Online novel that can be heard but not seen

The modern novel has often clashed with literary tradition but never before has it eschewed the written word altogether. Now, it appears that the latest form of fiction can be found only as a digital download.

Audible.co.uk, an internet supplier, has launched the world's first audio-only novel, Sex on Legs by Brian Luff, in the hope that it could herald a new path for the novel and the publishing industry.

The 75,000-word work, described as a "comedy sci-fi thriller" by Luff, takes minutes to download and a little less than six hours to get through.

While a novel in audio-only form can reach a far bigger audience on the internet than in book form, some in the industry question where this leaves the written word and whether it might discourage younger generations from reading.

Others fear the written novel could be supplanted by its digital rival, which can be downloaded on to an iPod, another type of MP3 player or a mobile phone, and savoured on the way to work or even in the gym.

But Luff, a former journalist and broadcaster, said he hoped it would have the opposite effect and encourage people to consume literature in any form.

"There has been the rise of the iPod as a way of entertaining yourself on the way to work instead of reading a book. There is an advantage with this kind of book in that some people will listen to a book when they would not have read one before. If this means that people 'read' books on an iPod, surely it has to be a good thing?" he said.

His novel's lead character is a black athlete, Cruise, nicknamed "Sex on Legs" because of his speed, who is taking part in the 2012 Olympics in London.

Luff, who was a sports reporter during the 1980 Games in Moscow and set up the popular podcast, Comedy 365, said Cruise was inspired by the Canadian sprinter, Ben Johnson, who was stripped of his 100m gold medal after testing positive for illegal drugs at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. The plot involves a challenge to run the 100m in zero seconds.

"When Ben Johnson was stripped of his medal, I began to think, 'how fast can sprinters go?' In the novel, athletics overlaps theories that Stephen Hawking has come up with about the possibility of appearing and disappearing, although it is all entirely fictional," he said.

Chris McKee, the managing director of Audible.co. uk, said the concept of the audio novel as an impostor in the world of literature was an inaccurate one, and spoke of the importance of the spoken word in the Homeric "oral" tradition of ancient Greece.

"The spoken word predates the written word. The written word is just a means of recording these things. So the oldest form of entertainment is now the newest," he said.

Mr McKee added that customers who downloaded digital books tended to be reading enthusiasts and liked the written book as well as the audio version.

"Our customers love books. The reason they download audio books is that they are very busy people and it provides them with another opportunity to consume books while they are commuting or at the gym," he said.

The growth of digital books has been rapid and the British Marketing Research Bureau estimates a quarter of adult internet users will listen to a podcast in the next six months, while Audible.co.uk has had nearly a million customers in a little less than a year.

Trevor Millum, a member of the National Association for the Teaching of English, who sits on the organisation's IT committee, welcomed the trend. "I don't think we should get into a moral panic about it. It's got to be a good thing as it's one more way to access an author's thoughts," he said.

A spokeswoman for Waterstone's, the bookseller, said the chain was exploring digital forms of literature for the future.

A history of the book

The spoken account, known as the ''oral tradition'', is the oldest carrier of messages and stories. When writing systems were invented in ancient civilisations, nearly everything that could be written upon, including stone, clay, tree bark and metal sheets, was used for writing.

By 2400BC a form of paper made from the stems of papyrus plant was being used for writing in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians are thought to have been the first people to write books, using hieroglyphics, a picture alphabet.

Papyrus sheets, below, were glued together to form a scroll, a custom that gained popularity in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds. The Romans also used Greek tablets of wax to write, which could be re-used.

The development of parchment meant that papyrus was slowly phased out during the third century AD.

Before the invention of the printing press, almost all books were copied by hand. In the 7th century, Irish monks introduced spacing between words, which facilitated reading, although it was not common practice until the 11th century.

In the early 14th century, block printing arrived in western Europe, having been developed in the East centuries earlier, and was used to reproduce books. But it was not until Johann Gutenburg popularised the printing press, above, with a metal movable type in the 15th century that books started to become affordable.

Steam-powered printing presses, which could print 1,100 sheets per hour, became popular in the 1880s, and faster presses were soon introduced.

Arifa Akbar

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