The next day, a very kind (and experienced) literary agent replied. This is essentially what she said:
I've been staring at my keyboard for several minutes wondering what to do. I get 50 emails a day asking how to get published, and given the number of hours in the day, I literally cannot answer them. Having said that, I was also in the business world before I became an author and literary agent, and I remember the same feeling of shock when I saw the process. I just couldn't believe it either.
The bad news is: It's really that bad. The big publishers want 3 months to even think about looking at your manuscript, and in practice it can take twice that. Once you're accepted as a client, it'll be another 6 months or so before your book is published. It's weird, but that's actually how things work here.
If your book is really as far along as you say, and you're willing to pay for the services up front, you should really look into self-publishing.
P.S. Don't tell anyone, ever, that I replied to a message like this. No one ever does, and stories of a response will only encourage more please-publish-me-now spam.Sorry, C. I just had to let people know that the insiders know quite well how bizarre their system looks from the outside. Hopefully this will actually drive your spam down instead of up.
I got "No, thank you" form letters from some other agents. None of the publishers replied.