How do you start again under a new author name in a new genre? Toby Neal explains how she had to do things differently with her memoir about Hawaii after 30+ novels.
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Toby Neal is an award-winning, USA Today bestselling author of mysteries, thrillers, and romance with over 30 titles. She's also a mental health therapist.
Today we're talking about how Toby did things differently for her memoir, Freckled: A Memoir of Growing Up Wild in Hawaii.
- On being ready to write a memoir
- Thinking about what the reader will want from the memoir
- Telling the truth while also protecting those you’re writing about
- Launch strategies for memoir
- Using Instagram to find book reviewers and book clubs
- Using a paid service to put books in hotel rooms
- Making art out of life
- Writing deeper rather than wider
- Listen to Toby talk more about Hawaii and recommendations for travelers there on my other podcast, Books And Travel.
You can find Toby Neal at TobyNeal.net and on Twitter @tobywneal
Transcript of Interview with Toby Neal
Joanna: Hi everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com. And today I'm here again with Toby Neal. Welcome back to the show, Toby.
Toby: Thank you so much for having me on again. It's really an honor and I always love to see their smiling face.
Joanna: We always have a good time. Just in case people have missed previous episodes with Toby:
Toby is an award-winning, USA Today bestselling author of mysteries, thrillers and romance with over 30 titles. She's also a mental health therapist.
Today we're talking about how she has done a career pivot with Freckled: A Memoir of Growing Up Wild in Hawaii, which I have read and I thought, “Oh I know Toby. I'll just try this book,” and then I couldn't put it down. I had to read the whole thing and it was fantastic.
Toby, I want to start by asking you: you've been on the show before talking about high volume fiction, the importance of setting, so why memoir now?
Why have you done this pivot?
Toby: I think the answer goes back to the fact that we are more than authorprenerus with a business writing books that sell or trying to with many of us are. We're creative people.
And I honestly had a very unusual upbringing and I feel like my whole life I've been working up to this book. I only reached a level of confidence in my writing to tackle it and take it on after a number of years at the page.
It's one of those things that wasn't about the usual Toby Neil brand. It was about doing a life goal and finishing the memoir was that for me.
Joanna: That's interesting because one of the questions people often ask people who write series and I think we've talked about this before but how do you decide which book to write next. So if this is a life goal rather than a book for the usual business reasons.
How did you prepare that in terms of your business? Did you do a couple of books first to kind of give yourself some space?
How can people make that decision?
Toby: No actually I was working on my memoir for 10 years. I talked previously about rapid release and writing four or five books a year and how to do that.
And honestly when I say 10 years I was not writing the book for ten years. But I was sitting on it. I was massaging it. I was adding things. I was having new rounds of editing. I've been working on it for 10 years.
So the first thing that you would want to do, if you feel called to write a memoir, and many, many writers do we have unusual stories. We have unusual forces that maybe shaped us and made us who we are in the world and why we become writers.
And so if you're considering that and again memoir is also kind of a pinnacle genre. It's like literary fiction. It's considered to be a more difficult or challenging writing form. I have to agree with that. I spent three different iterations of trying to write my memoir.
First I tried it in third person, because I was so much more comfortable talking about my life like someone else. And then I got a little closer to it and made it sort of a clinical book about becoming a therapist with flashbacks to my own childhood and that felt really clunky and I couldn't arrange the events.
Then I just really sat and meditated on what did I want the reader to experience. So this is this is a key moment when you move out of personal therapy mode with your memoir and into writing a potentially commercially viable book. That's when you put yourself in the mind of the reader looking at this story and go what kind of experience do I want the reader to have.
I was reading memoirs. I was gobbling them up. I'm still a fan of memoirs. I read them all the time, but it was the reading of different sorts of them and trying to get a feeling for what did I want my message of my life to do for readers and I hit upon this one book which was Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight.
I've mentioned it in my acknowledgments. It's by Alexandra Fuller, who's really a mistress of the genre. She's written several memoirs but it's about growing up in South Africa in pre apartheid days and she routinely like walked around carrying an AK.
She's just a little girl and it's just such a mind-blowing book. And she writes it in this matter of fact tone. And, all of a sudden, I was like that's the tone I want. I want this not maudlin, not feel sorry for me. A tone that's upbeat that's a matter of fact that tells these crazy facts in a way that makes them palatable and easy to read.
Because I want the reader to come along for a journey with me to a place and time that could never come back again in Hawaii in the 1970s.
That also dictated not only the voice and tone of the memoir but that it had to be present tense, which meant taking the reader by the hand, “You're going to experience my life with me. You're going to come along on this journey with me.” So it meant that I wanted it to be really immersive.
And then that left certain challenges like how long am I going to write it for. And then I can't explain the times because I'm in the times as a young child or maturing child or now a teenager. I can't interject those little helpful asides that say, “Back in the 70s United States was having a gas crisis and this is why my parents went on a survivalist JAG where they were sure the world was coming to an end and they began stockpiling food and we lived off the grid and all of this.”
Which to me, if you read my books, I'm constantly writing about that. The possible end of the world. And it's because I grew up in this mindset. Hawaii is a very isolated place where if we're cut off from things and things can go bad very quickly. And so I've always been kind of fascinated with that.
That's really long winded and I'm not even sure if it's related to the question.
Joanna: There are some dark parts, well a lot of dark parts, to your story, which as you say you write matter of factly, which I found fascinating. But you're a therapist and you say writing a memoir can be therapeutic but it's not therapy.
And yet it took you 10 years to write it so clearly though you were going through some of your own therapy in writing the book.
What kind of emotional toll do you expect or have you experienced or should people think about if they are looking to do a memoir that is as emotionally honest?
Toby: That is a great question and the answer is still being revealed to me.
Six months in the book is doing fantastic. Of course, you always want your book to be a hit. But this was actually my first ever hit in print. It's been ranked in the top twenty thousand on Amazon and all the other distributors or higher since it came out. It's turning into a book club book.
It's becoming what my goal was for it, was that it becomes a classic piece of Hawaii history which is a big goal but it was really my goal and that's why I took so long with it. That's why I spent so much on editors so I actually had three complete edits and I was polishing the prose. But I actually blasted through that first draft in only six weeks.
Granted I was in sort of this bipolar manic state. I almost got a divorce during the first draft of the memoir because everything was so stirred up and I was going to therapy and I was working through that.
There's this time you can't blast through your draft and then spend a lot of time massaging and rearranging and adding detail because here's the thing that makes memoir come alive. Detail. I can't emphasize that enough and sometimes because it's based on memory I would have to go research because I would be like I have this idea there was a gas crisis there was not enough gas I don't remember how what that looked like whatever.
So I had to go research the gas crisis of the 1970s and what happened in Hawaii and then read the historical facts in to give a framework et cetera. So this kind of writing is not for the faint of heart. I have likened it to an interview. It's like cutting yourself open and like dumping your guts on the table and then cooking up a meal for someone else out of that.
It's not something to do if you still have a lot of unfinished emotional business. And I feel like at age 50 for more than 40 years away from those things and many, many hours of personal therapy and even making therapy my business is because of this past. I'm still experiencing new repercussions.
And so as the book has come out it's stirred up waves. I talked about racial bullying in Hawaii which is a very taboo subject that is beginning to unfurl in the larger context of social discussion. And now I've got this editor for Life magazine calling me and interviewing me. I went to a junior high school with this teacher who fell in love with the book and wanted 50 of the copies and wants the eighth grade of this island school to have this is as required reading, not just because it's a good book.
I was like It's not for kids. It's about four kids. It seems like 8th graders are reading incredibly intense stuff and they need to know what it's like to be bullied. The racial problems that we have in public school and why continue. So things like that.
I am beginning to see my goal of it becoming a classic happen but there's no way even when you've done all the work and you've talked to your parents and you've got everybody's OK, there's just no way to know all the ripples that will go out and where they end up and what they end up changing in this world dialogue.
I do have a tip that I would do differently. In my book, I basically change the names of people who were famous because I actually grew up with several famous people. And I just decided I didn't want to deal with any of their PR stuff or whatever might happen. So I changed their names. I changed the names of the most egregious bullies and enemies of my childhood. Again same reason. I was already their victim once. I don't need to be their victim again.
But I left a lot of the people that people the story that the same. I felt like the stories were positive. I just left it the same. It was just a judgment call. I would change everyone's name now. Everyone including my parents and potentially my sisters.
I asked everyone's permission who's a major character. And they were all okay with it but it's one thing to think you know what that means and it's another thing to have a hit book that's being read by thousands of people and people looking you up online and trying to having their reactions making their judged comments.
There's just no way to know all the ripples that are going to happen. And there's even interest in making the book into some sort of movie and I'm like, could you please do my fiction? My fiction has a multi-cultural heroine. Let's do that instead.
Joanna: Maybe that's what's happened with the book. Maybe you and those other people didn't expect it. Maybe you thought oh it will just be another book.
And yet it has taken as you say it's taken on a life of its own. And this is a great a great… not a warning because you've done amazing things and it's an amazing book and it deserves all success.
But equally, like you say, you would have changed that now. So it's really good to hear that as someone who's definitely thinking of writing a memoir to go you can't control what other people think of what you're remembering of the truth is, because truth is such a difficult concept in that way.
Toby: It's a completely moving target. And even though I put two disclaimers one at the very beginning this is a memoir based on memory we know that it's tricky. I've done the best they can to fact check et cetera put the same thing at the end. I really padded things with that. I tried to be very gentle with some of the stories. Yes there's dark and gritty things, but compared to Educated that new one with Terra Westover it's tame as all get out.
But still, there's repercussions that you can't possibly imagine. And again in hindsight I would protect myself and the people in the book more than another layer of anonymity.
Joanna: Good tip too. You didn't change your name completely. You're using T.W. aren't you TW Neal. So according to Amazon's rules, it's a different pen name to your fiction but you haven't disguised it. It's clearly you and your name.
Let's talk about the business side because you mentioned the phrase commercially viable, which often people don't consider memoir necessarily commercially viable. And in fact most memoirs are not commercially viable.
What did you do in preparation for this book in order for it to have a good chance at becoming what you wanted it to be? And what and what did you do differently in that preparation phase?
Toby: That is a great question and I did do a lot of different things. One of the things I know is that people like memoir in print. And that's one of the challenges for an indie is to sell print books and believe me I've run into every barrier there is with that and tried to climb over them and many times just fallen back into the crab pot. Going I guess this is just my life as an indie is I'm not going to have a print presence.
But I knew that for a memoir to be a hit it has to be in print. It's got to be part of that equation. So I did several things differently.
First of all, I set aside a chunk of money. I spent ten thousand dollars. And that was for the first three months of the book launch. I saved that aside from my other business. I did think I have 80000 followers on Book Bub. I'm not saying that to brag but just to say that's a lot of emails that go out when I have a new release. And I was excited to let my book club followers know that I had a memoir.
The week before the book launched I found out that T.W. Neal was not going to get a different name. And even though I appealed that because it's not a pen name, it's just my initials. I'm really me. My readers want to buy this book. They will want it but they will want to know and BookBub was adamant that it was too different. It was. And so I lost 80000 e-mails.
I cried. I admit it.
Joanna: But actually I completely get why they did that. It's a different name. It's a different genre. They are genre specific. I get why they did that.
But coming back to the point, what did you do with the print?
Toby: I did several things. One is that I put up an Amazon copy and then I also went wide with a different with Ingram and Lightning Source.
So the Amazon one has black and white photos. I did put a lot of extras into this book. It's beautiful sized photos, which I think enhance the text. So here's the color one. The color one is priced at $24.99 and is printed through Lightning Source.
Joanna: Did you do a print run? You paid for a print run.
Toby: Well no, not necessarily I just did. P.O. D. but I ordered a lot. I set out to look at the new book bloggers which is Instagram.
Forget the old book bloggers. I did an Instagram campaign and I tracked down these book reviewers on Instagram and I approached them and said, “Hey would you like to read a book about Hawaii?” And this was in the first month or so of the release.
Me and my assistant and my business manager mailing out tons of copies of these to Instagram book reviewers. So what's great is then for months afterwards whenever they get around to your book there's 25,000 Instagram followers seeing a picture of your book.
Joanna: Did you do hardback or paperback?
Toby: I did a trade paperback. It's a really nice quality book but not a hard copy. Then I also did a separate KDP version that was priced at $19.99 with black and white photos because I figured that the Amazon crowd wanted a cheaper book.
I don't know. It was an experiment. They're both available on Amazon but what Amazon does really well is completely suppress any other presence but their own. So you have to actually search for my color picture one on Amazon with the ISBN number if you can believe it. So that's really tricky in order to sell more print.
I did an Amazon version and an other than Amazon version and I made them different so that there is different value and different reasons to buy them other things you can do is put book club questions in the back.
Your cover is critical for print and any other reason. But the key thing that I did for marketing was hone in on a target book that was similar to mine. I don't do this with my thrillers except in my Amazon ads. I'll be like OK who's like me and I'll target those things in ads.
But in the actual way that the book was marketed I basically targeted Tara Westover's book Educated and I said, “If you liked Educated you'll love Freckled.” It's a similar story of overcoming, only set in Hawaii.
That was a key piece of the marketing was all the different ways that I when in the wake of a huge book there was also Michelle Obama's Becoming, which I just felt like my book was not like. You truly need to do the homework and you can't just use Ad rocket and look at the competition. That's cheap and it shortchanges the readers because they're going to be like this isn't like that but this isn't like Michelle Obama's Becoming.
You really have to do that homework and read the books. So that's a really key concept in marketing something new with under a different name is to find something that's big that's doing well that's like it.
And then you can either create a cover that sort of sends the same message and looks like it in the description. Or you go completely unique and I decided to go completely unique.
I wanted to stand out in the field. I wanted my book to look completely different. So I think you need to be like the book you're targeting or very different. And this is this is a one of a kind photo I used to top end designer to create a really unique looking book and you can't underestimate that effect. Very important.
Joanna: I have a number of questions off that. First of all, book clubs.
How did you reach out to book clubs?
Toby: I have focused on my home state of Hawaii because my goal for it is that it becomes a classic piece of Hawaii literature. The story of haoles, we're called haoles, white people living in Hawaii as part of a very mixed race culture and our story. Back in the 60s and 70s.
I did have contacts from other book clubs and reached out to them on email and said Hey I'm doing a memoir. Would you guys be interested in reviewing it. I will send you sample books. This was all a lot of extra legwork that I don't do for my thrillers and mysteries a time.
I reached out I found I followed a zillion Instagram book reviewers and you can find them by hashtags like bookstagrammar and you start finding them and then they usually have some sort of contact information too. I would send them an email and be like I'll send you a book and thankfully I have help I have a wonderful business manager that helps me with these kinds of things because it is a lot of legwork.
But what happens is it's a slower build than my mystery thrillers where I have an established audience and it's another Toby Neal book and basically in an email I do with a few add I may announce on Facebook.
This is like a whole other level of building, building, building and setting a foundation. I think what we're talking about applies to anytime you're going to try to establish yourself in another genre – so say you're a romance writer but now you want to write a thriller, you're going to be up against these same sorts of tasks and in our in our marketplace.
I'm moving away from trying to do everything under the Toby Neal umbrella, which I started out thinking I could do. I'm now rebranding my romances under Toby Jane. I've got T.W. Neal for non-fiction. I've got Toby Neill for mystery and thriller and I may do some other genres and I'm going to have another pen name but I feel like I've learned a lot of lessons on how to launch successfully and get gain momentum that lasts.
Joanna: You're looking at doing more pen names and you said that the market we're in right now is that because of you want the algorithms to be linking books of a similar genre together?
You don't want your crime to be mixed up with the old romance or your memoir?
Toby: I did start out as an indie with a whole bunch of genres and all under Toby Neal. We've become more and more AI driven and marketing is more and more niche.
I took that into account when I did this book because I didn't want it to be suppressed like what I've seen happen with my romances. I felt like I was going to take the hit early of obscurity. Nobody's going to know who T.W. Neal is. Not one single Amazon follower, not one single book club follower. And that hurts.
But you've got to take the long view. The long view is getting those A.I. algorithms to begin to push your work out, which means finding the right readers and not just the Venn diagram subset of your own followers who actually feel like romance too or still like a memoir. Memoir readers are often very different from Thriller readers or fiction readers.
I knew that there'd be a few of my readers who wanted to read it. But it was all about finding those people who love a book club book and it's a whole different market.
Joanna: That budget that you put aside, the $10,000, approximately how much did you spend on printing and sending books vs. say Amazon ads. They seem to be the two big cost buckets.
Toby: I didn't include what I spent on what I call book production editing and cover. I spent six thousand dollars on book production for Freckled.
My husband thought I was nuts and I'm safe to say this now. He thought this was a vanity project.
It could have been but he kept going like why why why. And I'm like because the world needs stories about resilience. The world needs stories about overcoming. The world needs a real story with a happy ending because that's what my story is.
Even in the face of so much opposition I had to hold onto my conviction about this book and what I was going to spend on it in editing. No matter. And then the ten thousand dollars was with advertising.
So another thing that I did, I was looking at what Tara Westover's publicists were doing. And I was following that book and studying everything they did. And one of the things they did was put the book in as a giveaway in these high-end hotels. This is a service I want to tell you about. You may not know about called bedside reading.
It's a competitive service. You basically apply and you can mention to Jane that I sent you and told you about it because now we're on a first name basis. The woman who runs it and Educated was given away at several super high end hotels on a bedroom table. It's a way of reaching influencers with print.
And so I invested in. That is a part a completely not a Toby Neal thing. It is a T.W. Neal thing. I thought if people could see this book, if they could touch it with their hands, that they could look at this intriguing. They would not be able to resist it.
I paid to have it in. She can't always, but it was put in hotels in California.
She arranged an amazing signing for me down in Los Angeles during Oscar month. I had an opportunity actually that a producer read it. Picked it up in the room and read it. These are things that can't be quantified.
How do you create a book that goes viral? Sometimes you've got to just hit it with everything. A whole bunch of different approaches. I don't know which one is going to turn the tide and make that book into a bestseller.
Joanna: It feels right that you're doing this. Like you said it took 10 years to write it so you had ten years of indie publishing. You've had a number of years. You've had a lot longer as a writer.
Your maturity and understanding of the marketing is just as important as the writing at this point in that you've behaved like a traditional publisher there. You've put a budget to it. You've done it and we all know if you get a traditional publishing deal the amount that the advance is and the money they're going to spend on marketing is what will be a success.
You have to invest in this stuff. So it feels right that you believed in the project enough to do that. I'm wondering then what are you going to do.
How are you going to take T.W. Neill on?
Because I know how difficult it is to manage multiple brands and if you are doing social media under different brands if you're doing different emails if you're doing different web sites.
How are you going to manage T.W. Neil alongside everything else?
Toby: Oh I wish you hadn't asked that. No, I'll just do it the best I can as I can. I do plan to do more memoir. I feel drawn to the art form that it is. I liken it to making art out of life, which is different from making art out of our imagination, which to me that's fiction.
Making art out of life is more challenging and as I've matured as a writer it calls to me more so I am going to do more. It takes longer.
What I've set up in my business is windows, these pockets a couple times a year where I get to dive into my nonfiction and go away from my normal publication calendar and be in there just massaging sentences making beautiful sentences, making beautiful ways to describe actual occurrences, which again, it's just a whole different form. And it's very competitive, as far as top end writers doing it.
Joanna: It's exciting, but it's interesting because you've been on this show before talking about high volume, rapid release fiction and yet this seems very different, as you're saying, a very different form of writing.
We've been doing this a while and it feels to me like the speed of rapid release has become so fast that you almost need to zig when everybody zagging and zag when people are zigging. We're getting to a point where some brands are releasing a book a day, then you need to go a different way and think about multiple streams of income and running your business in a different way.
Are you feeling that way, the same as I am, which is you can't win that game. So you have to do it differently.
Toby: Absolutely. And I have to say that I had the joy of meeting you in person last October and we both were talking about the marketplace and the crazy things, not just with the scammers and the ghost writers. And then the collective groups writing under the same name and churning out.
But it's daunting and it has kind of put me off from that. What I want to do is focus in on building loyal readers that will continue to buy my fiction. So that's very much a relationship building kind of thing and making sure that each book is for me talk quality because when people come for your work and they're loyal to your work they're looking for a certain kind of emotional experience. And I want to consistently deliver that without compromise.
I believe all of these things are compromise. There's just so much stuff in the market. And then I want to last. This is a marathon, not a sprint. And many of us in these who were at the hyper-productivity level are burning out and dropping to the wayside and I don't want to be one of those.
We're not just business people, we're creative artists. And you've got to be writing stuff that still makes you happy and proud of your work. That you believe will stand the test of time.
And this is why I wrote this book. I want it to stand the test of time. I wanted to be a classic. I want it to be something that adds to the discussion in Hawaii about the settlement of the islands and in all the different races that make their home there. That's a big goal and maybe I'll do that with my fiction because I've now written 30 books that star Hawaii.
I had a meeting one time that said everything I know about Hawaii I learned from a Toby Neil book, which was kind of terrifying.
But I have become this voice for my niche and I guess if you are going to stay in this long term, not only as a creative person but as a business person, you've got to find that niche. And that's where I think we can go deeper. Let's go deeper instead of wider if the wider is becoming so diluted. Is that making sense.
Joanna: That's fantastic. I highly recommend the book. It's really interesting. And I felt like I was being a voyeur. It's actually a memoir is so voyeuristic when you know the person. Not that I know you very well but I feel like I know you a lot better after reading it. So really fascinating.
Where can people find you and all of your books?
Toby: Online. Just look at TobyNeal.net. We've got a whole roster there. Or you can look for my books up on any retailer too.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well thanks so much for your time Toby that was great.
Toby: All right. Aloha.