Copywriters are good with words, stringing together sentences, and tossing off clever one-liners. Sounds like the perfect candidate for an author, right?
Well, not everyone who’s good with words is necessarily good at writing a full-length novel (nor do they all want to be).
However, copywriting is often a jumping off point for some authors. In fact, some of our favorites once started just like many of us—desk job by day, novel by night.
Here’s a look at 10 copywriters who made it as novelists that you might be able to draw some inspiration from.
10 Copywriters Who Became Authors
1. Helen Gurley Brown
Brown's journey to authorship began as a secretary at Foote, Cone & Belding advertising in the early 1960s. The agency quickly took note of her writing abilities, and moved her to the copywriting department where she advanced rapidly.
But the 1960s were not a great time to be a single woman, who were often looked at with pity. The attitude of the time, Brown said, was “if you were female and not married by age 30, you might as well go to the Grand Canyon and throw yourself in.”
To combat this notion, she wrote Sex and the Single Girl, a novel that told women they could, in fact, have it all. This led to her becoming editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine, which she turned into an outlet for the modern, single career woman.
2. Augusten Burrows
Most famous for his novel Running With Scissors about his crazy childhood, it’s his novel Dry (and by far his best in this copywriter’s opinion) in which Burrows describes his brief career as a copywriter.
Burrows came to New York City as a teenager in the mid-80s with nothing more than a GED and his ideas, which he pitched to various agencies. It worked, and so did he – for Ogilvy & Mather, Saatchi & Saatchi, and DDB, with clients ranging from Becks, the Beef Council, UPS, and American Express.
When he wasn’t writing, however, he was drinking – so much so that it put him into rehab and put an end to his copywriting career. Happily, it led to his new sober life as a prolific novelist.
3. Don DeLillo
Unsuccessful in his attempts to find a job in publishing, DeLillo took up copywriting and worked for Ogilvy & Mather in New York for over five years. Though he did write for Sears Roebuck, most of his accounts were small, and DeLillo has said that he mostly did "...print ads for very undistinguished accounts....I hadn’t made the leap to television. I was just getting good at it when I left, in 1964."
Though he'd already had some short stories published in magazines, leaving gave him the inspiration to become a full-time novelist. It took a while, but his 1985 novel White Noise broke him into the big time, and he continues to write today.
4. F. Scott Fitzgerald
The first thing that comes to mind is undoubtedly The Great Gatsby, not Muscatine Steam Laundry – but that was actually Fitzgerald's first writing gig to make an impact (and drive sales).
In 1919, Fitzgerald went to New York City to find a newspaper position as a gateway into the writing world. In a 1935 interview, he describes going from newsroom to newsroom only to be rejected, until the time one of the men he sought to impress told him to forget about journalism and work as a copywriter for an ad agency.
Fitzgerald did just that, and his most popular slogan as a copywriter? “We Keep You Clean in Muscatine.” His boss told him it was a bit unimaginative, but that “there’s a future for you in this business.”
5. Joseph Heller
Yes, the author of Catch-22 — perhaps one of the most significant novels of the twentieth century — was once a copywriter.
Heller worked at the Merrill Anderson Company in New York in 1953, when he first began writing the World War II-focused novel which would also eventually put the phrase "Catch-22" into common vernacular. While still crafting his opus, Heller moved to Remington-Rand (fun fact: future novelist Mary Higgins Clark also worked there with him as a secretary) and remained there until completion of the novel eight years later.
6. Elmore Leonard
Though his earliest novels were westerns, Leonard went on to publish some of the most influential crime fiction and suspense thrillers of all time, including Jackie Brown and Out of Sight (both of which, incidentally, became popular films directed by none other than Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh).
But before that, Leonard worked as a copywriter at Campbell Ewald in Detroit, Michigan. He joined the agency in 1949, working on the Chevrolet truck account. But Leonard always wanted more, and has said in past interviews of his copywriting career that “his heart just wasn’t in it.”
7. James Patterson
The author of more than 50 novels (including the Alex Cross series, which gave birth to numerous films Alex Cross, Kiss the Girls, and Along Came a Spider), James Patterson is the planet's best-selling author, and has been since 2001 (he beats out J.K. Rowling, John Grisham, Stephen King, Nora Roberts, and even Dr. Seuss).
But before he had over 300 million books in print and employed a cavalry of co-writers, Patterson worked as a copywriter for J. Walter Thompson. He quickly rose through the ranks, becoming the agency’s youngest creative director and eventually CEO of the North American division until 1996. A famous slogan Patterson is credited with?
You’ll know this one: “I’m a Toys ‘R’ Us Kid.”
8. Salman Rushdie
Notorious for The Satanic Verses, which caused a major stir in the late 1980s, Rushdie got his start in copywriting, bouncing around between a number of small agencies. In interviews, Rushdie would say how he saw many of his peers writing manuscripts at work, and quickly tucking them away when the boss would come by.
Rushdie’s most popular copy was written while he was at Ogilvy & Mather. He created, “Look into the mirror—you’ll like what you see” for The Daily Mirror, as well as, “Naughty. But Nice” for Fresh Cream Cakes (the client rejected the slogan, but then began to use it everywhere including this 1980 television spot).
9. Dorothy Sayers
Mystery writer Dorothy Sayers was working on what would become her first novel featuring amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, Whose Body? during a stint at London ad agency Benson’s in 1922.
But that “stint” produced a number of popular ads, and one that any pub-goer is very familiar with: the Guinness zoo ads. Guinness approached the agency with the request that their ads not be associated with beer. So, along with illustrator John Gilroy, Sayers settled on animals.
Her most famous credited line belongs to the now iconic toucan, “Guinness is good for you. How grand to be a Toucan, Just think what Toucan do.”
10. Frederic Wakeman
Like many who write about advertising agency experience, Wakeman was a copywriter for Foote, Cone & Belding. His most famous novel,The Hucksters, focuses on a war veteran who, anxious to get back to work, takes an advertising job and begins employing some slick and immortal methods in order to get ahead (so immoral that Clark Gable initially refused the lead in the movie adaption).
Are You Next?
And there you have it, ten copywriters who made it as authors. If you’re a copywriter with aspirations of writing the Great American Novel – hell, just any novel – don’t give up the dream!