A list of books?
I know the feeling. Almost every time you see one it’s the usual suspects. Ogilvy on Advertising. Influence by Ciladini. A bit of Hemingway to prove you’re cultured.
Don’t get me wrong. All those books and authors are great and you should read them. But there is absolutely no need for me to outline my thoughts on them. Instead, I thought I’d share ten not so typical books I think make for great inspiration.
Each of these books have directly or indirectly helped me write copy and I hope, if you’re looking for a book recommendation any time and pick one up, they’ll help inspire you too.
1. Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely
OK. This is one you might sometimes find on more original lists. But then I’ve spoken to many a copywriter who hasn’t heard of it. So it makes it in here, just.
To be a copywriter, you really need to be a good marketer too.
Or, at least, you need to have a damn good grasp of marketing.
Books like Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational will help with that. In fact, this one will help a lot.
You see, this is all about testing – perhaps the single most important thing you can do in direct response copywriting and marketing.
By testing different elements of your copy, you can learn which angles work better, which emotions pack the biggest punch and which words trigger the most engagement.
And of course, when you find something that works really well, you can repeat it. And repeat it. And repeat… you get the gist.
Dan’s book is a good one to start with on this subject as it covers a lot of the standard testing stories that people talk about these days. It looks at price testing, which is always useful and it investigates how people rationalise things comparatively, which will get you thinking about how to handle offers in your copy.
All in all, it’s one of the more solid books on marketing in the modern era and well worth a read.
2. Choose Yourself by James Altucher
This is a surprise. Kind of.
A surprise in the sense that it could be considered a self-help book…
But more so because I 100% recommend you read it even if it is a self-help book.
In fact, when I read it years ago, I was so moved, I contacted James and interviewed him about the book and writing in general.
So, why did I enjoy this so much?
Well, aside from the mentions of Woody Allen, Kurt Vonnegut and various other cultural characters I relate to – it seems a very authentic book.
Indeed, James is a very authentic writer. He writes openly. He writes honestly.
But Glenn, is it a self-help book?
Well, as James explained when I spoke to him – he wrote about how he helped himself in the hope that it would inspire those looking in. I think it succeeds in doing that. It’s not preachy. It’s not self-aggrandizing. And it’s not waffly, like so many of its contemporaries.
Instead, it’s direct. It’s full of ideas. And it’s pretty funny too.
That’s why I recommend you keep an open mind and give it a read yourself. (And let me know what you think.)
3. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
The guy gets thrown out of the company he built only to go help Pixar become the huge success it is today. Then he goes back to the original company to revolutionise modern communication.
Damn this guy was good.
Indeed, I imagine you’ve probably already heard one or two stories about Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, CEO of Pixar and co-creator of the Apple Mac, iPod, iPhone, iPad and any other tech breakthrough you want to name.
You might have heard he stank too – he figured his clean living and fruitarian diet would cover him. It didn’t.
You might have heard how he ran his whole company on the premise of everything being “insanely great”.
And hey, you might have heard how he was a little insane himself, constantly flipping on people and being a bit of an asshole at times.
Whatever you’ve heard though – just read this book.
Seriously. It’s great.
At just under 600 pages it’s not a slim volume, but it’s so bloody interesting you’ll find yourself rushing through it to find out what the guy does next.
Chances are you own something that Apple (and by extension Jobs) has produced, so you’d guess there are some serious lessons to be learnt about selling from this guy.
I can confirm there are. A bucket load.
So, if you haven’t read this, I encourage you to make it the one book you do.
4. The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
Whilst I was in Florida one year, I caught up with copywriting top-dog, Drayton Bird. Among other things we got talking about authors and which books – beyond your standard copywriting texts – are worth reading.
On admitting I’d not read any Camilleri, Mr Bird exclaimed:
“Oh my man, you’ve got to read Camilleri. Do so immediately. He’s wonderful.”
As it happens, the next day I stumbled on a small bookshop in Delray Beach that was dedicated to crime fiction.
I sought out Camilleri’s first book in the Inspector Montalbano series – The Shape of Water – and bought a copy.
Despite having a long list of books to read, I quickly read it on the plane home and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Well written. Well plotted. And well-paced.
I guess it’s those three factors that make it such an easy read.
I’ve dug a little deeper and on a few parts I’ve examined there’s a relatively low FK Score too – perhaps that’s a contributing factor.
More than anything though, I think it could be down to the serial structure of the narrative. Each short section leaves you with a question to resolve in the next section. It’s a basic device, but it’s effective.
I think there’s value in thinking about how you can do this in your copy.
The theory could easily be applied to an email series or a long copy sales letter. A lot of the most successful sales letters already do this.
It’s simply a case of making sure you leave enough interesting crumbs in each email or section of your letter for your reader to follow. Do so and they’ll be with you to the end, much like I was with Camilleri as he led me through this enjoyable novel.
5. Hey Whipple, Squeeze This by Luke Sullivan
This is verging on typical. But I had been writing copy for years before I discovered it, so I include it to return the favour.
It’s a decent read.
Sullivan obviously knows what he’s talking about and is very well read himself – he seems to reference a different book about copy on every page.
It’s written in a very bite-size way, which makes it very easy to dip in and out of, though read continuously it does repeat itself a little.
That said, the fact he keeps revisiting key points (either on purpose or by mistake) is a plus in this case, as they will certainly give you some food for thought in your own writing.
As I say, there is a lot of good advice – from writing in a simple and human way to dealing with the whole creative process – and Sullivan’s vast experience shines through.
Also, considering he’s more of an indirect response man (having spent most of his years in agencies) he’s obviously studied direct marketing and understands its importance.
For me, the only downside is the constant reference to awards. He slags them off mostly, saying they’re somewhat pointless, but then he seems to keep pointing out how many he’s won. Hmm.
Aside from that, though, it’s a book I’d recommend to copywriters – especially if you’re relatively new to the subject, as it will give you a good overall insight into the concept of advertising.
6. My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
Most recently, I actually read a book called Silent House by Pamuk. But it’s not that good. It’s ok. But it’s definitely not a book I’d recommend.
It’s actually the second novel he wrote (he’s since written around ten more), but it’s just not been translated yet. So, perhaps its publication is a little cynical.
That said, it’s not fair to bad-mouth Pamuk too much. He’s a great writer and four of his books are outstanding. A pretty good hit rate for a novelist.
For me, the one that stands out the most and the one I would recommend to you as a friend is My Name is Red. It’s excellent.
Now, I must admit I do like it when writers pervert the clichéd detective novel format in some way (think Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy or Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn), so the fact that this is a reimagining of a detective novel enhanced my enjoyment.
Indeed, it is in essence a simple who-dunnit, but being set in Pamuk’s native Istanbul and the nature of the way the story is told gives it a very intriguing and exotic feel.
It’s written very well and avoids the rambling and abstract elements of some of Pamuk’s weaker novels.
Overall it’s just a great story that you’ll enjoy reading but from a copywriting perspective, I think one thing this novel is particularly good at is holding back details and delivering just enough at the right point. That’s a very powerful skill in direct response copywriting and something you should think about when reading this novel.
7. Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011 by Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee
Those who know me well will know I’m a big fan of Paul Auster. Not only do I have an increasingly valuable collection of signed first editions, I just damn like his writing.
Reading his work is one of the reasons I got in to writing in the first place and it’s one of his writing practices that I’ve actually adopted in my critiquing of other people’s copy.
You see, I read some time ago that Auster uses a typewriter in conjunction with a laptop. What’s interesting about this though is that he writes each typed paragraph out on the laptop before moving back to the typewriter to create the next section.
This essentially means he’s editing each paragraph as he works through his prose.
It’s a slow and laborious approach, but I’ve found the principle can work wonders in copywriting, especially when it comes to analysing other people’s copy.
In my own writing, I’ll write one section. Stop. Re-read it and then write the next one. Then I’ll stop again. Go back to the beginning. Re-read. And then move on to the next section.
Though it sounds a real chore, it saves a lot of time and editing later on. Your copy is constantly being trimmed and styled and is often much stronger because of it.
You can approach copy you need to edit in a similar way, with similarly effective results.
A quick tip you can take away there, but another would be to go and order this book and read it as soon as you’re able. These letters will be undoubtedly insightful on a number of issues and the crispness of the writing will give you food for thought.
8. The Gardener of Ochakov by Andrey Kurkov
I really like this guy’s books.
In fact, I’ve been reading him ever since his first book was available in translation – Death and the Penguin.
Since then he’s written about five or six more novels and each one delivers a tight yet relaxed story you’ll find yourself reading very quickly and very easily.
From a copywriting point of view, I’m always intrigued by books like this. What makes them so easy to read? What helps the flow?
The language is unfussy. The chapters are tight, each dealing with a single element of the story. The structure of the sentences and paragraphs is simplistic…
All things you should aim for in your copy too.
As for the story itself, this new instalment from Kurkov has a bit of time-travel, a bit of crime and a peppering of eastern European culture. It makes for a great read and I highly recommend you check it out.
9. Sabbath’s Theatre by Philip Roth
It’s a heavy one. Make no mistake.
I’ve read a lot of Philip Roth’s books and though you wouldn’t naturally associate his work with honing your copywriting skills, I do think he’s a writer all good copywriters should read.
Arguably one of the greatest American novelists, Roth was obsessed with the psychology of us humans. And naturally, as a copywriter, so should you be.
Though Roth’s novels often explore a darker part of our psyche, it’s good practice for copywriters to think about human emotions in a much deeper way like this.
It’s only with a greater understanding of how people think that we can truly make our copywriting emotionally engaging.
10. The Infatuations by Javier Marais
Sometimes books have a mysterious pull…
Yet at the same time they seem to hold you at arm’s length.
I’m not sure if that makes sense, but it’s the best way I can think to describe The Infatuations.
In fact, it kind of describes Marais’ writing as a whole.
I first came across him reading his huge Your Face Tomorrow trilogy, whilst travelling in Spain.
As I was reading the book in the place where he’d set it, I again felt closer to the story – yet his prose still keeps you guessing.
He’s a writer of contradictions and it’s kind of a contradiction that I would recommend a somewhat difficult-to-read book, when I so often promote simple writing.
But, as I say, there’s something mysterious and intriguing about Marais that I think you should check out.
The Infatuations is very interesting. It opens with a man being gruesomely killed by mistake and then proceeds to examine how that death impacts the lives of those around him.
It’s a very thoughtful book and – though it’s a fictional story – it’s a very insightful book, exploring how the human mind works in close detail.
When I advise reading widely, it’s books like this that I have in mind.
A difficult read, but one that’s worth it.
And there you have it. Ten not so typical books I would recommend you give a spin if you’re looking for a different kind of inspiration.
I hope you find these useful and please, if you’ve got any non-typical book recommendations you’d like to send my way – do so.