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One of my SHIFT Communications coworkers recently asked, “what’s the difference between whitepapers and eBooks?

This is a surprisingly common question among content marketers. What constitutes a whitepaper vs. an eBook? Is it length? Intended audience? Format? Noted marketing author and friend David Meerman Scott says, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that a whitepaper is any document printed in portrait setting, and an eBook is printed in landscape.

Is that truly the only difference? I decided to settle the argument with… data!


I Googled for the top 50 results for “marketing ebook filetype:pdf” and “marketing whitepaper filetype:pdf”, then downloaded the top 50 Google search results for each.

Using a variety of command-line tools, I converted each PDF to its plain-text equivalent.

From there, I used common command-line tools (wc delivers word counts, and some Python NLP libraries to analyze text) to extract each document’s word count, Flesch-Kincaid Reading Score, and Flesch-Kincaid Ease of Reading Score.

eBooks vs. Whitepapers: Length

On average, eBooks are longer than whitepapers:


In the sample, the longest eBook was 53,109 words; the shortest was 221 words.

By contrast, the longest whitepaper was 16,350 words; the shortest was 332 words.

eBooks vs. Whitepapers: Grade Level

Using the standard Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test to determine what grade level each body of text was written at, whitepapers are written for a higher grade level than eBooks:


In the sample, the toughest eBook was grade 22; the easiest eBook was grade 5.

Whitepapers had a narrower range of grade, from grade 16 at the top end to grade 8 at the bottom.

eBooks vs. Whitepapers: Readability

Using the standard Flesch-Kincaid Ease of Reading Score (100 is easiest to read, 0 is the most difficult to read), eBooks are easier to read than whitepapers:


In the sample, the toughest eBook to read scored 28, while the easiest was 77.

The toughest whitepaper to read was 21, while the easiest was 82.


eBooks, based on this limited sample set, are:

  • Longer than whitepapers
  • Written for a lower grade level
  • Easier to read

Whitepapers, based on this sample, are:

  • Shorter than eBooks
  • Written for a higher grade level
  • More difficult to read

If we generalize based on these characteristics, eBooks are intended for a broader audience that has time to consume longer-form content, but not necessarily highly technical or complex ideas. Whitepapers are intended for a narrower, more educated audience that can tackle more difficult to read, complex ideas – even if those ideas are packaged in fewer words.

What should you do with this information? Score your own marketing content:

  • How difficult is it to read?
  • What grade level is it written for?
  • How much time does your audience have to read your content?

Then analyze the content your ideal audience already reads and determine whether whitepapers or eBooks are better for them.

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