Hobnobbing with the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Kate McKinnon and Yara Shahidi isn’t typically the gloss applied to the cerebral audiobook set, but Audible is putting the humble audio story through its own movie-makeover montage, inking high-profile development deals with entertainment names like “The Walking Dead” comics creator Skybound Entertainment, Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine and Lorne Michaels’ Broadway Video Enterprises.

“We’re definitely interested in working with more Hollywood talent, knowing that there’s a lot of amazing creative talent there,” says Rachel Ghiazza, Audible’s new senior vice president of content acquisition and development. “We’re really eager to see what they can do in the format. It’s definitely an area we’re investing more in.”

Under the auspices of behemoth parent Amazon, Audible has become the nation’s dominant retailer of audiobooks. Now, amid an ongoing podcast and long-form audio renaissance, it is assertively looking to annex more listener territory with star-studded audio-only and audio-first originals, rebutting the industry’s reputation for merely being a print edition groupie.

“It’s not just a niche product off a book anymore,” says Audio Publishers Assn. executive director Michele Cobb, who says that as publishers see the growth of the audio industry, they’re “willing to be more experimental.”

Audiobook sales in the U.S. are in the midst of explosive growth, totaling $940 million in 2018 revenue, up double digits for the seventh consecutive year, according to the Audio Publishers Assn.

But as with this era of Peak TV, the ballooning medium has translated to a rash of content on the market. Nearly 44,700 individual audio titles were produced last year, a 5.8% bump from the year before. Just as streaming platforms are rushing in to create original shows and movies, audiobook makers are eager to differentiate themselves by offering stories that lean in to the format — a modern take on the radio play.

“More, more, more” is how Audible executive vice president and publisher Beth Anderson characterizes the company’s overall approach to growing original content. It has greenlighted a follow-up to Shahidi-narrated “Stan Lee’s Alliances: A Trick of Light,” for example, expanding the “Alliances” universe. And the new partnerships have yielded projects like McKinnon’s absurdist medieval comedy “Heads Will Roll,” created jointly with her sister Emily Lynne, and Sophia Chang’s forthcoming audio memoir, “The Baddest Bitch in the Room.”

The market comes with a coveted audience. Not only are audiobook listeners more affluent, educated and urban, but they’re also younger. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, nearly a quarter of 18- to 29-year-olds listened to an audiobook in the previous 12 months, more than any other age bracket surveyed and up from 16% in 2016.

“We have found that people who buy audiobooks actually buy more print books than people who don’t buy audiobooks,” says Anderson. Capturing a growing Gen Z and young-millennial base — one that pays for products, no less — is a dream for entertainment companies vying for sunlight in a thicket of consumable media.

No wonder, then, that even venerable institutions like “Saturday Night Live” producer Broadway Video are capitalizing on this momentum, working with Audible to produce audio-only original comedy programs.

“I know we’re reaching a very wide audience, and from what I understand, we’re also reaching people who we don’t normally reach as part of our NBC television audience, which is pretty exciting,” says Britta von Schoeler, head of Broadway Video Enterprises. “Overall, the feedback has been fantastic.”

“Heads Will Roll,” Broadway Video’s inaugural Audible program, has performed so well that the company is exploring an on-screen adaptation — an inverse of the usual print-to-audio route.

“We’re actually talking about how we can create the visual version of ‘Heads Will Roll,’ and it’s had unsolicited interest from several platforms, which is really exciting,” says von Schoeler. “Because now we’re thinking of Audible as our first window in creative storytelling, and from here, hopefully we can build a brand beyond an audio format.”

The challenge is how to economically and successfully bring to life McKinnon and Lynne’s fictional world, which is part medieval, part modern, and has more than 90 characters, some human, some not. The conversations are still in the embryonic stages, so it’s not clear yet whether an adaptation would be for TV or film.

What’s certain is Audible’s intention to plow more capital into originals, forming a link to the world that traditional Hollywood inhabits.

The company renovated its Newark, N.J., facilities two years ago, building more studios, including a large recording space that can accommodate multi-cast productions. A little less than half of its audio stories are produced locally, though many are recorded through third-party production companies.

Originals attract new subscribers to an already significant customer roster. Audible, just as tight-lipped about its numbers as parent company Amazon, says that it has a membership base that runs into the “millions,” though it will not specify exactly how many are subscribing to the service’s $15-a-month service. It says its U.S. originals content portfolio has shot up 132% in 2019 from the prior year, on top of 64% growth from 2017 to 2018; in total, the company offers more than 465,000 audio programs.

The way people listen to audio stories has certainly helped to open up the market. Thumbing through an album of audiobook CDs — or even longer ago, a stack of Books on Tape — has been replaced by smartphones and smart speakers. Amazon has an edge there: Its Alexa-enabled Echo device dominates the smart-speaker market with a roughly two-thirds share, according to eMarketer figures, providing Audible an easy in to millions of American homes. (Anderson calls Alexa a “boon” for Audible.)

Souped-up productions may also help refashion crowded genres. Multiple James Beard Award-winning chef Marcus Samuelsson created for Audible the digital cookbook/oral history “Our Harlem: Seven Days of Cooking, Music and Soul at the Red Rooster,” a full-immersion experience that, besides recipes, incorporates music, soundscapes and interviews with subjects ranging from writers Jelani Cobb and Isabel Wilkerson to tastemaker Dapper Dan.

“As chefs, as storytellers, we always think about how can we connect with an audience, and the traditional cookbook stores are not the same anymore,” says Samuelsson. “That marketplace looks different.”

The entire audio project took a little less than two years for him to create, compared with the three- to four years it has historically taken him to craft a cookbook.

“There are so many podcasts out there; we wanted to do something that would add value and be different,” he says. “And there’s a lot of depth there, between the music and the recipes and the stories.”

“Our Harlem” debuted to positive reviews. Going forward, Audible execs Anderson and Ghiazza are bullish on their expansive audio originals stable, calling the industry a “fun new playground for creators to be in.” The company’s net is cast pretty wide; Ghiazza will consider acquiring a finished book, or working with a creator to develop and produce an audio project.

Though Audible is mum on many of the specifics — such as the number of staff on its originals team and the valuation of its development deals — Anderson reiterates its overall growth mandate: “More, more, more.” 

Below are some of Audible’s key projects:

The Baddest Bitch in the Room

Sophia Chang, the daughter of Korean immigrants, falls in love with hip-hop and becomes a manager to Wu-Tang Clan members, D’Angelo and other musicians.

Heads Will Roll

The workplace comedy-meets-absurdist medieval fantasy was written by and stars Kate McKinnon of “Saturday Night Live” and her sister Emily Lynne.

Our Harlem

Chef Marcus Samuelsson takes listeners through Harlem and his Red Rooster restaurant in this digital cookbook turned community tribute.

Stan Lee’s Alliances: A Trick of Light 

Yara Shahidi narrates this superhero tale, one of Stan Lee’s final works, which envisions a tech-saturated universe and a “reality-bending” journey.

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