Audiobooks Give New Life To Literature

As the final Harry Potter novel was released this weekend, Hogwarts enthusiasts filled a New York bookstore. But the star of this show wasn't just the book itself — it was the narrator reading the story.

From the very first novel, Jim Dale has been the voice of the Harry Potter series on audiobook. For millions of listeners, it's Dale who has brought Harry Potter and his world to life.

"I just knew it was a very good book. I knew I'd made a good decision to say 'yes,' but I didn't expect it to be as big as this," Dale told CBS News correspondent Anthony Mason.

Dale's tour de force reading of the Potter saga has won him a Grammy. He has a record 9 Audie Awards, the Oscars for audiobooks. Now one of the industry's superstars, he was emcee of this year's ceremony. An accomplished actor, Dale appeared in a dozen of the famous British "Carry On" comedies," in Disney films like "Pete's Dragon," and he won a Tony award for his Broadway portrayal of the circus master "Barnum."

"But this was a new adventure for me to go into the realm of audiobook reading," he said. "And then having a whole host of children coming up to me at McDonald's when I was there once, and they said, 'You're — It's — you're the…' I said, Yes." 'Ooh, can — can — can you order my hamburger as Dumbledore?' Wonderful. Lovely."

But the voice of Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, is just one of dozens Dale has had to create for the series.

"And I'd invent the voices by having a little tape recorder and saying on page one, 7th line down, Dumbledore," he said. "And then I will do Dumbledore's voice into the tape recorder, reading Dumbledore's first sentence. So I turn up at the studio with a tape here of, maybe, for book five, 134 different voices."

So where do all those voices come from? Well, Dobby, for example, the house elf at Hogwarts, came from a chance encounter with a dwarf in the elevator when he was doing pantomime.

"I didn't realize that there was another theater in the same building and they were doing 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,'" he said. "And so I got into a crowded elevator and pushed backwards, squashing up against whoever it was. And it was a dwarf behind me. And I had no idea until I heard the voice say, 'Excuse me, sir. Can you take your bum out of my face?' And so I said 'I do apologize.' He says, 'It's alright, sir. They all do it. They all do it.' And that voice stayed with me. You can't forget an incident like that."

Dale's narrations of the Harry Potter series have sold nearly six million copies. Technology has helped audiobooks come of age; last year, listeners bought an estimated 58 million recorded books.

Judy Kreston, for example, has become an audiobook addict.

"I travel by subway, I listen to books," Kreston said. "I walk on the street, I'm listening to books. If I'm cleaning my house, I'm listening, And when I sit down and knit, I'm listening to a book."

The revolution started quietly a decade ago, when a company called audible.com brought out a now-primitive portable device, which came out four years before the iPod and only held about two hours of audio.

"It sounded like someone talking in the bottom of a bathtub," audible.com founder Don Katz said. "But it made its point."

Audible's thousands of titles can be downloaded onto hundreds of different devices. But the boom really began when audible partnered with Apple and iTunes.

"And a tremendous number of people discovered audiobooks in the process. At various points half of our customers had never tried an audiobook before," Katz said.

Audible is now an $82-million-a-year business, with 415,000 subscribers.

Ron McLarty has been narrating since the early days of audiobooks and he has done more than 100 of them. A character actor who has appeared in dozens of movies and TV series like "Law & Order," McLarty keeps coming back for more.

"Because if you're a character actor, and especially if you're a character actor and you haven't been the star, you get to be the star in these things," McLarty said. "You get to be the star! And you play all the parts."

An acclaimed novelist himself, McLarty has given voice to his own books as well as all kinds of bestsellers, from the romance novels of Danielle Steel, to horror stories by Stephen King, and the thrillers of David Baldacci.

"I've always asked for Ron," Baldacci said. "If he's available, you know, he reads my books. It's almost like finding an author you love, and you start reading all her books. And to find a narrator you love, it's sort of a match made in heaven."

In his book, "Last Man Standing," Baldacci created an intimidating drug dealer called Big F.

"I did as best I could on the pages," Baldacci said. "But, man when Ron did that voice, I came out of my seat on the plane, and literally an air marshall was coming towards me with his hand on his gun, because I just screamed out, you know, 'Holy whatever', because he just nailed that voice. He made Big F come off that tape, like it was just amazing. It just added a whole other dimension to the storytelling that as a writer you really just can't provide."

But McLarty and Baldacci had never even met until recently, when they appeared on a panel together. Authors like Baldacci have learned good narrators can help them build an audience and sell books.

"It's an art," Katz said. "It's particular to certain kinds of actors. There's great actors who can't do it. There are actors who will probably never be big names in movies who are unbelievably gifted at it."

A new generation of fans has come to know Dale just for his storytelling at the Harry Potter party — some even honored him by trying to imitate him. But narrating audiobooks isn't a lucrative business. For all the hours spent in the booth, even a star rarely makes more than $10,000 for an audiobook narration — hardly Hollywood money. But the reader's role has its own rewards, McLarty said.

"It's a grind, but it's a great feeling at the end of it," McLarty said. "Like you've brought a project to life all by yourself."
  • Caitlin Johnson

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