With all the talk of coronavirus and its impact on our economy, some of the smaller changes in Rishi Sunak’s budget yesterday haven’t received much attention. I’d like to mention one though.
I have loved to read since I was a small child. In those days it was Braille books. Now, I usually read audio books or ebooks on my phone. Sometimes I buy them. Other times I borrow them from the library.
I haven’t always had the same access to books as my sighted friends – sometimes it takes a while for an accessible version to be made available – and by the time it has, all your friends have read it. You can only avoid the spoilers for so long. But with the rise of ebooks, this has got a lot better in recent years.
What did Rishi Sunak say?
According to yesterday’s budget, from 1st December, the 20% tax on ebooks and online newspapers, magazines, periodicals and journals will be abolished. This will put them in the same category as physical books and periodicals, which are already exempt from the tax. Whilst some newspapers provide free content on their websites, if you sign up for a paid subscription, it is currently subject to the sales tax.
The government expects the publishing industry to pass these savings on. If this happens, it will mean savings for the consumer, and no sales tax to pay for those who consume information in digital formats such as ebooks or online subscriptions.
How will this help?
For a start, it’s good for anyone who likes reading ebooks.
In the interest of transparency, I’ve written two books, which can be bought as ebooks, and as it stands at the moment, around 70% of the people who bought my books have purchased the ebook versions. I’m happy that in the future, both versions of my books will be tax-exempt.
We can talk all day about whether you prefer online or hard-copy books. Ultimately I don’t believe there’s a right answer – do what you enjoy doing. Reading should be fun after all, and people should have a choice about how they want to read their books.
Choice is good, but not everybody has the same degree of choice. I can’t read hard copy books. It doesn’t matter how big the font is – they are not useful to me. I could laboriously scan each page with an OCR app on my phone, but for me, that would be disproportionately more work than any sighted person would have to do in order to read the same information. It’s not the same as curling up on the sofa to read a good book and relax.
So, having the 20% tax exemption for ebooks means that there is more of a level playing field, and although ebooks are generally cheaper than hard copy books anyway, it’s still good that people like me are not being forced to pay tax on material that other people can access tax-free. That’s only fair, right?
Also, it’s good for the planet. Books can be passed on to other readers, but most newspapers and magazines aren’t kept after they’ve been read. So it’s great that those of us who want or need to read the information in the tree-friendly way will be able to do so without being taxed for it!
So why do some people feel that this doesn’t go far enough?
The issue is that the tax exemption will not apply to audio books, and many blind people would prefer to listen to a book as an audio version read by a real person, than an ebook read by the computerised voice of their screenreader.
I’ve been listening to screenreader voices for the last 30 plus years. I have them set to read faster than most of my sighted friends understand. I spend a large part of every day listening to them because this is how I do my job, research information, read emails, and occasionally also read books. Screenreader voices have come on a long way since the somewhat robotic voices I listened to at school, but they’re still not the same as a living, breathing human, who can inject life into a dialogue, learn how to pronounce more complicated names, or add the human touch to the listener’s experience.
For non-fiction books, I’m happy to take the information however I can get it. But when it comes to fiction, I prefer a human reader over my screenreader too. It’s more enjoyable to listen to. More relaxing. An overall better listener experience. Unless of course you get a narrator that you really don’t like, but this happens vary rarely to me.
I’m a member of Audible (here’s my review on my Audible membership), and there are often good deals there, which means that my book habit isn’t as expensive as it might be.
But as it stands at the moment, anyone who chooses to purchase audio books will still be paying 20% tax on them, whereas people choosing other formats will not.
Not just blind people
Also, It’s not only blind people who enjoy audio books. There are older people, people with dyslexia, people who spend their days looking at a computer screen, people who spend time driving or commuting, people who want to learn English – I know people in all of these categories who enjoy audio books because for some personal reason, the audio books provide something that printed or online versions do not.
Is it really fair to tax all of these people when they want to buy books? Let me know what you think in the comments.
So thanks Mr Sunak – I do appreciate the tax exemption for online materials, but it would have been really good if audio books could have been included as well.
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