How a Copywriter Created the Second-Best-Selling Christmas Song of All Time and Got Rich

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rudolph_imageIf you’re flicking the channels at all this holiday season, no doubt you’ll come across the classic TV special, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

While the song is familiar, its origins aren’t well-known.

Robert L. May was working as a copywriter for the Montgomery Ward company in 1939, when they asked him to come up with a promotional booklet they could give away to customers during the holiday season.

May, who had a knack for writing limericks and children’s stories, tapped his own childhood memories and came up with the Rudolph character and story. Montgomery Ward distributed 2.4 million copies of the booklet that first year, and 6 million by 1946.

The following year, May convinced Montgomery Ward to sign over the copyright to Rudolph to him (a brilliant business move). With the rights to his creation in hand, he swung into action. First, he printed and marketed the “Rudolph” book commercially. Then, he had a nine-minute cartoon of the story shown in movie theaters.

Things really took off when May got his brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks, to set the story to music. After Roy Rogers turned it down, Gene Autry recorded it in 1949. It sold 2 million copies that year, and to this day is second only to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.” The TV special narrated by Burl Ives in 1964 further sealed the fortune of Robert L. May, copywriter.

So, what are the writer’s takeaways from this holiday story?

  1. Never turn down a challenge.
  2. Repurpose your writing.
  3. Whenever possible, get the rights to your copy.
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