We know that people are willing to take that extra step and go for something that’s a little more, dare I say, hardcore,” says Michele Cobb, vice-president of sales and marketing at the new audiobook erotica imprint Insatiable Press.

Sexy reads on audio, shunned by libraries and bookstore chains in the ’90s, are poised for mainstream success. Thanks to a groundswell of online erotic literature, growth in MP3 downloads, and a boost from the juggernaut Fifty Shades, the once-jilted genre is about to become a reliable category for audiobook publishers.

Excitement for audio erotica had been building long before Fifty Shades of Grey. Susie Bright, the Best American Erotica series editor and editor-at-large at Audible, says that the Internet changed everything: “There was a growth in fantasy, fan fiction, kinky sexual expression, having a female writer... All of that had an impact.” Tina Engler, who founded Ellora’s Cave in 2000, the vanguard of e-book erotica publishing, started her company when traditional publishers rejected her racy manuscripts. Says Ellora’s Cave publisher Raelene Gorlinsky, “They all loved her writing but said, ‘Oh, no, women won’t buy this stuff with explicit sex in it. You have to take all that out.’ And she said,, ‘Yes, they will!’ ”

Publisher at Macmillan Audio Mary Beth Roche says that she had seen strong sales of erotica in audio download format back in 2000. Beth Anderson, executive vice-president and publisher at Audible, says, “We had erotica from Audible’s beginning [in 2005].... We started a partnership with Harlequin.” And Simon & Schuster saw steady digital audio sales for erotic fiction author Zane for years. In 2007 seven of the top 10 download-only titles on Audible were erotica books. And the erotic romance audiobook and e-book publisher Insatiable Press started last year. Says Cobb, “We were really looking at our publishing plan as a whole and saying, ‘What areas have we not gotten into that we think have some sales potential?’ ” Then the E.L. James sensation hit.

In 2012, a strong demand for the print edition of Fifty Shades of Grey led to a rush to produce an audiobook version, released simultaneously with the paperback. Amanda D’Acierno, vice-president and publisher of Random House Audio, told Booklist last year, “In the past, we’ve traditionally published erotica exclusively as downloads, so that was our original plan with Fifty Shades of Grey. Once we saw how quickly the phenomenon was growing, we added a physical CD release, which was a challenge, as we typically plan months in advance.”

So far, Random House Audio has sold about 50,000 copies of the various Fifty Shales titles, including the collected set, according to BookScan.Even now, almost a year after its initial release in audio, it remains among Audible’s top 10 bestsellers. Now that Fifty Shades popularized—and, to a great extent, destigmatized—erotica, more and more listeners are surrendering to these seductive stories.

A Growing Passion

Roche says, “When you have a phenomenon like Fifty Shades that takes the category to a whole new level, then there’s a greater need for a breadth of choice. There are all these consumers who have discovered something that they really enjoy, and they’re looking for more.”

To that end, Audible just signed a partnership deal in March with Ellora’s Cave to produce and distribute 87 of its bestselling titles. Gorlinsky of Ellora’s Cave says that its readers had been inquiring about audio versions, so the publisher had been looking for an audio partner. Bright says, “We knew how well Harlequin had done, but with this new interest in erotica, we approached Ellora’s Cave. We’re going to do their frontlist as well.”

Gorlinsky says that the initial round of audiobook erotica releases will include the Trek Mi Q’an series by Jaid Black, the New Species series by Laurann Dohner, books by Joey W. Hill, and more. Gorlinsky says, “It’s mainly our bestselling authors in a variety of genres. We didn’t want to pin it down to one genre.” Bright says that the first titles from Audible and Ellora’s Cave will be available in about three months.

As for newcomer Insatiable Press, Cobb says, “We are trying to do a wide variety of things, from fiction to nonfiction. We have The Ultimate Guide to Fellatio and The Ultimate Guide to Cunnilingus [from Cleis Press], for instance. The rate at which we want to be producing is four audio titles per month. And we’re sort of building up to that.”

Roche says of Macmillan, “I think we’re seeing more erotica on the [print] frontlist that we’re evaluating for audio. But we are definitely going back and looking at backlists: are there titles whose authors are experiencing newfound popularity or greater popularity along with this increased interest in erotica?” Macmillan standouts include Sara Fawkes, whose 2012 audiobook Anything He Wants contains BDSM elements—as does Fifty Shades of Grey. Sylvia Day, too, rose to prominence last year with her self-published e-book-turned-paperback Bared to You; Macmillan released Day’s Eve of Darkness this month and will offer Eve of Chaos and Eve of Destruction in May and June.

For Tantor Media, its top seller in the category is Maya Banks’s Sweet Surrender, a darkly kinky title originally released in July. “While her sales were solid before Fifty Shades, they have gone up dramatically since,” says Ron Formica, Tantor’s director of rights and acquisitions. Tantor’s newer titles include equally risqué works, such as Lauren Dane’s Laid Bare and Shayla Black’s Belong to Me.

Christopher Lynch, executive vice-president and publisher at Simon & Schuster Audio, notes that the company’s editors acquire more and more erotic romance and erotica in print, which means more and more opportunities for audio: “Between August of last year and this February, I’ve published 14 of those titles. Plus, I’m adding another 20 between now and the end of 2013.” These audio editions include S.C. Stephens’s Reckless and Jennifer Probst’s The Marriage Merger (out in July). “These are, for the most part, titles I probably wouldn’t have published [before Fifty Shades of Grey] because we didn’t think there was an audience for this somewhat-romance-somewhat-erotica set.”

But don’t think that audiobook erotica customers are necessarily only women in their 30s or 40s. Lynch says that, according to his authors, their fans may be overwhelmingly female but tend to be in their 20s. Anderson noted, “In looking at our customer reviews, while we see a lot of women’s names, we also see men’s names.” And Bright says, “A lot of people made fun of Fifty Shades. They called it ‘soccer mom porn.’ Look at what’s happening with YA books, with Twilight, and with True Blood—it crosses age and gender barriers.”

An Addictive, Private Pleasure

So what’s so special about audio-based erotica? As with the e-book experience, there’s less risk of getting caught listening to it. Gorlinsky explained the allure of Ellora’s Cave’s e-books: “[Readers] wanted to be able to buy it basically anonymously. Bookstores were hesitant to carry it on the shelves. Women didn’t want to walk up to the counter with it.”

Anderson says, “You tend to listen on your own, in the car by yourself or on the elliptical [machine] or in a crowded room, and there’s a narrator talking directly to you. It can feel intimate, and certainly with something sexy and romantic and erotic, it can feel more powerful.”

Roche says of nonfiction audiobooks that tackle sexual themes, “There’s something about hearing advice and hearing somebody coach you through a situation and hearing their voice and having them talk you through it. That’s a category where we’ll see the sales outperform the normal ratio.”

Lynch says, “I don’t know if it’s how much of a price-sensitive market it is. But whether it’s e-book or audio [download], there’s an immediacy that you can go from one to the next. They can just go online and get the next one and download it and start right away.” Indeed, Anderson noted that a lot of the audiobook erotica titles comprise a series; once listeners gets hooked, they’re likely to purchase the sequels.

As Lynch points out, “Some of these authors really promote each other, particularly some of the ones that started out as self-published authors. They’ll encourage their fans to read another author’s books and vice versa, so when they finish one series, there’s always another series for the avid reader or listener to go to. That’s helped fuel the fire.”

Bright notes that even if a beloved author can’t deliver a series, “others will pick up the banner. You’ll see Ellora’s Cave or Harlequin, they’ll say, ‘Look, we could create a series based on these same ideas.’ ” From paranormal and fantasy to historical romance and romantica to BDSM and edgeplay, there’s an audience for each of erotica’s many subgenres.

Bright says, “When they find their Jane Eyre, it keeps selling and selling. Once they discover these authors, [listeners] want to hear everything they’ve ever done.”

My First Time

With such sensitive subject matter, is it uncomfortable to read erotica out loud? Cobb says, “We’re trying to scout for new people and new talent who wouldn’t be put off by the content—but also going to existing talent that we have and saying, ‘Would you be willing to narrate this type of genre?’ If the answer is ‘yes,’ usually it’s done under a pseudonym.”

An audiobook narrator who prefers to remain anonymous told the story of her first time recording erotic short stories about six years ago: “I had sort of an ignorant impression of what erotica was. I thought it was sort of that old Harlequin romance—[with] euphemisms. This was just hardcore. I was so embarrassed. Here I was in this booth with this man I barely knew reading about strap-ons. I just... I acted. Even though it’s not something that I listen to or read, it is very appreciated by other people.”

Indeed, Cobb says, “It gets into very interesting questions when we’re recording erotica: Who is the engineer? Is a woman recording it? Do we need to consider a female engineer? Or are people going to be comfortable when we have the quality-control checks?”

Abigail McCue, a director for Recorded Books, takes a more lighthearted approach: “When you’re doing it for the first time, you’re very nervous. Especially when you’re doing it with an engineer of the opposite sex,” she says. “But after about 10 minutes of erotica, it becomes kind of funny. So the challenge, I guess, is to maintain seriousness while doing kind of crazy stuff.”

Narrator Tavia Gilbert says, “I do think that the breathing in erotic content is really important. It’s really funny to be breathing heavily and then make a mistake and have to do it over again.”

But audiobook narrator Clarissa Knightly figured out how to overcome her embarrassment. She wrote on the romance blog HeroesAndHeartbreakers.com, “The key was to stop worrying about my blushing and concentrate instead on making the engineer blush. So that became my goal—to engage the engineer, make him or her (these days there are many more female engineers) blush, and by extension you: my listener.”

Safe Word

As audiobook erotica gains mainstream popularity, publishers struggle to figure out what gets classified as erotica. Is it merely a romance novel made more explicit? Is it a book that’s almost completely defined by sex? And regardless of whether an audiobook gets classified as romance, romantica, or erotica—how far is too far?

One anonymous audiobook narrator remained cautious about erotica: “I don’t mind reading romance. I don’t know where the line is drawn, however. I don’t know what separates erotica from romance at this point. Romance novels are very graphic.”

Lynch seemed concerned with how “erotica” might pigeonhole an author and his or her work: “You do want to be careful because I think these authors are talented, and they put together these stories, some of which have a lot of sex in them. But if it was just the sex, this [success] wouldn’t be happening. It’s more than just the sex. The fact that there’s a story and characters that people care about is what’s really driven it.”

Bright, the erotica guru of the group, explained that sex doesn’t indicate whether an audiobook falls under romance or erotica; in fact, romance novels have sizzled for decades. She says, “I can remember as a teenager, someone handed me a ‘smutty romance’ book. By page 27, the language was explicit, the clothes were off! It’s been there all along.” So the crucial difference between romance and erotica is not how graphic the sex is but how the story’s conflict gets resolved: “The romantic element is the ‘happily ever after’ thing, whereas erotica often has an ambivalent ending.”

Still, publishing professionals worry about more extreme content—especially in audio, where explicit scenes get read out loud. Cobb says of Insatiable Press, “There are certainly lines that we don’t want to cross. We want stuff to be entertaining and titillating—but not be uncomfortable or illegal.” Gilbert says, “I’ve been offered audio [roles] for things that are just... really objectifying. Really hardcore. I have said no to auditions for things.” Another narrator says, “I won’t read anything that’s violent or demeaning to women.”

So audio erotica presents a number of challenges to publishing professionals. In a post–Fifty Shades world with an increased demand for hot audiobooks, publishers struggle to find appropriate titles to launch in this format. This means partnering with a successful digital publisher of erotica, discovering new or previously self-published authors, or simply scouring the backlist for promising books. This also means finding voice talent and audio engineers who aren’t unnerved by the adult material.

But for erotica fans, this means an exciting new wealth of steamy reads that some have enjoyed for years. And with the immediacy and privacy of audio downloads, there’s no need to hide them in a paper bag.

It’s a guilty pleasure that now comes with no guilt at all.