Perseverance, adapting to change, and passion are definitely the main habits that contribute most to my success. Passion is probably the most important, because It fuels the persistence. If I believe in something, and know it is right, I will stop short of nothing to accomplish it. It is only when I lose the passion that I stop trying.
As part of my series on the “5 Things You Need To Know To Write A Bestselling Book” I had the pleasure of interviewing Amy Riolo.
As an award-winning, best-selling, author, chef, television personality, and educator, Amy Riolo is one of the world’s foremost authorities on culinary culture. She is known for sharing history, culture, and nutrition through global cuisine as well as simplifying recipes for the home cook. A graduate of Cornell University, Amy is considered a culinary thought leader who enjoys changing the way we think about food and the people who create it. Amy is a food historian, culinary anthropologist and Mediterranean Diet advocate who makes frequent appearances on numerous television and radio programs, both in the United States and abroad, including Fox TV, ABC, CBS,NBC, The Hallmark Channel, NileTV, The Travel Channel, Martha Stewart Living Radio, and Abu Dhabi Television. She also created and appeared weekly in ninety second cooking videos entitled “Culture of Cuisine” which air on nationally syndicated news shows on 28 different channels across the United States, totaling a reach of over 300 million people.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
Cookbooks are so essential to my sense of personal well-being, that if I am not writing, or thinking about writing, one I feel that there is a huge void in my life. Writing, reading, and creating cookbooks is one of my greatest satisfactions. To me, cookbooks, even in their simplest form, have always been more than a collection of recipes. I began writing menus and developing recipes as a young child. It was my way of not only documenting the happiest moments in our family’s life, but of anticipating more to come. Later on, as I learned that some of my most treasured dishes never had their recipes recorded, I made it my life’s work to preserve them. I also had a strong desire to record “new” recipes which I began making to ensure that my family and friends could enjoy delicious food while still maintaining optimal wellness.
Cookbooks give us the opportunity to pass down culinary and cultural patrimonies to future generations. They enable us to tell our personal stories in sensual terms that can be understood and appreciated by all. Cookbooks promote the pleasures of the table, the art of communication, the importance of family, and the science of good nutrition. Writing a cookbook was my way of entering the culinary arts.
What was (so far) the most exhilarating or fulfilling experience you’ve had as an author?
Honestly, exhilarating and fulfilling experiences happen daily, which is what drives me to continue even though it is a very time-consuming process. I am overjoyed everyone tells me that someone reads or enjoys my books — it never gets old. But there is a particular experience that stand out most in my mind:
Recently at the Metro Cooking Show in Washington, DC. I was about to go on stage to demonstrate recipes from my best-selling Mediterranean Diabetes Cookbook (which is based on recipes I altered for my mom when I was a kid and she was diagnosed with Diabetes) when a former student came up to me and hugged me and told me that the book changed her cousin’s life. She said that he was overweight and diabetic, but really enjoyed my approach. He used the book as a guide and lost 50 pounds and was no longer suffering from diabetes. It also inspired her to earn a PhD in Nutritional Sciences.
What was the craziest, weirdest, wildest experience you’ve had as a bestselling author?
Sure, it happened when I was signing copies of Nile Style: Egyptian Cuisine and Cultureat the National Book Festival in DC. That particular book was very challenging for me. It was the first book I ever wanted to write, and I started writing it from bed when I was legally disabled and couldn’t move. The thought of ever publishing it was only a dream. I was impaired physically and mentally and was being treated by a team of medical professionals for an “un-curable” dis-ease. My initial writing for the book was difficult, but I was so passionate about the topic, that just thinking about writing propelled me into a new state of being and I was actually able to heal myself. After 50 rejections from publishers who felt I was “too new” and the book was “too niche”, I finally got published. The book went on to win the Gourmand Award for “Best Arab Cookbook” in Paris and went in to second print. The second print was featured at the National Book Festival. I got to sit and sign next to former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court — Sandra Day O’Connor. The first person who came up to have her book signed was one of my doctors who treated me with neuro-bio feedback when my illness made it impossible for me to read, let alone write. I burst into tears of joy and thanked the universe for helping me heal, and for the illness which led me to my new career.
What is the greatest part about being a successful, bestselling author? What is the worst (if anything) part?
Nothing is more rewarding than using personal struggles to help inspire others. I feel very privileged to have that opportunity and try to use it wisely. It means a lot to me that I am able to do what I want to, and there is a market for it. I especially enjoy attending book fairs and events around the world as well as the media attention that it garners.
I don’t think there is necessarily a bad part about being a bestselling author except for that in our society it is very easy to get pigeon-holed in to certain genres of books. So, for example, if your bestselling book is one specific thing, it is then hard to convince publishers that you are ready to deviate from that genre.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a bestselling writer?
Perseverance, adapting to change, and passion are definitely the main habits that contribute most to my success. Passion is probably the most important, because It fuels the persistence. If I believe in something, and know it is right, I will stop short of nothing to accomplish it. It is only when I lose the passion that I stop trying. And, for example, in the case of my first book which I mentioned above, If I hadn’t been persistent when dozens of editors turned me down, I would have never been published in the first place. You really have to believe in yourself AND your topic. Keep going after what you know is possible until it is a reality.
One story I would like to share relates specifically to cookbook authors. In our genre there is 1 “leader” in each category. There is a leader in each ethnic category and one in each type of cooking/baking, etc. When I started out, I wanted to write about Southern Italy where my family was from, but there were already a lot of Italian cookbook authors out there, and each publisher I spoke with had that “box” filled already. I kept applying and pitching proposals, but I was getting nowhere. Finally, the editor of Cooking Light Magazine, after learning of my work in North Africa dubbed me a “North African specialist”. So, I pivoted professionally and said, OK, “if this is what they want, this is who I have to become.” I did a great deal of travelling, volunteering, researching, and working in restaurants in the region until I felt comfortable actually calling myself an expert in a cuisine I did not grow up with. Then, as I started writing Middle Eastern, and later Mediterranean books, I finally had the opportunity to write The Italian Diabetes Cookbook(my 7thbook) which was a #1 best-seller in the Mediterranean Diet category on Amazon even prior to release. Even though it was “a long way home” so to speak, that challenge enabled me to learn other languages, meet other people, and expand my knowledge and repertoire much farther beyond where it would have been if I would have been able to publish books on Italian cuisine and culture from the onset. Now I am fortunate to be known in the US, Italy, and the majority of the Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern regions, which, by the way, have very diverse interests and trends.
Which writer or leader has had the biggest impact on you as a writer?
The writer who had the most direct influence on me was my mentor Sheilah Kaufman. Sheilah wrote over 26 cookbooks and still has a Cookbook Construction Crew which helps budding authors. She introduced herself to me years ago while I was giving a lecture on how the three monotheistic faiths formed the cuisine of Egypt at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, DC. She taught me everything she knows, and we became instant friends and she became a second mother to me. I am extremely grateful to her.
In terms of writing styles, it is the work of the ancient philosophers and poets that I draw upon the most — such as Ovid, Pythagoras, Epicurus, and Hippocrates that I draw upon most in my culinary writing. For memoire, I love the work of Nobel Prize recipients Naguib Mahfouz and Gabriel Garcia Marquez for their ability to make time stand still with their words and their magical way of describing scenes in a way that not even live camera can do. Oscar Wilde, Dante, Rumi, Hafez, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr are part of my daily life as well.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming a bestselling author? How did you overcome it?
Well, as I mentioned in some answers above, there were many. I think the hardest one was going from being a non-published author with a college degree that did not pertain to English, literature, or journalism, to being a published author. My mentor really helped to show me the ropes, and I had a lot of work to do. Most publishers are not interested in new authors unless they are celebrities already. I had to develop a strong author platform and make a case for my topic as well.
This is what I did:
When I started to build my author platform, these are the things I focused on:
1. I joined as many professional culinary organizations that fit my philosophy as possible. I highly recommend the following, especially for newcomers:
• International Association of Culinary Professionals
• Slow Food
• Your city’s local Culinary Historians Group
2. I aligned myself with cultural organizations that were relevant to my heritage and the topics of my books. They included:
• The National Italian American Foundation
• The Italian Cultural Society
• The National Organization of Italian American Women
• Sister Cities International (I chaired the Baltimore-Luxor-Alexandria Sister City Committee)
• Welcome to Washington International
• The Hospitality and Information Services for Diplomats
3. I actively attended events at organizations which I would like to speak at –or contacted the events divisions directly. These now include:
• The Library of Congress
• Georgetown University
• Johns Hopkins University
• The US Endocrine Society (Culinary Stage at Annual Conference)
• National Geographic
• The International Visitors Center of LA
• The Italy America Chamber of Commerce
• The Italian Cultural Institute
• The Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy
• The Smithsonian Institution
• The International Visitors Center of Los Angeles
• The Fulbright Commission
• The National Museum of African Art
• The Textile Museum
• The Walters Art Museum
• The Kennedy Center
• Sharjah International Book Fair
• Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival
• Abu Dhabi International Book Fair
• The Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt
• The Embassy of Yemen
• The Library of Alexandria (Egypt)
4. Because some of my books were diabetes-friendly, I became involved with:
• The US Endocrine Society
• The American Diabetes Association
• The Your Wellness program at Harris Teeter Supermarkets
5. I joined the following alumni associations:
• The Cornell University Entrepreneurial Network
• The Cornell Club of Washington
6. I taught and spoke on my topic, everywhere I could, sometimes for free in the beginning. I also wrote articles and blogposts and hosted videos for free — just to build recognition and a platform.
Here are my suggestions for new writers trying to build a platform:
• Ask to be a guest blogger on your favorite blog
• Write recipes or cooking information for a local newspaper or newsletter
• Join writing groups in your area
• Start, or continue writing your own blog
• It is always advisable for an author to blog — that way you can connect with your reader while creating a wider audience for your books
• Create your own YouTube channel if you don’t already have one
• Feature videos in which you are showcasing your expertise
• Promote your videos on social media
• Team up with budding production companies, video libraries, and videographers who are interested in building content and create some videos with concepts that would be in your book.
7. Become an expert in your field. If you are new to the industry, make some affiliations which will give you credibility — these may include:
• Degrees or certificates from accredited programs in your sector
• Accolades — be nominated for awards or titles — if you win, that is an immediate boost to your platform.
• Offer to speak on your topic at organizations and/or do webinars.
8. Team up with brands and blogs.
• Are there companies which are very complimentary to your book title philosophy? If so, reach out to them and see if they want to collaborate. You may get a great sponsorship deal, or, at minimum, the chance to cross-promote your book with their products.
• If you know of blogs which speak straight to your demographic — follow them, engage with them, and build a rapport. When your book comes out, you can ask them to mention it, do a giveaway, or write a review.
What challenge or failure did you learn the most from in your writing career?
Again, those 50 rejections on book #1 are a pretty strong challenge. It just taught me to keep moving, growing, learning, trying, until I achieved my objectives. It also taught me that if you want something bad enough, you will find a way to get it.
What are the 5 things a writer needs to know if he/she wants to become a bestselling author?
That is a great question, I just wrote and released: Creating a Cookbook: How to Write, Publish, and Promote Your Culinary Philosophy which teaches everything a new author of cookbooks or any kind of book needs to know. It addresses all of the issues I wish someone would have told me prior to meeting my mentor and publishing my first book.
1.Know your strengths and weaknesses.
It is very important to know what your best features are and what your limitations are. Never try to be too much in terms of responsibilities for your book production. In my own case, I believe that I am a good cook and a good writer. I am not a photographer, I am not a graphic designer, I am not a copy editor, I am not an IT genius. What that means is, I focus on creating and writing the best recipes for my market. I write about them to the best of my ability. For the rest, I hire out, or my publisher takes care of the other tasks in house. If I were responsible for my own pictures, book layout, or website, I am confident that I would not sell as many books.
2.Know your audience.
This is huge. My readers want 3 things from me — home, history, and health. What that means is I focus on predominately healthful recipes with strong historical traditions that people can easily do at home. I do not attempt to write books about cotton candy or cake pops because that does not represent me, or my audience. I take people’s comments and reviews seriously, and try to provide what is missing to the best of my ability within my own genre.
3.Learn how to promote your work.
If you are uncomfortable promoting your own writing — talking about it in public, on air, on TV, online, you should consider media coaching, and/or therapy before expecting to be a successful writer. Gone are the days when meek writers get whisked away to exotic locales to sign books even though they are too shy to speak. Publishing houses want authors who are articulate and willing to have a public presence. I took public speaking courses, media coaching, and therapy in order to be able to promote myself. When I first started speaking publically after my illness, my confidence was shot, and I honestly couldn’t do it, even though I had done it before. I used guided imagery techniques and positive visualization to enable myself be comfortable in front of an audience and a camera, and eventually I overcame my fears.
4.Hire others to help you promote your work.
Even if you have a strong PR and marketing background, it is good to have your won PR person — at least prior to a new book release — to make sure that your work gets out to every possible outlet. It is impossible for a person to do all of the work themselves — and publications take pitches more seriously if they come from a PR agent. Since they can be expensive, I recommend new authors do their research when looking for who to hire and budget that amount of money during the book release. Some publishers will hire a publicist for you, and, if possible, it is great to have that in your contract.
5.At the end of the day, your book sales are your responsibility.
This means that even if you have the best publisher and the best PR agency in the world representing you, you should never stop promoting yourself. You are the best person to drive your book because it is your passion that created it. The passion fountain should not be turned off when you hand in your manuscript. Actually, when the book is done, that is when you need to turn up the passion factor to apply it to marketing efforts. Sit down and create a comprehensive vision, plan, and strategy to share with your editor and publicist. Schedule weekly or bi-weekly calls with them in the months leading up to the book’s release. Most importantly, make sure you are taking every opportunity, whether it’s with social media, print media, radio, tv, podcasts, and in-person, to promote your new work.
What are you most excited to work on next? Most excited to read next?
I am working on my own imprint, where I will be able to offer a collection of books in a style and format that is uniquely my own.
I am excited to read: How Plato and Pythagoras Can Save Your Life: The Ancient Greek Prescription for Health and Happinesswhich Dr. Sam Pappas told me about.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I would like to start a “salon” for authors that is akin to the salons which were an Italian invention of the 16th century and flourished in France throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. The word sala comes from the Italian words salaand the suffix one (which means big),and means “big room” — where philosophers, poets and writers would gather to share their inspiration. I currently conduct mini-salons with writer friends, we often meet one on one, or a few at a time, or have phone discussions. Getting everyone together, however, with a set format, objectives, and assistance would be really advantageous. Writers have different work paces, schedules, and styles than people in most professions do. Sometimes it can be extremely lonely, other times challenging for different reasons. We also have a need to talk about our lives and work in a way that does not make sense or not seem important to non-writers. Often we are blocked or stuck in certain phases of our work which can easily be helped with a simple conversation with another person who understands what we are going through. The sense of competition-free camaraderie would do everyone good emotionally, and we could share our professional and practical tips with one another as well.
Anything else you’d like to add? We would love to hear whatever you feel inspired to include.
“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.” -William Wordsworth
Thank you so much for these great insights! Thank you so much!