back to article Ebooks must stay fat with VAT, blame the EU, MPs told

When it comes to applying VAT to ebooks, the UK government remains bound by EU law, the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury told MPs yesterday. In October 2010 HM Revenue & Customs described the process of supplying "text by electronic transmission" via the internet - such as Amazon flogging ebooks on its Kindle Store - as …


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  1. JimmyPage

    Proof (it it were needed)

    That there's nothing wrong with the environment.

    Remember kids ... ignore what people say, and watch what they do.

    1. HMB

      Quite, See New Building Insulation

      My gran has to spend a fair bit to keep her house warm, causing CO2 emissions of course. My friend who moved into a special eco development, does not have to pay much at all for heating.

      My gran's house is fairly new, only a few years old.

      One of the most dramatic ways of cutting our CO2 emissions would be legally mandatory high grade insulation for new homes that really wouldn't add that much to the cost of a house during construction. Do all new homes require excellent insulation? No.

      The government seem most interested in being environmental when it involves taking more money off you.


      I know that the laws are getting better for required insulation, but it's too little and by no where near fast enough.

      1. The First Dave

        Sorry, but this appears to _support_ the idea of emissions tax - a paper book is a net carbon sink, for as long as it stays on your shelf without de-composing, whereas an eBook requires electricity to make, to transmit, and everytime it is read, which means more coal, oil, gas (and the odd bit of uranium) being burnt to produce that electrickery.

        1. Ignazio


          Really? You're seriously claiming that the few hundred grams of cellulose in a printed book count as a carbon sink, when that book got there via a chainsaw chopping down a slice of poplar - or whatever they farm these days to make paper - a truck trucking it to the paper mill, etc etc etc, a truck trucking it to the book shop and you buying it (ends with a paper receipt printed and possibly a plastic bag to carry it home) or Amazon mailing it to you (complete with paper parcel)? Not to mention the copies that go unsold, trucked back and forth from the paper mill or whatever, and similar issues... the electronic book, in all this, is a net winner.

  2. Ashton Black

    Smells like hypocrisy to me.

    Doesn't effect the banks therefore 'Only following orders' defence can be used.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    not only should ebooks be cheaper than paper books due to the lack of manufacturing required, but to lump VAT on too ...

    And they say we should recycle more ...

    1. Arrrggghh-otron

      Vat wouldn't be a problem if the cost of an ebook reflected the production cost (i.e. considerably less than a paper back).

      1. Jad

        RE: Cost of production

        From what I've read elsewhere here on theRegister, only 20% of the cost of a printed book is the printing and shipping charges ... which is generally why ebooks cost the same as pbooks (20% VAT)

        1. iucounu

          Everyone seems to think...

          ...that removing the physical costs of production and distribution means there's a huge pot of cash being saved by us, the publishers. Everyone wants a slice: the authors and agents want better royalties, and the customers and retailers want lower prices.

          In actuality, most of the cost of making a book is already spent by the time you even get to production. You're spending the money on advances, staff costs, freelance costs, permissions, etc etc. So when the files get forked off to print or epub conversion, despite the fact that the latter is largely gravy, you're still hoping that you're going to make a single figure profit margin, and that is for a Big Six publisher.

          On ebooks we're paying double or triple to the author than we would on a printed book - say, 25% of receipts - the retailer's taking a big discount or commission, and the govt. is taking their VAT (which is usually less than 20% in fact, due to some arcane wrinkle that's too boring for me to actually take the time to understand.)

          I agree that ebooks should be a little cheaper than print, because you're not getting the same kind of property rights as you have over print, and you're also talking about a less hand-crafted, less aesthetically-pleasing object. But please don't make assumptions about the economics of publishing if you've never actually read a publishing P&L statement.

          1. Oninoshiko

            Re: iucounu

            yes but WHY is the author getting more? Did (s)he do any more for the e-book then the dead-tree book?

            So, it me is SHOULD be 1/2 to 1/3 as much (before VAT). That's not a commentary on what I think the publisher should be getting, but a commentary on the fact that there is NO DIFFERENCE in the effort of the author/editor/legal/etc.

            If your profit is staying the same while everyone else involved is going up then you publishing houses really do a crap job in your field.

          2. No, I will not fix your computer


            You're missing the point, with ANY sale you have to manage the customers expectation, it's completely irrelevant if you can explain where all the extra money goes, the man in the street says "I'm not getting anything physical, I shouldn't have to pay more" - end of.

            This managing peoples expectations is why games consoles are (often) sold for less than they cost to build, why eat in and takeaway often cost the same, why people spend more on a Lexus than a Toyota, less on a Skoda than a VW, how Intel sell the identical chips from the same die at different speeds for sometimes vastly different amounts (my E5420's think they are E5472's, because they are!) - in other words, people are more than willing to pay over the odds for something they percieve has having a special value to them, and less for something that doesn't.

  4. DrXym Silver badge

    Lobby for digital property

    I'm not surprised they're slapping a VAT on ebooks because nobody is buying ebooks - they're buying software licences to read ebooks.

    If people want to see ebooks stand a chance of being treated like regular books they should be lobbying the more technologically minded members of parliament to draw up a bill enshrining the concept of digital property into law and exempting digital books from VAT in the same way as physical books.

    Then there is a clear incentive for booksellers and device manufacturers to sell digital property instead of licences because their prices will be cheaper than other sellers that stick with the licence model.

    How digital property is implemented would be interesting and complex, but if bitcoin can manage ownership of virtual currency then I am certain that something is achievable with other forms of digital property.

    1. BristolBachelor Gold badge

      But if this were the case, then you'd have to pay VAT on £0, because they are not charging you to supply you with text, they are charging you a license fee. (How does VAT work on license fees?)

      Presumably though if I buy an e-book which is just picures, since there's no text, there's no VAT?

      However, since IP is "property", and copyright infrindgement is "theft" (of property), then I think enshringing digital items as property in law and with rights to use it sounds like an excellent plan.

      1. jonathanb Silver badge

        VAT on licence fees is 20%. VAT is 20% on everything that isn't listed as being chargeable at a lower rate. E-books with only pictures are not listed as being in the 5%, 0%, exempt or outside the scope categories for VAT, therefore it is chargeable at 20%.

      2. The Indomitable Gall


        Plenty of services charge VAT, and an ebook license is a license is issued as part of a service (which includes storing and tracking your ebook library).

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward


          Is that true of a licence too?

          Since you seem to be interested in books, I take it you think you can spell, unless you are American.or you want to tax the verb.

      3. Vic

        > But if this were the case, then you'd have to pay VAT on £0


        > (How does VAT work on license fees?)

        Full rate. 20% on the licence fee cost.


    2. Vic

      > they should be lobbying the more technologically minded members of parliament

      Who's that, then?

      I want to know if their Tippex bill went up or down once MPs were issued with laptops...


  5. Tegne

    Buy the paper book and get the ebook for 'free'?

    ...and tick the box that says 'Please don't bother sending me the paper copy, I want to save trees.'

    1. Martin Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Seriously, yes!

      I'd love to see something where if you bought a book - perhaps only the hardback - you got the ebook for free. That would be truly excellent, and would almost certainly increase the sales of hardback books. People who think "I want to buy that book but I'll wait for the paperback becuase it's (a) cheaper and (b) lighter" might well think "but (a) I get two copies and (b) ebooks are very light - so I'll buy the hardback after all."

      1. John McCallum
        Thumb Up

        Free eBook with Hardback

        simply buy a Bean published book if they can do it I donot see why other publishers cannot do it as well even if it is only the book that you have purchased Bean give you free copies of the authors books on a CD rom.

      2. The First Dave


        Sitepoint (sometimes/always) provide an ebook (in several formats) version of every printed book that they sell.

    2. Stuart 22 Silver badge

      Fail ...

      If a book contains or is attached to a digital version - you pay VAT on the whole lot. Those of us who bought American books that had a CD in the back sleeve will remember.

  6. Lee Dowling

    Well, yes, because VAT is really only charged on "non-essential" or "luxury" items. Although books are classified as essential in order to encourage people to read (a skill which I can easily see the justification as being essential), a Kindle reader or a PC aren't and it's hard to class an ebook as essential if you require something "non-essential" in order to read the damn thing.

    I see no reason to take VAT off it, either, whether we had existing agreements or not. If you classed an ebook as essential, then ebook readers of one kind or another would have to be VAT-free as well and that's just a silly loss of income. And although IT is pretty important in the modern world, it's far from "essential" at the moment because there's still whole groups of people who don't have computers at home. If IT is ever classed as "essential", then we generate a whole lot more problems like having to give everyone Internet access (and not being able to cut them off), having to subsidise PC's for the low-earners (parts of which we do already), more reliance on power networks, etc.

    Seems like it wasn't really that tough a decision to make, or to see which way they'd go.

    1. JimmyPage

      Careful thinking there's a reasoning to VAT

      because you will end looking like a prize prat when you insist that only "essential" items are zero-rated, and then find the French managed to wangle *cake* to be essential.

      1. Dogbyte

        Let them eat cake

        Indeed. Hence the fact that McVities went to court to prove that a Jaffa Cake is not a biscuit - and therefore not subject to VAT.

    2. HMB

      A cheap tablet / reader + ebooks is far less expensive than paying for space in a physical property for bookshelves. Or are less well off people expected to burn their books after reading to keep warm?

    3. BristolBachelor Gold badge


      Presumably then clothes for adults are not essential (they attract VAT), so hence hence forth I will not be wearing any (especially to my court appearance!)

      I can't see any flaws in your logic...

    4. Absent

      Yes, only essential items such as facelifts and yachts are zero rated.

  7. Andy Enderby 1

    As always, when it comes ot Europe....

    The government talks twaddle.

    1. JimmyPage


      I liked this quote:

      "Meanwhile, French president Nicolas Sarkozy yesterday commissioned former culture minister Jacques Toubon to lobby France’s 26 European Union partners, the European Commission and Parliament to introduce a reduced VAT rate for all electronic cultural goods and services sold across the EU."

      Somehow I can guess which way the UK will vote.

    2. HMB

      Doesn't France routinely break European rules?

      I mean seriously, they've been taken to court a few times by Europe. I wish the UK had that attitude more often if I'm honest.

      I think that there are definitely good things that come from a united Europe, but I quite like a transparent, efficient, democratic government and that just doesn't feel like Europe to me.

      1. Tom 38

        All of them do

        Part of the brow beating on Sunday was that the eurozone states are going to sign up to have controlled budgets and deficits. What few mentioned is that _they already do_ under the original eurozone treaty.

        The problem with that aspect of the treaty was that Germany and France both immediately broke the limits, and got no/inconsequential punishment. After that, neither France nor Germany had a leg to stand on when Italy, Greece et al all did the same.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          @Tom 38

          Your contention is that self-regulation doesn't work?

      2. Vic

        > Doesn't France routinely break European rules?

        Much of Europe does.

        I spent some time in Sardinia a few years back. Many of the locals I spoke to[1] were working jobs well below the minimum legal wage.

        When I questioned this, there was but one reply - "we need these jobs, and if we don't take them, someone else will".

        It is my opinion that this is the root of the UK's disagreements with Europe; we tend to have a very literal take on EU rules, whereas the rest of the continent sees them more as guidelines. Their way generally seems to work rather better...


        [1] This was about the time the UK was talking about introducing the minimum wage, so it was something I was interested in

        1. Ken Hagan Gold badge

          " we tend to have a very literal take on EU rules, whereas the rest of the continent sees them more as guidelines. Their way generally seems to work rather better..."

          Doesn't seem that way to me. The eurozone is currently bankrupt because they all borrowed way beyond the limit on someone else's credit. The implications of this are *very* slowly dawning on politicians across the continent. The abuse that David Cameron got last weekend was more or less entirely because he refused to write them a blank cheque.

          "I told you so." is not a foreign policy, but neither is "Wanna join our bankruptcy club?".

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not only VAT rated for UK sales ...

    ... but also they can't even play the trick of placing the server that you download from in Jersey

    1. jonathanb Silver badge

      They can play the trick of placing the server you download from in Luxembourg, where the VAT rate is 15%.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Channel Islands

      are not in the EU

      "Jersey is not a member state nor an associate member state of the European Union (EU). It is not part of the European Economic Area.". It has some sort of "special relationshiop".

      Likewise for the Isle of Man (also not part of the UK).

  9. SynicNZ

    Easy way to even it out

    just add VAT to books.

    No more arguments

    1. Jess--

      adding vat to books will only kick off the schools into a "we cant afford to pay 20% more for our books" rant

      closely followed by a "think of the children" argument

      I do think they could move e-books into the zero rated (basic / essential) group of products simply because the majority of people have already got some form of device that can read them (especially as you work into younger demographics).

      within arms length I have 3 devices that could (if I wanted them to) read e-books, they are used for my day to day work & entertainment.

      1. The Indomitable Gall

        Are school purchases VAT-free...?

        1. jonathanb Silver badge

          No, and they can't claim back VAT on any purchases they make.

      2. andreas koch

        Pass the VAT on to the parents...

        If they want their brats to read stuff, they can bloody well pay for it. If they think they can't afford it, they're losers anyway, and reading wouldn't help.

        Cameron said 'NO' to all this german-french bank shit, why can't he say 'NO' to this sarkozy-merkel VAT law?

  10. The Dark Lord

    Nice green thinking by the Eurocrats there...

    It's this sort of blithering idiocy that engenders Euroscepticism. A lovely anti-envrionmentalist policy for all.

    I'm all in favour of charging a value-add tax on the reader, but on the content? It just betrays a complete failure to understand on the part of the politicians involved.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I'll ammend his comments

    "Existing agreements with our EU partners do not allow the UK or other member states to introduce a new zero-rate or extend an existing one to relieve ebooks from VAT....which suits us fine thanks."

  12. Nick Gisburne

    You'll never buy a used e-book

    I'd rather buy a used, dog-eared copy for a few quid from an Amazon reseller than pay full price for a book, and certainly wouldn't cough up for an e-book under any circumstances. The extra VAT just adds one more barrier I won't cross.

    For some reason I really don't feel the need to carry around hundreds of books in one device - my reading habits are simple: I read a novel until I'm done, then I find another one and read that. Not being able to share, lend or sell my books also doesn't sit well with me. Books are just nice to have, even when (especially when?) they're second hand, so forgive me for my one concession to Luddite tendencies.

    PS Books make good Christmas presents. E-books do not.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      My wife, like you is a serial reader and a dipper: the Nook failed due to choosing between high power consumption or slow wake-up losing too much of her dip time.

      My wife buys a book (often from the bargain bin - it's a book, it takes months or years to write and people have to have the hardback right now?) and reads it.

      Then she lends the books to colleagues and friends.

      Then she takes them to her school for students to borrow them.

      Finally, if they're still in her "library" and no longer being read she donates them to Goodwill* or the box at the local supermarket.

      Dead tree: 1 book, multiple readers before the final donation.

      Nook e-books: 1 book, one reader. Or possibly 2 readers if the publisher kindly gives their permission. And the e-book isn't much cheaper, if at all.

      I like the basic idea of e-readers, but the model doesn't work for everybody. How long Facebook add Facebookclub and allows sharing amongst a reasonable, limited, group of Friends before finally donating it to a subscribed library.

      * I'm in Merkinland.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Except for...

      reference books. I have several techie books on my kindle that I often dip in and out. Save's lugging 5000 pages worth of paper around.

      Then of course there are the lovely free classics, just about to read The Time machine again.

  13. john loader

    my petition

    For what its worth I have an e petition on this. All Customs and Excise have to do is to define a book by content not medium. It seems our bureaucrats are stuck in the paper and red tape age.

  14. James Micallef Silver badge

    But unlike printable books, there is almost-zero marginal cost to producing and distributing an e-book, so why is Amazon* selling both at the same price, and then blaming the government

    *since Amazon were quoted I mention them, but really ALL ebook retailers should be selling ebooks cheaper than dead tree versions. And I don't care if it's pushed by the publishers. It's the 21st century, get it sorted

    1. KroSha

      On most of the hideously expensive ebooks that Amazon sells there's a note that "This price was set by the Publisher." This is because the majority of ebooks are sold under an anti-competitive agency cartel pricing agreement, where retailers have no control over the final price. It'd be nice to see the EU rule against this, instead of continuing to pander to business.

      1. jonathanb Silver badge

        They are investigating this. Apple and a few of the publishers had their offices raided as part of the investigation.

    2. david wilson

      >>"so why is Amazon* selling both at the same price, and then blaming the government"

      Because they can get away with it?

      Possibly helped by journalists writing articles seemingly saying that the /only/ different factor in the eventual price should be the VAT.

    3. JimmyPage

      Don't blame Amazon

      shortly after getting my Kindle, I was gobsmacked to see certain eBooks were actually more expensive than the dead-tree version, even after taking the VAT into account.

      A quick email complaint later get the reply that minimum prices are set by the PUBLISHER and Amazon is obliged to honour those. It concluded by inviting me to complain to the publishers ...

  15. Mark Broadhurst
    Black Helicopters

    Ask the government if it should tax something ?

    What answer are you going to get apart from "YES of course"

    Its like asking a company if it wants tax breaks.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Andy Enderby. That's because the newly (self) appointed saviours of Europe France, who have an economic situation which is dire, just ignore the EU rules as they always have when it suits them to.

    It's the mugs in the UK Parliament that follow them to the letter and we pay for it.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Don't tax reading ....

    ... unless you tax swindon as well

  18. Preacher

    French - a law unto themselves

  19. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge


    @lee - By that argument any raw food that needed cooking should either by charged vat or come with a free oven.

    Hard to see how an ebook of a medical textbook is a taxed luxury item while a hardback Daniel Steele or Jeffery Archer is a tax-free luxury.

  20. KroSha

    I wonder how long it'll take for ebook piracy to escalate to the levels that'll make the publishers, their lobbyists and the pet politicos sit up and take notice?

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    oh, blame the EU

    when it fits us!

    but hey, don't be mean! Think how far this £2.20 can go. How many hospitals, schools and playgrounds could be bought! And the roads! Think of all the roads we can fix between Kabul and Kandakhar can be fixed, before they blow them up again in 3 days. How many tonnes of fuel can be burnt to hunt down those... evildoers. How many new and lovely peace-making weapons we can buy (think of the Children, think of all the BAEses there...

    (sound of a ranting going quiet as the man is being dragged back to his padded cell)

  22. sww

    Public Employee Union is Bad for a Country

    PEU is dragging all western countries feet by having collective bargain right, basically getting themselves benefits and work less. When they are providing essentials service like teaching, medicals, transportation and government works they can hold the People as hostage as bargaining chips to strong arm (ransom) the government for what they want.

    5 decades later, you have a country with huge deficits. VAT is just one manifest beside the super high income tax.

    1. Red Bren

      You signed up just to post that?

  23. This Side Up
    Black Helicopters

    Put 20% VAT on treeBooks

    There's no excuse for zero-rating Geoffrey Archer novels (or Dan Brown or JK Rowling for that matter), pr0n mags and news-free newspapers. Charge them 20% tax and give increased grants to libraries and educational extablishments. The only reason politicians haven't but full vat on newspapers is they were scared of upsetting Stept^h^h^h^h^hMurdoch and Son. Surely this no longer applies?

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    ebook prices

    are set by the publisher, think of it as an RRP, everyone has to maintain those prices but only in so far as not charging more. However there is also an element of Margin on ebooks, otherwise Amazon wouldnt be selling the Kindle at a loss, what you dont have yet is a competative market on ebooks, simply because the overall sales are less than books, which more or less means you wont get a good deal compared to an real book, at least for the time being.

    Now, the 20% thing, publisher gives a book an RRP of £10, slap on VAT that comes to £12, most good books sold in bulk come with a margin of around 30-50%, so lets say the retailer is making around £4 on every £10-ex VAT book sold, if they wanted to they could sell that book for £10 and still make a couple of quid profit, but they wont because margins are everything an the market is too small.

    Next year however you will see a change, with Amazon, WHSmith and the supermarkets selling shit loads of Kindles, Kobos and Sony ereaders this xmas, more people will be getting ebooks, the bigger the market, the more competative it becomes the more likely you can shop about trying to find a "good deal" unless of course you have a kindle, if you do you will have to hope amazon has the best price, but them selling hardware lower than cost may mean thats not always the case. Currently the average ebook owner buy more than 4 times the number of ebooks compared to the average book buyer, so next year "could" be the year prices come down

    anyhow, as for VAT on them, all it does is prove how dated our legal system is, its a pity we cant change it without breaking the law, but given time and a booming market, it "should" be a lot better even with the VAT, just give it a while!

  25. P. Lee
    Big Brother

    Am I the only one...

    who doesn't understand why a sovereign nation isn't allowed to set its own tax rates?

    I have to agree with an earlier poster. If the physical book is only 20% of the price, roll that cost into the postage and have people just buy the book with an included ebook and have a little tick-box which says "Please cut down on my postage fee by not sending the paper."

    1. Ken Hagan Gold badge

      Re: sovereign nation

      Perhaps that sovereign nation signed a deal with other sovereign nations and is now expected to uphold its end of the contract?

      It may have been a daft deal and others may sometimes seem to be breaking *their* side of the contract, but if *you* signed the deal, then it isn't a violation of *your* sovereignty that you have to do as you agreed.

  26. baalel
    Thumb Down

    Greedy Taxman

    According to The Telegraph, the EU has already agreed that the reduced rate of VAT can be applied to eBooks, but the UK has ignored this option.

    1. Andy Enderby 1

      What he said......


      Greedy Taxman #

      According to The Telegraph, the EU has already agreed that the reduced rate of VAT can be applied to eBooks, but the UK has ignored this option.


  27. FunkyEric

    Don't do e-books

    Buy all my books from charity shops, keep the ones I like give the rest back save a small fortune on the new price and give money to good causes. Oh and I *like* the feel of a book, of turning over the paper pages. Being bad and folding the corner of my current page over so I can just pick it up and find where I was instantly. And I only ever read one book at a time, so why do I need to be able to carry hundreds / thousands of them around with me? Oh and the batteries never go flat and when civilisation crumbles, I will still be able to read them. And If I get really desperate I can burn them to keep warm. But normally I *like* technology, clearly something is wrong here.

  28. mark l 2 Silver badge

    Sounds like an ideal situation to buy ebooks from websites based soley in the US or that just don't have a presence in the EU. Pay in US dollars with your card and download your ebook.

    How are HMRC going to know you have bought it without paying VAT? unlike ordering a physical item there is no package for them to open and inspect at the border to check your paying your tax.

    1. Keep Refrigerated
      Thumb Up

      Absolutely agree with this, apart from when you run into the craptastic "This content is not available in your region." Usually only applies to music... pirate it is then.

  29. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

    @Am I the only one

    To create a level playing field - or perhaps you wouldn't have a problem with Germany deciding that there should be 0% tax on luxury cars but a 200% tax on say, Rolls Royce aircraft engines.

    If sovereign nations can set their own tax levels then Scotland should be allowed to zero rate deep fried mars bars while putting a 200% duty on Dutchy original shortbread

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      rate deep fried mars bars

      Isnt that import and export taxes your talking about, to keep a level playing field across the EC, we're talking about VAT which we can change as has been done several times recently, what we cant apparently do is change whats VAT chargable which is a bit odd

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