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publish.me: Oh, the Many File Formats We Use!

Posted on Fri, Apr 21 2017 9:00 am by Dawn Frederick


You’ve queried your favorite editor, maybe that agent you met at a conference. They indicate an interest to see your book. Once you’ve finished your happy dance, you immediately send off the book (electronically). Maybe hours, days, or even months tick by, and when the agent/editor tries to open the file, they can’t. Fingers crossed, they’ll ask for a new version (I do), but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

The life of a book, from the moment of creation to the point of publication, will require constant pivoting. This includes being knowledgeable about the file format(s) of your book.

Sometimes it’s based on the technology used, other times it’s the result of convenience (and the reading receptacle). It’s important that writers have an understanding of the basic file formats.

The biggest reason you should be aware of the types of files you share when interacting with agents/editors is the tenet of us being able to actually read your book. There’s a good chance that we’re going to read it with the various tools available, including our phones. It’s to any author’s benefit to provide a file that can be opened (and read). Time is valuable; easy access is equally important.  

As a basic rule, it’s best to provide your manuscript (and/or book proposal) in PDF/doc/docx formats. These are the easiest files to open on most platforms. They are the no-frills-no-brains file formats that open without extra steps. Additionally, most agents will generally take the time to state which formats they prefer (the same goes for editors), and there’s a good chance it’s one of these.

Once your book has found a home with an agent, or a publishing house, it’s even more important to choose your file format(s) wisely. There’s a 99.999% chance most editors will want a .doc or .docx file, but it’s also safe to ask if they want something different (such as .rtf). Once your book starts to go through edits, it’s essential the editing can be completed. Providing files that will make this process difficult, let alone potentially frustrate the production end of a publishing house, is best avoided.

Here are the file types that may cause an agent/editor some headaches:

.pages (Pages) – Admittedly, I generally read all .doc/.docx files in the Pages app on my iPad. It’s more convenient for me, and I assume others do this too. Yet I don’t edit books on this app, let alone export them back to anyone as a .pages file. I’ve often found formatting to get messed up and painstakingly frustrating to edit. Pages is simply an app to READ files, but providing this file type for editing results in many formatting issues.

.rtf (Rich Text File) – This is an old school approach to files, we’ve all used them. But attempting to read an RTF file is not my favorite task. In order to open and read these files, we have to ensure there’s an app on our phone or tablet that makes it possible to open/convert the file. The reality is that I will just email the author and ask for the correct file format vs. spending the time to do this. It’s best to go with the standbys of PDF/doc/docx in the long run.

.scriv (Scriviner) – This is a household program for many writers. It has many bells and whistles, that’s why folks love it. The only downside is if an agent or editor doesn’t use Scrivener, we can’t open the file. Ever. This is a tool for the writers, but most publishing folks will not use this program. When exporting your book out of Scrivener, try to provide your book in the file format we have indicated in advance.

.dat (DAT) – This is what I lovingly call the mystery file. I’ve requested to see a book, and magically a DAT shows up and I’m unable to open it. I don’t think anyone would intentionally send their book in this file format, but it happens often enough to mention. If your book is ready for agents/editors to read, ensure when we do request to see it that it’s not saved as a DAT.  

My goal for anyone who seeks publication is to have the smoothest transition once the book is in an agent’s or editor’s hands. Always be aware of the file format, your book’s silent partner on the path to publication.

Dawn Michelle Frederick is the owner & literary agent of Red Sofa Literary, established in 2008. Red Sofa Literary is a celebration of the quirky, eclectic ideas in our publishing community. Dawn’s previous experience reflects a broad knowledge of the book business, with over a decade of experience as a bookseller in the independent, chain, and specialty stores, an editor for a YA publisher, and an associate literary agent at Sebastian Literary Agency. Dawn earned a BS in Human Ecology and a MS in Library & Information Sciences from an ALA-accredited institution. She is also one of the founders of the MN Publishing Tweet Up, which brings writers and publishers together over a monthly happy hour. Red Sofa Literary was voted as one of the Best 101 Websites by Writer’s Digest in 2012 and 2013.