back to article E-book readers attract unwanted VAT

Many of those finding e-book readers under their Christmas tree have been surprised to discover that electronic titles attract value added tax, despite the dead-tree versions being VAT-free. As the UK VAT rate returns to its pre-recession level of 17.5 per cent, owners of e-book readers are finding out that they have to pay it …


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  1. Gavin McMenemy


    I really don't see the problem.

    Books are essential... e-books are not. Therefore they are a luxury.

    No, I don't think I will be signing any petitions about this.

    1. Andus McCoatover

      Books essential?

      C'm on, Sunshine. You'll tell me next cars are, dentures are, television is. "Essential" is if you can exist without it/them. Food/air/water/warm clothing/shelter falls into the realm of "essential". Not a weighty tome, or even a library.

      Don't be daft, man.

  2. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    Not if you scan them yourself, they don't

    To be honest, I'd rather scan and OCR a physical book than buy an ebook. I'm just an old luddite at heart, but I don't buy anything that comes with DRM infection, even if it's easy to remove... and I certainly don't buy electric copies of books I already own in paper form.

    There's certainly a VAT on the readers, and it's a fair chunk of change, so they're getting you twice if they charge you for the text as well.

    Interesting that the tax is there at all though. The Gummint[tm] is obviously making a distinction between a book with words in, and the words themselves. Is VAT payable on a blank notebook? I rather think it is, and in that case, they're implying on the one hand that the words have a negative VAT applied when they're stuck to paper and a positive VAT when they're stuck in a file. Illogical, captain!

  3. John 48
    Thumb Up

    Another can of worms ripe for opening

    Who else can see the wrinkle? Buy this nice shiny e-book - its VAT free!

    (oh, and by the way, it comes on a reusable 32GB SD card or whatever other storage device would benefit from being punted VAT free).

    I was about to say, cue future budget and watch Gordo back pedal with cries of "Oh you naughty people, I never intended you to take advantage of my legislation like that!", but with a bit of luck Gordo and mates will be history by then.

  4. Mark Randall

    Geek Joke

    The EU is more than capable of determining the square root of minus 1.

    After all - their accounts are full of imaginary numbers.

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  6. frank ly

    Imagine That !

    "...rather more difficult than calculating the square root of -1."

    Easy, it's 'j' (or 'i' if you're a physicist or a mathematician). No calculation needed.

    1. Bill Fresher

      Square root of -1

      i, or j, is not the result of calculating the square root of -1 (which is impossible).

      i, or j, simply represent the square root of -1.

      1. DavCrav Silver badge

        Maths FAIL

        "i, or j, is not the result of calculating the square root of -1 (which is impossible).

        i, or j, simply represent the square root of -1."

        No, sorry. Try again. (There are three reasonable viewpoints: either only the non-negative whole numbers exist, either all rational numbers (fractions) exist, or you can have any number system you want, so i is an element of the complex numbers, and its square is -1. Just because it's called 'imaginary', and real numbers are called 'real', doesn't make one more acceptable than the other. Indeed, i is a much nicer number than the vast majority of 'real' numbers, which are impossible to ever write down.)

      2. Anonymous Coward

        @Bill Fresher - re:i, or j, simply represent the square root of -1.

        i (or j) isn't just a symbol and does have a meaning on the complex number plane - it represents "1 unit" of the axis at 90° to the axis where what we would consider normal numbers lie on.

        If you think -1 is really 1 going the otherway - then you can think of it as -1 = 1 @ 180°, then j = 1 @ 90° - google "complex numbers"

        Normally most of us don't need to use complex numbers - but just image the headaches if we needed more than 2 dimensions to our numbers as I am sure String theory probably does

  7. Seanmon

    Sorry, but

    I'm still not getting the E-book thing. Why on Earth does anyone need to have thousands of books instantly to hand? That's one hell of a train journey.

    1. Cameron Colley

      Where would you like your books?

      While it's not likely that someone would want tens, hundreds or even thousands of books on a train journey they may want to own a large number of books -- where would you suggest someone store hundreds or thousands of real books? We don't all have houses large enough for libraries you know.

      That's forgetting the fact that, for example, carrying a book in a language foreign to yourself and a dictionary may be a little heavier than carrying one ebook.

      You may not personally benefit from ebooks, but I would have thought you could appreciate why others might.

    2. John Bailey

      Not sorry at all

      For the same reason that many people have a few days worth of music on an MP3 player that only has a day's battery life.

      I have about 50 books on my reader right now. I'm still only reading one at a time, but if the storage is there, why not. And if I am delayed somewhere, and I have my reader with me, running out of book is not a problem.

      Seriously.. The storage thing is nice, but not a huge advantage. The ability to carry a a big thick book in a device that is about a centimetre thick is nice too, but even that is not the killer feature.

      The killer feature.. For me at least, is the ability to change the font size. Something you don't appreciate until your eyes start going. And the huge amount of free (and legal) books out there is not bad either.

    3. heyrick Silver badge

      Stuck on the proverbial desert island?

      (see title)

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Up

      Here's my reason...

      Tech manuals for hardware engineers? DBAs and system Admins ( Win and Unix ) visiting remote sites? Both will instantly have all their manuals and books to hand to look stuff up rather than visit, say they can't do the job and have to charge you for another site visit?

      The only reason I want one is for tech manuals when I am out and about on jobs.

      So there you go.

  8. Anonymous Coward

    Sigh,...headline readers again...

    ..It the e-BOOKS, not ebook-READER people are complaining about.

    And it to be honest if you can afford a couple of hundred quid for a toy, then I'm sure you can afford a few extra pence per book.

  9. Andus McCoatover

    calculating the square root of -1

    All I do is go back to my billiard days, and just put one colour of balls into the shape of the letter "J". I can 'imagine' how to do that, even when completely rat-faced on Friday lunchtime.

    How can a Gummint impose that with legal download (Gutenberg) and illegal D/L (available on p2p networks - not illegal in themselves, natch) beats the bejeezus out of me.

    VAT == artificially man-made == doomed. Doomed, I say!

    1. The Indomitable Gall

      Poor rationale..

      "How can a Gummint impose that with legal download (Gutenberg)"

      VAT is a percentage of sale price ("value" added tax is a misnomer). 17.5% of free = 0. And 0 tax is easy to collect.

      "and illegal D/L"

      Hmmm... Last time I checked, the plague of drug-fuelled happy-slapping hoodie-shoplifters terrorising our inner cities (as defined by the Daily Mail) hadn't caused the government to abolish VAT on the items most commonly shoplifted....

  10. Dogbyte
    Thumb Down


    Seems to be a typical lack of joined-up thinking. With no printing and transport costs ebooks are the greener option - something government=t ought to be encouraging.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    e-Readers should be free of VAT full stop ....

    You could argue that paper books result in the destruction of forests, leading to global warming etc, in this argument paper books would be taxed at a higher rate than e-books.

    Back in the real world until (if ever) e-books really take off and the hardware gets to be cheap as chips this could not be considered.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Paris Hilton

      Bah Humbug

      I could argue that books mean more forests planted to produce paper. Less paper needed, less forests needed. Forests are the lungs of Gaia or whatever. RealBooks thus help sequester carbon so should be cheaper. Plus I can read RealBooks in the bath. Not sure I want to do that with an expensive lithium battery powered gizmo.

  12. EvilGav 1

    Oh dear god

    Would the eco-mentalists please stop with the idea tht an e-Book is more eco-friendly ?

    Wood-pulp used to make paper comes from forests that were planted for that very reason, not from hardwood forests that suck up most of the CO2, and those same forests are replaced by the same companies that harvest them. It's no different to a farmer growing wheat, the timescales between planting/harvest are just longer.

    As for the e-Book, well, we'll just ignore the heavy metals involved in the manufacture of them, the strip mining that got the copper, the corrosives used to clean the ICU's and so on and so forth with the whole thing.

    This doesn't even take into account that my paper book works all the time. Lets not forget the Doomsday book, the original (hundreds of years old) can still be read, the new version put on laser-disk in the 80's, cant.

    1. Iggle Piggle

      I was about to say something similar

      But don't forget that processing wood pulp to paper is actually quite a chemically intense process. There is a huge amount of bleaching that goes on and quite a lot of energy is used.

      Indeed similar to any crop such as wheat the paper locks up the CO2 until it ultimately degrades. With wheat that will happen fairly quickly as we eat our cereal but for a book there is a good chance that it will sit on a shelf for years or decades locking up the CO2 in the process.

      I'd suggest you do not ignore the pollution involved in manufacture of the reader. Then the fact that it takes some energy just to keep the thing lit up to be able to read the 'book' that would otherwise cost nothing to read in paper version means it keeps on polluting (arguably not by very much).

      I'd be curious to know if there has been a proper life cycle analysis comparing a paper book to a digital book.

    2. heyrick Silver badge

      Domesday (not "doom"sday <g>)

      There's an official project for a PC-based reader.

      There is a working one in the hands of a fellow Acorn enthusiast:

      (complete with more details than you ever needed to know...)

      It is still around, and the data (which I believe to be largely analogue) is still available, so it isn't dead yet. It might be "largely unavailable", but then I've never seen the real domesday book...

  13. Rob 30


    the article specifically mentions "children's clothes", if vat's only on essentials, does that mean adults are legally allowed to walk around naked?

    -i don't think that's the case, it just seemed odd that it didn't just say clothes, i would have thought they would fall into the category of essentials more than books really, no matter the age of the person wearing them..

    1. Rasczak

      VAT on clothes

      The article is right, no VAT on children's clothes only, adult clothes are VAT rated. Of course whether an item is for children or adults is set purely by size and so it does bring in the anomaly whereby a larger child has to pay VAT on their clothes, but a smaller adult may not.

  14. Steve Loughran

    VAT all books then

    Making e-books VAT free is a losing battle -when is an application not an ebook; who will go through the iTunes store checking each one for functionality. Adding VAT to books would address the problem, by making things consistent.

    1. phoenix


      Sod that idea just to bring VAT into line with a product, that unless the publishers are willing to give up a chunk of margin to ensure e-books are significantly cheaper than their paper versons, will slowly fall into non use except for a few gadget boys and tech peole who are sick of lumping wads of tree body around.

      Books educate people as do libraries and should be VAT free.

  15. Hanni Ali


    Firstly I would argue that e-books are non-essential and the government shouldn't drop VAT on anything until the budget defecit is eliminated.

    Secondly I would expect removal of VAT to be only briefly noticible, retailers would probably increase the prices back to the price point ebooks were at previously simply increasing their margins and not benefiting the consumer (or tax payer) at all.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge


      >Firstly I would argue that e-books are non-essential

      All e-books just because they are electronic?

      So a nursing manual as an e-book is non essential but a Jeffery Archer on paper is?

      Or do we setup a dept to go through each book deciding if its essential or not?

      The 'essential' test was the result of an early test case which greatly expanded VAT's reach. It is easier to include something in the VAT rules by showing it is not essential than it is to force something to have VAT by proving its a 'luxury'.

  16. Grant Mitchell

    @ Iggle Piggle

    Here is a paper on environmental impact of ebooks:

    Overall, the conventional book system required more raw materials and water inputs,

    consumed more energy, and produced more air and water emissions and solid wastes than

    the e-reader system under baseline conditions. Major conclusions from the baseline LCI

    are as follows:

    • For the conventional book system, LCI results were largely driven by three

    factors: (1) textbook paper production, (2) the relatively large amount of

    electricity consumed during book printing operations, and (3) personal


    • For the e-reader system, LCI results were driven by the electricity generated

    for on-screen viewing.

  17. Andrew...
    Paris Hilton

    @Rob 30

    "adults legally allowed to walk around naked"

    The "Naked Rambler" faced with Life in Jail at the moment may agree with that sentiment.

    Paris obviously......

  18. Bambaaclaaaat

    Keep the VAT

    E books cost less to make but are priced at levels that mean higher profits for vendors. If vendors are worried about customers paying tax they should cut the price. We all have sen the way that when VAT was cut some vendors just kept the price the same, keeping more profit.

    Anyway, e books aren't books. A book is a thing you can give or lend or sell on. You can't do that with e books because vendors will want to keep as much control as possible, Some can even take them out of e book readers.

    1. Neill Mitchell


      "Anyway, e books aren't books. A book is a thing you can give or lend or sell on. You can't do that with e books because vendors will want to keep as much control as possible,"

      Just because vendors don't allow ebooks to be lent (well, in the main anyway) and resold, is not the ebook's fault.

      As you correctly say, the current near fatal flaw with eBooks is that the vendors are being greedy. Their margins must be huge on these things. They haven't learnt a thing from the music industry. The one thing that stops me buying ebooks is their ridiculously high price.

      What really gets my goat is that they continue with the ridiculous notion of hardback pricing on a electronic medium. The ebook comes out at £15 and then 6 months later drops to £6.99 for exactly the same file! Paper hardbacks are genuinely a different product from the paperback.

      Unless ebooks become affordable, they will continue to fizzle as they have done for years.

  19. martin gorner

    EU statement says "physical medium"

    The EU statement about e-book VAT clarly states that it applies to "any similar physical medium" (similar to paper books). That rules out e-books which are electronic files and only perhaps applies to ebook reading devices. Written as such, it looks dumb and useless.

  20. Ol'Peculier
    Thumb Down

    VAT on books

    But, some books ARE VAT'able - those supplied with CD's or DVD's

    Because then there is VAT'able element, the whole product becomes non-excempt, rather than just the silver thing in the back that will probably never get opened.

  21. DI_Wyman

    @Sorry, but...

    You are not rail commuter in the UK then!

  22. jake Silver badge

    One word:

    "Books are essential, but e-books are a luxury, apparently"


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  24. Andrew MacCormack

    No 10 petition

    As an expat on assignment out of the UK for a year, ebooks are a godsend given the weight limits, import restrictions, etc. of the country I am in. And I use my smartphone as an ebook reader so the environmental cost of the reader is nothing because I had the phone already. Well, maybe I charge the battery slightly more now.

    Of course, here's a petition that might actually do something:

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