Response times will vary widely among publishers and agencies. While you will get an automated message of receipt as soon as you send something in, the actual response to what you sent can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a few months. Because there is an internal schedule and lots of interrelated processes at work, traditional publishing is not a quick way to the bookshelves. Assuming an acceptance letter, it might take a year or more from the time you submit to see your book published.
Each agency and publisher will spell out expected wait times on their submission pages. In general, you should not be emailing or calling to follow up before that wait time has passed. If you still haven’t gotten a response a week after they said they’d get back to you, you can send a short email asking about the status of your submission. Keep it short and polite.
Here are a number of possible responses you can get from an agent or publisher:
Generic “No, thank you.”
This means they aren’t interested. The email will be short, formulaic, it’ll thank you for submitting but tell you the story is not right for them at this time. Best of luck in the future. If this is what you get, it means the end of the road for this particular book at this particular agency or publisher. Do not resubmit. It’s considered unprofessional and will be a waste of your time. Instead, consider submitting elsewhere. No response is necessary to this, as it is basically an automated message.
Personalized “No, thank you.”
This means they read the story, just didn’t like it. But they read enough of it and took the time to give you specific feedback, which can often be quite helpful. Consider what they said the problem was, and decide whether you want to follow their suggestions and rework the manuscript. However, unless they specifically invited you, do not resubmit. It could be the story is just not a good fit for their catalog. It does happen. You can, but don’t have to respond with a polite, “Thank you for your time. I appreciate the feedback and will give it some thought.”
“We’ll take it if…”
When a publisher asks for revisions, it usually means they like the premise, but need a few (or many) corrections to make it fit with their current catalog. Here, you can choose whether or not you want to make those corrections. It could be anything from cutting down the word count, to adding scenes, or reworking some plot points or character details. If it can be done, and you are willing to do it, go for it! You can then resubmit the second version when you are ready, probably to a specific email address that will push you past the slush pile to the right person in charge. If they ask for too much, or the changes they request would change the story more than you are willing to do, you are not obligated to comply. However, business protocol says you should at least respond with a polite, “Thank you for your feedback. I have considered the suggestions and upon further consideration have decided to move in another direction.” Never just leave someone hanging, and never respond in a rude or curt manner.
“We’ll take it as is!”
Yay! You got an acceptance! Feel free to do a happy dance, because that is awesome. An agent or publisher read your manuscript and wants to work with you. The email itself will give you more information on what happens next. They will likely wait for your response before they send you a contract, and they’ll want to know whether you’re still waiting for answers from others. If you get more than one acceptance, you might get a little bit of negotiating power, but most likely, it’ll just be a choice between one or the other. Go with the one that’s more favorable for you, not just in terms of money, but also the support services being offered. Make sure you know the details so you can make an informed decision you won’t have to regret in the future. However you decide, always respond in a timely manner. If you need time to think it over, fine, but you should still respond right away to acknowledge you received the message and let them know when you’ll get back to them with a decision. Do not make them wait too long.