"What's the one weird project you've always wanted to do?" This is author Cassandra Clare's favorite question — the one she asks of nearly every creative person she meets. Clare, the prolific young adult author behind the The Mortal Instruments, built a career out of a "weird" project, City of Bones, which she began writing while working as an entertainment journalist. When that book hit shelves in 2007, Clare was catapulted into what the traditional publishing world defines as "success": several subsequent book series, a #1 spot on the New York Times bestsellers list, a movie adaptation, and a television spinoff, Shadowhunters.
But in an unprecedented move, Cassandra Clare recently announced that she is launching a "one-off publishing house" to release her latest work, Ghosts of the Shadow Market, a collaborative anthology featuring short stories from Maureen Johnson (Shades of London series), Robin Wasserman (Girls on Fire), Sarah Rees Brennan (Demon's Lexicon series) and Kelly Link (Get in Trouble, Magic for Beginners), all set within Clare's Shadowhunter canon and its "lawless," mystery-cloaked Shadow Market. "This is my weird project," she says.
The concept of a one-off press, a platform designed to exclusively house and launch just one project, has turned the traditional publishing process on its head. Operating under the name Shadow Market Enterprises, Clare will digitally release the stories on a monthly basis for $2.99 a pop, beginning in April 2018. A print edition from Simon & Schuster with two additional stories will hit shelves in 2019.
"It represents a sense of fun and freedom that we don’t always have," Clare tells Bustle of the group's decision to independently release an e-book. "It's given us a lot of joy."
Clare began creating stories in middle school, trying her hand at a host of genres — mystery, romance, fantasy, even "Arthurian" — all "terrible," she writes. By high school, she had taken to sharing her work with classmates, entertaining them with epic novels and retellings of required readings (one notable work, "The Beautiful Cassandra," a twist on the Jane Austen short story of the same name, inspired the Cassandra Clare pen name).
Her fiction writing career took a bit of a backseat following her college graduation, as she pursued a career in journalism and landed several jobs at entertainment magazines and tabloids. Inspired by a love of Manhattan, Clare started drafting the New York City-set City of Bones in 2004; in 2006, she began writing fiction full time. It was then that she had to grapple with an interesting question: What happens when your "fun thing" become your job?
"Your relationship towards it changes," she says.
Facing down a particularly brutal deadline in 2009, Clare and her friend Holly Black (author of The Spiderwick Chronicles and most recently, The Cruel Prince) absconded to the mountains of Mexico, per the advice of Uglies author Scott Westerfeld. Writers are famous for their deadline-making tactics, and Westerfeld had advised them to go somewhere with anonymity and a lack of phone service, so Clare and Black spent two weeks in an unheated house with spotty Wi-Fi and temperamental space heaters prone to fiery outbursts.
While the experience itself was almost comically miserable, the tangible result — tens of thousands of words — spawned Clare's respect for writer's retreats. Thus was born her go-to productivity solution: write in the company of friends.
It was at a similar (though much better planned) recent retreat that Clare and her literary peers floated the idea of a collaborative anthology. The group — all women writers with a diverse set of backgrounds — wanted to push back against the common publishing belief that "someone else's benefit is your loss," says Clare. "It evolved to be this supportive thing. We can do things for each other."
That craving for independence grew stronger once Kelly Link, one of the Shadow Market contributors and co-owner of an independent house, Small Beer Press, suggested that Clare consider launching a house for the sole purpose of releasing one e-book series. Which brings us back to a commonly-voiced question: why an e-book? More specifically, why independently release your own e-book when you have a long-standing and extremely profitable contract with a major publisher?
"They offer an opportunity to do a lot of things that we can’t always do, because traditional publishing doesn’t support them ," says Clare, who feels e-publishing hasn't lived up to its potential. "If you want to do something that’s connected to your work or it’s weird and different, it's difficult to pitch. We wanted to recapture that fun, that enjoyment."
Without the costs of publishing a physical book, the group could exert greater control over the entire process, from the cover art (they commissioned a number of pieces from Iranian artist Davood Diba) to the stories themselves. E-publishing lends itself to those "weird" side projects we hold in the corners of our imaginations, she says. And while traditional publishing provides a level of commercial success and visibility, it also curtails creative freedom. If it doesn't present the opportunity to turn a profit, it won't be picked up.
"You can't just pitch, like, five pages of a novella," says Clare.
Since the news of her one-off publishing house broke several weeks ago, Clare says she's been fielding questions from a slew of writers - with questions about everything from how to launch their own ephemeral presses to the decision behind an e-book. But everything about the process, says Clare, ties back to the reclamation of autonomy, of freedom and subsequently, of joy. "I think the world is in need of the maximum amount of weird projects," she says.
Clare doesn't think that starting her own (fleeting) publishing house and putting out an e-book will transform the landscape of publishing. Nor does she think it will revolutionize her own career. But should the venture succeed, Clare hopes that it could shake things up by providing inspiration to writers feeling trapped by the consumerist-driven publishing hierarchy. It will dust off those "weird" projects, which with time won't be so "weird" after all. They'll just become reality.