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I've got a book title. Here's how I did it.

Bike touring can mean a lot of different things.

For months I agonized over what I really wanted to say in this book. I wondered whether it was even worth putting out there.

I know I didn't want to write another travelogue. I hope if you'll read it you'll set out on many glorious journeys of your own, but I can't expect you to care very much about mine. I tried to serve up nuggets of history, tips, and suggestions seasoned with a sprinkling of local color and personal experience.

What finally came out was a big surprise.

bike-tour-colosseumTo make a long story short, I finished the whole thing but I didn't know what to call it. So I let the public vote with their clicks.

The rest of this post is about how I did it. If you've ever thought about writing a book of your own, the rest of this post might be useful. If not, then you can skip it. Save your time, and go for a bike ride instead.

How to Select a Best-Selling Title for Your Book

I had a lot of things I wanted to say in this book, so it was easy to come up with over a dozen titles. The first step was to narrow it down a bit, so I talked to a lot of people and threw out the titles they thought were the worst.

I finally pared it down to these three, which are pretty straightforward:

Biking the Appian Way
Biking via Appia
Biking Rome to Brindisi

I paired each one of these with a subtitle, and repeated them without the word "biking."

Next I created a google adwords campaign.

If you've never done this, it's pretty simple. You start by picking a batch of keywords. I used things like "bike touring Italy" "ancient Roman roads," and the names of various cities and towns along via Appia.

Once you have your keywords, you create your ads, which have a main headline and two subheadings. I simply used my titles and subtitles, and I was good to go.

When people search for your keywords, a lot of them will see one or more of your ads (Google shows them at random). You get data showing how many times an ad was seen, how many clicks it got, plus a lot of other useful information.

One title and subtitle of mine got nearly twice the clicks of any of the others. Within days, I had a winner:

Biking Rome to Brindisi: How traveling the ancient via Appia saved me from a life of quiet desperation

If you want to read the pre-publication edition, contact me by leaving a comment below.

A heavy block of lead was dumped on me this week. My first response was to take the concept of "temper tantrum" to a whole new level. But my wife convinced me to take a hike with her, talk things through, and look at new possibilities.

About two hours later I had turned the lead into gold. Here's what happened.

My latest quest is to finish the via Appia book, get a cover designed, record the audio version and upload everything to Amazon. I was all set to do this over a small vacation later this month. But my employer had other ideas.

I was offered an "opportunity" this week. Terrible things will happen to a lot of people if I don't accept the new responsibility.

Now the vacation has been postponed to December, but that's not all. Over the last few months I've managed to set aside an hour or two to write each day. Now I'll have to use that time to plan and prepare for my new job "opportunity."

However, I'm not complaining anymore. I'll get the book finished a little bit later than planned. More importantly, I've figured out some ways that my new job responsibilities (which don't come with any additional money by the way) can actually help me finish and promote the book. This may even help me get more time for bike touring in the future.

The lesson here is not "buck up." The lesson is "transform."

Gold bars
Photo: "Gold Bars" by Agnico-Eagle - Agnico-Eagle Mines Limited. Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Alchemy and bike touring

A long long ago, there were wizards who could turn lead into gold.

At least that's the old popular legend. The modern popular legend is something like Paolo Coelho's famous book, The Alchemist. The hero has a dream, and he goes out and pursues it. I won't spoil the story, but let's just say if you're interested in bike touring you'll find a lot in The Alchemist that will resonate.

If you're reading this, you're probably on a similar path, chasing down a dream. Or you're going to be there soon.

But sometimes heavy obstacles will come along and block you, or weigh you down. Just when you're close to the goal, annoying things like recessions, back injuries, and broken spokes get in your way. They'll trip you up every time. Which brings me back to alchemy.

The obstacles are the raw materials that refine you and shape your destiny. They are the painful chunks of lead that you will turn into gold.

You've probably run into a problem before. If nothing else, think about when your bike broke down in the middle of a ride or worse yet in the middle of a tour. You probably figured out how to fix it. You'll get amazingly creative on a bike tour.

Better still, whenever you sacrifice comfort and convenience, you are compensated with adventures and discoveries. This is what happened to me at work this week.

And this is what brings me to the real secret of alchemy.

You're always going to run into problems. Even when you're not trying to travel hundreds of miles balanced on this wheels and propelled by nothing but your own force of will.

Bike touring is a great way to train for all the rest of life, because you have to deal with whatever happens, and you'll usually come out better off. If nothing else, you'll have a good story to tell everyone over dinner.

If you remember this, you can develop superpowers. The next time you're dealing with petty, frustrating people, you can think back to that broken chain link on the mountain pass, or the wrong turn you didn't discover until two hours later.

The troubles and obstacles you encounter in life are the lead, the gross matter that you can transform. The unexpected rewards, maybe the act of transformation itself, are the gold.



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Archeologists will never finish scraping the ancient world out of the soil and gluing it back together, but there's still an energy you can feel when you're alone in these ancient places. I wanted to see marble columns rising out of misty fields in the dawn, and remember what the Romans forgot when they became too powerful as a civilization and too weak as individuals. Surely one enthusiastic biker could make the journey.

I have a gift for you, and a small favor to ask in return.

This post is the first chapter of my new book on biking the via Appia. Do you want to read more? Do you have any suggestions on how to make it better, or do you think I should just scrap the whole project? Please leave a comment at the end of this post, and tell me what you think. Roman monument on via Appia

Chapter One: Impossibile

Once upon a time, a happy nation of farmers and artisans and philosophers were all going to die.

A ruthless Greek general was trampling over Italy with an army of nearly thirty thousand warriors, horses, and elephants. Fields were burned, slaves were taken, and one by one the tribes and colonies surrendered to him, or even joined him.

But in the nick of time, one grumpy old man stood up to the bully and called his bluff.

Old Appius Claudius wasn't usually a hero, and the history isn't as black-and-white as I'm presenting it. But in the speech that rallied young Rome against her enemies, he said, “Every man is the architect of his own fortune.”

This book is mostly about you and me and becoming the architect of your own fortune. But I promise I'll get back this story and tell you more about the general, the elephants, and especially Appius Claudius.

Above all, there's one thing you need to know about Appius Claudius.

The speech was one of his last public acts, but he is better known for one of his first. When Appius became Censor, he nearly bankrupted the treasury to build a road into the uncertain wilderness of the south. And as the keystone of a career that was built almost entirely on sheer chutzpah, he named the road after himself.

Two thousand, three hundred and seventeen years later, on that same road, every motor vehicle in Italy was trying to mash me into pesto.

Just after the via Appia leaves Rome through the Porta San Sebastiano, the shoulder disappears. Two brick walls guard the road, turning it into a roofless tunnel where every cyclist is at the mercy of every driver.

Commuters in Fiats, late to work, pronounced vulgar curses against my ancestors. Produce trucks threatened to scrape me against the walls, an olive between two millstones. Tour buses nearly crushed me like a bunch of newly harvested grapes.

Soon I would be ground apart and made into pesto, olive oil, and wine. The tricolore of Italy. This adventure would end before it began, and a foreigner would become national cuisine.

But somehow I made it to the Parco Regionale dell'Appia Antica. At a small building that provided tourist information, I asked if it would be possible to speak to an archeologist.

A receptionist set down her lipstick-stained cigarette and directed me to Dr. Grillo. His office was up the stairs, first door on the right. The door was open, and a grey-haired man, impeccably dressed, stared at me over a tiny cup of espresso. He seemed uncomfortable with the fact that a sweaty American, wearing shorts and clutching a bicycle helmet, would enter his office this early on a weekday.

In my best Italian I told him I wanted to ride the via Appia Antica from Rome to its end in Brindisi. From the surprised confusion in his face, you would think I had just volunteered to be a nude model for his next marble sculpture.

"Impossibile!" he insisted, pronouncing the word with long Italian vowels: eem-poh-SEEEEEE-bee-lay!

Nobody knows how many millions of nobles, senators, philosophers, soldiers, merchants, prisoners, slaves, poets and bandits have traveled on the Appian Way. They've been doing it for more than 2,300 years on foot, in litters, by wagon, buggy, horse, pony, donkey, elephant, mule, and more recently in cars, motorcycles and trucks.

Surely one enthusiastic biker could make the journey. I had already decided to make the trip, with or without anyone's help. But I wanted some advice from an expert, if I could get it.

I wanted to see marble columns rising out of misty fields in the dawn, and remember what the Romans forgot when they became too powerful as a civilization and too weak as individuals.

Dr. Grillo assured me that it could not be done. Much of via Appia was buried on private property. He mentioned floods and swamps and mountains. Also many places where we simply don't know where via Appia went.

But I knew I had him when he asked why I would ever want to do such a thing.

This is the hardest question to answer, even in English. I did my best to explain my fascination with the Mediterranean, ancient history, and the desperate need we have (I think) in the USA to rediscover some common roots.

Archeologists will never finish scraping the ancient world out of the soil and gluing it back together, but there's still an energy you can feel when you're alone in these ancient places.

Grillo understood. Or at least I think he had stopped deliberating whether to call security or throw me out himself.

When you travel by bicycle, I tried to tell him, you don't just "see" things behind the glass of a museum display or a windshield. You feel the air and the moisture and the contours of the land. You're exposed to the people and the energy of the place. You drink in the nectar of the world, and anything is possible.

Italians all gifted with a powerful intuition. Even if you don't know the right words, if you speak with passion many of them will read your mind and give you exactly what you want. As I spoke, my new archeologist savior was already opening drawers and pulling out topo maps, old photos and drawings.

When I finished, he gave me a stream of directions and names and numbers in rapid Italian. I frantically scribbled as much as I could understand in my notebook. I wasn't looking for perfection, I told him, just adventure and fun and new learning and experience. If I couldn't retrace all of the Appian Way, I would still see most of it, and do the best I could.

Dr. Grillo assured me once again that I was attempting something impossible. “Le machine ti pestaranno,” he warned. The cars will pound you into pesto. That's good. I'll use that.

He shook his head, and shook my hand. “In bocca al'lupo,” he said. In the mouth of the wolf, a Roman way of saying “good luck.”

“Creppi lupo,” I replied.

There’s something in human nature that won’t let us stare too long at an unclimbed mountain, an uncharted wilderness, or an unanswered challenge. This is why people skydive and sail across oceans.

This is why, after staring down a 2,300-year-old highway, I found I could no longer try to run a business or be a teacher or fulfill any of the other roles the world put before me until I rode my bike to the end of the road, just to see what would happen.

Dr. Grillo wasn't the only person who said it couldn’t be done. Others predicted I would be robbed, kidnapped, bitten by snakes, infected with malaria and maybe trampled by water buffalos before I reached Terracina. One well-meaning blog reader sent an email to warn me, “You’ll destroy your arse in the first 10 kilometers.”

A crotchety old park superintendent muttered “E tutto nascosto.” It's all hidden.

Everything they told me was true. The Appian Way is fraught with peril, a 400-mile gauntlet of knee-grinding climbs, bone cracking pot holes, sheer drops in the fog, bad weather, hostile natives, robbers, murderers and things far worse than that. When you venture along the jugular vein of ancient Rome you’re going to encounter the best and the worst of Italy.

But there’s a reward for trips like this, something you know intuitively before you begin. You’re going to find the secrets that are tutto nascosto, hidden away in your own heart.

A journey like this is going to change you. It must. There are too many lonely miles for it not to happen.

If you enjoyed this and you think I should write the rest of it, please let me know! I'm also open to suggestions on how to make this book better.

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Thanks for reading!

Jacob