The Big Secret To Audio Book Success

Jim Dale in "Barnum."Heroes and role models.

We all have people we admire because they inspire.

One of my heroes happens to be a dancer, singer-songwriter, comedian, stage and screen actor, as well as a first-rate audio book narrator.

Like me, he is a naturalized U.S. citizen. One of the songs he wrote the lyrics to, was nominated for an Oscar. He received five Tony Award nominations, and won one for Barnum. He also has two Grammy’s.

In July of 2014, aged 78, he finished a twelve week one-man show about his career at the Laura Pels Theater in New York called “Just Jim Dale.”

I’m sure you know Jim Dale as the narrator of the Harry Potter series in the U.S. (Stephen Fry narrated the UK version). For his voice work Dale received ten Audie Awards, and twenty-three Audio File Earphone Awards.

Dale previously held the record for creating and recording 134 different characters portrayed in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The new record holder is Roy Dotrice -aged 91- with 224 voices for A Game of Thrones.

This is what the AudioFile magazine wrote about Dale:

“When J.K. Rowling has Hagrid boom, Dumbledore hum, and Aunt Marge belch, listeners can hear exactly what that sounds like, thanks to Jim Dale’s spellbinding narration. He gives voice to every wizard, muggle, house elf, goblin, giant, and hundreds of other characters who pass through Hogwarts, Hogsmeade, Diagon Alley, and the other magical environs of the Harry Potter series. He is a major part of why these fantastical volumes are among the top-selling audiobooks of all time.”


This begs the question: Is there a secret to Jim Dale’s mastery? Fortunately, he gave us the answer. Dale said:

“Good acting is consistency of performance.”

The ability to deliver the same quality over a period of time is one of those things that separates the professional from the pretender, whether it is in sports, music, the culinary arts or in (voice) acting.

If you want your performance to be credible, you have to be consistent.

This may seem obvious, but as in many things in life, it is easier said than done. Imagine having to come up with 134 different character voices, knowing that many of them will return in a series of seven books.

In a motion picture, these characters are portrayed by different actors. The audio book narrator is on his or her own, and has to create and recreate these characters accurately over a period of time. It’s a daunting task, and quite a responsibility.

In an article on authentic listening, Junko Yokota and Miriam Martinez said the following:

“The audiobook narrator plays a role similar to that of a translator of a book from one language to another. A good translator can make a big difference in the reading experience through word choice and passage interpretation; likewise, the audiobook narrator helps mediate the story for the listener by selecting what tone to take, what types of voices to give to characters, what to emphasize, and how to engage the listener.”

There’s a big difference between reading into a microphone, and telling a story. Great narrators like Jim Dale are storytellers who take you on a journey you never want to end. And by the way, this doesn’t only apply to audio books. Sometimes, a twenty-second script for a commercial is a short story in and of itself.


These days, some voice-over coaches are trying to drum up business by telling prospective students that audio books and video games are booming. They are right. We’re living in the golden age of the spoken book, and successful video games make way more money than Oscar-winning movies.

Hordes of hopefuls sign up for voice-over classes because they believe they have the pipes casting directors are waiting for. Many of these beginners are making two big mistakes:

  1. They believe that in order to make it as an audio book narrator or in animation and video games, they have to be good at doing impressions.
  2. They think that being able to sing one song, makes them ready to perform an entire opera.

In the Documentary I Know That Voice, voice actor James Arnold Taylor had this to say:

“It’s not about ‘I can do Christopher Walken, I can do Johnny Depp, I can do Michael J. Fox.’ That’s great, but can you do ANYTHING as them? Can you stay in that voice for hours; scream in that voice for four hours?”

In other words: consistency is key. Consistency and stamina.


Like Jim Dale, you have to have the ability to stay in character, and then switch character and get back to the first character, while introducing a third. And you do this for hours at a time in a space smaller than a prison cell. Dale is usually in the studio from 10:30 am until 5:30 pm, recording twenty pages an hour for two weeks to record one book (source). This requires serious training, serious preparation, and serious self-care.

If you’re new to the business and want to break into audio books, I dare you to record for even one hour straight, and find out how your voice feels at the end. Does it still sound the same? Could you continue for another hour, or are you exhausted; do your vocal folds feel raw, and do you need a few hours to recover? If so, you’re not ready to meet that 3-week deadline for this 700-page novel you just agreed to narrate at $100 per finished hour (a ridiculously low rate by the way).


Gary Cantona, the voice builder

Gary Catona

There’s a reason why some VO-pros like James Arnold Taylor study with Gary Catona. Catona calls himself the “voice builder,” and he has worked with Andrea Bocelli, Usher, Shakira, Shirley MacLaine, Tony Bennett, and many others. He approaches voice building as a sport, and encourages his students to train the voice like an athlete trains his muscles. 

You can read about his method in his book “A Revolution in Singing.” Gary also developed an iPhone/iPad Voice Building App ($4.99) with over twenty voice building sessions, exercises, and video demonstrations for singing and speaking voices.

A few years ago he did a talk at Google, and if you’re interested in his work and his philosophy, you can watch it on YouTube when you click this link. At 26:34 Catona answers a question from a voice-over artist in the audience. 


Being consistent as a (voice) actor means more than being able to do marathon recording sessions, and staying in character(s). Pacing is important too. If you’re reading your lines too fast, the listener has no idea of what’s being said. If you’re too slow, the listeners’ mind will start to wander.

It also means being able to deliver audio files of consistent professional quality. People like Jim Dale go to a studio and work with an audio engineer, and perhaps a director. Most narrators do not have that luxury. They run a business out of a walk-in closet, hoping the dog next door won’t start to bark. They self-direct, self-record, and they edit every minute of every file. One hour of finished audio can take many hours to complete.

Dale realizes how much work goes into the production of an audio book. When Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire came out, he told reporter Rochelle O’Gorman:

“The magic of the Harry Potter books is really in the hands of the editors and engineers. They take all the mistakes that I make – and I make thousands of them – and edit them out, and splice the tape reading into such a beautifully seamless production. They’re the geniuses; they’re the ones that we should applaud because nobody knows how much work they have to do.”

Credit where credit is due, but at the same time, Dale gave those engineers something magical to work with:

Constant, consistent brilliance.

And that’s why he is one of my heroes!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS When this story was first published, I received the following message from Jim Dale:

“So many thanks for the words you have written about me, truly embarrassing. I also wish to congratulate you on all your work in the narrating world, very impressive. I have also traveled through your website, really amazing. My thanks again for writing about me and my sincere best wishes in whatever you choose to become involved in next. Jim”

PS This is part 5 in my series on performance and script delivery. You can read part 1 by clicking on this link, and part 2 by clicking on this link. Click here for part 3. If you’d like to read part 4, please click here.

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About the author

Paul Strikwerda

is a Dutch-English voice-over pro, coach, and writer. His blog is one of the most widely read and influential blogs in the industry. Paul is also the author of "Making Money In Your PJs, Freelancing for voice-overs and other solopreneurs."

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career

29 Responses to The Big Secret To Audio Book Success

  1. Suzanne

    Dag Paul,

    Leuk en interessant stuk om te lezen. Weet jij ook toevallig, want je bent nu Amerikaan!, een goede Nederlandse stemcoach?

    Hartelijke groet


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Leuk dat je m’n blog leest, Suzanne! Als ik jou was, dan zou ik m’n vraag over een stemcoach stellen aan de Facebook groep voor Nederlandse stemacteurs: Ik ben te veel op afstand om je een goede aanbeveling te kunnen geven.


  2. Anna Castiglioni

    Wonderful post! Jim Dale was one of my major influences (role models) in becoming a narrator. Thank you for the tips. I was a singer long before becoming VA-narrator, and I could definitely use some voice training/conditioning tips for stamina. I’ll give that app a try.


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I’m glad you enjoyed it, Anna! Let me know how you like the app. I also recommend vocal coach Elissa Weinzimmer. One of the things she does, is teach vocal health. Here’s her website:


  3. Rick Lance

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts here, Paul! Yes… without a doubt Jim Dale sets the standard for all narrators. Although, most never come close to his abilities and actually don’t need to as long as they are consistently strong and centered with their reading.

    Frankly, as you’ve described, the stamina needed for ABs, especially fiction, is incredible. I have to confess that, between the extended recording time and stamina needed for most audio books… I kinda avoid them. Sometimes guiltily too. I’m a pretty good storyteller but… man… the other factors to consider!

    Also, in a weird twist, I wish that some narrators would stay away from recording ABs. Since, I continue to hear on Audible and elsewhere POOR quality audio so distracting (to my ear) that I ask… why did they bother? Why was this even excepted by the publisher, author and the public, for that matter. I guess the market is in such demand that quality doesn’t matter that much anymore. For me, I have to be very moved by a subject, given plenty of lead time and a good budget to be interested in narrating any particular AB project. But kudos to those who dedicate their time, energy and a world of interpretive acting skills to their craft!


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I share your experience and your choices, Rick. Most audio book projects that come along my desk are not worth my time because they are vanity projects that will never sell well. More interesting projects will go to the lowest bidder who (seemingly) has all the time in the world and no bills to pay. I also mourn the loss of professional standards. In an age where the TV image keeps on getting better and better, it baffles me that poor audio quality is even tolerated.


  4. Susan Hadash

    Jim Dale is wonderful. He keeps up the tension and excitement when he narrates and there is never a dull moment. It’s hard to imagine how he keeps all the characters straight. If I am dubbing multiple characters (not nearly as many as he does, not for as many hours, and not in audio books), I sometimes jot down notes to help me remember a character’s voice. If there is a lot of time between sessions, I ask the sound engineer to let me listen to a certain character I’ve done just to be sure I’m doing the same voice.


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Good tips, Susan. You’ve got to cultivate your multiple personality order!


  5. Ted Mcaleer

    The fundamental truths of voice over remain the same. The problem is that everyone thinks it won’t apply to them. 20 pages an hour… He’s a machine.


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Very few people will watch Olympic marathon runners and say: “I think I can do that. Let’s start racing tomorrow!” Yet, too many beginners allow themselves to be talked into a new career as an audio book narrator. After all… what could be easier? Everybody knows how to read, right?


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    That’s the problem with people who are ignorant. They know so little that they don’t realize that they’re ignorant.


  6. Keith Michaels

    Great post Paul. Jim has always been a favorite of mine. I have one audio book to my credit. There will not be a second. My hats are off to narrators like Jim who make it sound easy. It’s not. Get to know your strengths and your limitations.


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Wise words, Keith, coming from experience. Beginners, take heed!


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  8. Ed Hawthorne

    Paul, again THANK YOU!


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  12. Nicholas Lane

    Thanks for that reality check!


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    My pleasure, Nicholas. Audio book narration is like climbing a mountain. You need to have the right equipment (this includes your voice). You need to have the right training, and you need experience to reach the top. My advice: start walking up small hills before you take on a peak in the Himalayas.


    david Reply:

    ….and as Dag Hammersköld once said (UN Chief of many years ago)
    “Never measure the height of the mountain you are climbing. When you get to the top you will see how small it really is!”

    Just found your site – happy I did 😉


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Great quote. Thanks for finding me, David!

  13. Debbie Grattan

    I always love reading your blogs Paul! But my limit for reading in general, when not work related, is not much longer than that. Not because I don’t enjoy a great book, but because there just don’t seem to be enough hours in the day for me. I do NOT record audio books, and probably never will. It’s just too daunting for me, personally. And I respect those who do, for the enormous talent they must have to successful meet the artistic demands, and also for the time, tenacity, and of course consistency, at remarkably low pay rates.
    Jim Dale of course is a trained actor, having acclaimed success on the stage (Tony award for Barnum) and other film and TV roles. And I read that he started as a comic. So his background is well suited for the creation of characters and storytelling required for an award winning series of audio-books. He is really one in a million. And for those who enter into the world of audio book recording, I’m sure they find out very quickly whether or not they are well suited for the job.


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Debbie, Jim actually modeled many of the Harry Potter characters on people from his childhood. It helps to have life experience. Of course there’s a huge difference between fiction and non-fiction narration. Fiction requires acting skills. Non-fiction not so much. For both, consistency is key.


  14. Leah Frederick

    Thank you, thank you, thank YOU, Paul for such a wonderful article about the challenges that face us audiobook narrators! It can be grueling and demanding and that’s why I love it. Sharing this article all over social media today 🙂


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    My pleasure, Leah. Thank you for enriching the lives of so many people who go on a journey, every time they listen to your voice!


  15. Matt Forrest

    Another good post, Paul – I think until someone voices or produces an audiobook, they can’t imagine the time & work involved. I did my first one about a year ago, and when I quoted my fee, I explained that I estimate for every 20 minutes of audio there is an hour of work attached to it – so a 4-hour finished piece is actually a 16-hour job, on average. It definitely surprises new voice seekers!

    (And for the record, as much as I love Stephen Fry’s work, I think Dale did a better job w/ Harry!)


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    We need to educate (aspiring) colleagues as well as clients on the intricacies of the time-consuming audio book production process. Don’t take the job if you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into! I see too many beginner questions on narration from people who realize that they’re in over their heads. We have to stand firm and stand together on rates as well. How can we ask the world to value our services if we undervalue them ourselves?


  16. Ted Mcaleer

    20 pages an hour… Jim Dale, another great pro, I’m prepping the Harry Potter version now after finishing the Enders saga. I loved S. Fry’s version.
    But you are dead on… Audiobooks are Not for the faint of heart. I’m doing a multi-part technical narration, 90 mins finished audio. Brutal, but a cakewalk compared to any audio book, and I know how to tell stories.
    Glad to be doing my kind of work. Props to those who bring it!


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