Yes, you can make millions with your English degree—but it’ll come at a price

Living the dream.
Living the dream.
Image: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
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My friend Jay leaned over the cubicle wall and motioned for me to lean in, too.

“You’ll never believe how much the writers get paid,” he whispered.

“How much?” I whispered back. “$100,000?”

He pointed his thumb at the ceiling.

“$200,000? You’re joking. C’mon. What is it, really?”

When he finally said the actual number, well north of my best guess, I rolled my eyes. I’d been hazed before. Once, when I was a kid, an older Girl Scout had tried to tell me how babies are made—describing a scenario so bizarre and implausible that only an idiot would believe it.

But it turned out that the Girl Scout was telling the truth, and so was Jay. He wasn’t describing the salaries earned by ultra-successful novelists like John Grisham and J.K. Rowling, or ad-agency types like Don Draper. He was talking about direct-response copywriters—a lucrative yet little-known field tailor-made for liberal arts majors.

Direct-response copywriters compose sales letters—sometimes as long as 5,000 to 10,000 words—for companies that don’t use traditional advertising. You know those emails that pile up in the Promotions folder in your Gmail, and snail mail that solicits you to buy a product or donate money not later, but right away? These are examples of direct-response advertising. You probably know it as “junk mail” or, on the internet, as “click-bait.”

Most of these copywriters have liberal arts degrees—for good reason, too. The best preparation I can imagine for the job is writing research papers. Working as a direct-response copywriter means using the same skills that helped you crank out a 20-pager on Joyce’s Ulysses or Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. A capacity for analysis and argument can, when put to commercial ends, make you rich.

Since I spoke with Jay that day, I’ve met one-time English majors who, like wide receivers, go free agent when their contract’s up because they’re making “only” $250,000 a year. Still in their 20s, they earn as much as doctors. By their 40s, they’re retired. As my friend A. puts it, “My neighbors all think I have wealthy parents. I only go outside during the day in my pajamas to get the mail.”

Direct-response copywriting isn’t the only path to vast riches—or even making a comfortable living—with a liberal arts degree. But it’s surprising to me that it’s rarely discussed, despite the internet’s glut of articles about how to escape from adjunct-teaching limbo or pay off your student loans. Sure, it may not be anyone’s dream job—but it can certainly help get you to solvency and the odd vacation in Europe.

And for some people, that is the dream. I have another friend who has a PhD in literature from an excellent school and is now one of the most successful copywriters I know. “Life is all about disappointing yourself in manageable ways,” he says.

If this line of work sounds appealing, the best way to learn more is to read John Caples’ Tested Advertising Methods. The rest you can figure out from Google and YouTube. There’s no need to pay for classes or conferences. Copywriter jobs are listed on all the usual job sites. The best ones, at least from a pay perspective, offer a commission structure in addition to a base salary.

And even if you decide you could never spend your days writing what are essentially text-based infomercials, it’s still useful to understand direct-response techniques. You encounter and act on them a dozen times a day. You just may not realize it.

Open any non-personal email and you’re participating in an A/B subject line test. Click on an article and you’re providing data to the publisher about which headlines get the most clicks. Order something from a website and you’ll be followed by ads urging you to “shop now” for similar items.

These tactics have leaked into our political and media landscape as well: Some of the most famous political operatives, including Karl Rove and Richard Viguerie, got their start running direct-mail businesses. (In fact, some historians explain the rise of the “conservative movement” expressly through its mastery of direct mail, which bypassed the mainstream media and took the message to the people themselves – an early form of disintermediation.)

None of this is intrinsically wrong or bad. But pulling back the curtain on the field can help us all be more aware of what kind of information we’re taking in—and perhaps help a few cash-strapped liberal arts majors, too.