Xerox Corp. yesterday said it has been awarded a $10 million contract to automate the publishing of Air Force manuals, regulations, pamphlets and forms through a computerized system that the company said would drastically cut paper work and greatly increase productivity.

The system would allow Air Force employees around the world to use terminals to get access to forms and documents contained in a central database in Leesburg, change them electronically and print them at a printer adjacent to the terminal.

In addition to the three-year, $10 million contract for the installation and operation of the Air Force system, Xerox is selling the Navy $1 million worth of electronic publishing equipment. Xerox, which competed with 150 other vendors to sell the system to the Air Force, views the two contracts as the tip of an iceberg of federal contracts worth as much as $1 billion a year in revenue.

"Everything that is in a government office is taken somewhere to be printed, and we think we can make it more efficient. These two contracts are the beginning," said Robert V. Adams, a Xerox executive vice president and president of the division that developed the system for the Air Force.

A spokeswoman for the Government Printing Office, which awarded the Air Force contract, said yesterday that if federal agencies widely adopted the technology, they could save "hundreds of millions" of dollars in printing costs. The Army has installed similar equipment and many other agencies are watching developments with Xerox's technology.

The electronic publishing industry has grown quickly in recent years, aided by increasingly sophisticated personal computers, such as the Apple Macintosh, that can do many of the things that the traditional typesetting shop does. The electronic publishing industry's revenue totaled $493 million last year, and is expected to grow to more than $1.2 billion by 1990, according to Ed Wong, a research analyst with Dataquest Inc., a San Jose, Calif., market research firm.

Currently, many government employees cut and paste changes onto master documents, which then must be reprinted at outside printing companies. That process often takes months, and the information sometimes becomes obsolete by the time it is printed, according to the Government Printing Office.

Under the new system, publishing workstations will be installed at Air Force sites beginning with Bolling Air Force base in Southeast Washington. These workstations will hook into a central Air Force database at Leesburg and will allow instant updating of existing forms and manuals. Documents can be printed instantly at Air Force locations, or printed and bound elsewhere for bulk distribution.

Eventually, all domestic Air Force bases and international bases are to be on the system.

On the new system, an updated regulation, for example, could be called up by an officer in West Germany via overseas communications links and then be instantly printed at his location.