I thought I'd demystify decline letters a bit--I would say that there are 6 basic types of decline letters I send:
1) Form letter: This is a generic letter that it not personalized to the sender at all. This letter used to be reserved for slush (unsolicited) manuscripts that I knew immediately I was going to decline. However, because we no longer accept slush, I don't use this letter much. We do have a form letter we send to unsolicited manuscripts that simply states our policy of not reviewing those manuscripts. In case you're curious, this is the basic wording of our form letter:
Thank you for submitting your manuscript to me for my consideration. I've now read it with interest but am sorry to say my enthusiasm for this project is not strong enough to suggest we could take it on and publish it successfully on our list.
Your materials are returned herewith. I do appreciate the opportunity to consider your work and wish you the best of luck in finding a good publishing home for it.
2) Personalized form letter: This is the form letter, but with your name and title of the manuscript put into the letter. I actually send very few of these--like form letters, they're reserved for the projects that I know from the first few lines that my answer is going to be no, but the difference is that this letter is for solicited projects. I only use this letter for those authors or agents that I have no personal connection to, and don't care to necessarily have future contact with--for example, authors from a writer's conference who had queried me, but for whom I have no recollection of meeting (didn't have a critique with, didn't ask me a question at my talk, etc.), or agents who I suspect are "fake" agents due to the quality of work they submit. I think my basic form letters are very nice, but if you receive one, you can be fairly certain that I did not personally like your project.
3) Nice decline: This is the personalized form letter, but with one or two lines that are specific to the work. For example, I may have a line that says something like, "Although I found your novel to be fun and compelling, I'm sorry to say that your characters felt too one-dimensional, and overall I just didn't love this enough to want to take on my list..." etc. etc. This is the decline I use most often--I use this for almost all agents, and also those authors who I have some personal connection to. The more I write, the more promise I saw in the work.
4) Nice decline with invitation to submit future work: This is the letter I use if I saw true talent in the writing, and feel that it was more of a matter of not liking the subject matter or plot of a book, but had confidence that the author's grasp of the craft of writing was strong.
5) Nice decline with editorial notes: I write this type of decline if I see real potential in both the concept and the writing, but yet do not have the time or willingness to give more feedback than I already have in the letter. But this decline is generally accompanied with an expression of my being open to review the project again if it is revised along the lines of my notes.
6) Nice decline with detailed comments, plus an offer to provide a full editorial letter and/or have a phone call regarding a revision with the author: If I write this type of letter, I not only see promise in the project, but am also excited to work with the author on a revision if given the opportunity.
If you receive letters 1-3, I'm not expecting or hoping to see more work by you/the author in the future. If you receive 4-6, then I do hope to read more from you in the future. If you receive letter 6, I'm willing to commit to revising with you just as I would a project that is already under contract, and am welcome to making the process an ongoing conversation.
Any questions? Ask away! But I also have a few questions for you:
If you're an author or agent, which would you prefer:
A) getting a decline letter within a week of submitting the project, with little or no personalization to the letter
B) waiting 4-6 months (or longer) for a decline letter with more detailed, constructive comments
Also, I'm curious--do you hold on to your decline letters? Burn them? Post them to your blog?
Wouldn't it be a nicer world if nobody had to write OR receive these letters? Alas. But if you think of decline letters as a stepping stone to publication, that may make receiving them that much easier.