Tuesday, March 07, 2017

I have seen the truth and it still doesn't make sense!

The EU changed the VAT regulations which apply to digital products on 1st January 2015. To those of us in the UK it meant a 17% VAT increase.

Previously we paid 3% on many Amazon digital products because Amazon shipped them to us via Luxembourg which applied their VAT rate of 3% - the lowest in the EU. From 1st Jan 2015 we were charged the VAT rate of the destination EU state rather than the supplier EU state. The UK therefore have to pay 20% VAT on digital products. (Ireland - 23%)

Does that seem bad? Instead of paying 3% to Luxembourg, we in the UK now pay 20% to the UK. That means we pay more but at least it will be to our own country. Perhaps it means we pay less in some other tax. Perhaps this makes some sense for music and video but there's one area where it makes no sense at all.

From January 1st 2015 the VAT rate on e-books changed too. The change affected all member states. The table at the right shows how the new rates affected e-book buyers in the rest of Europe. As you can see of the 28 countries in the EU five give e-books a special VAT rate. Ireland and the UK zero rate paper books.

In the UK the new rates meant a price rise of at least 17%. That doesn't seem a lot on an e-book which cost 77p formerly. They now cost a minimum of 99p from Amazon (a 29% price rise) but it's far more than inflation was, and a sharp contrast with the zero VAT rate on paper books.

Ask politicians and they'll tell you "Here in the UK, VAT is charged on e-books because they are a service."
They've also said "The EU doesn't allow us to charge a reduced rate."

Let's compare e-books with paper books and see how they compare:

Which of these is a service?
Paper books E-books
Requires an author Requires an author
Requires an editor Requires an editor
Requires formatting Requires formatting
Trees need to be felled (requires oil) Not required
Timber needs to be transported to papermill (requires oil) Not required
Papermill manufactures paper with some waste sludge (requires some oil) Not required
Sludge needs to be disposed of (requires oil) Not required
Paper needs transporting to printer (requires oil) Not required
Ink needs manufacturing (requires oil) Not required
Books need to be printed (requires oil) Not required
Books need to be transported to distribution depot (requires oil) Not required
Sales team need to visit retail outlets (requires oil) Not required
Books need to be transported to retail outlets (requires oil) Not required
Customer needs transport to bookstore and back (requires oil) E-books are delivered direct to reader electronically.
Surplus unsold books need transport back to printer (requires oil) Not required
Surplus requires storage or redistribution or pulping (requires oil) Not required
Book pulp requires cleaning of toxic ink and disposal of the toxins (requires oil) Not required

As you can see far more 'services' are required in the production of paper books than in the production of e-books. 


  • The EU and the UK have a declared aim of reducing carbon emissions, yet favour paper books which produce carbon emissions, at the expense of ebooks. It's been estimated that 95% of the carbon dioxide emissions could be eliminated by switching to e-books. Despite that, Reuters reported on 7th March 2017:
    The European Court of Justice was called to interpret EU rules on value-added tax (VAT) after Poland's commissioner for civic rights questioned whether the system of allowing lower rates only for printed publications was fair.
    The court said the rules allowed EU countries to apply reduced VAT rates to printed but not digital publications even though both met the European Parliament's objective when passing the VAT directive - the promotion of reading.
  • The sludge produced by recycling books contains some particularly nasty toxins which are expensive to dispose of safely. A Danish report found some of these products were being introduced into food via recycled paper.
As for the reasons we are given for the 20% VAT charge in the UK -

I have seen the truth and it still doesn't make sense!

Is there hope that VAT will be reduced for e-books? It seems that the EU is happy to support the printing industry but feels it can ignore the wishes of content providers and readers. It sets goals and then ignores them.

So what can be done?

In the UK we are now facing BREXIT. Once that has gone through it will be up to the UK government to set the VAT rate charged for e-books.
I know what makes sense.
You know what makes sense.
It's up to our politicians to prove that to them, content is of more value than the printing press.

  • If they fail to do this they are slapping the face of every author, whether that be the author of books, magazines or newspapers because their content is not as valuable as the printing presses.
  • It means they don't care about reducing carbon emissions. 
  • It means they don't care about pollution. 
  • It means that they don't see e-literature as a way of saving schools money.
Once the UK is not bound by EU legislation, Parliament should remove the 20% VAT on e-literature

Ebooks and paid e-literature (electronic newspaper/magazine subscriptions) carry 20% VAT but paper books, newspapers and magazines are zero rated for VAT. In the past we have been told that EU legislation prevents a 0% VAT rate and that e-literature is a 'service'.

1 comment:

John Chapman said...

On October 2nd 2018 the EU's Economic and Financial Affairs Council (Ecofin) agreed on a proposal which will allow all member states to give e-books and audiobooks the same VAT-free status as printed books. The UK Publishers Association has immediately called for the UK government to use the new powers.