Gargoyle 15/16cover photo (The Immeasurable) by Haig Shekerjianpublication date 1/27/1981
Operating out of a tiny Dupont Circle office, Donald Herdeck and his wife,Margaret, have managed to publish 90 full-length books in the past sevenyears, and still hold down full-time jobs. He teaches African Studies andThird World Literature at Georgetown University, but estimates that hespends 70 hours a week on his publishing venture. The time and effort isfinally paying off, for Herdeck’s Three Continents Press is fast becomingone of the major publishers of Third World Literature.
“Primarily we are Third World publishers-mostly African and Caribbean,but increasingly we’re doing Middle Eastern translations from Arabic andPersian. We don’t publish white writers, and we haven’t yet published anyblack American writer. . . . We’re trying to give people who aren’t from the Western World achance to present their ideas to us.”
The idea for the press was born after a stint in the foreign service.Herdeck had been a bazookaman and a machine gunner in World War II, studyingin Europe for three years on the G.I. bill. He received his doctorate inAmerican Literature from the University of Pennsylvania, before joiningthe foreign service in 1955 and serving eventually in Europe and Africa.While in Guinea, Herdeck says, “I started reading African novels.I was surprised to know there were any. I’d never heard of any. First inEnglish, but then I started buying titles published in French.” Bookswere hard to come by, but on travels throughout the continent, and tripsto Europe, he amassed a collection of his own. At the same time, he beganto write a book based on his work at the American Embassy, which he describesas “a bureaucratic novel set in Africa, with an African focus, thatdealt with telephones, file clerks, cabinet ministers, and intrigue.” Itwas ultimately rejected by NY publishers, he says, because “therewere no tom-toms or topless girls dancing in the moonlight.”
Herdeck’s diplomatic career ended abruptly when he contracted both malariaand hepatitis. After a rest cure in the South of France, he returned tothe States and took a teaching job at Georgetown University, where he hasremained since 1965. An encounter with his old friend and former Fulbrighter,Harold Ames, led to a moonlighting job at Howard University, teaching AfricanLiterature. At Howard in 1970, Herdeck met Roger Brown, who was startingup Black Orpheus Press to publish works from African and other Third Worldareas. Herdeck helped out as Literature Editor before getting his own notesorganized and written up into a book entitled African Authors. The bookis an important reference work, complete with 594 bio-bibliographic entries,135 photographs, and 16 appendices. Published in 1973, it has sold closeto 10,000 copies to date.
Eventually Brown’s interests strayed from the purely Third World intentionof the press and Herdeck decided to have a go at publishing for himself.The first books on the Three Continents logo were gathered from Africanscholars he met at Howard, who had already published books in their ownlanguage. These included: Zimbabwe: Prose and Poetry which featuredFeso, the first Zezuru language novel, written in 1957 by Solomon Mutswairo,plus the bi-lingual text to 25 poems by four different poets; Ushaba:The Hurtle to Blood River by Jordan K. Ngubane, the first “Zulu” novelever written in English; and Beside The Fire, two modern Igbo talesby Obioma Eligwe, an Igbo writer from Nigeria.
On the basis of those first books, published in 1973, the word spreaduntil today Three Continents Press is publishing 8-10 books a year in printingsof 1,500 to 2,500 copies, both hard and soft cover, and selling close to1,000 books a month. Herdeck feels that his press falls somewhere betweenthe university and commercial publisher, though he feels he is doing thework the university publishers should be doing. With no staff he produced13 books last year, which is more than Howard University accomplished withuniversity aid and a staff of 10.
Herdeck gets two to three long distance calls a week from Asian and Africanwriters looking for a publisher for their manuscripts. “There is nowhereelse,” he explains. He does his best to steer them to possible bookpublishers or magazines specializing in translations. But the market issmall because the major NY publishers have lost faith in African writersas a marketable product. In the sixties when African Studies courses werebeginning, it was almost impossible to get a copy of a book by an Africanor Caribbean author. The only feasible way was to order books from abroad,and that took months. By the seventies, Fawcett, Grove, and other publishershad printed one or two books by the big names like Chinua Achebe and WoleSoyinka, and Penguin started bringing out Caribbean writers like V.S. Naipaul.But that awareness peaked in 1974-5, and the books dried up. The situationis really bad right now, and Herdeck sees a real danger. “The moreHeinemann books, the more Penguin books they get out, the more coursescan be kept alive, and African Studies can be made viable again. Becauseit’s not been viable the last three or four years. “Half the booksI ordered for my own classes weren’t available. I have had to improvise.” Herdeckis in a position where sometimes the only way he can obtain a given book,particularly a non-English title, is to publish it himself in a translation,or to seek US rights for an out-of-print edition.
The real sin is that the big publishers often retain the North Americanrights on the books that are no longer available. The out-of-print booksare literally dead because the publishers won’t bring them out nor allowanybody else to reprint them. Of course a third party could acquire rights,but they would generally cost too much for a small publisher to afford. “Theauthors are squawking and the students and professors need the books andcan’t get them,” Herdeck said.
To make matters worse, small publishers that do undertake such books oftengo out of business immediately, retaining yet another set of book rights;or else go into competition with a bigger publisher’s inventory which hadbeen held out of circulation until the newer book surfaced; or are nothingmore than rip-off operations, which hurt the credibility of all small publishers.
Because it’s become difficult to find books by African writers, and becauseof the contractual stranglehold on some major titles created by the NYpublishers, among others, Herdeck feels his press is in a good positionto continue growing. While not as specialized as Africana Publishing Housein NY, which handles Third World magazines and African Library Journal,with close to 300 books in print, or as big as Heinemann, the British publisherwith whom Three Continents Press shares many distribution and co-publishingrights, Herdeck says, “With the 140 titles now in our catalog, 95of our own originals, and another 50-60 under contract, if we can keepalive another five or six years and get these books going, we might, intime, become the largest publisher, at least in the US, that covers thewhole Third World spectrum in creative writing.”
Recent published books include: Modern Persian Short Stories editedand translated by Minoo S. Southgate; Black Shack Alley, a novelby Joseph Zobel, which is the first fiction translation from Martinique; VeronicaMy Daughter and other Onitsha Plays and Stories by Ogali Ogali, a Nigerianwriter. But by far the biggest recent volume is Caribbean Writers: ABio-Bibliographic Critical Encyclopedia by Herdeck, his wife, MauriceLubin, John and Dorothy Figueroa, and Jose Alcantara. The 1,050-page booklists 2,000 authors and 15,000 titles, and sells for $60. If the volumesells to university libraries and reference collections, Herdeck figuresThree Continents Press will finally break even within three years. Butright now the perils of all small publishers–the rising cost of paperand printing, mailing and storage–hurt him.
Books currently undergoing production include Keith Warner’s study ofCalypso, which is the first serious study of the social impact of the verse,music and ceremony; a book on African dance bands of the thirties whichplayed European jazz on traditional African instruments; plus a projected32volume Critical Perspective Series that covers authors with in-depthessays and bibliographies. (The six volumes now available include: AmosTutuola, Chinua Achebe, V.S. Naipaul, Wole Soyinka, and overviews of Nigerianliterature and contemporary Arab literature.)
Herdeck is also expanding into other areas with his new Sun-Lit/Drumbeatbooks co-published with Longman (London), which feature creative worksby African, Caribbean, Middle Eastern and Asian writers, and an even newerseries on Pacific Writers (Samoa, Tahiti, Papuan New Guinea, etc) co-publishedby Longman Paul (Auckland, N.Z.). He also distributes Third World journalslike Bim (published in Barbados since 1942), Al Raida, and Gazelle Review.Herdeck’s philosophy is simple: “. . . Western teachers and scholarshave been pushing their “stuff” to the outer world: now is the timeto bring things back–to see and to listen to Africa, the Caribbean, thewhole rest of the world–except the Europeans . . . Heart of Darkness someday,I hope, will be read only by historians of the Victorian mind. The ‘real’books from Africa and elsewhere from the non-Western world, south of Lisbonand east and west of the Suez, are already there.”
As long as his energy holds, and as long as professors spread the wordabout his books, Three Continents Press should be in good shape. DonaldHerdeck has accomplished a lot. A more dedicated publisher would be hardto find.
For a catalog and price list write: Three Continents Press, Inc., 1346Connecticut Ave., NW, Suite 113 1, Washington, D.C., 20036.
Interview by Eric Baizer & Richard Peabody circa 1980