‘Seun Salami is a Writer, Publisher and the founder of Bookvine and the author of several published works. In this in-depth interview with OnBecomingAMan.com, he shares how his writing career began, how his life as a Christian influences his work, challenges he’s faced and how he conquered them, as well as his plans for the future.
Tell us a bit about yourself – growing up, education, career, marriage, etc.
My name is ‘Seun Salami, as you may already know, or Sean, as my Canadian friends call me (Laughs). I am a child of God. I am also a writer and publisher. I have three fiction books published and two new non-fiction books – Ten Times Better and Good Better Best, aimed at helping students and young people move from being average to excellent. I have a couple of degrees in Mass Communication. I am happily married and I am blessed with a son. I spent my early years with my grandmother in Lagos and then with my parents in Ibadan before we all returned to Lagos when I was about nine or so.
When and how did you start writing professionally; what kind of writing do you do; what inspires your style of writing?
It depends on whether professionally means making money from writing or when I began to take my writing seriously. I have been writing since I was a teenager. I started a magazine called Teenagers of Light when I was about fifteen or so and I had always been a very good reader; bible, books, everything. I wrote articles for that magazine, a few articles for other publications and I wrote different things from time to time. I also worked at a news magazine during my third and final year in school. But it wasn’t until my National Youth Service year that I decided to try my hands on fiction writing. I read so much fiction during that one year because I had a lot of time on my hands. I was writing for a newspaper and I had a couple of stories and a column to deliver every week. Once I was done with that, I had time to read a lot. One day, I said to myself, you know, I think I can write better than these people. Don’t blame me, I was reading most of these books with a pencil in hand, correcting errors in published books. A few months later, I had written about half a dozen short stories and I started from there, giving to my friends to read and give me feedback. Nine years later, I have written two more short story collections and a novella, one of which mainly came out of writing regularly on YNaija.com.
That said, there is also the non-fiction side to my writing. In my second year at Lagos State University, I was awarded a University scholarship along with a few other students who had outstanding academic performances, and I was also leading a campus fellowship at the time so I decided to write a book to help other students do better academically. That book was called Ten Times Better and it sold out quickly. This year I released a sequel to the book called Good Better Best, along with a revised edition of Ten Times Better. I intend to do a lot of non-fiction writing in different areas while also releasing fiction books because I believe that non-fiction books are very different from fiction books because they serve a different purpose.
Tell us about your most recent (re-introduced) books.
Ten Times Better is a book purely for students. It is about the most important secret of successful students that I learnt as a student. It is a book that has helped a lot of students I know transform their G.Ps, just by applying the secrets and principles in the book. In Good Better Best, I went further to provide even more insight and a practical guide to going from being average to excellent. This second book is for everyone, not just students. The foreword to the book was written by my mentor, Fela Durotoye. It is, by the way, the biggest of all my five books because I tried not to leave any stones unturned; from practical study strategies, to how personality styles affect our study patterns and how to set standards for yourself beyond what others may be achieving. It is a loaded and very practical book, even if I say so myself. The books are available at Laterna bookshop and other leading bookstores in Nigeria or on the Bookvine website and on Amazon.
Do you ever experience writer’s block? If yes, how do you handle/overcome it?
This is an interesting question because there are people who say there is no writers’ block but I am sure if you are a true writer who tries to write often, you will know that there are times that you are simply uninspired to write. Whether you choose to call this writer’s block or anything else, is another matter. However, I strongly believe that when it comes to writing, if you have taken it as a serious task and something that gives your life some form of meaning, you will not entertain a lack of inspiration. Discipline is more important than inspiration when it comes to writing. If the inspiration comes, fine, make use of it. If not, you have to discipline yourself to get your work done. I am sure there are people who work in offices and get to work on some days and don’t feel inspired but they still have to do their jobs regardless. Do you hear them say “I have writer’s block”? Until writing becomes something that gives true meaning to your life, beyond even putting food on your table, you may not take it seriously.
You may even see writers’ block as something fashionable that makes you a cool writer. I think it is just a lack of discipline. That said, there are a few things to do if you feel uninspired. What I usually do is to take a break from what I’m writing and do something inspiring, especially reading. I read something similar to what I’m writing, or an author I love to read. That’s why I usually have a lot of carefully chosen unread books because you never know what you’ll need at a given time. I also take a lot of walks especially when I am in Canada where there are a lot of beautiful parks and nature is cultivated. But if I’m in Lagos, I just take a break to read something nice or watch soccer for a while, listen to music or do something else and then make sure I come back to sit with what I am working on until something breaks.
What are the key challenges you’ve faced since you became a writer and would you say that it has been worth it?
For me, I did not start writing because I wanted to be a ‘superstar writer’ or ‘make it big’ as a writer. I started writing fiction because I felt it was something I could do very well and my non-fiction books came out of a desire to help others. So maybe the fact that I never had any super expectations has helped in a way. We all know how challenging being a writer in Nigeria can be. Over in Canada, books and writers are not just appreciated but celebrated, so it is always interesting to experience the contrast whenever I’m out of Nigeria. The other thing is that I haven’t had to look for a publisher in Nigeria because I founded Bookvine Publishers early on and the company has published my books and those of almost thirty other authors till date. It has absolutely been worth it for me. My books have gone to places I could never get to. I have gotten feedback from people in places I have never been to and just the fact that I am giving expression to a gift God gave me that could otherwise have been dormant is fulfilling for me. And I have made some money from writing too, unlike what I hear from a lot of writers, even without winning any big awards or prize money.
You double as a writer and publisher, and maybe you also serve as a preacher now as well. How profitable has publishing in Nigeria been for you; any thoughts on what could be done better in the Nigerian publishing industry?
I am happy you called me a preacher and not a motivational speaker (laughs). I am not exactly a preacher, neither am I a motivational speaker. I have been getting a lot of that since I began to put videos of my speaking engagements and messages on YouTube. I recently began to pastor a small group of young people at my local church in Canada, and that is probably where a lot of those things come from. So I am simply giving expression to the gift of God in me, although it has always been a part of me, from my teenage years when I led the teens church in a Redeemed parish to my University days when I pastored a school fellowship.
Having said that, publishing in Nigeria has not been as profitable as other businesses and ventures can be. I think that publishing is not something anyone should go into in Nigeria because you want to be rich but because you love books and publishing books is something you want to do regardless of whether it is profitable or not, otherwise you will be frustrated out of it. Still, I believe it will only get better because the industry is making giant strides and there are more publishers popping up here and there, so there is hope.
What is the place of spirituality in your work; in what ways does your faith influence your writing; are there any topics you would never write on/publish?
I am first a child of God before anything else. I am a Christian and I strongly believe that the primary purpose of one’s gifts and talents is to give glory to God, the giver. This is what guides everything I do. So even when I want to write on a controversial subject like sex, like I did with my book, The Sex Life of a Lagos Mad Woman, I make sure I am not contradicting my faith in any way as much as I want my fiction to be real and be a proper representation of reality. I remember reading a review of the book where the reviewer stated that despite the subject I was writing on, it was clear from my writing that I am a Christian and my faith was evident in the choice of characters and things like that. I joke a lot that my first collection of short stories, The Son of Your Father’s Concubine can be used to teach Sunday School. Ten Times Better was drawn out of the lives of the four Hebrew children in the Bible who chose to be different from their peers in their time. So everywhere you look, my faith is evident, even in the things I put out on social media and on my YouTube channel. Someone asked me why I would make a call for salvation and pray for people to get born again in a YouTube video and I said because, that, for me, is the essence of everything. If I am not using my gifts and platforms to promote the gospel of Jesus, then it’s a waste of God’s investment in my life. As for topics I would never write about, I think I have written on the worst possible topics I could have been afraid of, sex and ritual killing in my second short story collection, and it has not made me less of a Christian (laughs).
The financial aspect of writing and publishing is rarely talked about. How do you make money from writing and publishing?
I make money from the sale of my books, especially when they are newly released. Subsequent income is usually here and there. Some of them have done better than others and thankfully it keeps getting better because my new books surpassed the others in profit through bulk orders even before it was released in Nigeria. Publishing also makes money, but the cost of doing business in Nigeria, paying staff and bills, makes it seem like it doesn’t in the end.
Could you please describe how you have evolved creatively over the years, and share specific steps you take to improve your writing.
The best way to answer this question would have been to give you my first fiction book and then give you the second one and then the novella, so you can see the evolution for yourself. I like to think I am someone who is constantly seeking knowledge and trying to get better at what I do. Interestingly, I took a Creative Writing course in Canada, and a few weeks in, I began to wish I could rewrite all my books with the knowledge I now had and I am putting that to good use with all the new work I am writing. That’s the fun of it, you keep getting better, keep improving and never feel like you know enough, otherwise you stop growing. I think the most important steps are the steps I build with the books I read. I read a lot. I have (and read) more books that anything else in my life. There are so many things nobody can teach you about writing but you simply learn them by reading good writers.
What advice do you have for writers and emerging publishers who see you as a role model and possibly get to read this interview?
It is humbling to think I can be a role model to someone. Like I said before, it is possible to make money from publishing or writing, but it shouldn’t be your motivation. For writers, the quality of your work is more important than the hype, when it comes down to it. A lot of so-called writers feed on social media hype, and once people start sending them tweets about how fantastic their work is, which by the way is just to get retweets from them, they feel they have arrived and start acting arrogantly. You must be constantly improving the quality of your work. It will show, from one piece of writing to the next, and you will also know it. Keep reading, keep writing, take a course if the opportunity shows up. If not, just keep at it, look out for opportunities for contests and grants and keep working.
What social issues relating to men are you passionate about; what have you done to address such issues? Please share with us about key projects you are passionate about and have already started to implement within the last 6 – 12 months.
I am part of a ministry called ‘Boyz2Men’ which is an initiative to raise men of excellence. I believe that young men need a lot of mentoring in so many areas of their lives as the world is lacking real men these days; men who know how to treat women, men who will be priests in their homes and will stand up for truth and righteousness in our generation. So, in my own little way, I speak at the events we organize from time to time and also mentor a lot of young men privately. You can see a video of one of our Boyz2Men events on my YouTube channel.
What have been your biggest accomplishments in 2016 and why?
When I think about 2016, I will be grateful to God that I was able to get two books released this year. It’s been many years in the making and I am glad the opportunity finally presented itself this year and I was able to take it. I also had many personal accomplishments along with my family but I’ll rather keep those private and thank God for them privately.
What particular thing would you like to change about you/ how you do things in 2017?
Every day I try to get closer to God and listen to obey Him even more. I would love to be able to do more of this in 2017 and also learn to listen to my wife more.
What book(s) are you currently reading, and why?
I am currently re-reading ‘The Purpose Driven Church’ by Rick Warren and ‘Ask Me Anything’ (provocative answers for college students) by Professor Theophilus. I am reading these books to help me in my new roles in my local assembly.
What is your favourite bible verse, and why?
I love a lot of Bible verses, so this one is rather difficult, but for the sake of answering your question, I’ll pick Romans 8:28 because it is a life tool that comforts me through a lot of situations and gives an assurance that *Oluwa is always involved.
Any other thing you would like to talk about – new projects, projections into the New Year, advice to young men?
2017 is going to be a great year by God’s grace and quite a lot is planned but I’ll be revealing them gradually. My final advice to young men would be that we all are here on different assignments, and we should never look at what another person is doing and feel like we are behind in life because we don’t have what others have or we’ve not done the things they have done. It is important to realise that your race is different from that of your best friend or even your twin. Let the word of God be the light unto your feet and the lamp unto your path and you will reach your destination in God regardless of what may come your way.
All images courtesy of Seun Salami.
*Oluwa means God in the Yoruba language