A Knoxville, Tenn, publishing house, half owned by the largest publishing group in Sweden, is negotiating to purchase Esquire magazine, according to sources close to the talks.

The Knoxville Company, 13-30 Corp., which publishers several magazines and handbooks aimed at the 13 to 30 age group, reportedly has offered between $3 million and $4 million for Esquire, which has been losing money since it was purchased by Associated Newspapers Ltd., a large British publisher, in August 1977.

The 13-30 Corp. is reported to be half-owned by Ahlen & Akerlund, a Swedish publishing house owned by the Bonnier family, publishers of the largest morning and evening daily newspapers and several other publishing ventures in Sweden.

Esquire reportedly has been having financial problems, and a source at the magazine said that as part of a recent refinancing arrangement at the end of last year, publisher Clay Felker lost a significant part of his financial interest in the magazine to Associated Newspapers Inc. and its chairman, Vere Harmsworth.

The colorful Felker, former editor of New York Magazine, put together the original 1977 deal, with Harmsworth's backing, to buy the unprofitable Esquire from its parent Esquire Inc. He proceeded to revamp design and format and bring many of his former New York Magazine writers to the new publication.

But sources at 13-30 said that company's editor and chief executive officer, Phillip Moffitt, is considering naming himself editor of Esquire if the deal is consummated, and firing Felker.

Moffitt, 32, and Chris Whittle, 31, publisher and chairman of 13-30, founded their company a decade ago after graduating from the University of Tennessee, where both had been student government presidents.

They started by putting out a guide for UT students called "Knoxville in a Nutshell," and eventually expanded the idea to 115 cities. "Nutshell" is now the largest college magazie in the country with 1.2 million circulation distributed free on college campuses.

The company also publishes youth magazines for companies such as Ford Motor Co., and Nikon cameras, with most of the publications stressing job opportunities or service stories.

Officials at Esquire, Associated Newspapers and 13-30 refused to return calls from The Washington Post. But Esquire staffers said late yesterday Felker passed around a memo stating the magazine had not been sold, but that Associated was negotiating for a possible sale.