Our favourite books for the self-employed

Self-employment can be challenging at times. That’s why IPSE offers a range of advice, events and support to help. But sometimes we all need to take a break from reading on screens and digital devices, so we’ve collected our favourite books for the self-employed.

Our favourite books for the self-employed

There are benefits to shutting down your phone or laptop, as reading a book can help to reduce stress, develop focus and mental activity, and help you establish and keep a better routine if you’re struggling with sleep. And if your budget is limited, don’t overlook your local library as a free source of timeless knowledge and inspiration.

Each of the IPSE team were asked to recommend books that that have inspired them, offered practical advice, or helped them develop their careers in some way. So, whether you’re contracting, freelancing or running a self-employed business, there’s likely to be something relevant to your situation.

Vicks Rodwell, Head of Partnerships

Who moved my cheese? by Dr Spencer Johnson (Buy from Amazon)

This book is an allegory about change, and essentially, if you do not change, you can become extinct. It’s shaped my career in the sense that I’m always looking to change and improve the company I work within and the product(s) they sell. Not evolving will see a decline in your audience. The book is an enlightening story of four characters who live in a maze and look for cheese to sustain them and make them happy. Cheese is the metaphor for what you want to have in life, for example a good job, health etc. The maze is where you look for what you want, perhaps the organisation you work in, or the family or community you live in. In the story, the characters are faced with unexpected change in their search for the cheese. One of them eventually deals with change successfully and writes what he has learned on the maze walls for you to discover. You'll learn how to anticipate, adapt to and enjoy change and be ready to change quickly whenever you need to.


Start with why by Simon Sinek (Buy from Amazon)

This book is off the back of Simon's hugely influential lecture of the same name, the third most-watched TED talk of all time. It tackles a fundamental question: What makes some organisations and people more innovative, influential, and profitable than others? It highlights that so many companies only want to talk about themselves and ‘what’ they do. But people don't buy ‘what’ you do, they buy ‘why’ you do it. Starting with WHY yields benefits like a more inspired team, more loyal customers, and enduring long-term success. Simon highlighting this was like a lightbulb moment for me, it was everything I’d been trying to articulate for years but couldn’t quite put my finger on what they gold dust was. For me this is a must for anyone that is struggling with positioning what they are doing.  


Liz Randell, Social Media Manager

Will It Fly? by Pat Flynn (Buy from Amazon)

This is a great choice for anyone looking to start a business or a new venture. It takes you through all the planning stages of a new product or service, outlining client pains you may not have thought of. From concept to testing and finally getting up and running, Will it Fly? guides you through with ease.

Business Model Generation by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur (Buy from Amazon)

Another amazing planning and guidance book - it’s great for getting your business off the ground but also for planning the important steps around sales funnels, customer acquisition and finding the long term business model that works for you.  


Toby Tetrault, Head of Marketing

The Choice Factory by Richard Shotton (Buy from Amazon)

One of the only ‘business’ books I have read cover-to-cover more than once and return to regularly. It’s sub-title describes itself clearly - 25 behavioural biases that influence what we buy. Not only incredibly powerful when designing any campaign, product or website copy, but truly enlightening for understanding what influences our personal choices. Buying anything after reading this is a constant challenge to your biases. Covering biases such as social proof, the pratfall effect, and expectancy theory, this is a fascinating introduction into a wide range of behavioural concepts with actionable advice.

Hacking Growth, Sean Ellis and Morgan Brown (Buy from Amazon)

My most recent read - growth hacking is a popularised and potentially overused phrase. This book essentially started the terminology. In it, Sean and Morgan break down the process and concepts clearly and concisely. It helps change your mindset when working towards an end goal, challenging yourself to drive growth through a rigorous process of rapid experimentation and learning. Very powerful stuff.

 White Heat by Marco Pierre White (Buy from Amazon)

One of my first loves was cooking, my first job was in a kitchen, and in another life maybe I’d be a chef. As it is, it’s a passion and a hobby. This book is the perfect example of how to build your personal brand, offer unique value, and delight the reader. It was a gamechanger for the industries, a ‘chef’ was never seen the same after this book and the industry was changed - the goalposts moved forever. Not many books can say they have done that.  


Orla Lyons-Hamilton, Freelance Marketing Executive

On Photography by Susan Sontag (Buy from Amazon)

This collection of essays focusing on voyeurism and the politics of image by American writer, filmmaker and philosopher Susan Sontag inspired me to grab a camera and experiment with the medium of photography and consider my craft in a completely different way to how I was initially. I found her use of Plato’s Cave as an analogy to question and highlight the authenticity of imagery and how reality itself is lost in an illusive moment in time and space immortalised, particularly fascinating. These profound notions touching on the aesthetics, authenticity of imagery and ethics of seeing went on to inform my practice as I worked within fashion photography and styling, and continues to be a pillar of consideration when working with visual communication and storytelling in marketing.  


Dieter Feyerabend, Graphic Designer

Know Your Onions by Drew de Soto (Buy from Amazon)

It’s from 2014 but I still think it’s relevant. It’s pretty much a no-nonsense approach to graphic design.

Fifty Things that Made the Modern Economy by Tim Harford (Buy from Amazon)

I found load of interesting things in this one.  


Katie Stover, Freelance Videographer and Editor

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller (Buy from Amazon)

As a videographer and editor so much of my job is about telling stories. This book is all about stories, and more than that, striving to live a better story as well. As a creative professional, I find that I draw creativity and inspiration from the life I lead and the people I meet along the way. I read this book during lockdown when I didn’t feel much inspiration from being stuck inside all day and needed a creative pick me up - in both filmmaking and in life. In the book the author is approached by screenwriters to turn his memoir into a movie but in the process of actually making the film , he learns that his life really isn't that interesting. Reflecting on his own life, the author applies the basic components of story to his everyday life to actually live a more interesting life. The writing was witty, funny, and intelligent - I finished it in a day.   It made me reflect on what really makes an interesting story and the story I’m telling in my own life and for others. A good story involves facing fears, overcoming obstacles, making difficult decisions that require actions, saying yes to things and more. We can live (and tell) stories that transform us.  


Christina McLean, Digital Marketing Executive

This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay (Buy from Amazon)

I was first introduced to this book in 2019 when Adam Kay was about to be our keynote speaker at National Freelancers Day. The book recounts Adam’s experiences as a Junior Doctor, featuring all the endlessly long shifts, life and death decisions, and bodily fluids you can imagine. I listened to the entire audiobook version (which Adam himself narrates) in one day, and then started it all over again the next. I was gripped by the way Adam told his stories in a way that made you feel his moments of happiness, frustration, and ultimately grief. By reading (or rather listening) to this book, I recognised the importance of finding humour in the face of adversity. Also, like Katie’s book suggestion above, it’s an incredible example of the importance of storytelling. In this case, Adam has used his story to build support for the NHS and its workers. Shining a light on the unimaginably difficult days some people face is crucial for helping us feel empathy towards others.

Company of One, by Paul Jarvis (Buy from Amazon)

In a rapidly advancing digital world, we’re surrounded by media coverage of the latest disruptive start-up or young entrepreneur making millions (if not billions). The lingo that abounds in the world of business seems to epitomise one key factor as the ultimate marker of success: growth. In this book, Jarvis discusses the idea that, realistically, not everyone can or needs to be the next big thing, and instead of trying to have it all, maybe we should instead focus on having “enough”. He makes a compelling case for staying small, shifting the well-accepted mindset and practice that bigger is always better, and that we should all be striving to grow our business. Overall, the message in this book that resonated with me, and that I think most self-employed people would agree with, is that we can be working to live, not living to work. It forces you to ask yourself: How does growth affect my happiness or how I want to spend my day (my purpose)?


Dan Thornton: Freelance writer and SEO consultant

Walking on Water by Andy Martin (Buy from Amazon)

If I had to pick the original seed of my career over the last 20 years, it’s probably this book. As an avid reader who dreamed of a career in music or motorsport, it eloquently showed a way to earn a living from writing about your passion – even if you’re not quite lucky or talented enough to turn professional. If the author was able to become the first surfing correspondent for The Times, then why couldn’t I build a career working in the fields I enjoyed? And how many fascinating stories are waiting to be unearthed just by listening to people talk about their work or hobbies?


The Innovation Stack: Building an Unbeatable Business One Crazy Idea at a Time by Jim McKelvey (Buy from Amazon)

Lots of successful business people have published the stories of their success, and it’s important to remember that it’s only one perspective on their achievements. While I could have picked books by Phil Knight (Nike) or Yvon Chouinard (Patagonia), I settled on the story of Square payment start-up mainly because it’s one of the funniest and most enjoyable tales of entrepreneurship I’ve read. It’s also great inspiration for anyone going up against larger competitors, as McKelvey pulled together the idea of his Innovation Stack based on the experience of competing against Amazon until the eCommerce giant eventually gave up.


Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (Buy from Amazon) Working for yourself involves lots of decision-making, whether you’re making a choice for your business, or hoping a client picks your proposal. But as human beings, we’re often prone to irrational mistakes for a variety of reasons. And understanding why those errors can be made can help you with marketing yourself or your clients. But it’s also reassuring when you just can’t understand why a pitch failed, or your client refuses to take your advice. From predicting what will make you happy in the future, to investing in the stock market, better thinking can definitely benefit your work.  


Why not share your own recommendations for books which could inspire or help other self-employed professionals? We’d love to see your choices on the Members Forum, the IPSE Facebook page, or via Twitter.

And if you've ever aspired to writing as a hobby or a career, why not take a look at our Advice section, which includes guides on how to become a self-employed writer, proofreader or author?

The affiliate links listed above to purchase any of the recommended books won't change the price you pay, but do mean that IPSE will benefit from a small comission, helping to fund our work as the UK's only not-for-profit membership organisation for the self-employed



Need more help? Self-employment often means having to navigate lots of different websites with no clear source of truth. As the only not-for profit focused on self-employment, IPSE provides impartial and relevant advice on the topics that matter to you.

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IPSE is the leading association for contractors, consultants, interims, freelancers and the self-employed. We strive to bring our members the most comprehensive and useful range of information and services and all the latest news about what affects your business.