25 Must-Read Best Copywriting and Marketing Books

by Lorraine Thompson

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With a gazillion copywriting and marketing blogs, articles, and eBooks available online, is there any reason to read real books these days?

My dead giveaway headline tells you where I stand.

What’s not to like about digital content?

Digital content is unmatched for publishing speed, spontaneity and personal voice. But online writing has a few weaknesses:

  • Sloppy thinking. Copywriting and marketing readers crave expert synthesis and original insight. But the blogosphere is frequently an echo chamber: Many bloggers spin others’ material, source anecdotally and depend too heavily on hyperlinked explanations.
  • Rambling writing. In the absence of incisive thought, digital content can meander. Three hundred years ago, Blaise Pascal noted, “If I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter.” Today, bloggers face pressure to publish often and quickly. They have little time to rewrite, polish and marinate copy—crucial steps in pithy content creation.
  • Derailed narrative. No matter how glib, readers get confused—and bored—with ambling copy overly punctuated with links that disrupt storyline.
  • Inexpert experts. In the digital world, anyone and everyone can be an author, regardless of experience, expertise or industry track record. A book contract doesn’t automatically confer expertise. But it does assure that the material—and the author—have been vetted by a third-party editorial and publishing team with a huge investment in the writer’s credibility.

Why I (still) love books

By contrast, I suggest my favorite marketing and copywriting books. Each volume is written by a professional who spent years in academic, corporate and industry trenches. Their work is thoroughly researched. It’s thoughtfully organized. And it’s professionally edited and proofed—come on, admit that it matters.

Most importantly, the following 25 books continue to withstand the onslaught of digitalization and the test of time. They’re as relevant today as when published—some of them 30+ years ago.

25 copywriting and marketing books you should own

Let me start with my favorite…

  1. On Writing Well By William Zinsser
    Authored by a longtime journalist and Yale writing professor, On Writing Well focuses on writing with simplicity and clarity. “A good sentence is no accident,” notes Zinsser, who uses delightful stories, examples and 40 years of experience to show you how to improve your writing. For a fuller review of this writer’s bible, read The Communicatrix’s post.
  2. The Art and Craft of Feature Writing by William E. Blundell
    Blundell, a former Wall Street Journal editor, based his book on an in-house guide created for WSJ’s fabled feature writers. His book is packed with practical tips, advice and illustrations. Check out my review of The Art and Craft of Feature Writing.
  3. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
    The writer’s enemy is Resistance—manifest in busy work, extraneous research and a thousand other forms of procrastination. This book helps you identify your own Resistance—and battle it daily.
  4. Letting Go of The Words by Janice (Ginny) Redish
    Guess what? People don’t visit your website to hang out and read. They come to your site to get answers and to complete tasks. Redish helps you craft the concise, meaty content that your visitors crave.
  5. The Copywriter’s Handbook By Robert W. Bly
    Digitalization has turned content creation (aka copywriting) on its head. But you can still rely on a handful of tried-and-true copywriting tenets laid out in Bly’s classic step-by-step guide. What a comfort.
  6. The Well Fed Writer and TWFW: Back For Seconds by Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman believes commercial writers deserve to earn a decent living. And his extremely useful guidebooks lay down practical and tactical steps that show you how to do it. TWFW: Back For Seconds is especially helpful for more seasoned copywriters.
  7. The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White
    Before you break the rules of grammar, you’d best understand them. Strunk and White lay down the laws of plain English in 78 concise pages.
  8. The Synonym Finder by J.I. Rodale
    Yes, you can use an online Thesaurus. But there’s something meditative about thumbing through real paper pages—especially when you’re trying to refine that last ultra-clean draft.
  9. Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy
    Influenced by an early career as a door-to-door salesman, Ogilvy insisted copy’s purpose was to sell, rather than entertain or win industry creative prizes. Maybe that’s why today—as the ad industry implodes—his book remains highly readable and relevant.
  10. Positioning, The Battle for Your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout
    “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” But in an over-messaged culture, communication itself fails. Effective marketing, note Ries and Trout, focuses less on product and more on positioning product in your prospect’s mind. Their book explains how to do it.
  11. 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing by Al Ries and Jack Trout
    Any product you market—from hairspray to healthcare—benefits from applying Ries and Trout’s 22 rock solid Laws of product positioning.
  12. Catalog Copy that Sizzles by Herschell Gordon Lewis
    Think it’s easy to hook a reader’s attention, position products, delineate benefits and list specs in a 40-word copy block? Well it ain’t. Catalog copy veteran Herschell Gordon Lewis gives you the details.
  13. Persuasive Online Copywriting by Bryan Eisenberg, Jeffrey Eisenberg and Lisa T. Davis
    The authors explain their methodology, Persuasion Architecture, by drawing on sources as diverse as Meyers-Briggs psychological typing, Jungian analytics, the four medieval temperaments and literature. Their insights help you craft copy that targets customer personas and helps online visitors move through your website’s conversion funnel.
  14. Permission Marketing by Seth Godin
    In the digital age, the most valuable currency is attention. Marketing needs to move from an “interruption” model to platforms and formats that build relationship, provide value and gain customers’ permission to be in contact, converse and market.
  15. Linchpin by Seth Godin
    In post-industrial society, workers need to be artistic, creative and indispensable, ie., linchpins. Read my review of Linchpin.
  16. The New Rules of Marketing and PR by David Meerman Scott
    Perhaps the first marketing book based on crowdsourced material, The New Rules of Marketing and PR explains how to leverage content across digital platforms to influence and sell to audiences.
  17. Marketing Lessons From the Grateful Dead by David Meerman Scott and Brian Halligan
    Create a unique business model. Embrace technology. Free your content. Build a following. The tenets that worked for the Grateful Dead also bolster your marketing and copywriting.
  18. Trust Agents by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith
    Chris Brogan’s admirable goal is to Learn How Human Business Works. His book, written with Julien Smith, helps you use digital media to break through audience cynicism, create valuable content and build trusting, mutually beneficial relationships with your audience.
  19. Influence, the Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini
    While formats are malleable—witness the revolution from print and broadcast to digital media—human behavior stays the same. Cialdini, a social psychologist, delineates the “Six Weapons of Influence”—core emotional/psychological behaviors that drive your customer.
  20. Scientific Advertising by Claude C. Hopkins
    Hopkins spoke with a lisp, wore a fuchsia in his buttonhole, chewed licorice root and believed college education was detrimental to copywriters (these charming anecdotes via Ogilvy on Advertising). If those aren’t reasons enough to read Scientific Advertising, do so for the book’s insistence on testing, storytelling and copy—rather than graphical image—primacy.
  21. Robin Hood Marketing by Katya Andresen
    This book’s subtitle, “Stealing Corporate Savvy to Sell Just Causes,” says it all. You need to apply the same laws of positioning, differentiation and consumer-centricity to copy written for non-profit organizations as for big brands and businesses.
  22. The Long Tail by Chris Andersen
    Digitalization has upended manufacture, distribution and marketing. Today’s empowered consumer is no longer subject to brand monopilies. Instead she chooses from a huge array of products, services and entertainment found in a fragmented “long tail.” Successful marketers must adjust accordingly.
  23. Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath
    Why do some things—urban legends, viral videos, ad concepts—imbed themselves in your consciousness and others make your eyes glaze? Educators Chip and Dan Heath explain “stickiness” and show you how it helps your marketing and communications.
  24. Type and Layout: Are You Communicating or Just Making Pretty Pictures? by Colin Wheildon
    Before you get all creative with Comic Sans fonts, reverse type and screamer headlines, read this book, based on testing, not opinion.
  25. Ignore Everybody by Hugh MacLeod
    A brilliant visual artist and former copywriter, MacLeod creates “cartoons on the back of business cards.” His miniature art captures the dark humor, humanity and spirituality of social marketing and culture.
  26. Want more?

    As mentioned, bloggers ramble. So here are even more “best copywriting and marketing book” resources:

    Writer’s Edge Ten Best Books on Writing

    Hub Pages’ Best Copywriting books

    Problogger via Brian Clark Copywriting Book Recommendations

    Copyblogger’s Copywriting Books You Should Buy

    Bob Bly’s Ten Classic Marketing Books You Should Read

    Conversion Rate Experts’ Best Online Marketing Resources

    And your marketing/copywriting book recommendations are…?

    My list represents the best copywritng/marketing books I’ve read—and my Evernote folder includes an even longer list of “must reads.”

    But what about you? Please share your favorite marketing and copywriting books.

{ 6 trackbacks }

Frrrrriday Rrrrroundup! | communicatrix
August 20, 2010 at 2:42 am
9 Tips on Writing Copy for Worthy Causes | MarketCopywriter Blog
August 23, 2010 at 6:48 pm
Copywriting First Aid: How to Revive Near-Death Content | MarketCopywriter Blog
September 20, 2010 at 6:33 am
Great Reading For all the Copywriters out there! | Cultivated Ideas
November 4, 2010 at 4:16 pm
Creating Impact - Corporate Writing Services | Matthew L Brennan
December 12, 2012 at 12:08 am
comparteme.es
February 27, 2013 at 7:30 pm

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

the communicatrix August 16, 2010 at 4:04 pm

What a great list—and attitude, and perspective.

The summaries of the ones I’ve read are spot-on (as is each book’s rightful spot on the list). And I always appreciate coming across a well-edited list that has a few items I’ve yet to check out.

Thank you!

Sean M. Lyden August 16, 2010 at 4:54 pm

Hi Lorraine -

Great list. I agree with @the communicatrix.

A book that has made a significant impact on my writing career is Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People. The principles in that book are timeless in guiding you on how to connect with and move your audience to action.

Chad Schomber August 17, 2010 at 7:32 am

Finally a book list that books I’ve read. :)

Great list. Great insight. Great post.

I’m currently on a bender of reading/using book outside of writing/business/marketing. I’m trying to absorb/learn from a different perspective — almost randomly. Does that make sense?

For example, I reading The Critique of Practical Reason by Immanuel Kant. And articles/books/etc. about string theory. Most of the time, my brains hurts after just a few paragraphs. But there’s real value in discovery things I don’t understand so I can apply unexpected elements to my writing.

Andy Nattan August 17, 2010 at 7:49 am

I need to get some Ogilvy in my life…

On my desk currently though, I’ve got the following:

The Copywriting Sourcebook (Andy Maslen)
Drop the Pink Elephant (Bill McFarlan)

Both well worth a look.

Lorraine Thompson August 17, 2010 at 8:07 am

@the communicatrix: Thanks for your kinds words. Your book reviews and posts always inspire.

@Sean: I just started reading Carnegie’s classic book on influence.

@Chad: Yes, it absolutely makes sense to include non-writing/marketing books on a copywriter’s must-read list, e.g.; Type and Layout. And I think a philosophy sublist is highly appropriate. I would add Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton and Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

@Andy Nattan: I love Andy Maslen and will check out his book. Thanks!

Katya August 18, 2010 at 2:51 pm

Wow, what amazing company on this list. Thanks for the shoutout! Almost all of these great recommendations are on my bookshelf (including RHM:))

Lorraine Thompson August 19, 2010 at 6:19 am

@Katya: Robin Hood Marketing continues to inspire and motivate. I’m re-reading it now in preparation for live blogging at the Global Maternal Health Conference in New Delhi.

Lori August 19, 2010 at 1:52 pm

Several here that I’m really looking forward to reading Lorraine, thanks!

Carl November 17, 2010 at 5:46 am

Lorraine, your not paying yourself enough :D

This is now my “must buy” list. I recently attended a business owners weekend with Australia’s top business mentor, he recommended a couple of these, one book that he praised very highly is “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield. There was a lot of talk about resistance and how to recognize / rid yourself of it. Thanks for taking the time to compile this list.

Carl – Australia.

Lorraine Thompson November 19, 2010 at 11:17 am

@Carl: Yes, I agree, The War of Art is essential reading for all creative people–folks universally dogged by Resistance. The volume is doubly rewarding for its wisdom and brevity: You’ll devour it in a sitting.

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