How is taxing ebooks as print books supposed to work?

Re-posted here from Medium for my own archives. Feel free to ignore.

It’s a popular stance among publishers that they and their industry are a gentle sprinkle of special snowflakes and that their software (i.e. ebooks) should be taxed at a lower VAT rate than other software (i.e. websites or any other kind of digital file).

They’ve managed to wrangle several EU member countries to their cause:

According to the four ministers, to foster innovation and secure the future of Europe’s e-publishing, technology-neutral regulations must be clearly asserted at the European level. The declaration was signed by France’s Fleur Pellerin, Italy’s Dario Franceschini, Poland’s Malgorzata Omilanowska, and Germany’s Monika Grutters.

The problem is that defining all digital media as services is exactly what a technology-neutral regulation looks like. All digital content has the same VAT. Nobody has clearly outlined how you can define ebooks as special without discriminating against other digital media, other methods of publishing digitally, other digital textual media, or the various kinds of self-publishers.

So, how is it supposed to work?

Software, ebooks, digital video and audio, and websites are all defined in terms of EU tax law to be digital services.

To those who want to lower VAT on ebooks but not on digital media in general, how do you propose to decide which is which?

Pelican Books online ebooks, high VAT service or low VAT ebook?

Directly sold PDFs like Amy Hoy’s JFS, high VAT service or low VAT ebook?

Single book app like Joseph Albers’ Interaction of Color, high VAT service or low VAT ebook?

Literary games and apps like Frankenstein or 80 Days, high VAT service or low VAT ebook?

Web-based subscription sold ebooks like digLloyd’s Advanced Photography, high VAT service or low VAT ebook?

Oyster book subscriptions, high VAT service or low VAT ebook?

Safari Books Online which offers ebooks, audio books, and online video courses, high VAT service or low VAT ebook?

Digital audio books, high VAT service or low VAT ebook?

An ebook that embeds a video documentary, high VAT service or low VAT ebook?

An ebook that is nothing more than annotations on a radio documentary series, high VAT service or low VAT ebook?

A non-linear hypertext delivered as a bundle of HTML files in a zip file, high VAT service or low VAT ebook?

An image, high VAT service or low VAT ebook?

How about a series of images in a zip file with minimal metadata, like a CBZ comic book, is that a high VAT service or low VAT ebook?

If you define low VAT ebooks as a specific file format (epub, mobi, PDF) what about all of the other formats, past present and future? What would the process be to get a format ‘certified’ for lower VAT? Make it too flexible and you might as well lower the VAT across the board. Make it too rigid and you’re killing innovation in digital publishing.

If you define low VAT ebooks as text-oriented files sold by specific vendors, how is that not anti-competitive discrimination? How would a vendor or self-publisher get ‘certified’ for lower VAT?

If you define low VAT ebooks as those with an ISBN (which in many countries cost money) how is that not anti-competitive discrimination against self-publishing or web-based subscription services offering exactly the same content but in an entirely different format?

If you define low VAT ebooks as something other than services — as a virtual pseudo-object unlike all other digital media — how do you propose to handle the licensing that is a mandatory part of today’s ebook retail? (Hint: nobody buys an ebook; we all only get licenses for the ebooks we buy and all of that licensing legalese is based on the concept of ebooks as a service.)

What would the buyer’s statutory consumer rights be? Because if you can’t treat ebooks as a service for VAT, you can’t bloody well treat them as a service in terms of consumer rights or licensing.

What do you do with what are clearly services (e.g. subscription sites) but deliver ebook formats?

What happens when all of the answers to all of these questions end up being different for each and every EU member state? EU VAT is already a complex mess and you want to make it even messier, even harder to deal with, even more difficult for companies and individuals to deal with?

How is this idea supposed to work?

(Of course, I think a separate and lower ebook VAT is a bad idea even if you do get it to work because it’s fundamentally backwards and reactionary — a de facto state subsidy of a stagnant industry. But that’s an entirely different topic that deserves its own blog post.)

Knights and Necromancers 2 has been released

My second ebook, Knights and Necromancers 2: Loot, kill, obey, is available now from Amazon, iBooks, and Kobo.

From the Knights and Necromancers 2 page on the Heartpunk website:

The wreckers have their shipwreck and their loot. Their next step is to get rid of the witnesses.

Grace and Cera’s only hope is to make it to safety in Galti; a small fishing village ignored and forgotten by the outside world. With them are the remaining survivors of the shipwreck: two sisters who have just seen their entire lives sink down into the ocean and the destroyed ship’s first mate.

Unfortunately for Grace, Cera, Hale, Kally, and Derek, the wreckers aren’t the only thing following them to Galti.

Knights and Necromancers 2

Knights and Necromancers 2: Loot, kill, obey

The adventures of Grace and Cera continue and feature, in no particular order:

  • A giant two-headed eagle.
  • A Necromancer.
  • Warrior Sorcerers.
  • Wreckers and mercenaries.
  • Zombies.
  • Dainty aristocratic ladies with crossbows.
  • Sociopathic talking ravens.
  • A buff martial artist who fights with flaming fists.
  • And an occasional moment of deserved and well-earned angst.

While Loot, kill obey is the second story starring Grace and Cera it is my hope that it should work as a standalone read. While there are plenty of details from the first story that add to this one, very few of them are necessary for enjoying the yarn.

It is available from,, iBooks, and Kobo.

I’ve also decided to offer the entire thing up for free on the web, at least for now. It’s an experiment. I haven’t made my mind up about it or whether to leave it up as an ongoing thing, so any and all feedback is appreciated.

If you haven’t read Knights and Necromancers 1: Days of wild obedience then that’s still available for free (or for $0.99 on Help yourself to a copy on,, iBooks, Kobo, or direct from the Heartpunk website.

Or, you can try the free online web reader.

The first story has only had one review so far (and a pretty good one at that).

Guy Gonzalez said this here kind thing about Knights and Necromancers 1:

Days of Wild Obedience works not only as a compelling gateway into an intriguing new world, it holds its own as a standalone novella, too. That said, I’m ready to jump into the next tale in the series, and I’m already imagining the RPG and movie! Definitely recommended.

Which reminds me:

I would really, really, grateful it if those who have read Knights and Necromancers 1 wrote about what they thought of the story. It doesn’t have to be a review (although that’d be nice) and it doesn’t have to be positive (although that’d be nice as well). It’d make a huge difference if you could because working in a vacuum is worse than even getting negative feedback.

And don’t worry about hurting my feelings. There’s no way that you could come up with a more detailed critique than my mother did. (There’s a reason why me and my sister have a high tolerance for having our work criticised.)

Anyway. Download. Read. Enjoy. And then tell me what you think (if it’s not too much trouble :-))