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Patricia O’Reilly on querying and the road to finding a publisher

“I made querying phone calls. Sitting at my desk, deep breathing politeness into my voice.”

—Author Patricia O’Reilly on the journey to finding a publisher for her novel about WW1 artist William Orpen.

I’m fascinated with the whole business of writing, editing, publishing and marketing and love being at the coal face of the process. I write about subjects that intrigue me but frequently aren’t regarded as the most commercial.

My latest book, Orpen at War, is about Irish artist William Orpen’s time in France as an official British war artist during World War I.

I can’t remember the number of occasions during the long process of researching and writing that various well-intentioned people told me that WWI was overdone and there was no longer a market for books about it.

Before I’d written a word I’d settled on the title War Artist, and that’s all that remained unchanged throughout the lengthy process of backwards and forwards research, multiple drafts and line-by-line editing. 

Querying and silence

When at last the manuscript was ready to go I listed likely publishers and made preliminary querying phone calls.

Some weren’t interested; others warned it would be months before they got a chance to give a decision; a rare few laconically said, ‘send it in’.

So off the 82,000 words went – it was like sending a beloved child out into the world. It didn’t surprise me that I heard nothing, absolutely nothing as the days stretched into weeks and the weeks to months. 

I made querying phone calls. Sitting at my desk, deep breathing politeness into my voice. 

A few publishers said they hadn’t received the manuscript and asked me to re-send, more hadn’t got around to reading it and my ultra-polite enquires about when that might be were met with indifference. 


Nobody cared about Sir William Orpen and his suffering at the Somme. I debated bringing him back and nurturing him to self-publication as I did with A Type of Beauty, a title that is one of my favourites, which ended up as a Historical Novel Society pick of the month.

I found the self-publishing an interesting exercise but a nightmare of work.

Eventually, many months later, I had two publishers who claimed to be interested in War Artist – one had moved the manuscript from its long-list to its short-list – a cause for high hopes; sometime later I heard the other had gone out of business!

The Liffey Press

Time passed – apparently the short listed wasn’t getting any shorter! Then, purely by chance, I came across the history of a Dublin sailing club published by The Liffey Press. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

On a Thursday afternoon without even a querying phone call, I bundled up Sir William via an email in a cosy Word document. I expected nothing. 

On Tuesday morning I received an email from the publishers. They were  interested, but currently laid low with Covid. Could we meet the following week? Of course we could. I dared hope.

Orpen at War

A day later I received an email from The Liffey Press with an attachment. It was a mock-up of the opening chapters with illustrations of some of William Orpen’s paintings. That my book might have illustrations was beyond my wildest dreams.

The publisher and I met the following week and sat in a Dublin hotel, talking through the process. A few days later I received the contract that I ran by the legal people in The Society of Authors. 

Publication date is 24 September and its title has changed to Orpen at War; it has many illustrations of Orpen paintings and drawings and those stylish French flaps. It’s a gem of a book.

Patricia O’Reilly writes fiction and non-fiction, and teaches creative writing at UCD, The Irish Writers Centre and elsewhere. Orpen at War is published in September, by The Liffey Press.