China, and the cover for Under Heaven

Book covers are such chancy, variable things. Over all these years and books, I’ve been delighted and, well, aghast at different times. It gets even more uncertain when it comes to foreign-language editions. As a rule, by now, I have ‘cover consultation’ for all such sales of rights, but in practice this really can mean nothing.

Sometimes a publisher forgets. The contracts person doesn’t remind the art department or editor they have to check with the author. Or the rush to get the book finalized (there is alays a rush!) causes a very simple overlooking of that detail. Sometimes they do send the cover image to you – but too late to have input to effect any meaningful change. Screaming ‘Oh, my God, no!’ at this juncture may be a therapeutic release of extreme emotion, but achieves little else.

One can double down on the technical breach of contract, but this just means the book cannot be released as planned, it must be shelved for up to a year while a new cover is devised, and – in the real world – this is a bad course of action if the idea is an ongoing, working cordial relationship to everyone’s theoretical betterment. I have closed my eyes, swallowed hard (often swallowing a drink hard) and accepted some covers I hate.

Sometimes even really strong publishers go astray in their conception and execution, and one does that swallowing hard thing and waits to see if they are right. I disliked, to be honest, the covers for HarperCollins UK for Lions and for Under Heaven in hardcover, but then again I absolutely loved both their hardback and paperback for River of Stars. Win some, lose some?

I’ve been very lucky in North America with the last several novels, good art departments, artists, and steady, congenial consultation and discussion back and forth have produced covers I love – and reader feedback suggests you feel the same way.

But if you sit authors down in a bar and catch them early enough, while they are still coherent, cover discussion will be a frequent topic, and happiness will be … intermittent?

All of which is a prelude to this: I am happy to now share what might be my favourite cover for any of my books anywhere. Chongqing Publishing in China is releasing Under Heaven in July. I saw a rough of this a month ago, after waiting with some anxiety as they promised I would see it (with me having no idea at all what it would be). The rough was gorgeous, the finished is even more so. I flat-out love this.

Under Heaven Cover


Not only is it beautiful as a design, and profoundly suited to the book, it is original and inventive and subtle. What you need to know (it may not be evident in the jpeg) is that the cloud cover overlay is just that: an overlay! It flips back if you open it up from the jacket flap, revealing the entire painting, as if clouds had parted. Truly imaginative, and unique in its effect. (And, not incidentally in this business, really expensive design work.)

Then there is the chosen painting itself. It is a celebrated Tang Dynasty work by Li Zhaodao called ‘Ming Huang’s Journey to Shu’ about the emperor journeying to the far west, framed small against a magnificent landscape. And anyone who knows the novel (inspired by the Tang) will recognize how wonderfully well this suits the story.

Here’s a link to the original work, for interest:

But there’s even more to this cover. Classic Chinese artwork is usually marked with a variety of red seals on it. These are the personal seals of whatever distinguished (or imperial, if the artist is lucky!) figure has seen and held the work – and then shows this by putting his stamp on it.

It is a process alien to western art (well, maybe Byron carving his name on Greek ruins!) but in China it enhanced the value and prestige of a painting to have illustrious figure put their seals on it. So, here, the art director uses a brilliant, small red seal of – a heavenly horse. I am touched by the attention to detail and awareness of the nature of the book this shows.

In short, my appreciation of Chongqing, who are publishing this is extreme. I think this cover is brilliant and beautiful and evocative, and I hope others agree.