Emma Roberts and Belletrist Co-Founder Karah Priess Talk Navigating Friendship and Business
Emma Roberts and Karah Priess have the kind of friendship English teachers dream about. It's a bond built around a love of books and good conversation—and it's responsible for bringing together a large online community bibliophiles through their Instagram book club Belletrist. When the Scream Queens star and Priess, co-host of the AI-themed podcast Sleepwalkers, met 12 years ago through mutual friends, they quickly developed a constant back-and-forth of book recommendations. In 2017, they decided to turn their one-on-one literary exchanges into more of a public forum, creating their Instagram book club Belletrist, and now they're expanding to new digital platforms and TV screens.
"Belletrist was always just a place where the two of us could post things that we probably would have emailed or texted to each other," Priess tells HelloGiggles at a recent Belletrist event in New York. Through the account, the friends share a monthly book selection, and connect over 260,000 followers to a host of #bookstagram content, from IGTVs with authors like Joan Didion and Raven Leilani, to indie bookstore spotlights to dreamy library photos.
Before launching the account, Roberts, 30, had already gained a reputation as a celebrity bookworm, constantly being paparazzi'd carrying books in place of handbags and sharing some of her favorite reads on her own personal Instagram account. Priess likes to think of Roberts as "an early pioneer of the actress x reading person," a public status that has now become a growing trend among celebrities, including Reese Witherspoon and Sarah Michelle Gellar, and extending to musicians and models like Florence Welch and Kaia Gerber.
Priess, on the other hand, who is also the founder and executive producer of creative management company Weird Heroes, didn't come into Belletrist with a large following or the hopes to gain one. In fact, she still keeps her personal Instagram on private—and this contrast to Roberts' public position is part of what makes both their friendship and business partnership work.
"One of the reasons why we compliment each other so well as friends and as business partners is because we are kind of this funny duo," Roberts says. "Like, I'm this actress, who's more in the public eye and she's a New York city kid whose parents are in publishing."
The two just have "different energy," Priess says at the event—her funky sneakers and casual button down juxtaposing Robert's white pumps and tweed Celine jacket—but the balance is beneficial for an environment designed to spark conversation.
"What makes Belletrist something that stands on its own is that it's infused with both of us," Roberts says. "We do have similar tastes, but obviously different backgrounds and different lives. And I think why so many different people can gravitate towards Belletrist is because we are not just one thing."
The friends are also in the works of expanding Belletrist to become many more things beyond an Instagram platform. They teamed up with BookClub on July 6th, a virtual platform for readers and writers, to launch the Belletrist + BookClub partnership; it allows followers to subscribe at $12 a month for access to more curated book selections, exclusive interviews with authors, author-led discussion guides, and live conversations surrounding the books.
"This partnership with BookClub is just a way to really expand what we've already been doing on Instagram and on Instagram live, which is to have in-depth conversations with authors and then allow for our community to watch those conversations," Priess says. The main difference, she adds, is the quality and intimacy of content they're able to make with authors. With Lisa Taddeo, for instance, the author of their July book pick, Animal, "we were able to do a very well-produced long form interview, which I just feel like readers don't get to see all that often with authors, unless an author is doing a Ted Talk," adds Priess.
Both Priess and Roberts believe authors should be public figures, becoming cultural icons and gracing magazine covers as they often did throughout the '70s, '80s, and '90s. "I think Emma's goal and mine too is to make authors the celebrities that they are," Priess told media members at the event. At the same time, they also recognize how social media can create a concentrated environment where everyone ends up reading the same things, so they work to spread the love to lesser-known authors as well—such as Violet Kupersmith, whose novel Build Your House Around My Body was Belletrist's August pick. Though the book, which centers around two Vietnamese women who go missing decades apart, has now been reviewed by the likes of The New York Times and Time Magazine, Kupersmith is still a relatively new name in the literary world.
"We try to pick things that maybe are a little more off the beaten path or things that maybe wouldn't get as big of a spotlight," Roberts says of choices like Build Your House Around My Body. "We feel like all writers should be given the chance to have a spotlight, and just because you don't get on the New York Times Bestseller List, that doesn't mean that your book is not amazing and deserving of a spotlight."
In addition to giving authors a larger platform, Roberts and Priess are also working to help develop more literature from page to screen. Through their offshoot production company, Belletrist Productions, the duo are currently working on adapting Victoria "V.E." Schwab's short story "First Kill," a young adult vampire drama, into a Netflix series, as well as adapting Carola Lovering's thriller novel Tell Me Lies for Hulu.
"Every time I read a book, I can't help but imagine what it's going to be like as a TV show or a movie," Roberts says. "To be able to really take something from the beginning and then put it onto the screen is really important to us."
As the duo keep reading and evolving the Belletrist community, Roberts says there are endless possibilities of what could come next. Mostly, though, "we just want to fall down the rabbit hole [of literature] and have everyone follow along," she says, rounding out the conversation with an appropriate literary reference to Alice In Wonderland.