Classic Themes, Digital Dreams
AOS Publishing jumps into the book business with a new vision
by Billie Gagné-LeBel
Driven by a shared love of books, childhood best friends and Montreal natives Michael A. Occhionero and Luis Carlo Parga teamed up in 2020 to launch their own publishing company, Ace of Swords Publishing. They are a perfectly complementary duo: Occhionero is a writer, and the company’s first published author. His previous experience in self-publishing is what prompted him to start AOS, where he acts as creative director. Meanwhile, Parga studied actuarial mathematics, which he puts to use on the business side of AOS in his role as publisher. I sat down with them to discuss their vision for AOS and the challenges of launching a book publishing company in the 21st century.
With Covid-19 overshadowing their first year in business, the young publishers have a lot of work ahead of them, but they seem eager to take it on. AOS doesn’t publish in one particular genre: they prefer to choose quality content regardless of genre or niche. Representing a diversity of voices is an important value for the company. As Occhionero explains it, their aim is to speak directly to their readers by “creating unique and unexpected content that they will enjoy as well as helping them curate their bookshelf.” Their approach is mostly digital: in their first year, they’ve managed to build an impressive community on Instagram in particular, with curated posts about their published titles, as well as informative content about their services and team. Occhionero is very excited to see people coming together on AOS’s socials: “We do feel that there is a hunger for local arts… there’s been no shortage of enthusiasm so far with us.”
AOS has published three titles so far, including two novels by Occhionero; his very first novel, the gritty slice-of-life Idle Hands, which is set in Montreal, and his second, the dystopian science-fiction tale ALT•4•1. The third title is a poetry collection from Montreal poet Karaline Alessia, titled Love and Other Anxieties. Two other titles are slated to be published in 2021. The Hours: Stories from a Pandemic, a collection of short stories by Bruce Meyer, is slated for release on June 29. The second is Essential Training for Soccer Players, a guide written by Italian athlete and trainer Davide Salvoni; it’s the company’s first non-fiction book and it is planned to be released at the end of the year.
Their website features a direct-to-consumer shop, where readers can order books and related merchandise such as bookmarks and posters, directly from AOS. It might seem like a bold move for a new publisher to forego selling through traditional retailers, but as Occhionero and Parga explain, it diminishes the risk of returns, which can eat away at a smaller publisher’s profit margin, especially with brick-and-mortar locations being shut down for long periods during the pandemic. Even if their strategy is digital first, bigger distributors are not totally out of the question in the long run, since Occhionero is impatient to get his authors booked for events: “I remember when I was first doing my events at Indigo, it was a thrill. It was something new, and it really pushed me to be more comfortable in front of people and to increase my exposure. I think it was really helpful in my career, and I look forward to giving the opportunity to every one of the authors we work with as soon as we possibly can.”
When asked what motivated them to launch a book publishing company, which could be perceived as a risky endeavour, Occhionero is not too concerned: “I think that novels are the pinnacle of storytelling. Many movies that turn out to be huge successes, we find out later were based on a novel. And there’s a reason for that. The novel offers certain things creatively that other media just don’t. When people say that there’s no money in books, I feel like that idea is tied into the idea of reading as a chore – we want to widen the appeal of literature and bring it back to something people do for leisure. The beauty of it is that when you’re reading a book, whether you are intending to learn or not, you will. And whether you are intending to better yourself or not, you will, and that’s something that is probably unique to literature.”
The need to be strictly digital has been a challenge on other fronts. As they’ve been growing, Parga tells me, they’ve found it demanding to build and manage their team remotely, and that their biggest challenge is having more of a human connection between team members and with readers. While social media and virtual meetings enable companies to establish strong social and parasocial relationships, there’s nothing quite like meeting in person, and COVID has made that abundantly clear. Nevertheless, the young publishers are enthusiastic about what the future holds, and believe that they can make AOS last as long as they are excited about the books they publish.
Billie Gagné-LeBel is a queer freelance writer and content creator who loves to explore questions of identity and mental health, alternative relationships and lifestyles, beauty and all things pop/geek culture. She writes for her own blog and publications such as MSN and Screen Rant, and does copywriting and social media creation for a range of clients.