This article is not directly related to e-books, but e-music and its relationship to CDs are only a short jump away from e-books and their relationship to paper books—and it got me thinking about those similarities.

“Ernesto” on the peer-to-peer news blog TorrentFreak takes a look at music industry sales statistics and points out that, as much as the RIAA likes to complain about it, piracy is actually not killing music sales. Ernesto notes that the digital music market—which would compete more directly with digital music piracy than the sale of physical CDs—shows no signs of faltering.

If digital piracy is such a problem one would expect that it will mostly hurt digital sales, but these are booming instead. Many younger people don’t even own a CD-player anymore, yet the music industry sees digital piracy as the main reason for the decline in physical sales. Strange, because digital piracy would be most likely to cannibalize digital sales.

Neither the article nor I would claim that piracy is a good thing, but as the Government Accountability Office noted last week, its effects are often grossly overstated in the studies that the various ‘AA organizations like to cite.

As I read the article, I wondered: what is going to happen when e-books make up a greater fraction of total publishing industry sales than they do now—enough to start cutting into physical sales, as people who would have bought paper books buy electronic ones instead?

Will e-book piracy—which has gone on for at least as long as there have been peer-to-peer networks, with only a few major legal skirmishes—be cited as a factor? Will piracy affect the sales of e-books in ways that digital music piracy does not seem to have affected the sales of digital music?

Or will people prefer to buy their e-books from the legal source?

It’s a good question, especially given that there are a number of key differences between the music and book industries. Most digital music is sold DRM-free these days, meaning that there is no disadvantage to consumers over the pirated media, plus the advantage that they know exactly what they’re getting.

The e-book market, on the other hand, is currently locked-down and fragmented by a confusing morass of multiple e-book and DRM formats. Consumers have little assurance that the e-books they buy today will still work for them tomorrow if the merchant selling them decides to get out of the e-book business. (Case in point: Fictionwise’s decision not to make a high-resolution iPad version of its eReader app.)

Consumers are left with the tongue-in-cheek advice given by xkcd’s hat guy (which, ironically, was about digital music in its original context, before iTunes was able to get rid of its own music DRM): if you crack the DRM, you break the law. If you pirate, you break the law. You might as well, the hat guy says, just pirate to begin with and save yourself some trouble.

And that’s not even getting into the problems some people have had with quality issues in the Kindle e-books they paid for.

In order to beat piracy, stores need to offer a more compelling product than the pirates do. That’s what iTunes is doing, by offering something just as good but more reliable than pirate wares, at a price that makes the decision to buy legally an easy one—but is by and large what most e-book stores are not doing. When push comes to shove, e-books may have a harder row to hoe than e-music.