12 copywriting books you must read
Copywriting is a competitive field. That makes complacency a suicidal state of mind. There will always be hungry copywriters looking to take your spot. Reading the best copywriting books will keep your copywriting skills sharp.
Maybe you’re a freelance copywriter without a formal education in copywriting. Or perhaps you’re a business owner not ready for a professional copywriter.
Good news: there is not formal education for copywriting. Copywriting is about combining life experience with books and courses. At Taleist, we have online copywriting courses. We even have a free copywriting course for beginners. But this post is about the best books for the successful copywriter.
Some of our copywriters have been copywriting for more than 25 years. Between us, we’ve read plenty of books on the craft. And not just books on persuasive copywriting specifically.
We’ve read our Stephen King and our Ann Handley, too. (For the record, we’ve read Stephen King’s On Writing more than once. Ann Handley’s Everybody Writes is pedestrian, and it’s more for content marketing anyway. Swap it out for something else.)
The reality is there are hundreds of books that modern copywriters should read. Many of them are from different generations. However, it’s the persistence of their ideas that makes them so valuable. Think sales and marketing change year-on-year? A dose of Scientific Advertising (1923) will cure you. (Details of that corker below.)
And if something’s been working for 100 years, that’s gold to know.
The terms might be new — “content marketing” — but the ideas aren’t. The Michelin guide books were born in 1900. They weren’t call content marketing, but that’s what they were. Content designed to get new motorists wearing through their tyres.
If you’re in the mood for another list of copywriting books, here are 12 of the best books for copywriters. They’re perfect reads, whether you’re starting out or staying sharp.
Between them, they’ll:
- Teach you about copy that sells
- Cover advertising methods
- Lay out copywriting skills
- Break down sales letters.
Some are easy to read, some are not. All are full of practical advice, even if that advice echoes at you from the last century. You will write better copy because of any of these copywriting books.
Best copywriting book for beginners
Like I said, there are hundreds of copywriting books to choose from, but some of them assume knowledge of the craft. Others might not assume expertise, but it helps to have some experience.
It’s best to start with some Halbert or some Sugarman.
- They’re legends in the field. You’ll hear their names constantly as you get deeper into the craft.
- They’re accessible books. These guys write simply, but you could spend a lifetime perfecting their techniques.
The Boron Letters by Gary C. Halbert
The Boron Letters were written in the 1980s by advertising legend Gary Halbert. They are letters Gary Halbert wrote to his son Bond from prison. He was serving time for tax fraud.
Bond turned the letters into a classic book on copywriting.
Before you say it, yes, it smells funky to take sales lessons from a fraudster. But you’ll thank yourself for getting over the whiff.
In the letters, Halbert shares snippets of advice about life, health and marketing. And of course he delivers copywriting tips.
As a book on copywriting, this is a fantastic starting point because it’s about a life in the craft of direct response copywriting as well as copywriting itself.
Imagine Mr Miyagi writing to Daniel from prison and you’re in the ballpark of The Boron Letters. And just as Mr Miyagi’s wisdom held the hands of a million teens through some difficult years, The Boron Letters has helped generations of copywriters flourish. Countless copywriters owe their careers to its pithy insights about copywriting and marketing techniques.
Best copywriting manuals
The Adweek Copywriting Handbook by Joseph Sugarman
Joe Sugarman gives you the operating manual to effective copywriting. This is a step-by-step guide to writing copy that inspires readers to buy. It was written for Adweek by one of America’s most successful direct-response copywriters.
The book was written in 1978, so the examples match the period. No, we don’t talk the same way today. No, we don’t think of female consumers the same way today. And no, you won’t read the awful term “digital marketing” in a book from the late 70s. But our psychological triggers haven’t changed. Our desires, insecurities, cognitive biases and all the rest are unchanged.
Dated examples and dusty authorial style characterise most books on this list. If you let that bother you, you’ll miss out on career-making wisdom.
The Adweek Copywriting Handbook will improve your copywriting by making you aware of things you might never have noticed. The book also teaches effective persuasive techniques. You’ll find all the core principles here.
How To Write A Good Advertisement by Victor Schwab
If you can learn the basics and apply them well, you’re already ahead of other copywriters. How To Write A Good Advertisement by Victor Schwab will teach you the elements that make a killer ad. His list of winning headlines alone is worth the cost of the book.
Each chapter is packed with techniques. They’ll kickstart you as a copywriter or they’ll take your writing to the next level.
You’ll not just read about headlines, subheads and body copy methods. You’ll discover how punctuation and white space work together in ads. You’ll learn what readers like and dislike in ads. You can take that knowledge to write persuasive copy for your target audience.
The Copywriter’s Handbook by Robert W. Bly
Robert Bly is a master copywriter. His book is one that anyone interested in direct response should read.
This might not be a step-by-step guide to how to write great copy. But The Copywriter’s Handbook has all the information you’ll need to improve your copy. That includes things like what makes a good headline, and why pictures are so important to your ads.
Robert Bly’s book also goes into detail about pricing your services and dealing with clients. His book also covers advice on handling objections from customers. You’ll discover ways to write direct mail letters.
You’ll also learn how to use words and phrases creatively. Then there are Bly’s tips on writing persuasive sales messages.
The copywriters’ bible
Breakthrough Advertising by Eugene Schwartz
Eugene Schwartz was a god of hard-copy marketing. He was the master of appealing to consumers’ emotions (and baser instincts), not their consumer needs. That’s how he became a legend. Many consider the Breakthrough Advertising as a bible for the advertising business.
The significance of Breakthrough Advertising doesn’t come from its concepts alone. It also comes from Schwartz’s stories about real-life campaigns. The stories are so captivating, you might end up reading the entire book in one sitting.
In addition to his unconventional lessons copywriting, Schwartz gives approaches that can be used across media channels. It could be newspapers, magazines, television or radio.
Don’t make this the first copywriting book you read, because you’re juggling a few things. The writing is of its time (1966) and the concepts are advanced, so it’s not the easiest reading.
If you haven’t already built momentum, the book can be tough to get through. If you have a head of steam, it’ll be like you’ve put rocket fuel in the furnace. Six decades later, it’s all actionable advice for even the most online business.
Reference books every copywriter should have on their desk
Every kind of writer wants a dictionary on their desk. However, there’s a reference book just for copywriters that you’ll want to hand.
Words That Sell by Rick Bayan
Rick Bayan groups words into lists with headings like “health” and “authentic”. So when you know the mood you’re going for, you can dip into the right list.
Words That Sell is packed with terms and phrases that people respond to. They can be used to cajole, persuade or entice.
As you leaf through these terms, you’ll discover that they’re intimately familiar to you. You may even have used them in your ad copy.
This handy guide uncovers the powerful selling force that lies within even the most common words and phrases. You’ll discover the best words and phrases to use to sell your product or service.
This book is a must-read for anyone who writes copy, website content, brochures, catalogs or headlines.
And it’s a brilliant tonic for writer’s block.
Best copywriting books that aren’t about copywriting
Influence by Robert B. Cialdini
Robert Cialdini is widely known as the Godfather of Influence. He wrote a groundbreaking book that introduced the world to six psychological principles that make people to say ‘yes’. Those six principles of behavioural psychology are:
- social proof
(And you can see this post for more about Cialdini’s six principles.)
These principles of persuasion are the force that make people do the things they do. Think about it. Have you ever chosen a restaurant because you it was packed with people? Why that one not the nice looking one next door? Robert Cialdini will tell you exactly why.
Cialdini’s book teaches you all about using psychology to your advantage. Influence is a powerful tool you can apply not only to your copywriting. You can use it in day-to-day interactions too.
So while Influence isn’t a book about copywriting, it’s about behavioral psychology. And behavioural psychology is the planet around which all writing techniques orbit.
Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath
In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath talk about what makes messages memorable. You’ve been told people don’t have the time or attention span for long stories anymore. But the Heath brothers prove that length doesn’t matter. As long as you can get your ideas to stick.
So this is another great book that isn’t about sales copy but is a great resource. The brothers provide great examples of sticky ideas from companies like Disney, Southwest and Sony.
Made To Stick shows you how to use these techniques to craft more effective copywriting.
Best books about the advertising industry
These books are full of technique. They also expand on the industry in which copywriters work.
Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy
Ogilvy on Advertising is an unputdownable book. You’ll re-discover the dos and don’ts of effective advertising. Ogilvy’s brand lives on through the names of global agencies. But if you’re new to the craft, you might not know that David Ogilvy was a gifted copywriter.
Ogilvy on Advertising contains the best of Ogilvy’s thoughts about advertising and marketing. The advice he gives hold as true today as when he wrote it in 1960. You might not agree with everything, but you could do worse for a debating partner than Ogilvy.
Hey Whipple, Squeeze This by Luke Sullivan
The title may sound like a line a Vaudeville joke. And Hey Whipple, Squeeze This does have humour, but it’s mostly hard-nosed advice about writing copy.
Sullivan shares his tactics for catching attention in direct mail, websites or books. You’ll learn how to make your audience want your product or service even if they don’t know it yet. And you’ll learn how to convey emotion and attitude through words alone.
Sullivan’s book will teach you how to use words and phrases effectively. He also provides practical advice about how to prepare presentations.
He also shares some funny stories, like the one about how to use a dog in your copy (which you’ll have to read for yourself).
Best book to understand advertising methods
Scientific Advertising by Claude C. Hopkins
Need more convincing that reading the classics is essential before you pick up any modern advertising books? Scientific Advertising will do it. (If we could, we’d forbid anyone picking up Gary V before reading a real copywriting book.)
Digital marketing talks like it invented A/B testing. But Claude Hopkins wrote his classic in 1923. That’s nearly 100 years ago and much of it is about A/B testing.
Hopkins was one of the giants in advertising. He is still a role model for direct response copywriters born long after he died.
Hopkins believed that the only purpose of advertising was to make sales. And he argues advertising should be measured only by its sales.
Hopkins also argues advertising must be unique to make a lasting impression. An important part of an advertising strategy is a good story, he writes.
Hopkins lays down the basics of effective advertising. He also provides great advice and real-world examples putting his advice into practice. If you’re looking for tips on how to attract consumer attention, this will guide you to write copy that sells.
Best book by Dan Kennedy
Dan Kennedy is a prolific marketing genius. That’s why we’ve given him a copywriting book category to himself. Not all his books would qualify for a list of best copywriting books. (Although if Kennedy puts his name on it, you can bet it makes him money, so there’s inspiration in that.)
If you’re looking for somewhere to start with Kennedy this is arguably his best copywriting book…
The Ultimate Sales Letter by Dan Kennedy
What is the ultimate sales letter? According to Dan Kennedy, it’s one that sells.
The Ultimate Sales Letter offers a simple approach to writing copy that sells. This book is all about putting out the right message in the right words at the right time.
You’ll learn how to write effective direct mail letters and emails. Kennedy also explains why it’s important to keep your sales messages short (which may go against experts’ recommendations).
If you’re in sales or marketing, this book has something valuable for you, too. That’s particularly true if you’re writing landing pages/sales pages.
Copywriting books from the best
If you are looking for ways to make your sales writing more fluent, these are the best copywriting books for you There’s something for everyone who wants to improve their copy skills with practical tips from industry experts. It might be better understanding each stage of a purchasing process. Or it might be using psychology to influence decisions.
Just be prepared that you’re not going to read about social media or blog posts. You won’t read terms like “inbound marketing”. Many of the best copywriting books pre-date social media, “inbound marketing” and blogging.
However, these are not historical artifacts. These authors are among the best copywriters who ever lived. They wouldn’t have any trouble adapting their expertise to writing blog posts. Nor should you.
If you want to move on from books to online copywriting courses that will make you a better copywriter, we have you covered…