Jonathan Eig pens own iPhone app to promote new book

Some authors write books, some have turned to writing apps. But never before -- at least to our knowledge -- has one person done both at the same time, hoping to create a little synergy and publicity.

Acclaimed Chicago author Jonathan Eig this week released his smart phone app "Chicago Gangland Tour" (Sutro Media, $2.99), which takes users on an encyclopedic tour of the Windy City's mobster haunts, from the Biograph Theatre (where John Dillinger was shot) to the site of the Valentine's Day Massacre. The goal, in large part, is for the app to promote Eig's new book, due out April 27: "Get Capone: The Secret Plot that Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster" (Simon & Schuster, $27).

WalletPop spoke to Eig, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, about the 21st Century reality authors face: To make a living, you've got to be willing to try new things to promote your literary efforts.

WalletPop: What inspired you to create the Chicago Gangland Tour app?

Eig: I heard about this new app for a Chicago architecture tour, and I thought it sounded like a great idea to have a little reference guide in my pocket, to see which famous buildings were near me at any given moment. Then I thought: Why not do this for Gangland Chicago -- who had a hideout there, or who got killed on that corner? Literally within a few blocks of my house, there are 10 or 12 spots where Capone's men bought machine guns, or ran brothels, or operated casinos -- lots of good stuff like that. With today's technology, you can just stand somewhere, pull out your phone, and know whose blood got spilled on that very spot.

Apps used to take lots of time to develop, but the curve is getting easier to negotiate. How long from start to finish on Chicago Gangland Tour?

It took less than a month from conceiving the idea to getting it up and running, and a lot of the credit goes to Sutro Media for creating a system that made it easy to upload the material. I had a friend help me out with the photographs, and some were available free on line -- but the vast majority I took, or my friend took for me -- more than 600 photos in all.

Technology does so much of it for you; you type in an address and it loads on Google Maps. And I am not a tech-savvy guy; I know nothing about code or whatever it takes to make these things work. I don't even own an iPhone. So I'm really flying blind. But it was shockingly simple to do.

So in that sense, did you benefit from using a company to develop your app in a DIY fashion?

Yes. There are companies coming on line to do this really simply, so it's like a do-it-yourself model. And for me, it's easy because my idea fit into a certain mold; my app is like a guidebook, but applied to a new technology that makes it much more exciting. It helped that I had an idea that fit into a mold that already existed.

But you're using the app in a whole new way -- to promote a book.

What's new is that it's an add-on to a book. If you wanted to see the site of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, normally you'd have to put down your book and look at a computer. But now, you can read the book on an iPhone or an iPad, go to the app, and see the site. Soon, we'll get to a point where these things are embedded right into electronic books. It's possible I'm the first to write my own app for my own book and release them at the same time; I don't know of any other person who's done it. It's one of the few ideas in my life that I didn't steal.

How does the revenue side work for you?

Sutro and I split the revenues. After Apple takes a percentage, the rest is split between me and Sutro. I could've had all of it if I had hired a designer for a flat fee, but I would've never had the app ready in time. Sutro was great. They would call me back, even in the middle of the night if I called them with a problem.

What was most challenging about a project like this?

The challenge for me was writing 120 little mini-summaries and boiling them down into short passages of 100 or 200 words. I had to make sure I got the locations exactly right, too, and not set people off on wild goose chases. The technical stuff was a drag, too; I like writing, not dragging and dropping. But it all went quickly.It was pretty painless.

What would you say to other authors either knocking your idea, or seriously considering it?

Here's my bottom line: Books don't sell the way they used to. It used to be newspapers would review your book, and then people would read the review and go the bookstore and buy it. But fewer newspapers are reviewing books, and fewer people are reading newspapers. So you have to think creatively about getting attention. I'm using Facebook and Twitter to make people aware of my books, too.

I think you have to be willing to try anything these days. Now, of course, there's a danger in all this. If people are busy all the time with iPhone apps and Facebook maybe they won't have time to read. But let's say you're on vacation in Chicago and a hotel concierge tells you to take the iPhone tour of Gangland Chicago; it's something you can do yourself. And while you're taking the tour, you press the link to buy my book, so when you get home from your vacation, it's there waiting for you. And while the app is very cool, I have to say the book is better.
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