Discover more from The Clearing by Katherine May
A Timeline of Enchantment
The slow process of bringing a book into the world
We’re now a month away from the launch of Enchantment, which is shockingly close after waiting for so long. That’s how the publication process feels - very slow, and then very fast. Sometimes, when I tell people how long it takes, they think it’s a sign that my publishers are slacking somehow. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Good publishers take their time to ensure that the book lands in the world just-so. Nothing is rushed. Everything is carefully planned. I thought that today would be a good time to show you just how long it all takes.
Here’s how Enchantment found its way into the world.
Yes, you read that right. 2019. Before Wintering was published, and before the pandemic (remember that time? I’m not sure I do), I started working on my next book. To be fair, it was research for a chapter that I later cut, but Wintering was all wrapped up, and so I was ready for a new project. I just wasn’t sure what it was yet.
Spring & Summer 2020
I spent the whole of the first lockdown thinking, ‘What on earth do you say about the world after this?’ I also wondered if I’d ever get my brain back again to write anything. In July 2020, I had a conversation with Jynne Dilling Martin, my beloved editor at Riverhead, about the topic of the next book. I’d had a notion that I wanted to write about the sea, but it wasn’t really focused enough, and as we talked, I realised that I was actually circling the idea of humility. I worked up a proposal and we agreed a deadline of February 2021.
After doing a lot of reading about humility, I hit a dead end. There was certainly interesting ground to cover, but something about the idea was unsettling me. Most of all, I was concerned that I’d accidentally uncovered a racist history of the term - a way to praise colonial subjects for submitting gently to western aggression. I began to see that the topic was incredibly complex and that I was maybe not the best person to tackle it. Troubled, I wrote to a philosopher friend, who explained the issue with startling clarity: the problem is that some people need to be a lot more humble, and some people need to be lifted out of the obligation to be humble. How do you say who’s who? I knew my idea had died.
Winter 2020/Spring 2021
Wintering was released in the US, and the reception was greater than my wildest dreams. For the next three months, my days were filled with interviews and other publicity commitments. Plus, we were back in lockdown. February rolled in, and I hadn’t made any progress with the new book whatsoever - which was fine by my editor, who knew how hard I’d been working. She suggested a deadline extension before I even raised the issue. But I felt completely directionless and more than a little overwhelmed by the task.
I had ideas for topics I wanted to write about though, and places I wanted to visit. Jynne gave me permission to just start writing my way towards something that felt coherent, which was such a gift for me. I completely trust her to tell me what’s working and what isn’t, and so we went from there. Over the next eight months, I think I must have written enough to fill three books. In part, I was trying to find a shape and a tone for the amorphous cloud of ideas in my head, and in part, I was working out how to respond to such an enormous, life-shaking moment as the one we’ve all lived through. And what would even feel relevant once the book came out? I was writing on shifting sands. We threw out a lot of material over those months.
That probably sounds agonising, but it’s actually how I love to work. I adore cutting out big chunks of my text and going back in to find new depth. The way I think of creativity is this: ideas are abundant; the only limit is my time and energy. I was given enough space - and enough wise and passionate counsel - to work through an abundance of ideas until I found a really exciting centre. I also genuinely love collaborating, and although those months were stressful, I was thrilled by being in process.
Along the way, a few revelations dropped into place. Firstly, that I was trying to explore my need for a more spiritual relationship with the world around me, and to ask how that could be achieved. That felt like truly vulnerable territory to me, which was exactly why I needed to write about it. Secondly, I’d been trying to conceal how burned-out I was feeling, and in fact I needed to do the opposite: to put my burnout at front and centre of the story. I laughed out loud when I realised this, because this exactly mirrored the process of writing Wintering. I am never, ever the all-knowing sage; I am always living through the problems that I write about. My revelations were about telling it like it is: both of them were already stories waiting to be told, if only I could bear to be that open. It all dropped into place.
I finally managed to hand in a draft of the book that felt right. Not only was it now clear what the book was about, but there was also a sense of movement through the course of the book, and a conclusion of sorts (my books always end on an ellipsis - it doesn’t feel authentic to me for everything to be solved).
With the final shape of the book agreed, we worked on some more detailed edits. Jynne likes to go in for several passes, and I love this process too, although I do sometimes grumble that she’s like Columbo - just as you think she’s walking out of the door, she pauses and says, ‘Just one more thing…’ To be honest, though, I would merrily go back into my manuscript and enact major reforms forever. I find it exciting, somehow. Make of that what you will.
Eventually, though, the book was done. It was only at this point that we finally agreed on the title. Enchantment had been floating around amongst other ideas for a while, and it had stuck. This is exactly how I named my son, too: no great flash of inspiration. Just slow, magnetic attraction.
Under most publishing contracts, a section of your advance is released when the publisher accepts your manuscript for publication. That is a wonderful threshold to cross - a big sigh of relief. Now, a very different phase of work began.
I hadn’t wanted to go out to find a UK publisher for Enchantment until the final manuscript was ready - the last thing I wanted was for two editors to be pulling in different directions. But now it was time - my agent, the brilliant Madeleine Milburn, put together a proposal and we spent some time working out the right moment to send it out. Then in early February, a full two years after it was published in the UK, Wintering finally entered the Sunday Times bestseller list for the first time. It was a great moment to be pitching a new book.
The process of selling a book at auction is post in itself, but along the way I had a meeting with Laura Hassan and her team at Faber which left me feeling certain that this was exactly the right place for me. The final deal was completed late one Friday night, and my agent called from a hotel room to break the good news. It was quite an overwhelming moment, but in the best possible way. My book had a home.
More edits. I got to hear Laura’s detailed thoughts for the first time, and made another pass on the manuscript, feeling like I’d excised the last few bugs that were bothering me. The manuscript was then copyedited (an edit that looks for inconsistencies, lack of clarity, slips in fluidity and any factual issues) and proofread (a final pass to polish the text for publication) in both countries. At this point, I reached the ‘NO MORE’ stage, which is probably healthy. These fine-tuning editors are incredibly perceptive and careful, and I’m always absurdly grateful for their skill. But it’s also hard to keep engaging with the same manuscript over and over again, and to keep finding fresh perspective.
The US cover design arrived in May, and Lauren Peters-Collaer had created the perfect companion to Wintering - it felt immediately right. The UK one took a little longer, but this is often the case - Enchantment sits across several genres, and it took us all a while to really understand how it should look. By early September a final design arrived, and it was stunning.
Meanwhile, publicity and marketing planning was underway. Magazines plan months in advance, and the bigger podcasts need early pitches too. When I was first published, it surprised me how much I was expected to feed into marketing conversations, but now I feel like I understand my readers better than anyone else, so I love offering insights about what you all like and what would make you go: ew.
Early proof copies were printed up, and sent out to other authors to ask for cover quotes. This is a nerve-wracking process, and I know from my own end that many writers are overloaded with requests. But getting warm feedback from so many writers I admire was a huge uplift.
The real campaigning began now. I put together a range of pitches for articles, gave talks to sales conferences, and recorded messages to send out to reps. At both publishers, marketing teams were working to ensure that booksellers knew about the book, and were hopefully feeling excited to share it with their customers. Copies were sent out to journalists and influencers in the hope of generating buzz. Offers came in from festivals and events, and we booked up a small UK tour.
From my end, I also needed to spend some time getting my ducks in line - updating the website and socials, thinking about strategies for letting everyone know about key events and appearances. We were also working on a new podcast season and adding more events to my Patreon, which is all work I love to do. I’ve worked with a brilliant personal assistant for a couple of years now, and we both realised that we were at capacity, so we hired a social media person and a communications assistant to make sure we were ready for the launch. It takes a surprising number of people to manage my appointments, messages and projects - if I tried to do it alone, I would go under in a matter of days.
This is where it all goes a bit wrong. My health had not been great throughout the end of 2022, but in January I began to realise that something was seriously amiss. As soon as New Year was over, I called my GP to discuss my symptoms, and at that point she asked me if I felt okay in myself. I said I felt fine. Then, an hour later, I started feeling terrible, and I’ve felt terrible ever since.
This was a nightmare: I was due to start the year in a recording studio, voicing the audiobook for Enchantment. I had to cancel, at first temporarily, and then permanently (fear not! It’s in good hands!). I couldn’t even keep on top of emails, let alone show up for events that were planned. Eventually, my agent called to tell me to take my own advice for once - to let go and to rest. I did. I still am, really.
And here’s the important bit - this is what all that planning was for. Because, while I’ve been incapacitated, the whole machine has carried on without me. Yes, I’ve not been able to do everything I wanted to do, but my amazing team have taken care of everything while I’ve been sick. This week, I’ve got back to doing a few things (like writing this post), but I’m still having to take it very easy. It’s not ideal, but I’m in good hands. And, inevitably, in the space that has opened up, I’ve started to imagine the next book…
We’re nearly there.
Enchantment is released on 28th February in the US/Canada and 9th March in the UK & Commonwealth. Please pre-order! Emma Gannon beautifully explained why this helps so much in her Substack. The Hyphen.
“As you know, or may not know, pre-orders can make or break a book. It’s just a little button, but it holds so much power. If you pre-order you will signal to the *industry* that there is interest in the book and then bookstores are more likely to take notice. You aren't charged anything until it ships, so pressing the preorder basically is an act of support — even if you later change your mind — it’s such a helpful action you can take to help the writers you enjoy to continue writing. If you enjoy my work and plan to buy the book at some point, a pre-order would be hugely appreciated.”
Pre-order links are here, but please consider your local indie first of all:
You can find links to book tickets for these events here.
See you soon. Take care,