What do books have to do with plus-sized clothes? (Apart from that I buy a lot of both).
I was reading this fascinating article
about the future of publishing by Iam Json over at Dear Author, and it made me think Now where have I seen this dynamic before?
You know, the dynamic where suddenly buyers go from 'your options are buying on the high street, where there's not much choice, or by mail order, which is a niche market, or going off the grid and sourcing your own stuff' to 'Hey, there's now lots of choice and cheaper too!'
It's plus sized clothing. In the beginning there was Evans, which sold matronly polyester that was priced a bit above the rest of the high street, but after all they had to pay for more material, and it was only if you happened to need a plus-size interview suit that they really soaked you. If you wanted something that would hopefully (but not guaranteedly) be better quality and you were willing to pay more, you went to a department store or (if there was one nearby) a specialised plus size boutique. If you wanted something a bit less matronly and hopefully a bit cheaper, you had to hope there was a discount or seconds shop somewhere nearby, or a market stall doing large sizes. If you didn't mind waiting 28 days for delivery and jumping through a lot of annoying bureaucratic hoops apparently designed by a pathologically suspicious debt collection agency, you could buy from catalogues. Or you could get out your own sewing machine or pay someone else to do so.
Then two things happened at more or less the same time. One was the Internet and the other was supermarket clothing. I suspect Primark and similar fast fashion stores also played a part for smaller plus sizes, and if someone who knows more than me about that wanted to chime in, I'd be very grateful. Not only were there UK businesses selling over the Internet, but if you were really motivated to find clothes in your size and style and you didn't mind emailing strangers saying 'er, so, international shipping?' suddenly there were all these other marketplaces available. At the same sort of time, supermarkets started selling cheap and more often than not well-made basics and their ranges often went up into the plus sizes.
What did Evans and the catalogue sellers do?
Well, they got online themselves. But that didn't help with the problem that they had overheads their rivals didn't. A warehouse costs less to run than a shop, and while the supermarkets were
running shops, they could soak up the clothes sales among the proceeds from milk and eggs and all the rest of it.
They had a go at out-competing their rivals on the style front, which didn't last long but did produce the Beth Ditto line for Evans and various collaborations with people like Maria Rinaldi for Simply Be, which were good news for people who wanted more than basics. For whatever reason, that didn't last. Maybe there just aren't enough buyers out there who want that kind of thing and knew it was available, though the prices the Beth Ditto pieces fetch on eBay makes me wonder.
Then they started mistreating the people who had loyally stuck with them by dialling the quality down and the price up. I should put in here that paying garment workers a living wage is more important than assuring clothes buyers a constant stream of artificially cheap clothing
, and that there probably does need to be a shake-up in the pricing of garments in general. I'm not talking about the t-shirts that cost less than the price of a coffee here. I'm talking about the £45 top that was £40 last year, and you can tell the newer top from the older in the drawer without looking by the thinner feel of the cloth.
(There's a parallel here with the publishing industry, of course. Iam Json says, 'The majority of authors who write good books already don’t make a living traditionally publishing. So they also don’t make a living self-publishing.' I don't make anything like a living from self-publishing. I am astonishingly bloody lucky that I'm married to a man who has a set of incomprehensible but apparently in-demand skills involving staring intently into screens and muttering to himself, and who has always been utterly matter-of-factly OK with supporting me while I write. I know people who do
make a living self-publishing, and I can understand why, because their books are great and have a wide appeal.  But I'm not seriously equating my troubles with those of a sweatshop worker, because I have a sense of proportion)
The old-time plus-size sellers may still be racing to the top when it comes to price and the bottom when it comes to quality. I don't know, because as you can tell from my Clovember posts, I buy almost exclusively second hand these days. I have noticed, however, that they've branched out with another tactic, and that's reaching out to fashion bloggers. It's hard to find a UK plus size fashion blogger who doesn't
occasionally post from a press junket sponsored by Simply Be or by Evans' parent company, Arcadia.
This is where we loop back to the flailing publishing industry, and where it all gets interesting, in the sense of 'interesting' that translates to 'reach for your flak jacket now'. Because at least in the genres where I tend to hang out, relations between authors and book review bloggers are in the middle of something that varies between a conversation and a shouting war about what the expectations of an author's role and a reviewer's role should be. Unfortunately, I have to say that most of the bad behaviour has been from the authors. Most recently, there's been this jaw-dropping display from Kathleen Hale
, who somehow thought it was OK to attempt to go and and physically confront someone who wrote a bad review of her book. And then there was A Report On Damage Done By One Individual Under Several Names,
compiled by Laura J. Mixon, about someone who has one identity as a writer and another as a reviewer, and... Well, just go and read it, if you've got the spoons. I'll wait.
Obviously there's already a relationship between book bloggers and publishers, because of review copies and so on. But I would not be at all
surprised if publishers tried to do an end run round the authors (and Amazon ) and reached out to bloggers, and I think that would make life very interesting indeed.
 Occasionally at this point in the argument you get some traditionally published author or other wringing their hands about how people keep buying that terrible genre
instead of whatever it is they write. To which I'd say that people like what they like, the trick is getting your writing in front of the people who might like it. As proven by Fifty Shades Of Grey
which caused the Romance Industrial Complex to have a collective spasm over why people who would otherwise probably be reading thrillers or chick lit should be buying this thing that does a lot of the same things as romance but doesn't come out of the romance tradition. Which I've written about elsewhere, but basically: unless you are very skilled indeed at interpreting romance covers or you're already in the hearing-authors-recommended loop, it's hard to find the stuff you want as opposed to the stuff you don't. And unfortunately some of the stuff you might want comes with the stuff you don't, in much the same way that you're out of luck at present if you don't want salt in your caramel. The salt in the caramel, in this case, being anything from 'Why the hell does this silly man want to pay a woman to be his mistress? How can he have a mistress if he's not in a relationship already? If he has a fear of commitment, why doesn't he just look for a friend with benefits or pay an escort?' to 'Ick, unexpected children in danger plotline!' to ''WTF, ghosts!'
And now a lot of otherwise mainstream romance books have dom heroes, and... eh, it's not what salts my caramel, but good luck to those for whom it does.
 The problem with doing an end run around Amazon is that Amazon owns GoodReads and GoodReads is where a lot of reviews hang out. I don't do GoodReads myself because reading reviews of my own work makes me gibber, but being a GoodReads recusant is rapidly becoming nearly as inconvenient as my long-term boycott of Facebook.