Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Celebrating Solano

Local magazine spotlights where to go, what to see

By RACHEL RASKIN-ZRIHEN, Times-Herald staff writer

If Sacramento and San Francisco can have their own magazines, Michelle Branton of Fairfield figured the Solano County area could, too.
So, in November 2003, she and her accountant husband, Michael Koks, launched Solano magazine, which, they said, has taken off faster and come further in the past year than they even could have hoped.

With Branton and Koks as publishers, Julia Smith of Fairfield as sales director, and some 30 full- and part-time staff working on each bi-monthly issue, Solano features stories and information of interest to people living and working in the Napa, Solano and Yolo county region.

"We found a hole in the market for this type of media locally," Branton said. "There's no major magazine covering this area and most newspapers cover only their very immediate area. We cover the counties in a broader way," Branton said. "If I wanted to find out what was going on in the cities next door to me, I'd have to get seven or eight newspapers, and that's not practical."

The public's reaction to Solano's first issue was an indication of how bright its future might be, Branton said.

"It was very exciting. We sold more than 500 copies in the first few weeks at Fairfield's Barnes & Noble, alone," Branton said. "They kept calling and asking for more copies."

A former marketing person originally from Hawaii, Branton, 32, said she has lived in Fairfield since high school. She spent most of her childhood criss-crossing the globe as her father followed the construction work with which he made his living.

"My father built railroads and airports and that sort of thing in the Middle East and South America and all over," Branton said. "We moved here in the mid-1980s."

Smith, on the other hand, is a Bay Area native originally from San Mateo. She moved to Fairfield about four years ago.

The two women, who met two summers ago when Branton sold Smith an ad, share a background in publishing and advertising and a vision for Solano magazine that together they seem to be bringing to fruition.

"I've worked with other magazines, and we did a little test marking to see if there was a readership and advertising market for this, and there was a significant and positive response, so we decided to take the plunge," Branton said.

Smith, a 38-year-old mother of two, said she thinks one reason for Solano's unusually rapid success - it took in just shy of $1 million in revenues in 2004 - is the area's unique location.

"Our reader base wants to find out what there is to see and do outside the local area as well as inside," Smith said. "We have a different type of reader than metro area readers. We don't have as many high-end places, and we'll go outside the area to shop to San Francisco and to Sacramento."

This, Branton adds, translates to "regional opportunities for both readership and advertising."

Smith said that as a shy child she hadn't hoped to grow up to be in advertising sales necessarily, she did always envision herself a businesswoman.

"I always wanted to be like (the Cybill Shepherd character in the television show) Moonlighting,' " Smith said. "Even as a youngster, I always wanted to be independent and successful."

A glossy, full-color, coffee-table-type publication, Solano focuses on "lifestyle where to go, what there is to do, where to shop and eat. Who's doing what, health care, education, real estate," Branton said. "A huge part of what we do is letting people know all the wonderful things there are to do around here."

Solano also contains insert publications, including its latest, "Celebrating the Arts" publication focusing on the arts in what Smith calls the "underserved counties of Napa, Solano and Yolo."

"It's an arts magazine we launched in November. It covers regional arts, and we have it as an additional insert and also as additional distribution to arts venues. Our goal is to elevate the recognition of the arts, regionally," Branton said.

Branton said she did not wake up one day and decide to publish a magazine. On the contrary, the idea's been percolating for a decade as she awaited the right opportunity.

"I love all aspects of this, especially the regional ones. I get to give back to the community. I get to hear great stories and promote great community enterprises, and I don't think there's anything better," Branton said.

Branton said one of Solano's most important focuses is on children's issues.

"We have a book review for kids and another for adults," Branton said. "We have youth accomplishments, a kids' calendar of events, a family feature called "Out and About," which suggests family-oriented places to go and things to do, like there's a dude ranch just outside of Winters that most people don't know about."

Though it takes most new publications five years just to break even, assuming they last that long, Branton said Solano did so its first year. Branton and Smith said they expect the business to grow in 2005.

Branton said she is especially enjoying the opportunity the magazine affords her to express her creative side and have a positive impact on the community in which she lives.

"I'm a creative person, always have been, and I handle that part of the magazine. And I really love people," Branton said. "The best part of this is learning about the local resources available here, and the amazing people famous and not-so-famous who live and accomplish amazing and inspiring things.

"I love this magazine for what its able to help me give back to the community," Branton added. "It's extremely satisfying. It's always been one of my life's goals. It's my way of doing Rotary, I guess."

Smith said she feels the same way.

"I'd rather do something for my community than work for a big corporation that may not have a direct impact on my community," she said.

But the main goal, the women said, is to produce the best magazine possible.

"We set a really high bar for quality and content, and it's maturing, the look and the feel, the editorial content, our response to our readers," Branton said.

Solano's Got It!

Solano's Got It!
The Best That Northern California Has To Offer.

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