At Least 10 Books Every Copywriter Should Read – Twice

On my first day as copywriter, master marketer Bill Bonner handed me a stack of books. A collection I’ve long since lost in the sea of books, tapes, and videos – only some about marketing – that followed.

I read them on lunch breaks and while eating dinner. I listened to the tapes in the car. I watched the videos on a borrowed TV (I had sworn off owning one of my own at the time.) Many were good. Some were better. A lot repeated the same principles over and over, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Today, I’d warn any new copywriter or marketer that you’re not going to get a full career education from books alone. Nothing beats hands-on experience, actually writing and reading the promotional pieces you hope to emulate and, one day, beat.

Still, if you’re hoping to catch up fast … if you’re looking for inspiration or ideas … even if you’re looking for shortcuts … there are definitely books, jammed full of both theory and examples, that can get you there.

For some time, I used to keep just one or two titles in the back of my mind to share with anybody who wanted a recommendation. But I started getting requests for a reading list so frequently that I pulled one together.

On that list, books on Internet marketing and the new Age of Persuasion? Tomes on how the world of selling has changed and will never be the same again? Not hardly.

In fact, most of these “must reads” were probably written on typewriters. If not by hand. And of those that are more recent, some aren’t about writing marketing copy at all.

Take a look. And if you haven’t read any of these, hit the bookstore, Amazon.com (there are links below), or the library (remember libraries?) and pick up a copy or two …

A Copywriter’s Bookshelf Essentials

  • “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 www.google.com.

    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?

One I’ve since added to this list, which I didn’t include on the original, was Gene Schwartz’s “Breakthrough Advertising”. Anybody who does anything with business-building or marketing should read it. Mostly because it was so hard to come by. However, it’s back in print and well worth getting.

Also, a fun read that’s not necessarily marketing, is the recent bestseller “Freakonomics” … in which the authors make the point over and over that the thing that makes virtually everything happen (or not happen) is connected to the incentive. Fix the incentive, guide the action. Which, I guess, makes it a kind of marketing book – or at least key marketing insight – after all.

And while you’re adding fun reads from the fringes, let’s not forget Malcolm Gladwell’s follow-up to “The Tipping Point,” which is titled “Blink”. It’s not as good and maybe not essential reading (some of the examples seem off). But it’s still got some points of interest. Mostly those about how people make decisions quickly and emotionally, pre-logic.

And, without betraying a bias, I think any recommended reading list wouldn’t be complete without Michael Masterson’s latest and greatest (in my opinion) bestseller, “Ready, Fire, Aim”. This is more about business building, but you can’t build a business without selling – a point that Michael makes masterfully in the book.

You might also want to throw another of Michael’s books onto the pile, “Power and Persuasion”.

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: http://www.jackforde.com/]

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Published: May 5, 2008

10 Responses to “At Least 10 Books Every Copywriter Should Read – Twice”

  1. I found this free version online of "Scientific Advertising" it's more readable than the PDF online version.

    scientificadvertising dot BlogSpot dot com/2006/02/chapter-6.html

    KayNovember 1, 2014 at 7:46 pm

  2. Thanks for sharing!

    SunnyDecember 16, 2014 at 10:10 pm

  3. Another one Highly recommend:
    Neuromarketing for Dummies by Stephen J. Genco, PhD; Andrew P. Pohlmann; and Peter Steidl, MBA, PhD This is not an easy read as are most of the other Dummies books but very informative.
    You will learn the neurology behind the research of advertising and marketing, learn how consumers think and make decisions (even when they may not know themselves), and will learn how to conduct your own marketing studies.

    Nora KingApril 15, 2015 at 3:49 pm

  4. This list of books looks helpful. I will get started on reading today.

    Barbara LAugust 22, 2015 at 6:09 pm

  5. Wow! I had no idea that this level understanding of the combination of psychology, sales, marketing and writing was available. The light is on and dinner is served.

    Gregg ROctober 18, 2015 at 6:57 pm

  6. Excellent advise

    Guest (Paul Gibat)January 30, 2016 at 1:14 pm

  7. I'm just going to add this, since the article above was actually written before this next recommendation was available: "Great Leads" by... well, by me. And my co-author, the great Michael Masterson. I can't add links in this box, but you can find it by searching "Great Leads" in the search area at the top of this page... ;)

    Guest (John Forde)February 1, 2016 at 9:43 am

  8. Thank you for the list, it will be very educational in my path to Copywriting.
    Question? What are you referring to in the end of the article when you state 'However, If You Read Nothing Else …' I got lost at the end. Please help!

    sylvia hFebruary 6, 2016 at 4:29 pm

  9. Hi Sylvia,

    The meat of that last part is this: "...every best-performing promo you come across."

    In short, if you're going to read something valuable to every writer but have limited time, read the OTHER sales letters that are working really well in your same market.

    That is, ferret out your competitors... look for every ad they seem to run often... and read it, study it, internalize it.

    One of the best ways to do that is to simply copy it out word for word, on a separate pile of blank paper. By hand.

    You'll learn things by doing that which you can't learn in any other way or pick up more perfectly, from reading any other book.

    Best of luck!

    Guest (John F)February 9, 2016 at 10:14 am

  10. Delighted to check out this list, even more so to find that some titles are already near and dear to my heart, (Strunk & White, Stephen King and Dale Carnegie) It will be my pleasure to read the other titles and add to my repertoire. A million thanks, in advance.

    ChanningDecember 18, 2017 at 7:46 am


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