Former publisher Jodi Williams talks about her ten years tenure and the roots of Appalachian Country magazine.
Alice Sexton: When did you start Appalachian Country magazine and what was it called?
Jodi Williams: That’s an easy one– the first issue came out in 2004 and it was called Inside Gilmer.
AS: What made you decide to start a magazine?
JW: I remember standing in my parent’s kitchen holding my diploma from my master’s writing program thinking, “What am I going to do now?” I loved being a student and just wanted to cry. Instead, I decided I wanted to do something different with my degree. I loved that conversational style of writing and there weren’t magazines around this area, so I came up with a business plan, talked it over with my husband and headed out. There were so many people moving in, and the area was growing. I thought it would be fun to be able to meet the people and explore the area with them.
AS: What was the biggest challenge is starting the magazine?
JW: Rejection. Constant, unemotional rejection. The magazine was free, so it depended on advertising to be able to pay for the costs of production. You have to realize that I was 24 and had never sold anything before, especially not something I was invested in so personally. It was a growing experience to walk into local businesses and introduce myself. I’m sure my sales pitch was horrible at first so half of the time I was immediately dismissed. I even had one business take my information and throw it in the trash can in front of me. It took me a few months of sticking to it before I got used to making cold calls and learned how to approach people. It got easier to sell advertising over the years after the magazine had been out for a while and people were used to seeing it. On the plus side, I’m pretty good at handling rejection now.
AS: When/why did you decide to change the name and why did you pick Appalachian Country magazine?
JW: The publishing company was always named Appalachian Country because I knew from the beginning I wanted to expand into other counties and built the business with that goal in mind. I absolutely adore the Appalachian Mountains, the people and the culture. They are my home– they are me. In my mind, I wanted to do anything I could do to preserve the best the mountains had to offer. I got to do interviews with some fascinating people. One man grew tiny bonsai trees in his backyard, another lady gave me permission to reprint her family’s story of being attacked and captured by Indians. I learned about jewelry, art, cooking and people—it was thrilling.
AS: Over the years how did you grow the magazine– editorial-wise, advertising-wise and distribution-wise?
JW: You already know this about me, but I should point out that I get bored easily. So, I didn’t want readers to get bored with the magazine. It began at 32 pages in just Gilmer County, but I constantly experimented over the first few years to find out what people liked. We distributed the magazine at welcome centers around the state lines. I would ship 20 boxes out one week, only to have them call the next week and ask for more. I had one lady at the Florida line tell me my magazine was the first thing to be picked up each time it came in. The recipes were time-consuming, but my favorite part because I experimented a lot and got to taste new foods. Trying new foods is still one of my favorite things to do. I use my food philosophy raising my own kids: “You don’t have to like it, but you do need to at least try it.” I figured it was the same with any of my magazine experiments. It may not work, but at least we tried it.
AS: What changes in the area did you and the magazine respond to and how?
JW: There were a lot of builders and real estate agents advertising when I first began. Then, as the construction business imploded, we got a lot of restaurants and local businesses. I think, at first, the builders and agents knew out-of-town visitors would read it and pick it up, but later, local businesses realized that local people were reading it, too. The magazine was still able to grow throughout this time. I credit that to the wonderful people I worked with. All of them, from the salespeople to the designers and writers, were an integral part of what made the magazine run and grow so well. One of my writers, Elaine Jordan, actually had debilitating arthritis and could only hold a pencil in both hands for a few minutes at a time. She would scribble out her articles and her daughter or I would type them up. Elaine was an amazing writer with such in-depth knowledge and passion. She was worth every extra step to have her around.
AS: Why sell?
JW: I was working a full time job when I started the magazine as a side business. During the years of publishing Appalachian Country Magazine, I also gave birth to two boys. Plus, I was teaching part-time for Dalton State College. That, combined with my husband having his own business and needing someone to manage the finances became too much for me to handle. I felt like it was important for me to spend more time with my children and family while they were young. It was hard to give up something I loved doing so much, but I loved them more. I left my full-time job first, but then had to let something else go. I had dreams of going back to school and getting my Ph.D. so I could teach full-time at a college, but that hasn’t happened yet for the same reasons of time and family. I would be a full-time student if I could.
AS: How did you select a buyer?
JW: Do you remember when my car wouldn’t crank in the Ingles parking lot in Blue Ridge? I had groceries and two tired little boys with me. I just happened to look around and saw you walk into the store. I knew— absolutely, positively knew for a fact— that you could help me. Out of all the women I have ever met, you were one that seemed prepared for anything. I had only met you a few times before that, too. It was the same characteristics about you that drew me to you as a buyer. I had a few people interested in the magazine, but no one that really seemed capable of managing it. You also had previous publishing experience and you were looking for a fresh start. I liked that you also saw the potential to grow the magazine and I saw potential in you. It made me excited that you could devote the time to growing the business that I just didn’t have. You also assured me you would keep my salespeople and quite simply, I liked you– and you carried jumper cables.
AS: What are your future hopes for the magazine and the area in general?
JW: First, we have such wonderful natural resources in this area. That’s why it’s a vacation spot to everyone who lives outside of it. I would love to see us use those natural resources more gently and prepare carefully so we can sustain them for future generations. Also, I always liked the fact that the magazine preserved the stories of the people that we focused on– their hopes and dreams. We learn from listening to other people and seeing what they do with their lives. Some are inspirations, some are charming tales. All are useful. Finally, our businesses are part of our charm. I read an article the other day about small businesses disappearing with the online retail sector increasing more daily. It worries me to see that happen because I love the connection we get when we walk into a store and get to know the owner. I’m normally a fan of new technology, but there’s something we lose with each advancement and I hope that we can save some of that vital connection. I would love to see the magazine grow into something that can cover the entire Appalachian region. I didn’t have the time to devote to it, but this area has a wonderful history of people that have made the magazine successful over the past ten years. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Current publisher Alice Sexton talks about her years of publishing experience and future plans for the new Appalachian Country Living magazine.
Jodi Williams: Where are you from originally and where else have you lived?
Alice Sexton: I’m originally from the countryside in Maryland, about 30 miles north of Baltimore. When my Mom moved to Houston in the early 1990’s she bought a small cabin in Mineral Bluff on the Toccoa River. Our family has spent many vacations here in north Georgia since it’s just about mid-way between Houston and Baltimore. Most of my career was spent in Washington, DC, but I’ve also lived and worked in New York City where I was a young skateboard punk rocker, and just before moving here, Los Angeles, where I worked in the motorcycling industry. As Blue Ridge Media Group, which owns the magazine, I still maintain some of my motorcycle industry clients.
JW: What experience have you had with magazines before and were you ever worried about taking on the magazine?
AS: I have advanced degrees in Graphic Design and Communication/Marketing and have worked in print/publishing for over 25years– mostly in Corporate Communications in Washington, DC where I managed several publications. So no, I was never worried about running a magazine, I was however, worried about not fitting in and gaining people’s trust to tell their stories, but I’ve found that once folks get to know me a little bit, we get along just fine.
JW: What made you think about buying a magazine and how did you decide on Appalachian Country?
AS: Well…divorce changes everything. My ex-husband bought me out of our motorcycle business– which meant I had no job. I’m certainly not wealthy enough not to work, and I knew I didn’t want to show up to an office every day, so I started looking at buying a business. I looked at everything from laundromats to wine stores and finally settled on what I knew best– design, communication and marketing. I narrowed it down to 3 markets where I either had friends or family and finally settled on Appalachian Country magazine for three main reasons: 1) The magazine was poised for expansion 2) I had enough savings to buy the magazine without a business loan and 3) I had a place to live– the cabin. Ok- I guess four reasons– I love this little part of the world, and the great motorcycling roads.
JW: You have some interesting hobbies including racing motorcycles. Tell us about that.
AS: Yes, I do like adventure. I’ve been riding vintage Italian motorcycles for over 25 years. I was USA President of the Women’s International Motorcycle Association for 10 years, which encouraged me to ride in England, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, Finland, Japan, and this year Poland, next year Australia. I raced vintage bikes with AHRMA for a few years, but as one of my European friends always said, “I was in no danger of winning a race!” My other hobby is dog rescue, which you can see some of what I do and support here in the magazine.
JW: Have you faced any challenges in owning the magazine? What are your favorite parts about publishing it?
AS: The biggest challenge– aside from filling your shoes, Jodi (and making a profit)– is the lack of technology and good Macintosh support in the area. Getting DSL to the cabin was challenging enough, so forget a T1 connection. And the DSL here is s l o w– it takes me 12 agonizing hours to upload the magazine to the printer. Getting reliable Mac service is another hurdle, there’s no Apple Genius Bar here in the hills. On the flip side, one of my favorite things about owning this magazine– just like you– is meeting new people, telling their stories and learning about the history, art and people of this culture-rich area. I also think it’s important to support our local businesses and charities– let everyone know what a wonderful and diverse economy we have. When our business and charities prosper the community as a whole benefits.
JW: What are your plans for the future of the magazine?
AS: Yes– as you see with this issue we have updated the logo and added to the moniker– we are now Appalachian Country Living. As every good marketer knows, businesses should refresh their identity every 10 years, some even recommend a change every 5 years. Adding “living” to the name will more closely reflect the wealth of diversity we now see here in the lower Appalachians. We have expanded our distribution to Publix Grocery stores in northern Atlanta, and will move into Chattanooga market soon. We are also now one of the only publications distributed throughout the Amicalola Falls Lodge and Visitor’s Centers.
JW: I have heard that you have a new website coming up, can you tell us about that?
AS: Yes! We partnered with Black Bear Design in Atlanta and 16X16 Design Group in Los Angeles to develop our new site. With a print publication you’re limited to a certain page count, however with the web site we’ll be able to dig deeper into the culture of the area and showcase more of the awesomeness that happens up here in the mountains. Another new feature will be our interactive calendar that will have up-to-the-minute info on happenings from Woodstock to Hiawassee to help folks find events and all of the fun things to do here. Our hope is that the new site will also drive business to the area and help our local communities prosper. While always a work in progress– the new site is live at www.aclivingmagazine.com
JW: Do you have a favorite issue? Which one? And why?
AS: That’s easy– my favorite issue is always the one that I just sent off to the printer so that I can start right away on the next one!