This year I’ve enjoyed some pretty insightful books that have helped me become a better copywriter, marketer and biz-owner.
In this post I highlight the ones I think can help you too.
I used to have a kinda… haphazard approach to biz-reading – but in 2015 I’ve made a concerted effort to devote more time to studying the experiences and advice of some smart writers and thinkers.
It’s been well worth it.
It felt like I only used to get chance to crack a spine and git my learn awn when I had a break between projects…
I would catch up on the pile of last year’s Christmas presents and impulse-buys from Amazon and binge-read in those precious gaps between deadlines…
But now I approach this differently.
It’s taken a while to discipline myself into having a regular studying schedule alongside client work and my own marketing, but it’s actually increased my productivity.
In fact, I’ve had my busiest and best biz year so far.
And, thanks in part to book #1 on this list, I’ve been able to set aside 2-3 hours a week to study some books I’ve been meaning to get around to for ages.
There’s a bunch more ebooks I read but haven’t included, but here’s 8 physical books (and one Kindle-only title) I’d recommend to anyone looking to improve their marketing and copywriting in 2016.
They’re listed in no particular order. I hope one or two of these give you some inspiration.
9 Books To Help You Be A Better Marketer In 2016 And Beyond…
1 – Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit Of Less – Greg McKeown
I’m currently reading Essentialism for the second time this year.
It’s fascinating, well-written and does a great job of communicating its central premise well. So it’s a copywriter’s dream, really.
But more importantly, it’s an inspiring guide for anyone who feels that, deep down, they say “yes” too often, or at least to the wrong things sometimes.
Freelancers, hear that? That’s you. (And me.)
Greg McKeown’s book will help you understand why you do this, how to change and what benefits becoming an Essentialist can bring.
It’s not just about spending less time on Facebook and ‘being more productive’ (whatever that means these days).
It’s bigger than that.
McKeown describes Essentialism as “the disciplined pursuit of less”, which is a great way of describing what I’m striving to achieve right now.
I’m certainly a lot closer to it than I was a year ago, but I’m still a little way off nailing it. But things are definitely improving.
I’m saying “no” more than I used to, and in the right circumstances. It doesn’t feel selfish when you do it right.
This book can help you assess what’s important to you, in many aspects of your life.
Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.”
2 – Do/Story: How To Tell Your Story So The World Listens – Bobette Buster
“Telling your story so the world listens”. That’s pretty much what we all want to with our marketing, isn’t it?
Bobette Buster is a story consultant, lecturer and screenwriter. She consults with major film studios on scripts and storytelling, so she has a different perspective to offer than most marketers who write about storytelling.
I’m a fan of all things storytelling and scriptwriting (I took a scriptwriting module at university, about 100 years ago) so found this book fascinating.
In Do/Story, Buster offers her ’10 Principles of Storytelling’, discovered over years of research. She explains that “Stories are the fire we carry to each other.”
Whether you’re an entrepreneur looking to connect better with your tribe, a copywriter looking to improve your storytelling chops, or just a Pixar or Star Wars fan wondering how stories get us so hooked, this a practical and thoughtful read.
The very act of telling your story possesses power. It is through the act of telling and hearing stories that we become inspired. We can envisage a better life for ourselves. The end results is, in fact, that we become courageous. Then, a curious thing happens. Our actions – our individual act of courage – are what lead to ‘healing in the land’, that is, the transformation of our world.”
3 – Read Me: 10 Lessons For Writing Great Copy – Roger Horberry & Gyles Lingwood
The authors are both experienced advertising experts (Horberry is a copywriter, Lingwood lectures on advertising & design) and they produced this entertaining and practical guide to copywriting in 2014.
It’s more focused on writing copy for brands than direct response, but I found plenty of good advice here about the more ‘creative’ copy arts.
Read Me features tons of examples of successful and entertaining ad copy across various formats – TV, print, digital etc – that may spark off ideas in your head. The authors do a good job of explaining what specifically works in these examples, classic and current.
It also has practical exercises (‘workouts’) at the end of each of the ten ‘lessons’, so you can apply what you’ve learned. And there are individual insights from writers of various kinds – scriptwriters, journalists etc -not just those in advertising.
Beautifully presented, this is a stunning book to leaf through on a coffee break or for when you need inspiration for a campaign message.
Whether you’re a novice or working copywriter/marketer, I’d highly recommend this book for anyone looking to improve their ads.
All copywriters are in the ideas business – that’s because words are ideas in another form. The process of identifying and improving promising ideas is the starting point for the whole writing process.”
4 – Thinking, Fast And Slow – Daniel Kahneman
I’ll admit it: it took me months to read this. Most of the summer, for starters.
I’d pop into Kahneman’s bestseller on coffee breaks a couple of times a week, and always go back to my desk feeling a little more enlightened each time.
But it was slow going.
Thinking, Fast And Slow presents some challenging ideas in not-always easily-digestible writing (hell, Kahneman is a former Nobel Prize winner, so he’s no lightweight).
These ideas have to be focused on, and savoured. I’m not sure I completely understood everything I read.
Still, it was hugely rewarding, and some concepts really hit home.
In fact, I’ve been drafting a lengthy post about how some of these findings can help marketers – when it’s ready I’ll post a link here, so check back soon.
Full of fascinating theories like the Illusion of Understanding, the Endowment Effect and ‘denominator neglect’, this is a serious look at human rationality and irrationality.
Put some time and space to read it and really focus on the concepts you’ll discover, and as Nudge author Richard Thaler says “It will change the way you think!”
Almost too many to pick one, but how about this marketing-related insight…
Merely reminding people of a time when they had power increases their apparent trust in their own intuition.”
5 – Buyology: How Everything We Believe About Why We Buy Is Wrong – Martin Lindstrom
Much like a great sales letter, this book sets out to challenge the reader’s beliefs – as you can guess from the title.
And also like a great sales letter, it asks questions you just have to know the answer to:
“Why do the majority of anti-smoking campaigns inadvertently encourage people to smoke?
Why does the scent of melons help sell electronic products?”
Before you go off and google the answers (yes, I see you), know that this is another heavily-researched book like Thinking, Fast And Slow. But it’s written in a more casual style, with a more offbeat look at why we do things.
Martin Lindstrom is a respected marketing guru, and advisor to top execs at mega-corps like Disney, McDonalds, GlaxoSmithKline etc.
There are more stories here than dry data, and Lindstrom has a way of hooking the reader into the point he’s about to prove (see the juicy q’s above, amongst other revelations).
But it’s not all frivolous fun experiments – if you’re into neuromarketing or behavioural science, you may be surprised by some of the findings. Especially if you think you’re certain about why people buy your products!
Lindstrom is a strangely egotistical writer – he occasionally pops up in his own narrative when you’re really more focused on the action rather than his character – but also an optimistic one.
Of course, he’s bound to be an advocate of neuromarketing in Buyology given it’s what pays his bills – but despite what some reviewers thought, I found it interesting, especially the chapters on subliminal messaging (always a controversial but irresistible subject) and rituals.
Most of our buying decisions aren’t remotely conscious. Our brain makes the decision and most of the time we aren’t aware of it.”
6 – Copy Logic: The New Science Of Producing Breakthrough Copy (Without Criticism) – Mike Palmer & Michael Masterson
If you work in a company or a marketing team (or as a copy chief), and have trouble making decisions about the copy you’re about to put out, this book presents a solution.
Palmer and Masterson outline the process they used to solve the age-old problem of deciding which feedback to implement and what guidance to follow, without butchering an ad.
Critique sessions are valuable, and can forge a winner out of an also-ran… but they can also descend into empty ‘brainstorming’ shout-sessions or just “criticism for criticism’s sake” exercises.
This guide will give you a simple, effective system for assessing copy, developing a sales hook and establishing valuable peer review sessions that produce worthwhile insights.
You’ll get practical tips on how to eliminate any confusing, boring or unbelievable copy and learn the “CUB Critique” – which aims to make sure your copy gets read, not ignored.
As chief growth strategist for info-publishing giant Agora, Masterson knows all about writing to sell, while Palmer is a former AWAI copywriter of the year, and trainer of copywriters at Stansberry Research – so if these guys are doing something, it’s worth considering.
A well-written lead should stimulate emotional prejudices AND provoke unconscious feelings.”
7 – To Sell Is Human – Daniel Pink
Earlier this year I wrote about some of the insights I got from Dan Pink’s book here and here.
Pink points out that “we’re all in sales now” – which, if you get all icky thinking about ‘selling’, either reassures you that it’s fine to stop trying to beat ’em and just join ’em… or makes you cry “bullshit” and throw coffee at the wall.
If you’re prepared to go with the idea – and you should, since you see people ‘selling themselves’ literally everywhere these days (hi Facebook users!) – then you’re in for an entertaining and useful read.
Persuading, convincing and influencing others is a key part of any business, and as Ben East wrote in The Observer, this is “less a book about the conniving tricks of this slippery trade, and more of a human guide to how sales might work and be successful in the 21st century”.
It’s about how you can become a better entrepreneur by adopting principles of “Attunement, Buoyancy and Clarity” – and on these three simple principles Pink hangs a very persuasive (naturally) argument for the power of moving others.
Enjoyable, fun, punchy but – most crucially – sticky and memorable, this is a must-read for anyone struggling to understand how they can drag their sales-averse ass up the scary ol’ hill of business – and succeed, without ‘selling out’.
The salesperson isn’t dead. The salesperson is alive. Because the salesperson is us. Which raises a question: How did that happen? How did so many of us end up in the moving business?”
8 – Reality In Advertising – Rosser Reeves
What can a book published in 1961 teach us about advertising and marketing over 50 years later?
Quite a bit, actually. Not least the power of the Contrast Principle.
To some of my senior copywriting colleagues this long-out-of-print book is spoken of with such knowing reverence that as soon as it was reprinted in this 2015 paperback edition I grabbed a copy just to see what the fuss was about.
True, it’s far more concerned with advertising – the industry and its best practices – than any of the more psychology-themed books on this list.
But it’s also chock-full of nuggets of guidance on the tricky subject of advertising that sells, as opposed to brand-building.
Rosser Reeves (the real-life Madison Avenue inspiration behind decanter-wielding, wife-repelling creative genius Don Draper from Mad Men) wrote this as a guide to his agency acolytes, to discourage them from wasting their clients’ money on award-chasing ads rather than salesmanship.
So while at some points it can seem stuffy and preachy – at least to 21st century readers – it’s also on the money about topics like the USP, penetration (the % of people who can recall your ad), when to stick with a campaign and when to twist, gimmicks and budgeting.
It’s also fun to read with Don Draper’s “carousel speech” voice in mind : )
Much of the gibberish of modern advertising is meaningless. The petty striving to magnify miniscule differences, thrown into a slick Madison Avenue argot, [has] the flavor of wet cardboard.”
9 – Walden – Henry D. Thoreau
I know. Not remotely a business book.
And certainly not one that advocates clear, concise sales writing! Ol’ Henry D.T. would choke on his smoked woodchuck if he knew his masterpiece was featured in a salesman-in-print’s blog.
But here’s why it made the list:
The oldest book here (published in 1854, written in 1846-47) offers a real sense of perspective. I read it across several autumn weekends, and found it almost meditative.
Like a sorbet for the mind, Walden had an odd way of re-setting my thoughts and priorities each time I dipped in, and I began each working week refreshed and relaxed as a result.
Offering a distinct break from our modern world, and all the trappings of running an online business, Thoreau’s collection of essays on nature, thought, mankind and work literally brought me back down to earth each weekend.
For lovers of language and the written word, Walden will help you clear your head of your own day-to-day worries each time you open it, while making you think more deeply about the world and the lives lived within it (mankind included).
It may not have this effect on everyone, but if you have the patience for it and keep an open mind, Walden may just help you see your work in a new light.
Oh, and of course I recommend reading it outdoors if you can.
Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”
Have a wonderful new year, wherever (and whenever) you’re reading this.