After spending two comically bleak weeks in Mexico in 2009, Cassandra Clare could be forgiven if she never embarked on a writing retreat again. On the advice of a friend, the bestselling YA author had headed south seeking peace and quiet with fellow writer Holly Black. Instead, the two ended up huddled in an unheated house with poor electricity on the outskirts of San Miguel de Allende. At one point, when Clare tried to ignite a portable heater, she accidentally burned off her own eyelashes.
“Probably, on balance, we should have done more research,” said Clare, looking back on the trip. Yet, by the time she returned to New England, she had written 75,000 words. Black had written 50,000.
With a mountain of writing in hand, Clare and Black decided to persevere, albeit with better accommodations. Now entering its ninth year, their retreat has been held in locations around the world, and has grown to include a cadre of Clare and Black’s closest writing friends. This year, the retreat has given rise to an ambitious project as well. With Clare at the helm, five of the attendees will self-publish eight co-authored short stories in e-book form.
Entitled Ghosts of the Shadow Market, the series will be set in the world of Clare’s The Shadowhunter Chronicles and include pieces by Clare, Maureen Johnson (Truly Devious), Robin Wasserman (Girls on Fire), Sarah Rees Brennan (In Other Lands), and Kelly Link (Get in Trouble). The stories will be released monthly from April through November on all major digital platforms, for $2.99 apiece.
The idea was hatched by the poolside in a small village outside Florence at the group’s 2017 retreat. “We were talking through aspects of our world-building,” said Clare, “and I was talking specifically about the Shadow Market. It’s sort of a lawless place in my books, where you can buy shady things and exchange shady goods for shady services.” When others in the group expressed interest in telling a series of co-authored stories that revolved around the market, the series was born.
The writers have a precedent to follow: two anthologies set in the Shadowhunters world—The Bane Chronicles (McElderry, 2014) and Tales from the Shadowhunter Academy (McElderry, 2016)—both of which sprang from earlier retreats.
Kelly Link is one of the co-authors of the current series and was among the writers at the retreat. A co-founder and owner of Easthampton, Mass.-based Small Beer Press, Link proposed that Clare self-publish the books instead of turning to her longtime publisher Simon Schuster. To Link, the idea seemed like a natural step.
“There are a lot of writers who don’t want to be distracted by [publishing], but Cassandra is a very smart businessperson,” said Link. “She also has enormous reach in terms of audience.” As a result, Clare does not face the same challenges in getting books to readers faced by small presses and self-publishers.”
Clare and the others jumped at the idea. “It’s a cool project and exciting to have this level of minute control that we don’t normally have when we publish,” said Clare, who formed a company called Shadow Market Enterprises to house the venture. Clare is now directly in charge of coordinating everything from content to covers, ensuring that all of it comes together much faster than a traditional publishing process. In order to avoid spoilers, all of the books will be released before Simon Schuster’s December publication of Queen of Air and Darkness, the next book in The Shadowhunter Chronicles.
For support, Clare turned to Link’s husband Gavin Grant, co-publisher at Small Beer Press. Grant agreed to come on board as a project manager. “I’ve always enjoyed taking on, and working in, different parts of publishing,” said Grant. “Building a tiny one-shot publishing house to live and die for one project is a weirdly fun thing to do.”
However, the work is not without its difficulties. “One of the main challenges is that there are five individual powerful women writers who all have multiple book contracts with multiple publishers who have them on multiple deadlines,” said Grant. “So saying, ‘You have this story due… How’s that going?’ and not being rude about it [is hard].”
The viability of the project rests on the bond the authors have formed by writing together for so many years. “I would be nervous if I was not getting to do this project with people who I have seen confront roadblocks in their own careers,” said Link. “I’ve seen how they deal with problems, and they deal with them effectively. They don’t direct the unpleasantness towards other people; they just deal with it and talk things through.”
For instance, when Clare recently read a story draft sent by Sarah Rees Brennan, she said, “Something clashed with Queen of Air and Darkness because I had just changed it.” Instead of changing Brennan’s version of the story, Clare sat down with her assistant, drew out a timeline of events covering both stories, created a chart to incorporate the changes, and made it work.
Clare has enjoyed a similarly straightforward and supportive working relationship with Simon Schuster. “None of this is about not wanting to work with my publisher,” she said. Instead, when she approached her editors at SS about the idea, they replied, “We saw this coming.”
“I’m kind of a control freak,” said Clare. “They were like, ‘Yeah, let’s let her work this stuff out.’ ” In turn, Clare has worked out an arrangement with SS to publish the full collection of stories as an anthology next year. The volume will include two additional stories that will not be released this year in digital form. “To me, that’s totally practical in terms of distribution,” said Clare. “Doing this for e-book short stories is one thing, but I would not want to self-publish a hardcover.”
Overall, Clare called the collaborative process “invigorating,” adding, “It’s a unique thing to do, and it’s grown out of the way we work together as a group.” That’s due, in no small part, to the retreats that began in the frozen house in Mexico years ago. “Now we’re so involved in each other’s creative processes,” said Clare, “and it’s because of that we’re able to do these kinds of projects.”