For Emma Roberts & Karah Preiss, Friendship Comes Before Business
The duo behind Belletrist + BookClub talk pleasure reading, “monotasking,” and Twitter memes.
In Bustle’s Quick Question, we ask women leaders all about advice — from the best guidance they’ve ever gotten to what they’d tell their 16-year-old selves. Here, Emma Roberts and Karah Preiss of Belletrist — the online bibliophile community and book club — talk to Bustle about the art of “monotasking,” the novels they want to see adapted for the screen, and going viral on Twitter.
Emma Roberts had no idea that a seemingly innocent video she posted on Instagram days earlier — in which she forces laughter, sticks her tongue out, and flips her sandy-hued hair on the beach — had exploded into a Twitter meme. But when she was shown the plethora of viral tweets at the Belletrist + BookClub launch party on July 27, she began laughing for real. (Later, she’d share a note of gratitude, thanking “gays and whoever else” for propelling her to Twitter’s front page.)
Karah Preiss, Roberts’ Belletrist co-founder, also laughed at the news. “I’m recording your reactions, by the way,” she said, holding her phone aloft. Silly moments like this between the duo aren’t rare, as they’ve been friends much longer than they’ve been business partners — and books, the focus of their shared enterprise, are also the cornerstone of their friendship. Living on opposite coasts, with Preiss in New York and Roberts in Los Angeles, the pair used to keep in touch by sending each other novels with personalized notes.
In 2017, Roberts and Preiss took their two-person book club public by creating Belletrist, an online community for avid readers like themselves. Five years later, the once-nimble group has more than 200,000 followers on Instagram and an associated production company, Bellerist Productions. Their next move? Forming an alliance with BookClub, the virtual platform helmed by accomplished writers, to launch Belletrist + BookClub.
Though working with your best friend can be both a blessing and a curse, Roberts and Preiss say they’ve largely side-skirted the curse part. “Karah and I are different in all the right ways,” Roberts tells Bustle. “Our strengths compliment each other’s weaknesses, and we’re always there to do whatever the other can’t or isn’t the best at. I think that’s what makes our partnership work, and what makes it able to evolve.” They may still live across the country from one another, but their shared obsession with literature will always keep them close.
Below, Roberts and Preiss discuss the best advice they’ve received, their hatred of multitasking, and Roberts’ dream literary role.
Your professional relationship is rooted in your “shared love of books and dark jokes.” How has working together strengthened this bond?
Karah Preiss: They say in romantic relationships it’s good to be friends first. And we were friends first, so we’ve always had a very organic bond over all things creative, like movies, TV, art, and of course books. We both feel very fortunate that we’ve been able to turn that into a business. I think the most important thing when making the decision to work with someone you’re already close to is that nothing you do in business should sacrifice the friendship you have. Nothing is more important than that. Once you set that baseline, you won’t feel taken advantage of, at least for us. It’s also a good excuse to see each other and hang out.
You both have active careers apart from Belletrist. What kinds of books do you like to read in your downtime?
Emma Roberts: Honestly, any romance novels you could find at an airport. Karah makes fun of me for this, and I’ll send her the best romance novel covers I come across. But that’s my guilty pleasure. I love love. I’m also a literary magazine hoarder. I love The Paris Review, The Sewanee Review, and Granta. I subscribe to all of them. I also hunt on Etsy for old issues of Vogue from the ‘80s and ‘90s. I’ll use them to make collages, but I also enjoy reading the fiction, when they used to publish fiction.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten about how to juggle multiple projects?
Preiss: One of the craziest things someone has ever said to me is that there is no such thing as multitasking. Your brain cannot do more than one activity at a time. In terms of doing this BookClub partnership, and also our production company, we have a lot of things going on, so the best service you can do for yourself is focusing on one thing at a time. Because you can’t. Literally. Cognitively, it’s not going to happen. So the best advice I’ve gotten is “monotasking,” and focusing on one thing at a time.
Karah, what book hasn’t been made into a film yet that you’d love to see adapted?
Preiss: I would love to see The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin adapted into a movie. It’s also a Belletrist book, and it's this amazing, multi-decade story about four siblings. I’d love to see who’d be tapped to play the Gold siblings if it ever gets made. I’d also like to see Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Daemon Lover” on the screen someday.
Emma, what book adaptation would you love to star in?
Roberts: It’s been a dream of mine to play Joan Didion. I’ve always wanted to play a real person, and I think that she would be the one I’d want to play. But as far as a book itself, I can’t wait to see the upcoming adaptation The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker. It’s so good, and we picked it a couple years ago for Belletrist. I know it’s already being made, but I’m very excited for it. It’s very eerie to read now and I highly recommend it.
There is a scene from Scream 4 that I think about a lot, Emma. Near the end of the movie you say “I don’t need friends. I need fans.” That was such an apt prediction for how content creator culture works. These days, it's hard to tell where your personal life ends and your career begins. How do you know when to share something — like your passion for reading — and when to keep something for yourself?
Roberts: First of all, I think that moment from Scream 4 was a prophecy. But after the pandemic, I feel like I don’t need fans, I need friends! We live our whole lives online now. Sharing on social media has always been something that I’ve loved, but I always err on the lesser side because you can’t take back anything you’ve shared online. Even when a post is taken down, it still lives somewhere. That being said, I do like to interact with fans and share stuff with my friends. But I try to keep it limited to books or fashion or vacations. The internet can be such a dark and polarizing place, so my corner of the internet I try to keep lighthearted and fun, because that’s what I like to see on Instagram.
Speaking of, you know you have a viral meme on “gay Twitter” as we speak, right?
Roberts: Wait, what has “gay Twitter” done?
They’ve been reposting your “Happiness is a Butterfly” video from Instagram onto Twitter with some pretty iconic captions. I’ll show you.
Roberts: That’s hilarious. I mean, people still ask me to send them “Surprise, b*tch” birthday messages, which I’ll do. I’m happy to oblige.
Preiss: Yeah, you have a very good attitude about falling into your “gay icon” status.
If you could go back in time, what would you tell your 16-year-old selves?
Preiss: Be gay now.
Roberts: Dump him!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.