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Vast majority of Europeans read at least one book a year, publishers claim


The whole media industry, including books, is in fundamental transformation from traditional media to digital products. It is fascinating to follow how some parts of the world adopt new media products faster than other regions. Cultural reasons, traditions, legislation, and the book industry itself affect the pace of change. Many end-of-the-world scenarios have been presented for books that have to compete over audiences’ precious time with other media, like movies and music.

The Federation of European Publishers (FEP) has drafted a report on the state of the book business in Europe. It was published in March 2017, and one of its conclusions is that books are doing fine despite very competitive media landscape.

In many European countries, 60-80% of people read at least one book a year. Czech, Germany, Estonia, Luxembourg, Austria, Slovakia, Finland, Sweden, Iceland and Norway having the highest share of book readers. There are some exceptions, of course, like Portugal and Romania, where residents have something else more worthwhile to do than to read books.

reads one book a year, Europe countries, by FEP
The trend that people are reading less can be seen in the statistics, but it is not the end-of-the-world kind of thing. The trend is somewhat inconsistent: Italy and Germany show an increase in the number of book readers.

The same survey reports that the number of brick-and-mortar bookstores in Europe has increased. At its peak in 2010, more than 32 275 bookstores stocked paper and ink on their shelves for customers. A rapid fall followed that bottomed in 2013 (26 766 bookstores). Since then, new stores have opened, and the number of bookstores in Europe is on the rise again.

Number of bookstores in Europe by FEP
Here is an interesting question: the number of bookstores is growing in Europe, the market share of ebooks is growing, but people read slightly less. How does it add up?

There are many ways to assess and measure how the book industry is doing. One of the most innovative analysts is Author Earnings that primarily tracks sales of large online bookstores, like Amazon, Apple iBooks, Google Play and Kobo. The February 2017 Author Earnings report indicates that 42% of all book sales in the U.S. comes from ebooks, and in the UK, ebooks are 34% of all book sales.

A report published in March 2017 by the Federation of European Publishers (FEP) states that the market share of ebooks in the UK is 17% (in 2015). That’s a huge difference: is the correct market share for ebooks 17 or 34 percent? Two factors may explain a big portion of the gap in numbers: FEP doesn’t include independent publishers and self-publishers in its statistics, whereas Author Earnings tallies up them as well. FEP gets most of its sales data from traditional booksellers, whereas Author Earnings tries its best to get accurate data from big online bookstores.

Taxman’s position on ebooks and printed books varies across the world


In large parts of the world, only the air you breathe is tax-free. Everything else tends to come with some sort of tax component (I learned this at Venice, Italy where someone was selling ad-supported free maps). The curious thing is that tax systems vary across the world, and even within a country. For instance, in Norway you pay zero value added tax for a printed travel guide of Oslo, but 25% VAT for the same product as an ebook.

In many markets, publishing professionals regard that the higher VAT for ebooks is preventing the new digital economy to flourish. In any case, it doesn’t make sense to tax a modern product that saves trees and transportation costs at a higher rate than a traditional product. In EU, France and Luxemburg have actively tried to lower ebook VAT rates for a couple of years. In 2015, also Germany, Italy and Poland pushed EU to allow lower tax rates for ebooks.

Nonetheless, there are countries that don’t tax ebooks at all, whereas majority of countries apply higher VAT for ebooks than for printed books. Two publishers’ associations, IPA and FEP, mapped out the real situation of VAT policies across the world for ebooks and printed books.

vat rates for ebooks, survey by IPA and FEP
Purple: Zero rate of VAT/GST for ebooks.
Orange: Reduced rate of VAT/GST for ebooks.
Red: Standard rate of VAT/GST for ebooks.
Green: No VAT regime.

Highlights from the survey by IPA and FEP:

  • Worldwide, only 22% of countries apply the standard rate of VAT to printed books, while a large majority of nations (69%) apply standard VAT to e-books.
  • 37 countries apply the same rate of VAT/GST to print and e-books.
  • 35 countries apply a higher rate of VAT/GST to e-books than to print.
  • 4 countries (5%) apply a reduced rate of VAT to e-books.
  • The average VAT/GST rate applied to printed books is 5.75%.
  • The average VAT/GST rate applied to e-books is 12.25%.
  • Standard VAT rates in Asia (8.6%) are significantly lower than in Europe (21%).
  • The majority of African countries surveyed (8 out of 13) have zero-rate VAT on printed books.
  • Denmark applies the highest VAT rate on printed books (25%).
  • Hungary applies the highest VAT rate on e-books (27%).
  • Find all the details of the survey here.

    Publishing professionals in 79 countries were interviewed for the survey. 36 of them were in Europe, 13 in Asia, 13 in Africa, 9 in Latin America, 5 in the Middle East, plus Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The United States was not included in the survey because each state has its own sales tax regime.

    The survey was conducted by two publishing organizations: IPA and FEP. The International Publishers Association (IPA) is a federation of national, regional and specialist publishers’ associations. More than 60 organisations from more than 50 countries in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and the Americas are members. The Federation of European Publishers (FEP) is a non-commercial umbrella association of book publishers associations in the European Union.