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seesaw showing ebooks and white papers

White papers versus e-books

So a client asked me to write an e-book.

Before I started, I searched high and low for guidance on what makes a good e-book:

  • How long should they be?
  • How many graphics should they contain?
  • Landscape or portrait format?
  • Any other distinguishing characteristics?

Unfortunately, it sounds like an “e-book” can be just about any length on just about any topic.

Remember, we’re not talking about the latest vampire novel for tweens. We’re talking about B2B e-books published by companies as part of their content marketing efforts.

white paper to e-book

White papers turned sideways?

So far, there’s no accepted way to spot the difference between a white paper and an e-book.

Some say that e-books are gussied-up white papers turned on their sides, with more graphics and less text.

And I agree that many e-books I see look more like colorful slide decks than in-depth discussions of a topic.

Some say that e-books are better for less technical material, or for a primer on a whole topic, while white papers are better for drilling down into more detail.

Since e-books sound easier to read and often feature more graphics, some marketers think e-books work better for B2C.

In any case, this table sums up the key differences I can see between a B2B e-book and a white paper.

 

 E-booksWhite papers
FocusGenerally some
topic or problem
Benefits of some
product or service
MessageHere's a basic intro
to this problem
Here's a better way
to solve this problem
Length10 to 200 pages5 to 12 pages
FormatPDF with good design
and many graphics
PDF with good design
and a few graphics
Lifespan1 or 2 years,
then refresh
1 or 2 years,
then refresh
Time to create4 to 12 weeks4 to 12 weeks
When to useEarly in sales cycleEarly in sales cycle
Why to useTo generate leads,
engage prospects
To generate leads,
engage prospects,
explain product
or service
AnalogySlide deckWell-researched
essay or article

 

When should you use an e-book?

Here are a few scenarios when an e-book might work well.

• Your business is B2C

White papers are seldom used for B2C. Consumers don’t usually want to read, they want to shop. So if you’re selling B2C but you have a big story to tell, consider an e-book before a white paper.

• White papers are not used in your industry

If no one else in your industry has ever published one, a white paper could sound too strange or too intimidating to download. An e-book might be a better choice.

• Your audience is prone to distraction

Your target audience may be younger or often on the road. An e-book may sound like more fun, rather than a white paper that sounds like a lot of work.

• All your competitors already publish white papers

If you’re trying to break through the noise of competing white papers, an e-book might sound different enough to be engaging.

You may gain more traction by presenting the same content as an e-book instead of a white paper.

• You have superior design skills on hand

To make a splash with an e-book, it has to look really good. Since there are no fixed standards for e-books, there are no formatting conventions to constrain your design creativity.

You can use different backgrounds, wild typefaces, animated graphics, and other visual flourishes that might seem out of place in a more traditional white paper.

That e-book I mentioned

The e-book I wrote ended up being 27 pages or close to 6,000 words. That’s a lot longer than most white papers.

That content was really a primer that gave a brief overview of a technical subject.

As for the format, it was turned on its side in landscape mode, like a slide deck. And it was chunked into short sections of one page each.

That e-book only had 7 formal footnotes, but it included more than 50 links to further content.

And it offered some light-hearted comments in a running footer that would not work as well in a serious white paper.

Producing that e-book was certainly no easier than doing a white paper. The research and writing were about the same as 1.5 regular white papers, while the design was substantially more effort.

I’m not saying this is the only way to approach an e-book. It’s just one I had the opportunity to work on.

You can check it out for yourself: click the thumbnail to download the PDF.

 

cover of kinaxis ebook sample

Conclusions

Just remember: The goals for both an e-book and a white paper are pretty much the same.

An ideal e-book will help your target audience understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision—just like an ideal white paper.

If your content does that, you can call it an e-book, a white paper, or whatever… and your audience will still thank you for it.

 

This page was originally published in 2014. Last updated August 4, 2022.


What do you think are the main differences between a white paper and an e-book? Please leave us your comment below.


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About Gordon Graham

Worked on 300+ white papers for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients from tiny startups to 3M, Google, and Verizon. Wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 50+ 5-star ratings on Amazon. Won 16 awards from the Society for Technical Communication. And named AWAI 2019 Copywriter of the Year.

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2 Comments

  1. Shivaprasad V Hiremath on January 11, 2017 at 5:48 am

    Hello Gordon,
    I was looking for reading a content using paper book vs ebook and found your article. Actually I feel that reading paper book has advantage over ebook but I am not sure if this is scientifically correct. So are there any white papers on this topic? This would be supportive.

  2. […] to Gordon Graham, also known as That White Paper Guy, e-books are usually anywhere from ten to hundreds of pages, and are best used early in the sales […]

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