Initial impressions

A vestigial organ of our personal identities, the middle initial causes particular problems in publishing. Every author must ask: do I use it? Or do I go casual, i.e., publish a book under the name I call myself in every other facet of life?

To publish books is to sit patiently while an author works out the answer.

Going casual implies a comfort with the process and expresses a certain cool; then your mother calls, she went through 18 hours of labor and gave you a middle name after her beloved grandfather Americus, and you’re too good for that A., my fancy-pants scholar? Suddenly, the author is sending email to the project manager. My name is Kim A. Smith now. Change the book cover. Please. My inheritance is at stake.

The author, of course, has a right to make that change. We manage. In time, we ferret out all the Kim Smiths in the database, on Amazon, and so on. Getting those details right is a big part of our workday. In fact, I’m sure there are people in publishing who want this kind of challenge. A middle initial with a diacritical mark? Great. Without a period? Fantastic!

Full disclosure: I have a grudge against the middle initial. The first practical joke my parents played on me was calling me by my middle name. My entire life, strangers have called me my given first name. I have to keep a running record of which institutions, individuals, debtors, and web sites know me as this name. Mind you, it can be helpful. Call my phone and use that name, and I will not be in. That alter ego gets in pretty much all my trouble for me.

Admittedly, the middle initial can provide a service as an identifier. If your name is Robert Smith, adding that O. or X. differentiates you from hundreds of thousands of other so-named guys out there. I dig it. You’re publishing a book. You want the credit. You deserve it. But, frankly, you probably submitted a manuscript with Robert X. Smith already, because you’re used to being confused with others.

The problem, I suppose, isn’t really the middle initial, but (as usual) human perceptions and cultural constructs. If I publish a paper as Robert Smith, well, okay, it’s a name. R. Robert Smith sounds better, just as F. Scott Fitzgerald had a better ring than Scott Fitzgerald. A single letter carries a mighty load of pretension. But we as a people have decided it’s more respectable, more intellectual, more worthy of attention. Who knows why? It probably started in the Paleolithic, when everyone was name Crog, and then some artist wanted the credit for the cave painting, and…

Deciding to use your middle initial late in the publishing process is okay. Really. We will get it right. Tempted to make the change? Have no fear. You basically can never go wrong with a middle initial in the publishing game. Don’t worry about humility. Seriously. People expect pretension from authors.