It seems that without exception, any time someone notices e-book piracy, it’s suddenly a huge problem, instead of having built over nearly twenty years during which most publishers and authors who were not Harlan Ellison did not find it worth their time to bother doing anything about. An article in the Guardian today is no exception.

UK writers think that a new publicity campaign is needed to educate people on why “stealing” books is wrong. (Clearly they’ve observed the success that those obnoxious, patronizing PSAs Hollywood has tacked onto theatrical movies have had—because naturally the people who pay to see movies are actually all thieves, who will stop their stealing if only asked in the most insulting way possible.)

And then there’s this little gem:

Novelist Chris Cleave, author of The Other Hand and Little Bee, agreed. “I don’t blame anyone. They don’t do it [download books illegally] because they are evil but because they don’t understand,” he said. “In the music industry, when the price of music went down to zero – as it arguably now is because of filesharing – artists didn’t mind that much. My music friends love it because they can make money through gigs and merchandising, they can put their faces on T-shirts. But I’m not a rock star and I don’t have that as an option. If readers lose the habit of paying me for my work, I can’t work. Writing is how I make my living.”

The price of music is now “zero”? That must come as news to iTunes, whose 99-cents-per-track music sales have made it the biggest seller of music in the US (or even the world?). Indeed, since music became available at a 99-cent-per-track price, one study has shown that the rate of music piracy has actually plummeted by comparison to other media piracy, making up only 10% of overall BitTorrent traffic (by number of files, not bandwidth). That’s not likely due to any publicity campaign, or even necessarily the RIAA’s habit of filing thousands of file-sharing lawsuits, but because people can now buy what they want in high quality at a reasonable price. (Hey, publishers, are you listening?)

Of course, the same study shows that books make up only 1% of content on BitTorrent.

And piracy is okay as long as it happens to music but not books? I don’t think it’s exactly fair to say that “artists didn’t mind that much” either. Remember the Metallica “Napster BAD” backlash?

To be fair, writers have been seeing fees decrease over the last few years, what with the decline in advances, agency pricing reducing their take-per-book of e-books, and budgetary crises chipping away at the Public Lending Right (which doesn’t cover e-books and audiobooks as it is). But not every, or even necessarily most people who download a book would have bought it (or will even necessarily ever read it).

And some publishers and authors tar second-hand book stores with the same brush. Any time one of their already-sold books changes hands perfectly legally, they’d like to be paid. I would like to see authors get paid for their writing (I have some good friends who are writers!), but I just don’t feel this sort of thing helps the publishing industry’s image. Lest we forget, the depiction of record labels as a bunch of money-grubbing bastards contributed immeasurably to peer-to-peer users’ feelings of entitlement to pirate.