How celebrity book clubs are changing the literary world for good
Last week the internet all but imploded with the news that Reese Witherspoon, queen of the book-to-screen adaptation, will be giving another tome the Big Little Lies treatment. The star announced the news about Little Fires Everywhere by posting a photo of herself alongside fellow actress and producer Kerry Washington — both clutching copies of the Celeste Ng-penned hardcover, of course — and caused a firestorm to the tune of almost a quarter of a million likes and countless news stories.
This announcement, monumental as it was for every fan of the HBO drama, is even more groundbreaking in the book world. The forthcoming onscreen version of Little Fires Everywhere (and the Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning miniseries that came before it) was borne out of Witherspoon’s much-beloved book club, an Instagram community where she shares her favorite titles, invites fans to debate what they find among the pages, and test drives the books’ commercial potential. It’s also the latest example of what the celebrity book club-industrial complex is reaping.
While Witherspoon’s club started as an informal social media endeavor, it’s now a formal arm of her production company Hello Sunshine. Catering to an equally powerful, if slightly more millennial, crowd is Belletrist, run by another famously literary actress, Emma Roberts, and her best friend Karah Preiss. Just like Witherspoon, Roberts had long been known for her voracious reading habits and frequently shared the titles she was devouring with her social media followers, eventually realizing the potential behind the concept.
These clubs exist entirely online and almost entirely on Instagram — Belletrist has 160,000 followers and Reese’s Book Club has 390,000. Each month the actresses select a title for their fans to check out and offer their own opinions, discussion topics, and exclusive interviews with the authors — in addition to the chance for readers at home to feel like they’re following the novels alongside their celebrity idols. And for the chosen authors, the benefits are practically endless.
The two clubs have highlighted dozens of novelists, but two with particularly fascinating backstories — and post-book club journeys that feel fairy tale-esque — are Chloe Benjamin and the aforementioned Celeste Ng.
Benjamin, author of Belletrist’s January pick The Immortalists, describes herself as formerly one of those “annoying” children who knew she wanted to be a writer from the very beginning. She wrote her debut novel, The Anatomy of Dreams, while completing an MFA program at the University of Wisconsin and The Immortalists while she was working in the social services sector post-graduation. Her first book only reached a small audience but The Immortalists was sold at auction in the fall of 2016 and marked the beginning of her full-time writing career.
“Looking at the arc of my career so far, I’ve had experiences on all sides of the spectrum,” Benjamin told EW. “Even before my first book, The Anatomy of Dreams, was published, my agent sent out a manuscript that was roundly rejected. Then came Anatomy, an experience I’m so grateful for, but which certainly didn’t reach the kind of audience that The Immortalists is now.”
Ng came to the realization that writing was her destiny a little bit later in life, after a stint in textbook editing in which she quickly realized that she didn’t want to be a textbook editor. A former teacher suggested she give writing a shot and she soon found herself with an MFA, doing odd jobs while she wrote her first novel, Everything I Never Told You.
Ng describes what happened next as luck (although anyone who has read the heartbreakingly beautiful family story will beg to differ): Good reviews for the tome started to roll in and it was eventually selected as Amazon’s best book of 2014. The success of that novel earned her a first-look deal with her publisher for whatever she wrote next. She came up with the idea for Little Fires Everywhere while she was touring for the first book, working out the characters and plot in her head before eventually sitting down to write — a process that she describes as somewhat terrifying in its uncertainty both times around.
“The really hard part was just writing into the darkness, when I just didn’t know if anyone was going to want to read my books,” she explained to EW. “It’s a huge leap of faith for fiction writers because you have to write the entire book, and put two, more likely five, years of work into it and then hope that someone is going to want to publish it.”
Both Ng and Benjamin describe the process of being chosen as the featured title for a celebrity book club as a total lightning strike of good fortune. Ng was working with a film agent to help spread Little Fires Everywhere around and despite knowing that he was sending it around to people in the industry, she was still shocked to receive an email out of the blue telling her she had been picked by Hello Sunshine.
“They just wrote, hey, Reese has picked your book!” she recalled. “And I was like, what do I do? I can’t respond to her and call her Reese, that’s disrespectful. Should I call her Ms. Witherspoon?”
Benjamin had Belletrist on her radar from the beginning, having followed their picks and felt the excitement surrounding the community Emma built. But it turns out the club’s pick came down to a chance encounter between co-founder Karah Preiss and Benjamin’s publicist’s assistant at an industry event — the assistant pressed a copy of The Immortalists into Preiss’ hand and urged her to read it.
“The emotional reaction to that encounter was what convinced her more than any publicist saying, this is gonna be a big book,” said Benjamin. “And isn’t that the case whenever we get recommendations? If somebody says, oh, this is gonna be a big book, it’s like, okay, that’s interesting. But if somebody says, you have to read this, it changed my life, you’re gonna pick it up.”
One of the most engaging aspects of celebrity book clubs is the participation from the authors themselves. For fans, watching actresses they admire interact with writers they admire is a dream come true. But it turns out that the feeling of being starstruck occurs for all parties. Ng happened to be in the middle of her book tour for Little Fires Everywhere when she was chosen as the September title, which allowed her to stop by the Hello Sunshine offices for a Facebook Live with Reese herself.
“The thing that surprised me the most about Reese is how well she knew the book,” Ng said glowingly. “She pulled up her copy and had all these highlights and flags in it. I love it — here’s this celebrity and it would be really easy to do this as a promotional thing and just pick a book because it was cool, but she really loved the book.”
Benjamin was equally as smitten with her experience at Belletrist.
“I’m so heartened by the community that they’re building,” she said of Emma and Karah. “There’s a real cultural energy behind books right now so just seeing the excitement in their following and looking at the way people are commenting with emotional investment, it makes me optimistic about books in general.”
Warm fuzzies are great but novelists have to pay the bills, too, which is where Belletrist and Hello Sunshine truly…well, shine. These communities were formed as a creative outlet for the book-loving actresses and also with the goal of elevating the authors who have changed their lives. Their partnerships have had real, tangible effects on the success of the books.
Ng described celebrity book clubs as “miracle workers” and noted several occasions in which fans of Hello Sunshine have reached out to her or stopped her at bookstores (even, once, at a parent-teacher conference) to say that they learned about her book via Witherspoon.
Benjamin detailed her skyrocketing Instagram followers in the wake of her Belletrist features, as well as an almost overwhelming amount of reach out from fans wanting to share their reactions to the book or fellow authors requesting blurbs for their own book covers. Both authors also appeared on Late Night With Seth Meyers, a sentence that would be practically unimaginable without the elevation of their name recognition.
And then there are the cold hard numbers. Both titles flew off the shelves in the wake of their celebrity partnerships: Little Fires Everywhere was in the top five of the New York Times bestseller list through February of this year (it’s been on the list for 23 weeks and counting) and The Immortalists shot to the top of the list as soon as it went on sale, staying there until the beginning of March.
The Hello Sunshine team takes the paper trail as a point of pride, noting to EW that every book pick so far has instantly shot into the top 50 sales rankings on Amazon, despite many of the titles not even being new releases. Last month’s pick, The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo, went from number 4,000 on Amazon’s ranking to #40 on the day Reese announced it as the February title.
And then, of course, come the adaptations. This has been the most lucrative aspect of Reese Witherspoon’s special touch: The ability to suss out which titles will not only make for great onscreen iterations, but which titles will become cultural revolutions on screen. Yes, it’s Big Little Lies again. Celeste Ng will serve as producer when Fires hits screens (it’s still being pitched to networks) and we don’t have to tell you what that means for her career. The news of the partnership was still under wraps when she spoke to EW, but she hinted at what the process is like for authors.
“I don’t consider being optioned during the writing process — I always try to tell the story as a book first and never think about it as being a miniseries or film,” she said. “But it is a lot of writers’ dream to have their movie be adapted. Partly because movies are cool and glamorous and partly because it’s wonderful to think of somebody who is a movie star taking an interest in your work and wanting to bring it to life in a new way.”
Anyone looking for a downside to the celebrity book club-industrial complex would be hard-pressed to find one, but they might have the best luck in the consequences-of-fame department. The attachment to big bold names has a brightening effect for the literary world; its celestial touch turns authors into stars themselves. That can be a blessing or a curse depending on who you ask — most people choose books because they are inherently more introverted than those who gravitate towards acting.
The very face of what it means to be an author is changing; due in part to the social media takeover of the world, writers are expected have a profile, make public appearances, have a presence on Instagram, and even go on Late Night With Seth Meyers. That can be nerve-wracking both in the immediate and on the expectations it places on future novels.
“I’m so aware of having a wider readership now,” explained Benjamin. “That’s an incredible gift and what I’ve always wanted, but I’m also wondering how people will feel about the next book. In the same way that I was cautious about ever feeling certainty that The Immortalists would do well, I’m cautious about feeling any certainty that this will last for a long time. I have to keep working to earn it and to establish the kind of longevity I want.”
Ng is also not one to rest on her laurels and she hopes to take her newfound fame and use it for good (making lemonade out of already pretty good lemons if you will).
“I think my notoriety is about trying to share the spotlight and bring up other people,” she noted. “One of the things I don’t want to have happen is for me to be the next Amy Tan, like there can only be one [Chinese American writer] and I have dethroned her, and now someone is going to have to come and dethrone me.”
Next, she plans to spread the word not about her own projects but those of an even more diverse makeup: She wants to see more writers of color, more women writers, more writers from marginalized groups.
“There are a lot of stories out there,” she said. “And I don’t know how to tell them all.”
Your move, Belletrist and Hello Sunshine.