I’ve been struggling to write this post for some time because when you work in a field like content marketing, where the landscape can change from month to month, it’s difficult to recommend books to read.
And I read a lot of books.
For instance, books on social media written five years ago may be outdated today if some platforms mentioned are out of business.
That’s why these nine books focus on timeless principles — the fundamentals that helped you yesterday, help you today, and will help you tomorrow.
They’re the nine books you should read this year. And the nine books you should read the year after that. And so on.
If you only had these nine books on your shelf — and never bought another one — I’m confident you could continue to kick content marketing tail long into the future.
Just imagine if you continued to read other books, too. You’d be unstoppable.
Book #1: Content Strategy for the Web
The word “strategy” turns some people off.
Or they think their website or business is small enough that a goal written on the back of an envelope is all they need to create a successful content marketing strategy for the long haul.
The truth is, without a strategy your content will never reach its full potential. More importantly, it will probably unnecessarily suffer from common pitfalls.
Enter Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach, who deliver a road map to better content so you can have a better business. From understanding the business value of content to making smarter decisions about what content to use and when, this book is a delight to read.
In my copy, the first four chapters are covered in notes. More than likely, you’ll read a section of this book, put it down, work on your content strategy, pick up the book, and repeat.
Get the book here: Content Strategy for the Web, 2nd Edition
Book #2: Everybody Writes
The next book you should read is Ann Handley’s A-to-Z guide to creating content, published in 2014.
You’ll learn about important writing rules (like following a writing GPS), grammar essentials (including five rules you should break), common publishing concerns, and the mechanics of writing on social media.
This book is like a blog about writing great content by one of the best practitioners in the field. Except all that great advice is in one tidy publication that sits on your shelf.
Flip open to page 53 to edit by chainsaw. Page 174 for the basics of copyright, fair use, and attribution. And 266 for productivity tools.
Get the book here: Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content
Book #3: Made to Stick
When I think of one book that’s influenced the way I write, I pick this one. So, it’s no surprise that this classic (2007) by the Heath brothers is my go-to book when people are looking for tips on how to write memorable and effective content.
It’s a 30,000-foot view of great content. It’s the skeleton that allows you to turn mediocre content into majestic.
Working from the acronym SUCCES (Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, Stories), the Heath brothers demonstrate each tip with unforgettable anecdotes and facts. The urban legend about the kidney heist is my favorite. Or maybe it’s the newspaper with a readership of 110 percent.
So many gems to pick from. And the beautiful thing about this book is that you could probably read it in less than three hours.
Get the book here: Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die
Book #4: Letting Go of the Words
Ginny Redish did the web writing community a favor by writing this book in 2008 (the second edition was published in 2012).
You’ll find a lot of what you read in Redish’s book in other books on this list, but the value of Letting Go of the Words is the application of those truths to specific circumstances — all in one book. It’s the web writer’s reference manual.
One of my favorite chapters in this book is “Organize and Break Up Content.” In this section, Redish helps the reader go from thinking about “content” to “information.”
For me, this was a light-bulb moment. Perhaps it will be for you, too.
Get the book here: Letting Go of the Words, Second Edition: Writing Web Content that Works
Book #5: Mobile Usability
Research shows the growing number of people who consume content on mobile devices. Thus, learning to write for mobile is a must.
Who better to show us the way than usability experts Jakob Neilsen and Raluca Budiu? If you’re a writer, pay extra careful attention to chapter four: “Writing for Mobile.” In particular, I think you’ll find the section on “Secondary Information to Secondary Screens” enlightening.
The rest of the book is a lesson in smart mobile design, which — as you’ll see below in Book# 9 — is something every web writer needs to be intimately familiar with.
It will pay dividends for your content. I promise.
Get the book here: Mobile Usability
Book #6: Clout
In this little gem by Colleen Jones, published in 2011, the task of creating compelling web content is raised to a new level by introducing the eight principles of rhetoric blended with the science of psychology.
She opens the book by fighting off the temptation to engage in short-sighted marketing tactics (we’ve all seen them) and urges us to take the higher road. Then she introduces a concept most of us have never even considered, but it is more important than content: context. That section is worth the price of the book alone.
The book also includes useful advice like persisting through roadblocks and qualitative methods to measure your content.
Get the book here: Clout: The Art and Science of Influential Web Content
Book #7: The Big Red Fez
Seth Godin’s 2002 classic is useful for the divine, memorable analogy he employs to summarize his point:
Imagine the visitor to your website is a monkey (wearing a red fez). And he has a mission. To find the banana. Your job? Make it easy to find that banana.
This book will take you fifteen minutes to read. But you will never forget it. Which is helpful, since the best landing pages, articles, podcasts, and webinars follow Godin’s philosophy: one page, one goal.
Get the book here: The Big Red Fez: How to Make Any Web Site Better
Book #8: Don’t Make Me Think
Steve Krug’s web writing advice boils down to a simple anthem: “Don’t make me think.”
This philosophy is similar to Godin’s guidance: visitors should be able to finish their intended task as easily as possible.
The law of the web says people blaze through the web like it is an autobahn. And they blaze on the autobahn to do one thing: look at billboards.
Which means they won’t read your article. They’ll scan the headline if you are lucky. Skim the sub-headlines if they are feeling generous.
But you want to make them stick around. Krug offers you guiding principles on factors you need to get right and how to get them right.
Get the book here: Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability
Book #9: The Design of Everyday Things
My favorite Gary Larson cartoon is a picture of a kid pushing a door that says “pull” at the “Midvale School for the Gifted.” To cognitive scientist Don Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things, this is not at all surprising.
Physical objects often confuse us.
I pour hot water into my lap because I can’t figure out which end of a tea pot is the spout or the handle. I hand grandmother a laptop and she blinks. These gaffes, Norman argues, can be solved with sensible, thoughtful design.
Why should you care as a web writer? Because lessons on the sensible design of physical objects translate well to design on the web. Take the concept of white space, for example.
White space serves a purpose. It aids readability. It gives a page a classic, rich, elegant appearance. You, dear web writer, shape the meaning of your content with words and also shape the presentation by formatting those words.
White space between words. White space between paragraphs. White space between sentences. When you write a large block of text, you break it apart into shorter paragraphs, sentences, or bullet points.
Sculpting as you go. With white space. That’s good design.
Get the book here: The Design of Everyday Things: Revised and Expanded Edition
A number of books on content marketing are published each year. If you are like me, you’d like to read them all. But it’s physically and financially impossible. You only have so many hours in a day and so many dollars in the bank.
The good news is that the tried-and-true are often just as good — if not better — than the new. In other words, you don’t necessarily need to read the best books published this year or next.
Unless you want to.
Like our very own Pamela Wilson’s upcoming book on content marketing. In fact, you can join her list to read early chapters of the book and receive a PDF version when it is published.
Hopefully these nine books above give you a head start on which classic ones to read, too.