When a response is overdue it usually means one of three things:
- Your submission is being seriously considered and has been bumped up to the next level of review.
- The slush pile is larger than usual, and the reviewers/editors are falling behind.
- The submission was lost or never received.
We all hope for number 1; fear number 3; but know, in most cases, it's really just number 2. That's why writers are often reluctant to contact an already over-burdened editor for fear of incurring her wrath and adding another strike against acceptance.
Most editors, from the most sought-after publications like Zoetrope to the newest online journal, understand how anxious writers get about overdue responses, and, believe it or not, feel a pang of guilt when they fall behind. And there are good reasons for following up on a submission besides simple impatience. One is that your submission can't make it out of the slush pile if it never reached the slush pile in the first place. There is nothing worse than waiting several months past the estimated response time and getting your hopes up, only to learn your submission never arrived on the other end.
On occasion, learning why your submission is being held up can also provide valuable information. While in a few rare cases editors may take the time to comment, when your piece is rejected you normally don't know whether that rejection came from the preliminary reader or the editor making the final decision for what's in and what's out. Several years ago I submitted a story to my first top-tier publication and followed up when I did not hear within the estimated time. I received the quick response that my piece was "indeed" still under consideration. The addition of that word led me to believe my work had received some serious consideration, something I would not have known had I simply waited for what turned out to be a standard rejection.
Having said all that, there are some guidelines writers should adhere to when sending a follow-up inquiry. If a publication estimates a response time, you should always wait at least that long before inquiring, or even pad it by a couple of months. An estimate is just what it says and not a guaranty. While there is always the danger of wasting valuable time on a submission that never went through, that often is not the case, so waiting a reasonable time is a courtesy busy editors appreciate. Some publications specifically ask you to wait a certain period of time before inquiring. Obviously you should honor that request. When a publication doesn't specify a response time, I always assume six to nine months. However, lately I've read in some forums about the bigger publications taking over a year, and one of those was an acceptance. Of course, if a publication is that far behind, you can probably assume your inquiry won't receive a response either, so that's a judgement call.
As to whether a follow-up will work against you, if you wait long enough, no good editor should reject a piece she is seriously considering based on a polite inquiry. The operative word here is "polite." While I strongly believe writers have a right to expect a timely response to submissions, rudeness benefits no one, least of all the submitter. The proper inquiry should read something like this:
Dear [Editor's Name],
I submitted my short story "Death in Life" on April 15, 2009. (The date is important in determining if it is likely to still be in the slush pile or could be lost.) As your estimated response time is six months I was wondering if this submission is still under consideration.
Thank you for your time,
If you don't receive a reply to your first query, it's a matter of choice whether to follow up with another in a month or two. I usually don't, but I also pretty much stop hoping at that point, and if the piece is accepted elsewhere I go with that and send the other market a withdrawal. (And keep a copy in case your withdrawal gets lost in the slush pile too.)
As a writer you are, at the very least, always entitled to a response. If you don't receive one in a timely manner, a polite inquiry is in order. That doesn't mean you'll get a reply, but you are not out of line for trying.