At Least 10 Books Every Copywriter Should Read – Twice

[UPDATE: This list has since been updated with additional recommendations.]

My friend Mike Palmer writes:

“John, I'm hoping you can help me with something quickly. I'm about to order a set of books from Amazon for two brand-new copywriters … you've been doing this a long time … maybe you can recommend to me your top 7 or 10 … or whatever comes to mind quickly? It could be fiction, “how-to-write” books, economics, etc. In short, what would you have a brand-new copywriter read if you had someone starting from scratch? Thanks, Mike”

Now, as we both know …

Book-learnin' ain't as good as hands-on-experience when it comes to cultivating expertise.

That's true for almost anything.

Except maybe brain surgery, plane piloting, and tattoo artistry.

Yet, if you are a copywriter that's new to the game … or even an old hack looking to freshen your approach …

There's no denying that a little supplemental education from books can be a good thing.

Provided you're reading the right stuff.

And that stuff is out there, if you want it.

Here's what I wrote back to Mike:

“Mike, Hmm. Book recommendations …”

After which I proceeded to drown him in suggestions. So many books. So little time.

Here's what I recommended …

A Copywriter’s Bookshelf Essentials

“Here are some of the obvious classics,” I told Mike. “I'll bet you have some of these already.”

  • “Scientific Advertising” by Claude Hopkins – This is the granddaddy of all “how-to” books on writing advertising. It’s also a lean, easy read with very direct advice on how to write copy that sells. You can find this one free online. Just type the title into

    Or you can buy the printed version.

  • “Ogilvy on Advertising” by David Ogilvy – There’s no doubt about it, David Ogilvy was a genius. In this book, he not only shows you how to sell in print, but also how to run an agency, hire writers, pitch campaigns, and more. Also a very quick, easy read.
  • “Tested Advertising Methods” by John Caples – This isn’t exactly the kind of book you read in one sitting. It’s simply so dense with tips and examples, you couldn’t possibly absorb it all at once. A bit like reading an encyclopedia of what works. Essential, though, as a shelf reference.
  • “The Copywriter’s Handbook” by Bob Bly – Oft recommended by yours truly, as well as countless other copywriters. Bly, who is now a friend of mine and who’s written not one but 70 books, has covered every possible question a new copywriter could ask. (If you read just this and Claude Hopkins, you’ll have a jump on half the copywriters working out there today.)
  • “Elements of Style” by Strunk & White – Writing copy isn’t necessarily about writing pretty. But it IS about making the copy disappear so the message itself can shine. Strunk & White can teach you plenty about writing tightly. In fact, everything you would need to know.
  • “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser – That said about Strunk & White, this one helps you come at the same key lessons from a fresh angle. It’s a little dry in spots (it’s about grammar, after all). But still a worthy read. Especially for the conscientious writer who cares enough to edit his or her own stuff.

These are the obvious choices. But then, there are some other books you might not necessarily think of when you’re stocking your copywriting bookshelf:

  • “On Writing” by Stephen King – Don’t laugh. I know, he’s Stephen King. To some, a schlock-master. But there’s no question, the guy knows how to spin a yarn. (Consider the incredible number of his books that have been spun into Hollywood blockbusters.) It comes highly recommended from several writers I respect.
  • “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” by Dr. Robert Cialdini – This is a perennial recommendation of mine. I’ll be frank: The science of psychology scares me. It always seems like those who study human behavior are driven a little over-analytical, even mad, by it. However, this book is still a brilliant portrait of what persuades and why. Every good copywriter I know has it on his or her reading list.
  • “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell – This wasn’t supposed to be a marketing book. It was just about ideas that move masses of people to suddenly change their behavior. But then, what IS marketing if not the effort to move the masses? A great read in that it’s interesting and entertaining as it informs.
  • “How to Win Friends & Influence People” by Dale Carnegie – This really belongs in any list of classics. And if Carnegie were around today, he might write a sequel with the words “on the Internet” tacked onto his famous title. Online marketing is, after all, about relationships. And this book is all about how to start them.

What else? How about these extras to sweeten the mix …

Bonus Recommendations

However, If You Read Nothing Else …

There is one thing that absolutely every copywriter, without fail, should read. And then re-read. And then copy out by hand, word for word. And that is: every best-performing promo you come across.

This isn’t optional. For any copywriter. This one exercise will probably teach you more – and more quickly – than any of the other reading I’ve recommended above.

This is the best and fastest way for you to get into the gear-works of what makes a pitch work. Michael Masterson recommends it. Every good copywriter he’s trained has done it. I know I have. I know Paul Hollingshead and others have.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: John Forde shares his copywriting insights regularly in his informative and entertaining eletter, The Copywriters Roundtable. If you aren’t already a subscriber, I highly recommend you go to his website today and sign up:]

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Published: December 15, 2003

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