Donald Herdeck's Three Continents Press

An Interview

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 seven years, and still hold down full-time jobs. He teaches African Studies and Third World Literature at Georgetown University, but estimates that he spends 70 hours a week on his publishing venture. The time and effort is finally paying off, for Herdeck's Three Continents Press is fast becoming one 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 and Persian. We don't publish white writers, and we haven't yet published any black American writer . . . . We're trying to give people who aren't from the Western World a chance 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, studying in Europe for three years on the G.I. bill. He received his doctorate in American Literature from the University of Pennsylvania, before joining the 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 in English, but then I started buying titles published in French." Books were hard to come by, but on travels throughout the continent, and trips to Europe, he amassed a collection of his own. At the same time, he began to write a book based on his work at the American Embassy, which he describes as "a bureaucratic novel set in Africa, with an African focus, that dealt with telephones, file clerks, cabinet ministers, and intrigue." It was ultimately rejected by NY publishers, he says, because "there were no tom-toms or topless girls dancing in the moonlight."

Herdeck's diplomatic career ended abruptly when he contracted both malaria and hepatitis. After a rest cure in the South of France, he returned to the States and took a teaching job at Georgetown University, where he has remained since 1965. An encounter with his old friend and former Fulbrighter, Harold Ames, led to a moonlighting job at Howard University, teaching African Literature. At Howard in 1970, Herdeck met Roger Brown, who was starting up Black Orpheus Press to publish works from African and other Third World areas. Herdeck helped out as Literature Editor before getting his own notes organized and written up into a book entitled African Authors. The book is an important reference work, complete with 594 bio-bibliographic entries, 135 photographs, and 16 appendices. Published in 1973, it has sold close to 10,000 copies to date.

Eventually Brown's interests strayed from the purely Third World intention of the press and Herdeck decided to have a go at publishing for himself. The first books on the Three Continents logo were gathered from African scholars he met at Howard, who had already published books in their own language. These included: Zimbabwe: Prose and Poetry which featured Feso, 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" novel ever written in English; and Beside The Fire, two modern Igbo tales by Obioma Eligwe, an Igbo writer from Nigeria.

On the basis of those first books, published in 1973, the word spread until today Three Continents Press is publishing 8-10 books a year in printings of 1,500 to 2,500 copies, both hard and soft cover, and selling close to 1,000 books a month. Herdeck feels that his press falls somewhere between the university and commercial publisher, though he feels he is doing the work the university publishers should be doing. With no staff he produced 13 books last year, which is more than Howard University accomplished with university aid and a staff of 10.

Herdeck gets two to three long distance calls a week from Asian and African writers looking for a publisher for their manuscripts. "There is nowhere else," he explains. He does his best to steer them to possible book publishers or magazines specializing in translations. But the market is small because the major NY publishers have lost faith in African writers as a marketable product. In the sixties when African Studies courses were beginning, it was almost impossible to get a copy of a book by an African or Caribbean author. The only feasible way was to order books from abroad, and that took months. By the seventies, Fawcett, Grove, and other publishers had printed one or two books by the big names like Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, and Penguin started bringing out Caribbean writers like V.S. Naipaul. But that awareness peaked in 1974-5, and the books dried up. The situation is really bad right now, and Herdeck sees a real danger. "The more Heinemann books, the more Penguin books they get out, the more courses can be kept alive, and African Studies can be made viable again. Because it's not been viable the last three or four years. "Half the books I ordered for my own classes weren't available. I have had to improvise." Herdeck is 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 American rights on the books that are no longer available. The out-of-print books are literally dead because the publishers won't bring them out nor allow anybody 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. "The authors are squawking and the students and professors need the books and can't get them," Herdeck said.

To make matters worse, small publishers that do undertake such books often go out of business immediately, retaining yet another set of book rights; or else go into competition with a bigger publisher's inventory which had been held out of circulation until the newer book surfaced; or are nothing more than rip-off operations, which hurt the credibility of all small publishers.

Because it's become difficult to find books by African writers, and because of the contractual stranglehold on some major titles created by the NY publishers, among others, Herdeck feels his press is in a good position to continue growing. While not as specialized as Africana Publishing House in NY, which handles Third World magazines and African Library Journal, with close to 300 books in print, or as big as Heinemann, the British publisher with whom Three Continents Press shares many distribution and co-publishing rights, Herdeck says, "With the 140 titles now in our catalog, 95 of our own originals, and another 50-60 under contract, if we can keep alive another five or six years and get these books going, we might, in time, become the largest publisher, at least in the US, that covers the whole Third World spectrum in creative writing."

Recent published books include: Modern Persian Short Stories edited and translated by Minoo S. Southgate; Black Shack Alley, a novel by Joseph Zobel, which is the first fiction translation from Martinique; Veronica My Daughter and other Onitsha Plays and Stories by Ogali Ogali, a Nigerian writer. But by far the biggest recent volume is Caribbean Writers: A Bio-Bibliographic Critical Encyclopedia by Herdeck, his wife, Maurice Lubin, John and Dorothy Figueroa, and Jose Alcantara. The 1,050-page book lists 2,000 authors and 15,000 titles, and sells for $60. If the volume sells to university libraries and reference collections, Herdeck figures Three Continents Press will finally break even within three years. But right now the perils of all small publishers--the rising cost of paper and printing, mailing and storage--hurt him.

Books currently undergoing production include Keith Warner's study of Calypso, 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 which played European jazz on traditional African instruments; plus a projected 32volume Critical Perspective Series that covers authors with in-depth essays and bibliographies. (The six volumes now available include: Amos Tutuola, Chinua Achebe, V.S. Naipaul, Wole Soyinka, and overviews of Nigerian literature and contemporary Arab literature.)

Herdeck is also expanding into other areas with his new Sun-Lit/Drumbeat books co-published with Longman (London), which feature creative works by African, Caribbean, Middle Eastern and Asian writers, and an even newer series on Pacific Writers (Samoa, Tahiti, Papuan New Guinea, etc) co-published by Longman Paul (Auckland, N.Z.). He also distributes Third World journals like Bim (published in Barbados since 1942), Al Raida, and Gazelle Review. Herdeck's philosophy is simple: ". . . Western teachers and scholars have been pushing their "stuff'' to the outer world: now is the time to bring things back--to see and to listen to Africa, the Caribbean, the whole 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 Lisbon and east and west of the Suez, are already there."

As long as his energy holds, and as long as professors spread the word about his books, Three Continents Press should be in good shape. Donald Herdeck has accomplished a lot. A more dedicated publisher would be hard to find.

For a catalog and price list write: Three Continents Press, Inc., 1346 Connecticut Ave., NW, Suite 113 1, Washington, D.C., 20036.

Interview by Eric Baizer & Richard Peabody circa 1980

 

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