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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 it be?
  • How many graphics should it contain?
  • Landscape or portrait format?
  • Any other distinguishing marks?

Unfortunately, I found that 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?

There’s no accepted way to tell a white paper and an e-book apart.

Some say 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.

More or less in-depth?

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

That’s how these working definitions from content syndicator Netline stack up:

eBooks cover broad topics and ideas and should be educational and easy to digest, used to drive awareness and help buyers find answers, opinions, and insight on a certain topic.

White papers present data, frameworks, and analyses to address complex problems, helping establish authority on a specific subject and are great when buyers require more in-depth, technical information.

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

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.

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. This applies to all B2C marketing as well. 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.

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.


cover of kinaxis ebook sample

See for yourself: Here’s that e-book I wrote

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

That content was 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 had 7 formal footnotes plus 50+ links to further content.

And it offered light-hearted comments in footer that wouldn’t work in a serious white paper.

Producing that e-book was 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.

Check it out for yourself: Click the thumbnail above to see the PDF.


Remember: Both an e-book and a white paper have pretty much the same goals.

An effective e-book will help your target audience understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision. So will an effective white paper.

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


Originally published 2014. Last updated April 5, 2024

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 320+ 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 60+ 5-star ratings on Amazon. Won 16 awards from the Society for Technical Communication. Named AWAI 2019 Copywriter of the Year.

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  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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