It was not even 9:15 a.m. and already, from a stage erected in the center of one of Manhattan's more stylish cafes, novelist Louis Begley was murmuring that John O'Hara's "Butterfield 8" was "one of the great indispensable novels in American life," while fellow panelist Shelby Foote was drawlingly comparing O'Hara to Trollope.

"He was a snob, wasn't he?" mused moderator Harold Evans, president and publisher of Random House, circling the stage this week with a hand-held microphone, rewarding his commentators with the occasional "Ahhh, good" or "That's marvelous."

The now-neglected O'Hara was November's topic, but almost any theme draws 200 or so exceptionally well-dressed New Yorkers to this series of literary breakfasts that Random House hosts at Barneys New York, the voguish clothier. It suits their no-time-to-breathe schedules: They're in at 8:30 and gone by 9:45. It offers a touch of reflected glamour, with Isabella Rossellini claiming a seat next to actress-partygoer Sylvia Miles, while Erica Jong sits nearby and Debra Winger a few tables away.

And it's often amusing, as when O'Hara's New Yorker colleague Brendan Gill rose from the audience to mourn, "I might have amounted to something if I had a voice like Shelby Foote's." Decorous laughter rippled out over the white table linens. Evans looked pleased.

All of this -- the literary jests and sallies, the twittering audience, the multiple satisfactions of feeling fashionable and intellectually adventurous over $35 worth of croissants and fruit -- was Evans's idea.

He's been presiding over the bookish breakfasts for two years now, from a "Whither Goes the Novel?" colloquy that included Kurt Vonnegut and Bret Easton Ellis ("Personally," muttered panelist John Gregory Dunne, "I think it wise to stay away from any question that begins with the word whither' ") to a Mark Twain discussion that allowed John Kenneth Galbraith and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to discuss "Huckleberry Finn" with rapper-provocateur Sister Souljah. "I could hear the intake of breath," Evans recalls with satisfaction, "when I said to her, What about the word nigger?' "

What he had in mind was something like the book luncheons sponsored by Foyle's, a British bookshop, which he'd occasionally attended in his previous life as editor of the Times of London. He wanted to be able to say straight-faced, and does, that the event traffics in ideas, in literature with a capital Lit, not in mere book sales. He was after a Hollywood phenomenon -- buzz -- and he turned to show biz PR people rather than his own book publicists to get it.

The man who midwifed Evans's idea was Jonathan Marder, who before inaugurating Random House's special marketing group had run his own film publicity firm, touting more than 300 films, from "Paris Is Burning" to "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3." His decision to take the publishing job brought murmurs about leaving the entertainment industry. "That the book industry doesn't see itself as part of the entertainment industry is a terrible mistake," Marder says -- one he set out to rectify.

He brought in Barneys, then making considerable fuss about its first uptown store, opening at Madison Avenue and 61st Street. The retailer "was so hot then," he explains. "It was chic, Upper East Side, the opposite of the traditional idea of the book business." And while the pricey cafe in the basement was hopping at lunch, it was empty in the morning. Filling the place, christened mad.61 for its location, with 200 or so upscale breakfast guests was a happy prospect. That some of them have been seen upstairs afterward, trying on Armani jackets or buying outrageously expensive lipsticks, is the froth on the latte.

Marder concocted the artfully peculiar panels, too, on which credentialed academics and blue-chip authors were joined by "wild cards" like chief Cosmo girl Helen Gurley Brown (analyzing Truman Capote), makeup mogul Georgette Mosbacher (included, for some reason, in the Louisa May Alcott discussion) and Malcolm McLaren (for the cheap thrill, no doubt, of having the producer of the Sex Pistols discuss Colette). The audience was fairly stellar as well. At various times the breakfasts lured Bianca Jagger, designers Carolina Herrera and Norma Kamali, media bigs Ed Kosner, Mort Zuckerman and Lesley Stahl, as well as sundry socialites.

Plus, of course, there is the stellar Evans himself, a veteran host of BBC radio and TV shows. "He's not an obvious sex symbol, but women looove him," Marder notes. With Evans -- gauntly thin, elegant in pinstripes, droll, prone to British pronunciations like "controversies" -- at the helm, panels have considered Dorothy Parker, Oscar Wilde, espionage fiction, "the literature of politics."

Major papers, the fashion magazines, George and Entertainment Weekly and the International Herald Tribune have all taken note. The buzz has even begun to reach the heartland: The chats have been edited and repackaged as Harry-hosted radio shows -- "Breakfast at Random House" -- and satellited to about 150 public radio stations. The conversation sounds very civilized on tape, with the clink of cutlery and china in the background, and if listeners in Grand Rapids and Erie don't know that back on Madison Avenue, Barneys is under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and its cafe has been prosaically renamed Fred's, so much the better.

"Harry has that touch of Barnum & Bailey," says Random House's current special marketing veep, Michelle Abbrecht, who replaced Marder last spring after stints with the Samuel Goldwyn Co. and Savoy Pictures. That she knew nothing about books was deemed a bonus, she says.

Marder had gotten an offer he couldn't refuse from the other half of Manhattan's leading literary power duo; he's now working at the New Yorker for Evans's wife, editor Tina Brown. That splashy story about intellectuals and the O.J. Simpson case, inspired by a panel at the 92nd Street Y, that took up much of the New York Times's metro section front page this fall? Marder and Abbrecht can take a bow: The panel was their production. Among the panelists were Judge Kimba Wood and defense attorney Barry Scheck, as well as Jeffrey Toobin, New Yorker contributor and Random House author. Brown and Evans hosted the dinner for 150 afterward.

Among Madison Avenue types, events like that and the Barneys breakfasts are staples of what's known as the corporate image campaign. They don't directly move product. In fact, Evans estimates that each breakfast costs Random House about $5,000, while turning it into a half-hour radio show runs another $10,000. "If you ask me to justify it in dollars and cents, I couldn't."

It's true, too, that not every breakfast directly promotes an upcoming Random House title. The Mark Twain panel did -- Random House was about to publish a comprehensive new edition of "Huckleberry Finn," from a manuscript found in an attic in 1990. The December breakfast, a discussion of Ralph Ellison, is nicely timed to spotlight a new collection of Ellison's short stories. But there won't be a new edition of John O'Hara from the Modern Library, a Random House imprint, for a year.

The payoff for a corporate image campaign is subtler: It's meant to confer a mantle of class on the nation's largest trade publisher. "It says that Random House cares about books, about authors," Evans says. Which comes in handy, he acknowledges, when agents are considering where to steer desirable writers and projects.

It also provides some cover. "Random House is sometimes involved in controversies, as you may have noticed," Evans says dryly, as visions of Dick Morris's reported $2.5 million advance and Joe Klein's confessional I-Am-Anonymous news conference dance in the memory. Discussions of Colette may serve as a partial antidote.

"We all know, and every journalist will say, that it's a PR thing," says an independent publicist who occasionally handles Random House books. But Random House, the publicist adds, "is one of the few {publishing} houses that still wears tweeds, that can pretend it's slightly more serious, more academic. It's pretty clever because the list {of published works}, when you look at it, isn't substantially different from Doubleday's or others'."

But is Doubleday operating movie studio-style junkets, like the one Random House arranged to ferry half a dozen gossip columnists to Savannah, Ga., where they were introduced to the locals featured in John Berendt's best-selling "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil"? Is Simon and Schuster planning to stage benefit rock performances at New York clubs, as Abbrecht is considering this spring for "The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock"? Not yet.

After breakfast, Jong waited to join those congratulating Evans with f-words like "fabulous" and "fantastic." It was her first Barneys breakfast, Jong said, and she had enjoyed it. She was also happy to see books and authors getting the benefits of savvy promotion.

Yet it sounded as though she might not join the regulars. "I tend to avoid literary gatherings like this," she said, pausing to squeal and peck the cheek of the diminutive "Dr. Ruth" Westheimer. "I became a writer so I didn't have to put on makeup this early." CAPTION: The word is out: Author Fran Lebowitz, left, and actress Sylvia Miles at a Random House literary breakfast that draws the intellectually well-heeled to Barneys New York. CAPTION: Random House's Harold Evans leads a panel comprising, clockwise from left, David Brown, Gay Talese, Louis Begley, Shelby Foote and Fran Lebowitz.