Staying Creative: A Non-Marketing Booklist for Content Creators

October 17, 2017 Kyle Harper

Image of a row of books

There are a lot of things content creators have to worry about. Deadlines, software hitches, demanding clients, too little work, too much work—the list goes on. But there’s also an ever-present stress, one that lies underneath all of the hustle and bustle of the day: What happens if I’m not creative anymore?

It’s a strange feeling, like our creativity is something that can be poured out or used up or lost. “Burnout,” some creatives call it. The common consensus on avoiding burnout seems to be the idea of “recharging,” of finding ways to take in creativity on a regular basis, rather than pushing it out all the time.

Today, there is some brilliant neuroscientific research that seeks to explain this dynamic through a mechanism called “neuroplasticity,” which essentially suggests that our mind is more like a muscle than we might think—routines and habitual living result in stagnant brain development, while trying new things or wrestling with new ideas can help enliven and reshape brain tissue.

So, naturally, I took this as an excuse to count my regular weekly reading as exercise—working out my brain is just as good as a jog, right? (Spoiler, it’s not, you really should still exercise.)

When it comes to keeping creative and learning something new, books continue to be a powerful resource for content creators. But go online and do a quick search for “books for marketers” and you’re likely to be met with a list of familiar titles that all focus on the latest trends in marketing. These can be great resources, but en masse it can become habitual reading we don’t look forward to. Thanks to neuroplasticity, though, these books aren’t the only ways to keep creative as content marketers.

The Three Topics

In a second, we’ll get to a book list that breaks down a number of books from across a wide range of disciplines that can help inform and invigorate and marketer. But because my editor wants this list to stick closer to ten entries than 10,000 entries, I’ve split these recommendations up into three areas: audience, discipline, and craft.


These are books that relate to whom content creators create for. All content marketers, whether working for a company or striking off to freelance, have effectively two audiences they create for: their end recipients and their clients/stakeholders. This topic area has some goodies to help you tackle both.

Some of these books look at more of the neat neuroscience that’s helping us understand how people think and interact with stories. Other resources in this area aim to help the reader with managing client relationships or starting their own creative business. If you find yourself having a hard time creating content that engages your reader or if a sticky client relationship has got you down, these books are a great place to recharge and adapt.


Too often, the biggest opponent creatives face in their work is themselves.

Sometimes, the battle is with our own desire to procrastinate and watch just . . . one . . . more . . . episode of our favorite show. Other times, while in the process of creating, we just can’t get over that nagging feeling like our work has become repetitive or stale, that something just needs to change or improve. In times like these, I find that reading about discipline—either discipline of the self or in terms of mastery of a craft—can be a powerful way to break old habits, encourage new ways of thinking, and pull yourself out of a creative rut.


The last section is interesting. On the one hand, creatives should always be striving to make something new, to stand out, to be unique. But sometimes, learning from the best is really, really helpful for figuring out where your story should go next. From Plato to Robert McKee, there is no shortage of experts who are more than happy to share thoughts on the structures, themes, and purposes of stories in our everyday lives.

If you’ve found yourself stuck trying to plot the next step in a story, or if you want to better understand the larger mechanics and philosophies that define human stories, these are great stories to read.

Book list for marketers

Image attribution: All Bong

Understanding Your Audience

Every professional content creator has to contend with two audiences: their client and their content recipient.

Marketing tends to focus on the recipient side, employing marketing-familiar metrics like demographics and survey research, while management texts tend to focus on stakeholder, bottom lines, and everything related to business goals. As a content marketer caught in the middle, it can be easy to fall into the trap of focusing too heavily in one of these camps or the other, and ultimately your work can suffer for it.

Here are some excellent options for those looking to find balance in how they approach their audiences.

Thinking Fast and Slow—Daniel Kahneman

People are far from predictable, but new advances in psychology and neuroscience are giving people more insight than ever before into the underlying mechanisms behind how we observe the world and make decisions. But for those of us who don’t want to pursue a graduate degree or read complex medical journals, Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is an excellent introduction into the world of behavior.

Through friendly and engaging prose, Nobel Prize laureate Kahneman takes the reader through a number of stories, case studies, and scenarios that help illuminate the reactionary and deliberate mechanisms of our minds that help us make good—and bad—decisions. A great read for marketers who want to better understand their audience’s decision making process while also learning a bit about themselves.

Confessions of an Advertising Man—David Ogilvy

Perhaps a controversial pick for content marketers, David Ogilvy’s seminal work, Confessions of an Advertising Man, is a mainstay text of advertising and marketing classes in colleges worldwide. It typifies much of what content marketing seeks to push against today: short, punchy messages that grab attention regardless of substance. But despite the difference in marketing opinion, the first half of this book remains one of the best primers on how to acquire, manage, and retain clients for a creative business—an indispensable pool of knowledge for freelancers and consultants.

For content marketers who really want to stretch themselves, Ogilvy will teach any willing reader how buyers today make purchasing decisions, how agencies win and retain good clients, and perhaps most importantly how content marketing competition in advertising operates.

For additional reads on human behavior or decision making in commercial culture, also check out:

The Business Side of Creativity—Bellerose and Foote: Want to learn all the good bits of managing a creative business without all of the advertising pomp of Ogilvy? This is an excellent and practical resource to try.

Amusing Ourselves to Death—Neil Postman: Really, this is a must read for any marketer who has to parse or manage community discourse on social media.

Book list for marketers

Image attribution: Karol Dach

Getting Disciplined

When we talk to creatives about the work they do, there is often an interesting, quiet split that forms. On the one side, we have a crowd I like to lovingly refer to as the “Geniuses.” These are creatives who seem to be able to pull creativity straight from the cosmos and turn it into extraordinary work seemingly on a whim. These are creatives who wax poetic about the importance and cruciality of inspiration, and for whom burnout is a death sentence to be avoided at all costs.

On the other side, you have the “Laborers.” These are creatives for whom the act of creation is disciplined and constant. These are the writers who force themselves to write at least a thousand words a day, even if it’s garbage. These are the artists you sit across from on subways who practice sketching simple shapes in little notebooks. For these creatives, burnout is almost inevitable, but something they prepare to address when it comes.

While you would likely be hard pressed to find any creative who falls entirely into one of these stereotypes, understanding the roles and balance of discipline, skill, talent, and inspiration in the creative process is critical for any content creator.

On Writing—Stephen King

Stephen King can be a divisive creative figure to bring up, especially around writers. Some aren’t a fan of his “commercial” horror or the expansive romance library he’s written under a pen name. Others (this writer included) are more than happy to see a writer find success and will avidly defend selections of his novels and many of his short stories for their literary worth. Regardless of the case, however, no one can besmirch King for his prolificity, with well over 50 novels and 200 short stories in publication.

On Writing is part memoir, part masterclass in how to be a writer. Through his trademark storytelling, King helps teach the reader how to properly value and practice creative discipline, while also teaching readers how to actively seek out inspiration in everything. Highly recommended for anyone who produces written content.

Meditations—Marcus Aurelius

Interjecting a little literature into your booklist has never hurt anyone, and when it comes to putting discipline into practice, Marcus Aurelius is essential reading. Meditations is considered a cornerstone work of stoic philosophy, but is presented in the concise, deliberate, and clear language of a general. This short book can be read in a determined afternoon or a relaxed week, and it encourages the reader to really consider how much control they have over what they think and do: When you construct, create, or do anything else, are you mindful of it in the moment, or acting instinctually? If you ever find yourself struggling to meet deadlines, to remain cool during high stress times, or even just to sit down and get creating, Marcus Aurelius may have some useful perspective for you.

Some other great books to check out for creativity and habit based learning:

Mysteries and MannersFlannery O’Conner: Flannery O’Connor is most famous for her fiction writing, but this approachable collection of unpublished essays tends towards the stylistic side of improving yourself as a creative. I’d consider this essential for any writer’s bookshelf.

The Creative HabitTwyla Tharp: Looking for all of the creative discipline ideas and lifestyle advice without Stephen King’s childhood stories? This book serves as a popular and suitable alternative.

Reading for creativity

Image attribution: Mariana Vusiatytska

Mastering Craft

We live in a particularly privileged time in which access to art, artistic experts, and creative resources is extremely open. While this can make it hard for creatives to rise above the noise of everyone else’s work, it also means that we have better access than ever before to understanding how the best of the best make their work.

These suggested readings can help you better understand the essential theories and constructions that appear to underlie all great stories, characters, and themes, regardless of medium.

The Hero’s Journey—Joseph Campbell

Joseph Campbell’s writing spans a lot of disciplines to explore the meanings, practices, and common tropes of mythic storytelling. In The Hero’s Journey, Campbell synthesizes a lifetime of research into an examination of his own journey, while unpacking what he considers to be the essential elements necessary to creating the perfect protagonist. Swinging in equal measure between academia and personal anecdotes, this a great book to tackle for creatives who want to better understand the history of story at its most essential: the struggles of people in pursuit of anything, and the journeys which result from them.

Save the Cat—Blake Snyder

Do you have a distant family member who has been working on a screenplay for the past ten years and is incapable of talking about anything else during the holidays? Well, if you read Save the Cat, you’ll have at least one new thing to talk about this coming year, because they have almost certainly read this book.

Joking aside, Snyder’s popular introduction to screenplay writing is as accessible as it is practical. Even if you have no reason to think you’ll ever need to create a screenplay, this book is a great way to rethink how you structure your narratives, keep your writing purposeful and on track, and eventually “save the cat.” Or, assuming your brand doesn’t have feline-rescue-related KPIs, achieve your content marketing goals.

Other great reads on the craft of story and characters:

The Story Solution—Eric Edson: If Joseph’s Campbell’s style doesn’t appeal to you, or if you’re looking for a more detailed progression for your heroes to take, then this is the book for you.

Storynomics—Robert McKee and Thomas Gerace: Coming in early 2018, this book combines the storytelling mastery of Robert McKee with the content marketing leadership and expertise of Tom Gerace to give marketers an actionable template for brilliant brand storytelling.

Books for marketers that aren't about marketing

Stay Creative!

Hopefully, this list helps you find something to recharge, reengage, and reinvigorate your content marketing. Whether you’re looking to improve the work you produce or yourself as a creator, creative insight from outside your usual work or field is crucial if you want to stay flexible and inspired in today’s creatively glutted market. With any luck, these books for marketers should help hold you over for the next few months—but it is the practice of seeking out these creative resources that will keep you sustained for the whole of your long, creative career.

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Featured image attribution: Josh Felise

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