them to say. But what about that grateful dentist in one of the regional editions? From time to time he sends them a package containing samples of toothpaste and dental floss. Between these exemplars of the take-it-in-stride, who-needs-it school and the ardor that goes with love offerings, surely there was a middle ground.

The list of Marquis Who's Who begins with the two-volume, 3,700-page Who's Who in America, the popular reference that has appeared at two-year intervals since 1898.

The Marquis list proceeds through local talent in the four regional editions. Professional eminence is certified in "Who's Who in American Law," "Who's Who in Finance and Industry," "Who's Who in Religion," "Who's Who in Government." The list wanders on through the "Directory of Medical Specialists" and "World Who's Who in Science" to such quiet heroes as "School District Officials" and "Child Development Professionals." Eighteen titles in 27 volumes. Something for almost everyone.

According to a former editorial director of Marquis Who's Who, the editorial and marketing factions are constantly at odds with each other. Editors worry about accuracy and standards, and salesmen worry about sales. Presiding over this genteel struggle is Kenneth H. Petchenik, New York, general manager of the reference publications division of ITT and president of Marquis Who's Who.

Not that you will find his name in Who's Who in America. Since ITT acquired Who's Who in 1969, there have been a few changes. One of them was dropping the president of Who's Who from Who's Who in America.

A man of unflagging cordiality, Petchenik can smoke a pipe at breakfast and say things like "Vanity is the other side of pride" and "You can't buy your way into a Marquis Who's Who book."

"We are first and foremost," he says, "a profit-making organization." Within limits, of course. Promoters, he admits, are forever coming up with gimmicks. T-shirts and cuff links. A rosewood cigarette box has been suggested. "We don't do that." Dear Marquis Biographee:

We are pleased to present you with an exclusive offer: a personalized diary developed especially for our biographees. Your name will be embossed in 22-karat gold. The padded cover is burgundy in color--of quality coated cloth with a fine morocco grain. (The Deluxe Edition is covered in full grain leather.) Among the features added for your convenience: a satin ribbon marker and lay-flat comb binding . . . Our format was strongly preferred in a survey of hundreds of decision-makers like yourself . . .

It was time for the thoughtful questions.

"A lot of people think that Who's Who is just a scheme to sell books. Does that concern you?"

"It's a concern. But I think . . . " Petchenik seemed to be having difficulty keeping his pipe lit. I hurried on.

"Tell me this. A friend of mine is head of the Los Angeles library system and he's in Who's Who in America. When he first got in, though, he was the librarian of El Paso, Texas. It's hard to think of the librarian of El Paso, Texas, as looming large in the big picture. Are you nice to librarians because librarians buy reference books?"

"That's speculation," says Petchenik. The pipe was going out again. "It may be a reasonable speculation."

The makeup of the Who's Who Board of Advisers reflects an esteem for librarians. Of the 18 members, 14 are affiliated with libraries.

Petchenik suggests that another reason given for cultivating librarians is their accessibility. Some other groups are harder to track.

For the achiever who has been missed by Who's Who in America, Petchenik has good news: "The easiest way to get in Who's Who is to ask. Send us a request for a data form." The applicant is evaluated, and if Who's Who standards are met, the applicant becomes a biographee.

Who's Who standards are spelled out in the front of Who's Who, where the official language speaks of "the extent of an individual's reference interest." Reference value is determined by "position held" or "significant achievement."

The military is easy: "Officers on active duty beginning with the rank of major general in the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps; and rear admiral in the Navy."

After that it gets tricky: "high-ranking members of the U.S. government"; "heads of major universities"; "mayors of the larger U.S. cities"; "presidents of leading foundations." Add "significant what is significant? achievements" and the editors of Who's Who face judgment calls that number in the thousands.

How can a handful of editors cull the biographees from all that chaff? It's hard, concedes Petchenik, and inevitably some people are left out. To improve the process of selection Petchenik has devised a new scouting system. Nominations will be made in cooperation with a network of "subject-matter specialists." Nominations will be made to a new editorial director who has a Ph.D in American History.

The 41st edition of Who's Who (1980-81) included 73,500 biographees and sold for $89.50. Given the historical phenomenon of biographee creep, the 42nd edition (1982-83)--which started going out last week-- will be a little bigger. And more costly: $109.50, plus $5 for shipping. Letters will follow.

"Make no mistake," says Petchenik. "After a person goes in Who's Who, we try very, very hard to sell him a book." Dear Marquis Biographee:

. . . If you reserve a copy, you will also receive upon publication a handsome 8 x 10-inch parchment-like certificate identifying you as a biographee . . . This distinctive certificate is suitable for display and provided at no additional charge.

Petchenik has a thought. "I would like to see a copy of Who's Who in every hotel room in the country."

His pipe billows smoke like a house afire.