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Publishers Weekly Children's Features

All Ears on Harry
Shannon Maughan -- 7/24/00
Retailers, kids and adults are wild
about the Harry Potter audiobooks

It's been hard to miss all the media frenzy over J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Scholastic/Levine). This fourth book about boy wizard Harry has been setting records at just about every turn, as bookstores across the country sold out of their allotment of the 3.8 million first printing within days of the title's July 8 release. Scholastic is already back to press for three million more copies.
Harry Potter and the
Bestselling Audiobook:
Jim Dale's rendition
sets records.
But Goblet of Fire isn't creating a stir only in print. The Listening Library audiobook version of Rowling's title, read by Jim Dale and released simultaneously with the book, is racking up phenomenal sales and records of its own. The first printing of 180,000 units is the biggest ever for a children's audiobook. At one national chain, the Goblet of Fire audiobook sold more copies in two days than the last Grisham audiobook, The Brethren,sold in its first two weeks. And in only three days of sale, Amazon depleted 76% of its initial order. By July 12, that first print run had sold so quickly that Listening Library ordered three additional printings totaling 110,000 copies, making Goblet of Fire the fastest selling audiobook ever--in the children's or adult category.And on July 14, Listening Library publisher Tim Ditlow announced that this most recent run had boosted the total number of shipped Harry Potter audiobooks (all four titles) to one million.
Other retailers are equally impressed by the audiobook's early performance. Paul Rush, president of the Texas-based audiobook chain Earful of Books, said, "It exceeded all the hype." He had ordered a total of 150 copies on cassette and 100 copies on CD for his five Texas stores. "I thought we over-ordered," said Rush. "But we sold out by the end of the weekend; it was the best weekend we've ever had."

At an Earful of Books in Paramus, N.J., owner Roger Tashjian reported similar results. "People lined up at midnight [on July 8], and we had been taking pre-orders for six weeks," he said. "The amount of response was overwhelming. We've done phenomenally well with Goblet of Fire so far; we sold 200 copies within five days. There are very few chances in business when you get something this exciting."

Diane Garrett of Diane's Books in Greenwich, Conn., has also done well with Goblet of Fire,but was determined not to join in the Harry hype. "The audiobooks are amazing. We do fabulously with them; they're selling like crazy. But my customers wanted this latest one mostly because they had listened to the first three titles. I don't want to be a party pooper, but I don't have time to do a lot of the cookies and party kinds of things that other bookstores did. I didn't want to have a frenzy; I just wanted to have enough copies--both books and audiobooks--so that my customers wouldn't be let down." Garrett's initial order of 50 copies on cassette and 50 on CD has sold briskly; by July 14 she had "some, but not many" left.

The Draw of Dale
Sales figures aside, retailers are in agreement that the Harry Potter audiobooks' appeal is in no small measure due to the performance of British actor Jim Dale, who has recorded all four Rowling titles for Listening Library. Dale was previously best known for his Tony Award-winning role in the Broadway production of Barnum. Though he admits that "theater beats film, TV and audiobook reading" because of its immediacy and contact with a live audience, Dale has made a fine transition to audiobook performer. His work has been praised by critics and earned him a Grammy nomination for his recording of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Thus far, Dale is handling the glare of the Harry Potter spotlight quite well. "I didn't expect it," he says of all the attention. "But if you can't speak to J.K. Rowling [who is rarely available for interviews], who's next on the list?" he joked. "I suppose it was bound to bounce off me a bit, but it is really her wonderful work that's selling."

At 752 pages, the massive Goblet of Fire book has been transformed into a 20½-hour audiobook, the longest ever recorded for children. But length alone wasn't the only challenge of this production. Rowling's cast of witches, wizards and creatures has grown substantially, requiring Dale to create 125 character voices for this latest work. "Jo didn't just let characters through the turnstile this time--she opened the floodgates," said Dale.

How d s he keep track? "Normally, I create a voice at home and record myself reading the first line of that character's dialogue," he explained. "It's been driving my wife and the dog crazy," he said with a laugh. "It's the only time the dog has wanted to stay out on the balcony." Dale continued, "Then at the studio recording, when we're coming up to that character, I listen to the voice again [the one Dale taped at home]. The different voices are marked by colored pencil on the script so I know who's speaking next." As an added help, Rowling provided, via e-mail or fax, phonetic pronunciation keys for her array of fictional names.

The high level of secrecy around the book and relatively late arrival of the manuscript also posed some hurdles. "Instead of three to five weeks to read the book and prepare, I was given the manuscript on a Friday night and was to be in the studio on Monday morning," said Dale. "I decided I could probably handle 100 pages a day, so I read 100 pages each night and concentrated on the new characters. I had to go with my gut instinct and not waste any time deciding between one or two possible voices I might use." Flying blind caused other small concerns as well. Dale never knew if characters with similar voices would eventually meet up somewhere in the story line, forcing him to make some adjustments. In the end, all proceeded smoothly and very swiftly. Dale, producer David Rapkin, director Kathleen Hale and executive producers Tim Ditlow and Orli Moscowitz were in the studio for 10 straight days at the end of May, working through Memorial Day weekend in order to meet the July 8 release date. In keeping with Scholastic's stipulations for tight security, the master tape was hand-delivered to the duplicator, and the transfer of the finished CDs and cassettes to the warehouse was closely monitored.

The results are obviously proving well worth all this effort. Dale participated in a Harry Potter Read-a-thon in New York City's Central Park on July 8, giving his audience (comprised of mostly adults) a taste of what they can find on the audiobook. "These books have a depth that reaches far beyond being just for children," he said. "There's no stone in that magnificent world that Jo hasn't turned over." To keep up with the many fan letters and questions he receives from listeners, Dale has just launched a Web site, www.Jim-Dale.com, which he "wants to keep up with every day."

Dale is intrigued by the idea that his audiobooks are well on their way to becoming classics, ones that will be listened to long after the buzz over Goblet of Fire has waned. "I feel great being called the voice of Harry Potter," he said. "Kids today will look back on this as their 'Harry Potter' childhood, one where they shared this magical, wonderful world with their friends."

Dale already has a built-in group of young fans in England--his grandchildren. "[Because of the licensing arrangements] my recordings aren't sold over there," said Dale. "So it's nice to hear that kids are begging my oldest grandson Alfie to make copies for them. All the grandchildren have a complete set, even Angus, who is just six months old. It will be nice for his mother some day to give him the whole set of tapes that 'GrandJim' made, don't you think?"

Listeners and retailers would wholeheartedly agree. As Paul Rush of Earful of Books put it, "I hope Listening Library is thinking of a gift pack for Christmas."
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