Close your eyes and read: the iPod generation turns on to audio books

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Forget suitcases bursting with heavyweight hardbacks and pages smeared with sunblock. Holiday reading is going hands - and book - free.

Forget suitcases bursting with heavyweight hardbacks and pages smeared with sunblock. Holiday reading is going hands - and book - free.

Sales of audio books for beach and poolside are soaring and the UK publishing industry is about to be hit by the same revolution that has overhauled the music world - the iPod-friendly download.

Best-selling writers such as Dan Brown, Bill Bryson and even James Joyce have proved to be a hit for the bookworm who prefers not to lift a finger on their hols - even to turn a page.

The audio market is now worth more than £70m annually and continues to expand thanks to increased demand in the summer months.

New figures show sales of audio books from July to September last year shot up by 40 per cent compared with the same quarter in 2003. Waterstone's, one of the biggest high-street retailers of audio books, reports sales of their spoken-word summer choices up 35 per cent so far this year.

For many audio converts it spells the end of that awkward search for the perfect balance between comfortable lounging position and maximum exposure to the sun. Now they can simply slip in their earphones and press "play" without worrying about white patches from book shadows.

Listeners have embraced more challenging reads and classics that they had not managed in their usual reading schedules. Joyce's Ulysses was an audio top seller last year, as were Tolstoy's War and Peace, Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.

Joel Rickett, deputy editor of the publishing industry magazine The Bookseller, said: "Many people going on holiday want something for the beach or the flight but they don't want to have to cart it around all the time they are away. The holiday audio book is definitely a growth market."

Audio books were originally aimed at an older market whose eyesight was less sharp, and more mature reads such as Agatha Christie books remain popular. But there are moves to lower the age profile with hipper titles, celebrity readers and efforts to bring out audio versions close to the print publication date.

The biggest innovation for the technology friendly will be a move to downloading to personal digital devices such as iPods and other MP3 players. This month sees the UK launch of online retailer Audible, a major player in the US.

Publishers here are already looking to the download market. BBC Audio Books, the market leader, which issues about 80 new titles each year, puts out a number of releases on CD but with the information stored in MP3 form, making it easier to switch to a portable player and allowing more material to be stored on fewer discs.

The BBC is looking at the techno-bloke market by making versions of Jack Kerouac's On the Road read by Matt Dillon, Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch and Pompeii by Robert Harris available as MP3 CDs.

A spokeswoman said: "Downloading is going to make a huge difference to the market. It could do for audio books what it did for the music business.

"Instead of lugging a book around, you just load it up, listen to it and wipe it when you've finished. It doesn't have to clog up your player or your bookshelves."

Waterstone's is planning to introduce download booths later this year to allow customers to load digital versions straight on to their iPods. But the retailer does not believe downloads will kill off its audio-book trade.

Rodney Troubridge, the company's audio buyer, said: "A lot of people want to have the full package - they want to have something physical in their hands.

"Many of them want to go into a store and browse through what is available."