Modern fiction: the best e-book sites

If you only use your iPod for music, you're missing out on the other half of the story. Jimmy Lee Shreeve tests the best e-book sites

A few years back everyone in publishing was talking about an impending "e-book revolution". It turned out to be rather less radical than the wholesale toppling of the printed book. The fact was, people didn't want to sit on the beach with clunky digital "readers", and they certainly didn't want to waste a ream of paper and however many printer cartridges it would take to run off a copy of The Brothers Karamazov. Not when it's on Amazon for £1.99.

But that didn't mean that the internet wasn't about to change publishing. So many people now have MP3 players, and more of us are moving on to audiobooks. Spoken versions of the latest bestsellers or classics are all now available as downloads.

Whether the written word will ever catch up with the success of online audiobooks is open to debate. Google's latest offering - a book search facility (http://books.google. com) that lets you download facsimiles of classics like Dante's Inferno for free in PDF format - was recently touted as the next big thing in publishing. As some of the most significant university libraries from around the world are digitised and made available online, Google will eventually provide a massive resource, but it may not catch on with the casual reader. The full text of rare, expensive and long out-of-print titles will be available, but this is likely to become a niche service, albeit of great value for research.

Meanwhile, downloadable audiobooks are storming ahead. In 2004, the US Audio Publishers Association (APA) estimated the size of the audio book market to be $800m (£420m), and reported that the sector showing the most growth was downloadable sales, with downloads increasing by 50 per cent year on year since 2001. The major publishing houses haven't been slow to recognise this potential. The anticipated bestseller Ultimate Weapon by Chris Ryan, was released in downloadable audio (at Audible.co.uk) by Random House before the publication on September of the hardback and CD audio editions. Read on if you want to know how to join the revolution...

Spoken Network: www.spokennetwork.co.uk

WHAT'S ON OFFER

Full range of biographies, adult and children's fiction, cookery, health and fitness and true crime. Plus notable titles like Transmission by Hari Kunzru, along with a big selection of Sherlock Holmes stories and novels read by renowned vocal actor David Ian Davies, whose virtuoso range of dialects brings the narratives to life. Plus radio productions such as Radio 4's dramatisations of stories by Philip Pullman.

QUALITY

High. Simon Callow does an excellent rendition of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde and Nigel Slater does a great job of reading his own book Toast.

EASE OF USE

Very good. Sophisticated search and browse options make it easy to find what you want. For beginners there are videos covering the buying and downloading process, which is impressively fast and simple.

EXTRAS

Monthly discounts and special offers.

FORMAT

MP3 and WMA (Windows Media Audio), which run on PCs and Macs, and can be played on MP3 players or burnt on to CDs.

PRICE

From around £1.50 to £20. Short previews are available for all titles.

Audioville: www.audioville.co.uk

WHAT'S ON OFFER

A large range of fiction and comedy. Top 5 downloads include The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, One Foot in the Gravy by John Shuttleworth and Glorious by Eddie Izzard. Has a big selection of self-help titles including Quitting Smoking Forever by Glenn Harrold and Ultimate Relaxation by Dr Hilary Jones - all of which lend themselves very well to MP3 audio listening as they involve self-hypnosis. Also city guides to such places as Amsterdam and Paris.

QUALITY

Very good. Titles read by leading actors. Plus PD James (below) talking about her writing career on the audiobook of her 1997 novel A Certain Justice.

EASE OF USE

Strong search feature that brings good results on keyword and author searches. The buying and downloading procedures are straightforward and easy to understand.

EXTRAS

Lots of special deals and discounts. Plus an online discussion forum.

FORMAT

MP3 and WMA

PRICE

Most titles from £1.99 to £12.99. In some cases, individual short stories can be bought for under a pound. Short previews of all titles are available.

Simply Audiobooks: www.simplyaudiobooks.co.uk

WHAT'S ON OFFER

More than 20,000 audiobooks available, including popular titles like Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by JK Rowling and How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Good selection of titles for children, including classics like Alice in Wonderland, alongside modern hits like Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer and Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket.

QUALITY

Good quality. Highlights include Brad Pitt (left) reading All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy.

EASE OF USE

Good search tools and straightforward purchasing and downloading process.

EXTRAS

Gift certificates and a Download Club, which brings savings of up to 50 per cent. Plus one-minute podcast reviews of the latest titles.

FORMAT

WMA, compatible with many MP3 players, though for iPods additional conversion software is required.

PRICE

Free download each month (no purchase necessary). Prices range from £3 to £12.99. Short previews of all titles are available.

Audible.co.uk: www.audible.co.uk

WHAT'S ON OFFER

Over 10,000 audiobooks are available, including fiction, crime and comedy, along with radio shows and audio newspapers. In the fiction section is the blackbuster The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, narrated by Jeff Harding, whose accomplished range of voices and dialects brings an almost movie-like quality to the story. There are also dramatised versions of classic children's stories like Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows.

QUALITY

Very good. John Grogan brings the personal touch to his bestseller Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World's Worst Dog, while celebrity cad Paul Burrell (below right) reads his book A Royal Duty.

EASE OF USE

Title, author and keyword searches make it easy to find the books you want. Payment and downloading process is fast and efficient.

EXTRAS

Offers two free downloads if you sign up for a free test-drive of Audible.

FORMAT

Audible uses its own proprietary format, which can easily be transferred to your iPod, but can be a nightmare if you use a different brand of MP3 player.

PRICE

From around £3 to £25. Short previews of all titles are available.

iTunes 7: www.apple.com/uk/itunes/audiobooks

WHAT'S ON OFFER

More than 12,000 titles available, including the complete six-volume Harry Potter audiobook series, magazines, self-improvement and language-learning titles. Other top downloads include Billy Connolly's Live - The Greatest Hits, Erotic Short Stories by Tinca Turle and Rapid French: Volume 1. Also available are podcasts from Radio 4 and Disney, among others.

QUALITY

Very high. Narrators include leading actors like Tim Pigott-Smith and Danny Glover.

EASE OF USE

Straightforward - especially if you already download music from iTunes.

EXTRAS

Gift certificates. By partnering with Audible, iTunes has plugged an audiobooks section into its libraries. This offers the ability to keep track of your place, even when you synch between your computer and iPod.

FORMAT

Audible's proprietary format and MP3.

PRICE

From around £3 to £25. Short previews of all titles are available.

Audiobooksforfree.com: www.audiobooksforfree.com

WHAT'S ON OFFER

Classics, adventure, horror, children's, non-fiction and philosophy - all out-of-copyright and offered for free or at low prices. You can download everything from Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche and The Art of War by Sun Tzu, to The Amateur Cracksman by E W Hornung and My Lady Nicotine by J M Barrie.

QUALITY

Not bad. All titles recorded by professional, if obscure, actors/ narrators such as Margaret Wooster.

EASE OF USE

Simple enough, but sometimes a tad fiddly.

EXTRAS

Offers complete AudioBooksForFree catalogue pre-loaded on to an MP3 player or internal hard drive.

FORMAT

MP3

PRICE

Free for lower quality downloads. Around £1 to £5 for higher quality.

Literalsystems: literalsystems.org

WHAT'S ON OFFER

Classics provided free-of-charge under the public domain. It's a great way to catch up on those books you wish you'd got around to reading, but haven't yet. Titles include On the Decay of the Art of Lying by Mark Twain, Briar Rose by The Brothers Grimm and The Queen Mab Dialogue by William Shakespeare. One particular highlight is the poem "Goblin Market" by Christina Rossetti (read by Jane Aker).

QUALITY

Generally very good. Nothing to report by way of big-name actors or narrators, but readings are more than passable.

EASE OF USE

Very straightforward, mainly because there's no buying process. You just click and download.

EXTRAS

You can lend your support by donating funds to the project, which is run entirely by volunteers.

FORMAT

MP3

PRICE

Free

Payperlisten.com: www3.payperlisten.com

WHAT'S ON OFFER

Thousands of titles available. Everything from Blithe Spirit by Noël Coward (read by Corin Redgrave - far right) to Wiccan Rituals and Blessings by Starhawk (read and performed by the author). In the political section is The New York Times' bestseller China Inc by Ted C Fishman (read by Alan Sklar), while the site carries interviews with Elvis Presley, the Tarzan stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu series.

QUALITY

Highlights include American Civil war epic Antietam read by Lloyd James.

EASE OF USE

Well set out, much like a public library website. The buying and downloading process is clear, but the searches don't always score a result (even when the author or book is in the catalogue).

EXTRAS

Offers ability to send audiobooks as a gift by e-mail - you get billed and the recipient gets the download notification.

FORMAT

MP3. Note that PayPerListen's encoding scheme prevents drag-and-drop audio CD burning.

PRICE

From around £5 to £25. Short previews of all titles are available.

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