Story & Art by Honda
Translated by Amanda Haley
Lettered by Bianca Pistillo
The fourth and final volume of Honda-san is more of an addendum than a conclusion. Having run out of stories to tell from her bookstore job, this volume sees Honda actively seek out people to interview to gather more material. Whereas previous volumes educated readers about the publishing industry through Honda’s personal experiences as a bookseller, the insights shared in this volume are through second-hand conversations from people she meets. These anecdotes are still very interesting and informational, but the stories feel a bit more forced. The key difference is that Honda has to go out of her way to conduct interviews and visit places in this volume, rather than interesting things just happening on the job like previously. While the stories she tells are still entertaining, packed with humor and character, it’s also a bit directionless. Consequently, the series more or less just stops rather than building to a finale, with a good chunk of the volume filled out with bonus promotional material. All that said, this volume of Honda-san thoroughly characterizes the message at its heart; the power in uniting people with a shared love of books.
While Honda-san has focused on retail bookstores and the purchase and selling of physical books, ebooks, and digital publishing are an essential and growing part of the industry. Through interviews with her former coworker Birdhouse and a tour of ebook magnate Rakuten Kobo, Honda illustrates what goes into actually running an online ebook store and selling digital books. These interviews reveal that while the digital space has certain advantages like not needing to worry about book quantity, dealing with data can come with its own issues like prematurely releasing content or fumbling a marketing campaign. Moreover, while the structure of the business is similar in terms of wholesalers acting as middle-men between the publishers and retailers, in the case of ebooks all those roles can exist under the same company and thus cooperate less competitively. These chapters reveal a lot of distinctions between what is allowed in print media versus digital and dealing with censorship and the authorial demands. They also explore a lot of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into promotional efforts like creating web pages, sales campaigns, and blogs. Ultimately, the message of these chapters is that while the form of the product is different, the effort put into selling it is the same. Despite worrying that they might bore her, the digital booksellers Honda meets are all passionate about their jobs, and they bond over their desire to make people interested in buying and reading books.
This shared passion for spreading the love of books to others extends internationally when Honda visits Taiwan to study their bookselling culture. Her conversations with representatives from Kadokawa Taiwan explore the challenges in localizing books from one language to another, trying to recapture the original intent in translation. Humorously, Honda demonstrates that not everyone is on the same page on what’s the right approach to doing so even within the same company, making for a fun musing on translation philosophy. Overall, these chapters continue to hammer home the idea that a lot of effort, love, and care goes into publishing and selling books. Honda’s visit to the Taiwanese Books Kinokuniya and fan conventions in Taiwan and Malaysia also demonstrate that books fans are passionate no matter the country too. Honda doesn’t shy away from the fact that the bookstore business has been seeing a decline both in Japan and Taiwan, with consumer spendings habits shifting more towards video games than books. However, bookstores persevere to serve customers who see them as a place of belonging, offering treasures and a space only they can provide.
Throughout this series, Honda-san has demonstrated and emphasized that everyone involved in the bookselling business, from the publishers to the retailers, do their jobs as a labor of love. The bookselling job Honda had was fraught with challenges and didn’t pay that well, as her coworkers often lamented. Even editors at the publishing companies have their own horror stories of their artists ghosting them or dealing with agitated booksellers. Honda’s book designer reveals he gets distressed to the point of crying while working, desperately trying to figure out how to best sell the book he’s been entrusted with. No matter what difficulties they face, though, Honda and everyone she meets in the business are book fans. They put their efforts into pushing up-and-coming or niche books they believe in because they want them to be successful. Honda recounts so many stories of customers she helps that profusely thank her for introducing them to the book they were looking for, some literally jumping for joy. Perhaps the story that best demonstrates how successively Honda-san communicates its love for books is one in which they’re defiled. Honda shares a traumatic story of seeing a picture of someone tearing apart a bunch of books and stuffing them into a toilet at one of her store’s sister locations. Even filtered through Honda’s recreation, it’s a deeply upsetting image. We’ve seen how much love and care is poured into bookmaking and book selling, and that books are precious to their creators and those entrusted to them. Honda describes the treatment of the books in violent terms as if they were murdered, and you can empathize with her grief. This callous and heartless treatment of books only emphasizes how much love Honda-san has for them and book lovers at its heart.
While Honda-san doesn’t leave us with a pointed farewell, this volume still illustrates the publishing world in all its joys and challenges through Honda’s witty sense of humor and distinct artistry. Honda’s minimalist aesthetics but strong linework and inky brushstrokes imbue a lot of character to her art. While Honda is sometimes only left to work with drawing talking heads during her conversations and interviews, her choice to draw all her characters in masks and her ability to express emotions through strong gestures adds a lot of amusing charm to these interactions. Not to mention her visual metaphors – like the publisher, wholesaler, and retailer all holding hands in a bridge to symbolize their harmonious relationship – are spot-on images that illustrate the insights she wants to educate readers on in memorable ways. This series has been a great boon to manga fans who’ve wanted to learn more about what goes into bookselling as a profession and the publishing world. It’s a must-read for every manga fan who wants to educate themselves on the labor that goes into stocking the books they read and appreciate the efforts of those who make it possible for you to pick up your favorite series at your favorite retailer. Moreover, this series is about community. It’s about how people from all walks of life can bond over their favorite books. It’s about how tight friendships and connections are formed over books, like the enduring bond between Honda and her coworkers even after she leaves the store. It’s about how books and bookstores bring people together, and why that’s worth celebrating, now and always.