The advertising wizard who came up with the "sell the sizzle, not the steak" line never had to hustle subscriptions to the Manual of Patent Examining Procedure.

Or sell copies of the Crosscut Saw Manual or the Handbook of Labor Statistics, 1979.

But the Government Printing Office, which counts those publications among its 1,000 "best sellers," figures that where there's a market, there's a way to expand it. That's where Donald E. Fossedal comes in.

Fossedal, GPO's director of marketing, hopes to help Uncle Sam turn a profit on the thousands of publications that roll off the government's presses each year. The printing office has run at a deficit for the past three years, to the cumulative tune of $20 million. This year, Fossedal vows, "We'll be in the black."

If that sounds like a cocky statement, well, Fossedal is a supremely confident man. With the full backing of his boss, public printer Danforth Sawyer (also a former advertising man), Fossedal has set out to apply to the GPO the same marketing techniques he used for General Mills, Gillette and, most recently, the Illinois state lottery.

His maiden effort was launched this month: a national television and radio promotion of a new 52-page catalog that features pictures, prices and summaries of GPO's most popular offerings -- and just in time for holiday giving.

The catalog lists such perennial favorites as "Infant Care," the 67-page booklet on caring for newborns that has sold more than 20 million copies since 1919. The book, which is revised frequently, now lists for $4.25. The catalog also lists books on topics ranging from agriculture to zoology, as well as collections of postcards, postage stamps and photographs ("in color and black and white, suitable for framing.")

The campaign is low budget, to say the least. As marketing director for the Illinois state lottery, Fossedal produced a single television commercial for $55,000. At GPO, he and his nine-person staff wrote, edited and produced nine television spots and 15 radio spots for about $32,000, including the costs of filming (at facilities run by the Agriculture Department) and paying for a professional cast. (The former president of the Screen Actors Guild, after all, sits in the White House.)

There were a few bugs, of course. A television spot featuring Benjamin Franklin ("Some years ago I wrote in my almanac, 'An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.' ") had to be shot 17 times. It seems passers-by kept peering in the windows of the set, the Senate Appropriations Committee room.

So far, according to Mike Bright, a member of Fossedal's staff, the promotion is "going great." In the first week, the agency heard from 40 radio and 20 television stations, saying they had found a place on the air for the catalog promotion. The agency has received requests for 335 of the 200,000 catalogs it has printed.

Meanwhile, the little ad agency in GPO already is looking ahead to a new and improved model. It recently appealed to agencies to spruce up their cover designs "with market appeal in mind" and to provide summaries with a bit more pizazz. "Write for the 'man from Mars,' " GPO advised in its new "Marketing Moves" newsletter. "Scientific abstracts generally make very poor promotional synopses."

If all this sounds a little out of the ordinary for the old gray government, it is. The government's personnel office doesn't recognize marketing or advertising in its list of job titles (Fossedal's official title is "special assistant for external affairs") and sales campaigns in the government to this point have been restricted, for the most part, to armed services recruiting.

"Marketing," says Fossedal's deputy, Charles McKeown, "has been a dirty word in government."

Ah, but no more. The Reagan administration, with its new emphasis on "make it pay or trim it away," has bureaucrats across the government dreaming up ways to break even or show a little budget-relieving profit.

"The Reagan administration would rather sell it than give it away," Fossedal says. His only lament is that because of the budget-forced cutbacks in publications, "we have fewer products to sell."

Already on the drawing boards at GPO is a promotion to increase public awareness of the 1,367 depository libraries that offer the public free access to government documents, and Fossedal is cooking up what could be his piece de resistance -- getting government books on the shelves in commercial bookstores.

The office also is trying to establish an after-work group of government marketing professionals who would meet periodically to share ideas. Bright says he's heard from interested employes in agencies ranging from the U.S. Geological Survey (which would like to sell data and map services) to the Interior Department's Bureau of Reclamation.

"The government is very product-oriented," said Bright. "We're trying to encourage the government to be a little more market-oriented."