Should I Use a Nom de Plume?

The question of whether to use a pen name comes up frequently among writers. People wonder what kinds of circumstances might dictate using a pen name, and how to choose one.

There are several legitimate reasons to use a pseudonym. You simply may not like your real name, or it doesn’t fit the genre in which you’re writing. Your employer may not want you known as an author, or your profession may demand your anonymity. (People who work in the mental health field are a good example of this.) Your real name might be the same as a celebrity’s or someone whose name has a negative connotation. Or you might write in more than one genre and use different names for each. (If you’re an unpubbed writer, you don’t need to be worrying about this one yet. First things first. Get pubbed in one genre.) Also, Kristin Nelson recently pointed out on her blog that if there’s a chance you could be job hunting, you may want to write under a pseudonym because potential employers might be scared off if they Google you and find your books. (They’ll think you’re not going to be committed to the job if your writing career takes off.)

If you’re choosing a pseudonym, you may want to choose something close to your real name, such as your first and middle initials along with a variation of your last name, but you’re not limited to that. Keep in mind real-world issues like where your books will appear on a shelf and what famous authors your book might be next to. Even more importantly, choose a name for which an Internet domain is available, and make every effort to ensure your name is not already being used by a celebrity, another author, or a porn star. Search the name in various spellings, using several search engines, to verify.

Finally, if you’re just starting out trying to get an agent and/or publisher and you’ve settled on a pen name, you can, if you like, start right from the beginning doing all your correspondence with that name. Get your email address in that name and identify yourself that way. You don’t need to tell an agent it’s not your real name until they offer representation; and the only time you’ll ever need to use your real name is on contracts. (Other agents disagree with this; I think it’s your choice. See Nathan Bransford’s great post on contradictory advice.)

What about platform? If you’re blogging, obviously the blog will only function as part of a platform if it’s written under the same name that will appear on your books. Now, most of what I’ve said about pseudonyms applies best to fiction. With non-fiction, it may be quite different since non-fiction is much more platform driven. Your platform is most likely already established under your real name so a pseudonym may not be an option. If you’re hoping to write memoir under a pen name to avoid hurting people in your life who appear in your book, be aware that simply using a pseudonym won’t avoid all potential legal, ethical and/or relational issues that could arise.

Any more questions about pen names? Have you considered using one? If so, why?
Rachelle Gardner, Christian literary agent, WordServe Literary Group, Colorado.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Books & Such Literary Agency. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!

64 Comments

  1. Nom de Plume [Pen Name] | Editing Addict on February 26, 2014 at 3:06 PM

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  2. Brian on July 15, 2013 at 11:32 PM

    Hi. Years ago I started using a pen name of a C-list celebrity. I didn’t do it on purpose, but maybe I subconsciously heard the name and picked it. Is there any risk to me? Lots of people can have the same first and last names. The name is a very common first name, and a somewhat common last name.



  3. Should We Rethink Pseudonyms? | Rachelle Gardner on September 27, 2012 at 4:02 AM

    […] written about pseudonyms on my blog before. They have a long history in literature and the arts, and even nowadays on the Internet, many […]



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  7. Janet on October 30, 2011 at 12:09 AM

    I use a pseudonym because my name is very similar to that of a famous author. If you are in a similar situation, your publisher or agent will often ask you to choose a pen name. I chose my name by putting several contenders in a hat and drawing one, and that’s the name I stuck with all these years! You can also try one of these random pen name generators (see name link.)



  8. Your Brilliant Disguise | Rachelle Gardner on September 5, 2011 at 12:02 AM

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  9. Reba on August 23, 2011 at 1:19 PM

    Great post Rachelle. I’m new here on your post, I hope that is alright.
    When I began writing my first book I toyed with the idea of a pen name, felt a little silly, but soon realized, even today,authors still used pen names…so why couldn’t I?
    After finishing my book, my pen name came to me pretty easily. Using a pen name gives my family some privacy, but using my pen name in all book business situations gets a little hard. I have to remember and remind those that ‘know’ me, when doing book business, use pen name.
    Thanks for addressing the issue of using your pen name while working with an agent, but on contracts your real name is needed. Now I won’t feel as if I’m being dishonest.



  10. V H Folland on October 18, 2010 at 9:24 AM

    >I’m using a pseudonym for my first novel for several reasons, but largely because I wrote a range of other books in completely different fields. It might be rather confusing to people used to my work in one field to run into me elsewhere.I was also slightly concerned the novel would get lost among other search results about my work, and wanted to make sure I didn’t have to compete with my own SEO for positioning. Of course, this name also fits the genre more than mine.



  11. Anonymous on September 19, 2010 at 5:48 PM

    >Perhaps this can be of help to those considering a pen name.Everybody’s got different reasons for it. If you want to use a pen name without having to reveal your true name to your publisher, even on contracts, you need to set up a business. Register a trade name as your fictitious pen name, as a sole proprietorship, and in some states, registering a business is free. Once this is all done, you can use that name exclusively, set up a business account, and have your checks deposited without publishers/agents being none the wiser. I spent hours, weeks of research making sure I understood the legalities of this decision and the tax implications. It was not down lightly, or off hand. At the end of my research, I discovered other clever freelancers had also taken this route, and it remains a viable, legal resort for those of us who want a pen name — whether because your real name isn’t “sexy” enough, you want a dividing line between the public and the private, or, the best reason of all, you’d like to eliminate an element of racism/sexism. Don’t be naive. There are people who will reject you based on your name alone. People who say they don’t — are still being influenced on a sub-conscious level. It happens more often than not. Take the story of the actor Kal Penn, who, as soon as he took his stage name, received an increase of callbacks up to 50%.



  12. Paula Hrbacek on September 10, 2010 at 3:49 PM

    >I've used three names so far. My first two books were published under by maiden name, Paula Knoderer. When my third book came out, I had just married. I went with just my first and middle name, Paula Ruth. My father-in-law raised an eyebrow, and I asked him if he could picture someone tring to look Hrbacek up in a card catalog. His eyes lit up, and he smiled "Yes!". So, my fourth book was published under Paula Knoderer Hrbacek. It bothers me, because no one can pronounce either name, but I like it because I'm the only one of me in the country. (The census Bureau has a web site where you can search to see how many people have the same name.) I'm trying to fix the problem by explaining my name, how to remember it, how to pronounce it, on my web site on the "About the Author" page.



  13. Nik on September 9, 2010 at 1:18 PM

    >An interesting post, as said already. When I served in the Royal Navy, I felt obliged to used a penname and chose Platen Syder and won a number of competitions with it(though it was often misspelled by various periodicals). When I left the Navy, I resorted to my commonly known name (in fact a nickname) Nik Morton since my real name is too long and hyphenated! When I came to write westerns, I decided to have a different identity so chose Ross Morton (My late mother's maiden name is Ross). I have dabbled with other variants, depending on the market I'm writing for, though primarily I'm known as Nik Morton (which coincidentally is the same name as a doctor of vast experience and impressive qualifications, though he's younger than me so I got there first).



  14. Jillian Kent on September 8, 2010 at 3:35 PM

    >The issue of pen names is interesting. Sorry I missed this post yesterday. If anyone has any interest about how I handled it please follow the link.
    http://jilliankent.blogspot.com/2010/07/whats-in-name.html



  15. Janet Kay Jensen on September 8, 2010 at 10:19 AM

    >Oh, no! I just googled the pen name I've been considering, and found that there are 25 individuals with that name on linked-in!



  16. Gilliad Stern on September 8, 2010 at 10:00 AM

    >I use a pen name for the majority of my writing because my last name is hard to pronounce. I know that I could go either way with that reason, but I've only met 2 people that can pronounce it right the first time. I figure my pen name, the name I post by, will be easier to find and fits better into my genre then my real name.



  17. Kay Bigelow on September 8, 2010 at 6:48 AM

    >Several years ago, I experimented with several pen names and finally chose one. I published under that name until I had a disastrous experience with a small genre publisher who changed much of my manuscript (without my permission or knowledge) into something that was embarrassing beyond belief. I stopped using that pen name immediately.

    I now use a different pen name and hope to never see the other pen name again. Too bad, really, because I really liked the way the other name tripped off one's tongue.



  18. Alex on September 8, 2010 at 4:23 AM

    >People don't believe my real name. I can't count the number of times I've had to tell people "yes, I know it sounds like a Bond girl, but it's real." So it was a relief to be able to give myself a name that wouldn't sound like a cheesy pseudonym.

    To reply to Anon up thread, I chose a gender neutral pen name, and in my experience, while most readers don't really care, some readers will come over all betrayed and angry if they think you've been misrepresenting your gender. It's a decision which will cause you a certain amount of flak, and lose you a number of fans along the way. Whether those people would ever have been fans of yours anyway, had they known you were female, is another question.



  19. hannah on September 8, 2010 at 1:50 AM

    >Real name. I had so many people tell me that my last name (Moskowitz) was too clunky and too Jewish to go on a book that wasn't about kugel or the Holocaust. Needed to prove them wrong.



  20. Carol J. Garvin on September 8, 2010 at 1:34 AM

    >For years I had a pseudonym as a CB handle and as an artist's nom de plume, and later used it to register a kennel name, so hiding behind it for my fiction and the name of my blog was a natural progression. It was created from portions of my first and middle names. I didn't hesitate to use my real name for published magazine articles so now it seems both names are almost interchangeable. I no longer feel the need to hide so will look for guidance from an agent when the time comes to decide which to continue using.

    Careann/Carol J. Garvin



  21. Kay on September 7, 2010 at 11:18 PM

    >When I google my name I get a lady in Florida who is, naturally, a writer. But she writes mostly poetry.
    And while she has the domain name taken, I have KayDayBooks, so that works.
    I like my name. I'm keeping it.



  22. Leigh D'Ansey on September 7, 2010 at 11:18 PM

    >My surname is difficult to pronounce and spell for most people so I use my mother's maiden name as a pseudonym. I also wanted to separate my romance writing from my 'day job' in the health and disability sector and from work I've done in other genre (freelance, short stories, children's literature).



  23. Leigh D'Ansey on September 7, 2010 at 11:18 PM

    >My surname is difficult to pronounce and spell for most people so I use my mother's maiden name as a pseudonym. I also wanted to separate my romance writing from my 'day job' in the health and disability sector and from work I've done in other genre (freelance, short stories, children's literature).



  24. Angie Ledbetter on September 7, 2010 at 10:20 PM

    >All good thoughts to consider. Like most everything else in this crazy writing life, I suspect the issue will work itself out for me. 🙂



  25. Dee Bright on September 7, 2010 at 9:18 PM

    >I've thought about using a pen name, and one of my sources suggested I do just that. I'm writing a suspense about a guy sent to prison, and plan to be very direct corruption that often happens with corrections officers. But I'm thinking the pen name can happen further down the road–like when I finish the manuscript!



  26. T. Anne on September 7, 2010 at 8:59 PM

    >I don't mind nom de plumes being used by authors. I really care about the stuff between the covers of the book I'm purchasing more than I do the moniker adorning the front. I'm glad it's not that big a deal. Actors having been changing their name for vanity purposes for years, if an author does it for that or a myriad of other reasons, so be it.



  27. Sue Harrison on September 7, 2010 at 6:55 PM

    >So far I've always published under my legal name – Sue Harrison. Easy to read, easy to say.

    Sometimes, though, "Sue" can be a problem. Many people assume I'm a Susan. Like the vacation coordinator who changed my name on all my paperwork. I almost wasn't allowed back into the USA. A scary thought.

    I could still be stranded in the Carribean.

    You know, Susan really is a lovely name….



  28. Libby Ann S. on September 7, 2010 at 6:02 PM

    >Thank you so much for this. I've bounced the idea back and forth. I have a name in mind that I write under for an online beauty site, but that could easily be changed. I had originally considered my first and middle initial and last name but I think it could be a little misleading for the genre. Coming off a little to serious? The pen name I write under is very catchy and a few friends have asked if I would publish my novels under it for that reason.
    I'm still on the fence. My first name is long, last name is hard for some people to pronounce and spell, middle name sounds too childish.



  29. Anonymous on September 7, 2010 at 5:21 PM

    >I have every intention of using a pen name for my next novel. Why? Because the audience is comprised largely of men, and I don't want a female author name to be offputting. Aside from that consideration, I have a very distinctive surname, and the distance will be a bonus.

    Question: How do cross-gender pen names work when the author has to go for a signing? "Surprise! It's a girl!" &tc.

    Thanks, Rachelle.
    And now we know you're a Virgo, it all becomes clear…

    Karen



  30. Graystone on September 7, 2010 at 5:03 PM

    >I've always considered using a pen name, and I'm pretty sure I will when I do get published. This post really helped me. Thank you.



  31. Jay on September 7, 2010 at 4:18 PM

    >Few people can pronounce my name-I have all kinds of names at least I now know I am not alone



  32. Anonymous on September 7, 2010 at 4:14 PM

    >A nom de plume feels tricky to me. On the one hand, it allows me to hide, which unleashes my censor. On the other hand, I love that I am weaving stories. Are they so fraught with intimate moments or ideas that I should hide? If I write about monsters, should the monster be less scary? Fiction is fiction.
    It makes me crazy when writers are interviewed about their fiction and the interviewer goes tramping about looking for the true life story behind the fiction. And yes, it could be sometimes there. But mostly writers jump off into their own worlds.
    The internet also makes publicity and the potential for it seem intimidating at times. I still feel safer, in most of my internet conversations, in being anonymous, but try to take responsibility with anonymity. (i.e., be polite -very polite)
    As a professional, I might take another name though.
    But after participating in a strong critique group for the last year and a half, I am starting to be able to stand visibly beside my stories. It feels liberating to begin to show up.
    I do have some terrific potential pen names (family), but would "I" disappear?
    Those are my questions. One day, I hope to answer with a wonderful agent and publisher.



  33. Gospel Girly on September 7, 2010 at 3:50 PM

    >From the moment I started writing I decided that I would have a pseudonym. My last name has twelve letters in it and is impossible for anyone who's not from my dialect to pronounce. I decided to ditch it for that reason. I now use my second name and my dad's first name. It has a nice ring to it.
    I blog and network on Facebook and Twitter under another different pen name i.e Gospel Girly and I'm gonna find a way of merging the two when I eventually get published.

    I love it when people ask, who is this Gospel Girly? There is an air of mystery surrounding me and later on I will take off "the mask" and reveal the other pseudonym.

    I love it when a plan comes together! (Hannibal- The A-Team):-)



  34. Anne Frasier/Theresa Weir on September 7, 2010 at 3:06 PM

    >I've written fiction under a pen name for over ten years. I recently sold a memoir and I would love to see it published under my pen name since I imagine some readers will follow me into nonfiction. Right now publisher is leaning toward using my real name because…well, it IS a memoir. Quite a quandary.



  35. SP on September 7, 2010 at 1:44 PM

    >Great post. When I first started writing, years ago, I came up with a pen name, for three reasons: My real name is very hard to pronounce, I'm not particularly fond of it, and I wanted to remain anonymous (especially if I ever made it big and had a fan base). But I never understood the legal aspects of it.

    I used to query all the time using only my pen name, but then when I started getting offers for contracts, it felt weird saying, "btw, that's not my real name". But that's really an okay thing to do? It doesn't bother agents, editors, and publishers to communicate with you thinking your pen name is your real name and then to find out later it isn't?



  36. Hughes. on September 7, 2010 at 1:40 PM

    >I'm going to get ahead of the game in terms of building my author platform by writing under the pseudonym "Arthur Platform"



  37. Sommer on September 7, 2010 at 1:38 PM

    >I've chosen to write under a pen name because I write for young adults and my husband is a high school English teacher and we wanted him to have anonyminity from me in his job. I'm using my real first name, but chose to ditch my last name, which is hard to spell and pronounce anyway, and slid my middle name over. So now I'm Sommer Leigh which is technically still my real name so the transition wasn't weird.



  38. Eeleen Lee on September 7, 2010 at 1:27 PM

    >I considered a pen name a few times then fell over laughing.



  39. eeleenlee on September 7, 2010 at 1:26 PM

    >I like what Iain Banks did- using 'Iain M Banks' when he writes science-fiction (The 'M' stands for 'Menzies')



  40. Anonymous on September 7, 2010 at 1:04 PM

    >Great post. This is the first time I've heard an agent say to query under the pseudonym though. Other blogging agents go for the opposite.



  41. Richard Albert on September 7, 2010 at 12:58 PM

    >Although I have yet to publish, early on this writing endeavor, I decided that a pseudonym would be a must. My real surname is impossible to pronounce for most people. This seems doubly true if someone is trying to read it from print and something I’ve dealt with my entire life. Additionally, I was in a bookstore not long ago and realized how difficult it must be for potential readers to spot that one lone book by an unknown author. Based on that, I chose a pen name to position my product near several prominent genre writers, which I’m hoping will boost exposure and thus help initial sales of my first novel.

    I’d like to learn more about the legal aspects of using a pseudonym. Obviously, I’m still the same person and my real identity is neither secret nor can I enter into contract using my pen name. I understand the publisher would cut my wage to my real name, but what about donations, charity work, etc. Would I file the fictional name with the US government (FL in my case, since I think the entity is state based, though I could be wrong) as if it were a company name so that I could conduct business using that name instead?



  42. Anonymous on September 7, 2010 at 12:00 PM

    >I have a unique quandary on this front. I worked as a journalist for 7 years and have quite a few clips under my real name. I'm getting ready to shop a novel manuscript now and would like to use a pseudonym both because my name is somewhat difficult to spell and because there is already a novelist publishing under my (unusual) last name. But I'm wondering if using a pseudonym would cancel out one of my selling points — namely, that I'm already a published writer. Then again, I'm certainly not a household name by any stretch, so I don't think my real name would be any specific asset to the book. Any advice on this? Is it OK to shop the manuscript under my real name and then switch to a pseudonym? Or should I pick one and stick with it?



  43. Malia Sutton on September 7, 2010 at 11:33 AM

    >I've used many pen names…always for genre hopping. Keeps it more organized. And this way no one can put you into a box and nail it shut 🙂



  44. Brother Cysa Dime on September 7, 2010 at 11:09 AM

    >I use a pen name because I use my real name for a business. It has a telephone number listed. I did not want to be inundated by calls from readers.



  45. Teenage Bride on September 7, 2010 at 10:56 AM

    >Huh, I have never even given this much thought. Thanks for the detailed post.

    I hope you had an awesome birthday.



  46. Anonymous on September 7, 2010 at 10:48 AM

    >I kinda wished I'd used a pen name when starting out cuz I've pissed off a few friends with my essays–which were supposed to be funny–or at least disguised their real names! Lessons learned…



  47. Anonymous on September 7, 2010 at 10:15 AM

    >Coming through a lengthy legal battle where I was for years callously deemed as, Jane Doe #97 I felt I had lost my identity and along the way felt the authorities too, lost their ability to qualify me as a human being.

    I always knew I would need to use a pen name to protect my own identity as I write in the genre of Memoir. But I felt I needed something for myself that had some sort of familial roots.

    After considerable thought I came up with the creation of using the first names of my grandmother and grandfather. With a twist of course.
    This way it would keep me anonymous, and honor the piece of my own self that I felt had disappeared.

    Thank you for another great post!



  48. C.E. on September 7, 2010 at 10:01 AM

    >I chose to use a pen name for 2 reasons: I wanted to keep my online sites, like facebook and what not personal. Mine alone. My real life friends and family etc.

    And secondly, i chose to use my maiden name just because, on the off chance i ever get divorced(knock on wood) I want to be able to revert back to it without any negative feelings toward the name tied to my career.

    Great post!



  49. Kara Garbe on September 7, 2010 at 9:50 AM

    >When you use a pen name, is the copyright held by your pen name or by your legal name? Which name shows up on the copyright page of the book?



  50. BK on September 7, 2010 at 9:21 AM

    >I'm going by BK Jackson because there are a ton of Brenda Jacksons out there—including one who writes romance. Of course there's a BK Jackson who plays jazz too so unless I pick something really weird, I'll end up sharing whatever name I choose with someone else.



  51. Bonnie Doran on September 7, 2010 at 9:01 AM

    >I wrote on article, never published, under a pen name so it wouldn't hurt a former employer. I also used my maiden name for several devotionals and articles before I married.

    Now I'm using my married name. No middle name or middle initial. The only other Bonnie Dorans I found when Googling my name for a website domain were a realtor and an opera singer. I doubt I'll be mistaken for either, especially the latter!



  52. Phoenix on September 7, 2010 at 7:57 AM

    >No one can spell or pronounce my last name. Heck, we pronounce it two different ways ourselves in my extended family. So when I started to establish an online brand, I wanted something with a memorable, but easy, first name (Phoenix) and a common-but-not-too common, easy last name (Sullivan, as "S" seemed to flow from the "X").

    The only issue is that "Phoenix Sullivan" works very well, I think, for women's historical/romance, which is what I originally built the brand for. Now that I'm shopping a medical suspense/near-future thriller, even though I've tweaked the brand, it doesn't feel "quite" right. Sigh.



  53. DEO on September 7, 2010 at 7:52 AM

    >Thanks so much for this post. I've been debating back and forth for a while about if I need to use a pen name. I had googled my name before and came up empty but I hadn't thought about closely related names. When I did a search for those It came up with enough that I may go ahead and look for a pseudonym after all.



  54. S. Dionne Moore on September 7, 2010 at 7:19 AM

    >My pen name is due to the fact that my editor had just contracted another person named Sandra. So, to avoid confusion, she asked if there was another name I'd like to use. I chose to use my first initial with my middle name, which is rather unique, and my last name. It has worked for me for six books, though I wish I had used something different when I changed genre. *sigh*

    S. Dionne Moore



  55. Jen J. Danna on September 7, 2010 at 6:29 AM

    >I do write under a pen name – my maiden name. But I know that I'll have to ask questions about the legality of this name because in Ontario, when you are married, you assume the name of your spouse; there is no legal document changing it. If you want to use your maiden name again you simply show your birth certificate and all your identification get swapped over. So apparently I have two legal names? Definitely going to have to get this sorted out before any official contract is signed!



  56. Margot on September 7, 2010 at 6:19 AM

    >Wait, wait, I don't even DRINK coffee! I never touch the stuff!

    Starbuck is my real live legit maiden name.



  57. Margot on September 7, 2010 at 6:18 AM

    >My married name is Hausmann. That's who I am at home, kids' schools, church, etc. Honestly, I wanted readers to be able to google me & NO ONE can spell Hausmann. Even if I spell it for a pharmicist, letter by letter, he still hears, "H-O-U-S".

    And…pretty much every person on the planet can spell Starbuck.



  58. Katie Ganshert on September 7, 2010 at 5:14 AM

    >When I first started writing for publication, before I knew much of anything, I wanted a pen name. My only reason? My name is rather boring. It doesn't sound like a name you'd see on a book, but I'm over that now. 🙂



  59. Lara Zielinsky on September 7, 2010 at 5:13 AM

    >What about going to a pen name AFTER publishing/working for a while with your real name? Any advice on that?



  60. Claudia on September 7, 2010 at 4:17 AM

    >I started blogging about adoption and fertility issues in 2008. I realised pretty quickly that I couldn't really write honestly about the difficult parts if my colleagues and extended family could find my blog by googling my real name. So I kept my initials, changed my online name to Claudia Chapman, and I haven't looked back. When I asked my husband's permission to write a book about it all, he said okay…. as long as I didnt' switch to using my real name. Fine by me – after writing that way for a few years, I pretty much think of myself as Claudia half the time anyway!



  61. Marja on September 7, 2010 at 3:31 AM

    >I never considered using one… but I did not foresee the fact that hardly anyone can pronounce my first name 🙂 Well… I can live with that.



  62. Aimee L Salter on September 7, 2010 at 1:45 AM

    >I considered using one more for my family's sake than anything else. To keep things anonymous. However, I figured I'd let my agent give me advice on that one 🙂



  63. MichelineMcAllister on September 7, 2010 at 1:44 AM

    >I use a pen name for my novels. I did it for many reasons, mostly because I work in the film industry and my first two novels are set in Hollywood. I think it is a great way to become someone else. :0)



  64. arlee bird on September 7, 2010 at 1:20 AM

    >I resorted to a pen name because my real name is so common that I share it with about 30,000 other people currently living. There are several currently published authors using the name. I came up with the name I now use back in the mid 1980s. The first name is a combination of my first initial and my middle name. The last name just seemed to fit what I was doing at the time. Now since I've been blogging under this name I've established a pretty good internet presence so I guess I'll stick with it. Besides I like the logo that I designed for the name.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out



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