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Last updated: June 2, 2006 7:56 am

First audio-only novel tells new story for authors

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The world's first paid-for audio-only novel will be launched this week in a sign that the surge in demand for downloadable books is set to provide a new medium for budding authors and performers.

Sex on Legs, a 75,000-word novel written and read by Brian Luff, will be available for download on audible.co.uk despite Mr Luff, a London-based comedian, having no contract with a traditional book publisher. Audible, the US company that dominates the audiobook market, is the company behind the popular Ricky Gervais podcasts.

The release comes as book publishers are seeing rapid growth in demand for downloaded audiobooks, a market that barely existed three years ago. The rampant growth of podcasts - audio broadcasts that can be downloaded to iPods, MP3 players and smartphones - is leading publishers to release downloadable audio books ahead of CD and tape versions, as the publisher Random House did with its bestseller The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.

For other titles, such as Freakonomicsby Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner, CD and cassette versions of the books have been eschewed altogether in favour of audio downloads. Penguin, publisher of Freakonomics and a subsidiary of Financial Times owner Pearson, plans to release another print bestseller, The Game by Neil Strauss, as a download-only audio book which it believes could surpass print sales.

The appetite for digital audio books has been boosted by podcasts, which the British Market Research Bureau estimated in March will be listened to by a quarter of adult internet users in the UK in the next six months. Although most podcasts are free, demand for paid-for podcasts has grown rapidly, with the most popular being comedy such as Mr Gervais's, which continues to top US and UK charts.

Mr Luff is no stranger to digital audio. With partner Georgina Sowerby, last year he began recording Comedy 365, a highly successful daily comedy podcast which has 350,000 regular subscribers and was one of the first UK podcasts to have won advertisers in the US. "We thought podcasts would be a bit of a fad, a bit of a PR thing, but we've had 2m downloads, so obviously we started to take it seriously," Mr Luff said.

The podcast's success led him to revisit his old drafts of a comedy novel based on the idea of the "zero-second mile", inspired by his time as a TV sports producer during the Moscow Olympics. When he was approached by Audible UK to launch a paid-for version of the Comedy 365 podcast, Mr Luff successfully pitched his novel as well. He said demand for podcasts showed a downloadable audio book could dwarf print sales even if he does eventually get a traditional print book contract. "If you sell as a brand new novelist 5,000 copies, you're doing pretty well," he said.

technology@ft.com

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