17 Secrets of Audiobook Narrators

Once associated with dusty library cassette tapes, audiobooks are more popular than ever. New technology has made it easy to listen to large audio files on the go, and the resulting surge in listeners has helped the format slough off some of the stigma of decades past. Contrary to the old idea that audiobooks are “cheating,” scientists say that listening to your literature stimulates the brain just as much as reading it does.

The recent boom in audiobooks means that the voiceover artists who bring them to life are especially busy. Mental Floss spoke with a few industry professionals to learn about what it takes to excel at the job—including their diligent voice-care regimens, the one thing they always look for during research, and the spoilers they sometimes get from authors.

1. THEY'RE PROBABLY FORMER STAGE ACTORS.

Several of the audiobook narrators we spoke to started out at the theater, not in a recording booth. “I had never owned an audiobook, listened to an audiobook, or thought about it as a job,” says January LaVoy, a voiceover artist who's narrated books by James Patterson, John Grisham, and Libba Bray. She initially made connections in the audiobook world through her work as a theater actress, but after getting more involved in the audiobook industry, she found that narration has some advantages over acting on stage. She says jokingly, "Doing an audiobook is like being in a play where finally everyone says their lines right."

2. THE AUDIOBOOK INDUSTRY HAS ITS OWN OSCARS.

Each year, the Audio Publishers Association hosts the Audie Awards to honor the best in the industry. In addition to recognizing outstanding audiobooks across genres, there are Audies for best narration by the author, best narration performed by multiple voiceover artists, and best individual female and male narrators of the year.

3. THEY MIGHT GET ONLY ONE NIGHT TO PREPARE.

Sometimes audiobook narrators are given a few weeks to study the material and plan out their performance, but that's a best-case scenario. "The publishing world is fast, so we have to be ready to respond and make room in our schedule for what comes up," says Tavia Gilbert, who has recorded over 500 audiobooks. "It’s never predictable." If a last-minute assignment comes in, narrators may have to cram all their research into a single, caffeine-filled night.

This usually means giving the book a quick scan rather than an in-depth read. "I’m not looking for shortcuts, but I don’t like to get bogged down in too much detail on the first read because then it’s not fresh when I come to it in the studio," says Simon Vance, winner of 14 Audie awards. "I like to enjoy my reading in the studio as much as you would the first time you pick up a book."

4. THEY LOOK FOR CERTAIN WORDS ...

No matter the time crunch, reading the book through at least once beforehand is essential. While skimming the text, narrators are searching for specific terms. One example is something LaVoy calls "active attributions"— "Like 'she said loudly,' or 'he screamed,' or 'she whispered,'" LaVoy explains. "If I don’t know he whispered it until after I say the line then I’ve wasted time. So if I can mark them so my eye sees them coming up, I don’t have to go back and say the line again." Accents, hard-to-pronounce words, and character names are other things narrators look for.

5. ... AND PHYSICAL DESCRIPTIONS.

Gilbert also keeps an eye out for any description she can use to build characters when doing her first read. “I’m looking for whatever each character says about themselves or other characters, including their physical description, which affects how somebody sounds," she says. "An elderly woman with a severely hunched back and hands that flutter like a bird will sound very different than an elderly woman who was a prima ballerina in her youth and still keeps her hair pulled back in a perfect bun."

6. SOME OF THEM RECORD FROM HOME.

Audiobook narration is traditionally done in a studio, but for narrators who have proven themselves in the industry, recording from home is an option. "Publishers used to be a little wary about using home narrators because you had to be a good self-director," Vance says. He's been narrating audiobooks for 25 years, and these days he records all of his audio from home.

But Gilbert, who splits her work between home and recording studios in New York, says working from home isn't necessarily easier. "There’s a lot more on the narrators' shoulders when we work from home. We’re self-engineering, self-directing, and delivering our files to the publishers, so we’re responsible for everything at home that we are in the recording studio plus these additional tasks," she says. But if narrators know what they're doing, the work pays off: Gilbert won the Audie Award for Best Female Narrator last year for a performance she self-directed at home.

7. THEY GET INSIDE KNOWLEDGE FROM AUTHORS.

When audiobook narrators have a question about the text, they get to live out every reader’s dream and contact the author directly. The correspondence can be brief, like an email asking how to pronounce the name of a mythical country, or much more involved. When preparing to narrate the audiobook for Jerusalem, Vance flew to England to meet with author Alan Moore. “I spent an afternoon walking around his city in Northampton, which is where the book was set, talking to him about all the places and picking up the accents and so on,” he says.

If narrators make a good case, they may even be able to pry a few spoilers out of the authors they work with. Vance does this when narrating a series that hasn’t been fully published yet. “I will often ask writers if there’s anything I need to know about these characters that’s not revealed in the first book," he says. "You have to be aware of the threads. Like if a character's actually related to somebody but you don’t find out until book three, you don’t want them to sound too different.”

8. IT MIGHT TAKE THEM A MONTH TO RECORD ONE BOOK.

The average audiobook runs about 12 hours, but the process of making them takes a lot longer. For pros like Gilbert, the ratio of finished audio to recording time is tight—maybe 1 hour of final audiobook for every hour and 15 minutes spent in the booth. Narrators just starting should expect to invest more in the process; all that time stumbling over words and going back to repeat lines can add up to two to three hours of recording time just to get one hour of useable audio.

If narrators follow a typical eight-hour-day, five-day-week work schedule, an average assignment can take about four days. But for much longer works that creep past the 1000-page mark, the recording process can last a month.

9. THEY TRY NOT TO TAKE BREAKS.

Since breaks add time to the workday, some narrators aim to minimize them. LaVoy tries to go for as long as possible when recording, only pausing after 90 minutes of straight narration. “I think it’s good for the book because you want it to feel like one breath,” she says.

10. IT PAYS WELL.

Even for newcomers, narrating audiobooks is a lucrative line of work. According to Business Insider, voiceover artists just starting out can expect to earn $100 for each hour of finished audio. For industry veterans, those figures can reach up to $500 for a completed hour. All told, book projects can net narrators thousands of dollars.

11. NOT EVERY AUTHOR WHO WANTS TO NARRATE GETS TO.

As the medium gains popularity, more authors are opting to personally provide the voice work for their audiobooks. Some authors, like Neil Gaiman, can successfully hop between the worlds of writing and narration, but it isn't for everyone. “They don’t realize how hard it is,” Michelle Cobb, executive director of the Audio Publishers Association, told Audible Range. “It’s surprisingly difficult to do things like stay still for the microphone, or to even wear the right clothes." ("Noisy" fabrics like polyester and nylon can bring unwanted sound into the recording booth.)

Some authors interested in narrating never get the chance to prove themselves—publishers often have to be blunt and tell would-be author narrators that their voice just isn't good enough for the job.

12. LIP BALM IS ESSENTIAL.

If you’ve ever talked non-stop for hours on end, you know that your mouth can undergo some serious wear and tear. LaVoy had to find this out the hard way: “For the very first book I recorded, my lips were chapped and bloody by the end of the day.” Now she says lip balm is the one thing she won’t walk into the recording booth without.

13. GOOD WRITING MAKES THEIR JOB EASIER.

The difficulty of a narrator’s job often depends on the quality of the work they're reading. Gilbert, who is a writer herself, is grateful whenever she’s assigned a book that practically reads itself. “I prefer to narrate anything that is beautifully written. I don’t care what the genre is—if it’s well-crafted and there is deep heart and truth, I am delighted to have that book.”

When a book isn’t so masterfully crafted, the opposite can be true. Vance says, “Sometimes it feels like you’re dragging your feet through mud to bring the story to life and there are other times where it feel you’re dancing on water and you're singing the words."

14. BACKGROUND NOISE CAN DERAIL A SESSION.

Even when a narrator’s voice is in excellent shape and the words are flowing off the page, a little background noise is all it takes to disrupt a take. This is especially challenging for home narrators, who often lack the fancy sound-proofed booths found in big studios. Gilbert says, "I adore my 6-year-old neighbor upstairs, and affectionately refer to her in conversation with her mom as Miss Fancy Feet, because that little girl is full of energy—and lots of noise—when she gets home from school."

Construction, doorbells, leaf blowers, and slamming doors can all delay her work, but Gilbert tries to make the best of it. "Noise is like weather—wait a few minutes and it’ll pass. In the meantime, balance the checkbook, fold a load of laundry, send emails, clean off your desk ... there’s always something to do to keep productive."

Sometimes, expensive insulation still isn’t enough to keep outside sounds from leaking in. LaVoy, who primarily works in studios, says, “If somebody’s doing construction on an office three floors above you, you have to send somebody up there to find out what’s going on, because you can only soundproof so much."

15. IT’S PHYSICALLY DRAINING.

Reading books all day may sound like a dream job to some people, but it’s physically demanding work. Vance says the one thing people underestimate most about the job is the amount of stamina it requires. “It’s not just about having a good voice,” he says. “If you think you want to do audiobooks, go to your bedroom and pick a book off the shelf. Sit down and read to yourself out loud for an hour. Take a break for a few minutes, then come back and do it again for an hour, and again for an hour. Do that five days in a row. If you enjoyed it, then you can take the next step, but if you found it exhausting and you couldn’t maintain the same tone throughout, then maybe you should think about doing something else.”

16. THEY AVOID GOING OUT—AND EATING CHEESE—BEFORE RECORDING.

To maintain a strong voice, audiobook narrators need to avoid picking up certain habits. Smoking, drinking, and eating foods that cause phlegm build-up (like dairy) are all quick ways to sabotage a recording session. Even just going out to a social event prior to a gig is enough to strain the vocal cords.

“Something my close friends and family have learned to cope with is that I can’t go to bars or restaurants the night before I’m going to record a book, which is a lot of nights,” LaVoy says. “Whether you realize it or not, the ambient sound in a restaurant means that you’re talking a little louder the whole night. The microphone is like a microscope: It hears everything. So if my voice is tired I’m not going to have the elasticity I need.”

Vance also tries to avoid having too much fun on a work night. At the same time, he acknowledges that taking perfect care of his voice is easier said than done: "There are things you should definitely not do, which is go out late at night, smoke cigars, drink too much, go screaming at football games, but we all make those mistakes."

17. YOU NEED TO LOVE READING TO LOVE THE JOB.

All the audiobook narrators we spoke to share something in common: They’re enthusiastic readers. Being a successful narrator requires an actor’s instinct and physical endurance, but what the job really boils down to is to be able to read for hours without getting bored. “If you don’t love reading it’s absolutely torture,” LaVoy says.

11 Secrets of Restaurant Servers

iStock.com/andresr
iStock.com/andresr

If you enjoy eating at restaurants, it's worth getting to know the waitstaff. Servers are the face of the establishments where they work, and often the last people to handle your food before it reaches your table.

"People think it’s an easy job, and it’s really not," Alexis, a server who’s worked in the business for 30 years, tells Mental Floss. She says, jokingly, "You want a professional handling your food, because we have your life in our hands."

Even if they don't spit on your plate (which thankfully they almost never will), a waiter can shape your dining experience. We spoke with some seasoned professionals about how they deal with rude customers, what they wish more customers would do, and other secrets of the job.

1. Server pay varies greatly.

The minimum wage changes from state to state, but for tipped workers like servers, the difference in pay can be even more drastic depending on where you work. In over a dozen states, if a worker typically makes a certain amount per month in tips (often $20-$30), their employers are only required to pay them a minimum of $2.13 an hour. That’s how much Jeff, a video producer who’s held various jobs in the restaurant industry, made when serving tables in New Jersey. “Usually, if I had a full paycheck of serving I could just put a little bit of gas into the tank,” he tells Mental Floss.

Waiters and waitresses in many states rely almost entirely on tips to make a living—but that’s not the case everywhere. California, Oregon, and Washington each pay tipped employees minimum hourly wages over $10. Jon, who currently works at a casual fine dining restaurant in Portland, Oregon, gets $12 an hour from his employer. Including tips, he typically earns $230 a day before taxes, and brings home about $34,000 a year on a 25-hour work week.

2. They split up tips among the restaurant staff.

Here’s another reason to be generous with your tips: Whatever extra money you leave on the table may be going to more than one person. If you ordered a drink from the bar, or if there was anyone other than your server bringing your food and clearing it from the table, that tip will likely be split up. At one restaurant job, Jeff says he paid food expeditors (workers who run food from the kitchen to tables) 10 percent of whatever tips he earned.

3. Waiters and waitresses know how to handle rude customers.

In addition to taking orders and serving food, servers are often forced to de-escalate conflicts. For many people waiting tables, this means acting sweet and professional no matter how angry customers get. Jon’s strategy is to “treat them like a child, smile, tell them everything they want to hear and remind yourself that it’ll be over soon.” Similarly, Mike (not his real name), a server at a farm-to-table restaurant in Texas, likes to “kill them with kindness." He tells Mental Floss he tries to “be the bigger man and [not] return sour attitudes back to people who don’t treat me with respect. If nothing else I can hold my head high knowing I did my job to the best of my ability and didn’t let their negativity affect my day with other, more pleasant patrons.”

Alexis, who currently waits tables at a family-owned restaurant in California, goes beyond faking a smile and makes a point to practice empathy when serving rude guests. “There’s a hospital near my restaurant, and people come there for comfort food with hospital visitor stickers on their clothes all the time. And I know then that they’re going through something traumatic usually. So when people are acting badly, I put imaginary hospital stickers on their clothes and try to remove my ego.”

4. Your waiter (probably) won’t spit in your food.

While most servers have had to deal with a customer who treats them poorly, they rarely retaliate. On the old urban legend of servers spitting in their customer’s food, Alexis says, “Never seen anybody mess with anybody’s food out of spite or malicious intent. I’ve never seen it happen and I’ve never actually done it. I don’t need to get back at people like that.”

5. Servers do more than wait tables.

Most customers just see one aspect of a server's jobs. When they’re not refilling your drinks and bringing you condiments, they're doing side work—either before the restaurant opens, after the last guest leaves, or in between waiting tables. “It could be rolling silverware, filling sauces, cutting lemons, rotating salad bars, stuff like that,” Jeff says. “It’s not just serving and you leave; there’s usually something else behind the scenes that the server has to do.”

Alexis says that in addition to hosting and serving, she has to prep to-go orders, bus tables, and wash dishes. "We’re expected to be working every moment,” she says.

6. Waiters have some wild stories.

Though parts of the job are tedious, servers are bound to see interesting things. Alexis recalls a husband and wife who were regulars at the restaurant where she worked in the 1990s; the man was later arrested for murder. “I found out when a newspaper reporter started asking me questions about them,” she says. “I’m quoted on the front page of the LA Times as saying ‘A waitress in a local coffee shop said they were a nightmare!’”

Other stories are lighter. “When I worked at Red Robin there was a lady that came in every morning and would ask to sit in the same booth," Jon says. "She carried a bag [of] stuffed animals (mostly dragons) and situated them around the booth, always in the same spots, she’d talk to them throughout her dining experience.”

7. Waiters hate it when you don't know what you want.

The simplest way to get on your server’s good side is to know exactly what you want when you tell them you're ready to order. That means not wasting their time stalling as you speed-read the menu. If you haven't decided on a dish, let your server know and trust that they'll return to your table in a few minutes. “Don’t tell your server you’re ready to order if you’re not ready to order,” Alexis says. “I’m like ‘Come on, I know you’re not ready. I’m going someplace else and I’ll be back.’”

It also means not asking your server to make several trips to your table in the span of a few minutes. Mike says that customers asking for items one at a time is one of his biggest pet peeves. “[Customers will say] ‘I need salt. I need hot sauce. I need another [...] drink.’ I was away from the table for 30 seconds each time. Those requests could easily be fulfilled in one trip to the kitchen.”

8. Waiters hate when you ask to move tables.

Next time you get seated in a restaurant, think twice before asking your server to switch tables. Restaurants divide their floor plan into sections, and each server is responsible for a different group of tables. The hosts in charge of seating rotate these sections to distribute guests evenly to servers; by asking to move, you may be depriving one server of an hour’s worth of tips while creating extra work for a server who’s already swamped. According Jon, the worst time to complain about where you were seated is when a restaurant is busy: “Sometimes this isn’t a problem if we’re slow, but if it’s a Friday/Saturday chances are you were put there for a reason.”

9. Servers work when everyone else gets the day off.

Servers have to be prepared to work a different schedule every week, work late into the night, and work on weekends. This can make maintaining a normal social life challenging. “My schedule can be troublesome, my girlfriend/friends have the opposite schedule as me so I’m never able to make it out on weekends or holidays,” Jon says.

And on the days many 9-to-5 workers go out to celebrate, servers have to wait on them. “Where I currently work I have worked Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Years Eve, New Years Day, and I will have to work on Mardi Gras (in the South),” Mike says. “I was leaving for work as my family arrived at my house for Christmas. I missed a New Years party in my house. If I hadn’t requested if off as soon as I began working there I’m almost certain I’d have to work 15 [hours] on my birthday.”

10. Your server might give you a free drink if you order it at the right time.

Asking your server for a free stuff likely won’t get you anywhere, but there is one thing you can do to possibly have a drink taken off your bill. If you wait until after your meal is served to order something cheap like a soft drink, Alexis says there’s a chance you won’t get charged for it all. “Not alcoholic drinks, but I’m talking about a cup of coffee or a soda or something like that, especially if you’re already paying for other beverages,” she says. “The server might get too busy or might not be inclined to go back to the POS [point of sale] system and add them on to your bill. It’s more trouble than it’s worth sometimes.”

11. Waiters want you to learn their names.

There’s a reason most servers introduce themselves before taking your order: They’d much rather you use their real names than a demeaning nickname. “Don’t call me sweetheart! I’m wearing a damn name tag,” Alexis says. “Sometimes I respond well, and other times no.”

And if your server doesn’t introduce themselves and isn’t wearing a name tag, Jon says it doesn’t hurt to ask. “Ask what the servers name is and refer them by name when you’re talking to them.” He says it’s “refreshing when a guest does this.”

11 Secrets of Perfumers

Orlando/Three Lions/Getty Images
Orlando/Three Lions/Getty Images

Perfumers are a rare breed. These half-artist, half-scientist hybrids undergo rigorous training, memorize the smells of hundreds of ingredients, and spend decades honing their craft—which might explain why there are reportedly more astronauts than perfumers in the world, according to the BBC.

For many, the job isn't merely about peddling bottles of sweet-smelling stuff to consumers; the goal is to convey an emotion, create a beautiful moment, or jog a childhood memory. To find out what it takes to create top-notch fragrances, Mental Floss spoke with three perfumers who broke into the industry through very different paths.

1. Perfumers can identify hundreds of ingredients by smell alone.

A large perfume organ with hundreds of fragrance bottles
Mandy Aftel's perfume organ
By Joel Bernstein // Courtesy of Mandy Aftel

Master perfumers are sometimes called a nez—the French word for "nose"—for good reason. They commit hundreds of scents to memory and can distinguish between ingredients that would smell identical to the untrained nose. Many perfumers can also tell an essential oil from a synthetic material, which is no small feat. “You’re talking maybe 200 essential oils and about 1500 synthetic materials,” Jodi Wilson, a classically trained perfumer who now works as a fragrance sales manager for Orchidia Fragrances in Chicago, says of the ingredients perfumers typically employ.

The trick, she says, is to associate each smell with a distinct memory. “The more experiences you have in your life, the more memories you create, and that’s really how you remember these raw materials when you first start studying, because it reminds you of your grandmother or a flower shop or a bakery or a certain gum,” Wilson tells Mental Floss. (The link between smell and memory has actually been proven by science—one 2018 study by neurobiologists at the University of Toronto revealed that the brain not only stores information about certain scents, but also memories of when and where you first encountered them.)

2. Having a good sense of smell isn't enough to make a good perfumer.

Many perfumers have a heightened sense of smell. Jersey City-based perfumer Christopher Brosius, who founded the rebellious fragrance brand CB I Hate Perfume (a reference to his distaste for most commercial fragrances) is one of them. He realized just how strong his nose was while working briefly as a New York City cab driver—he had to roll the window down every time an “offensive” perfume wafted in his direction and made his stomach churn.

However, many aspiring perfumers mistakenly believe that a “good nose” will get them far. “That’s like saying that if you have 20/20 vision you’re the next Picasso,” Brosius tells Mental Floss. “A keen nose is very useful, but at the end of the day I have met perfumers who were extremely talented who didn’t smell anything more sharply than anybody else. They just had the capacity to think in a different way about what they were doing with scent and combining it in unique and interesting ways.” More important than a good sense of smell is creativity, a natural talent for recognizing scents that work well together, and the “dedication to building a very particular base of knowledge and skill,” Brosius says.

3. France's Givaudan Perfumery School is the goal for many would-be top perfumers.

Jodi Wilson picks roses
Jodi Wilson picks roses for distillation while studying at the Roure Perfumery School (now called the Givaudan Perfumery School) in Grasse, France, during the 1991-92 academic year.
Courtesy of Jodi Wilson

Like many professional perfumers, Wilson was educated at what's now the Givaudan Perfumery School in France. Founded in 1946, it only accepts one or two promising students each year out of thousands of applicants—and sometimes none at all, if that year’s crop of candidates don’t live up to the school’s high standards. Former director Jean Guichard has said he hand-selected students based on their personality, talent, and motivations. “The perfumer should be a mixture between a scientist and a poet,” Guichard told the BBC. “When I meet people, I know if they have talent or not. I don’t want to have people who say, ‘I’m going to be a perfumer because they make a lot of money.’ That doesn’t interest me at all.” (And speaking of pay, Wilson says the starting salary for entry-level perfumers is about $45,000, but perfumers in New York City tend to start off a bit higher. It's not unheard of for the world's top perfumers to make six figures.)

The now-four-year Givaudan program is rigorous. First, students have to memorize about 1500 raw materials, Wilson says. Next, they learn how to build accords, which are the fragrance notes (like rose or jasmine) that form the heart of a perfume. They move on to perfume schemas (the “skeleton” of a fine fragrance, which contains 10 to 12 materials) and also learn about the culture and history of perfume. “It takes a long time to learn all of that, and that’s what you’re doing all day from 9 a.m. till 4 p.m. It’s intense,” Wilson says. If and when they graduate, they’ll have a job waiting for them at the Givaudan fragrance company, which is where they’ll learn how to make perfumes under the guidance of a seasoned professional.

4. perfume school isn’t the only way to break into the industry.

Mandy Aftel holding perfume blotters
Perfumer Mandy Aftel at work
By Foster Curry // Courtesy of Mandy Aftel

Brosius says “99.9 percent” of aspiring perfumers would benefit from attending a perfume school. However, he personally did things a little differently and learned the fundamentals of perfume-making by landing a job at Kiehl’s and completing the company’s in-house training program.

It’s even less common for a perfumer to be self-taught, but it’s not impossible. The latter camp includes Mandy Aftel, a perfumer in Berkeley, California, who dropped a fulfilling career in psychotherapy to pursue a budding passion for perfume-making. For information about natural materials, she turned to fragrance books from the early 1900s, before synthetic materials started to saturate the market. Now, her Aftelier Perfumes business uses hundreds of natural ingredients—no synthetics—to create unique fragrances, and she has a loyal clientele. Regardless of the career paths they took, all of the perfumers agreed that this career is “a continuous learning process,” as Aftel tells Mental Floss. Both Brosius and Wilson said it takes 20 to 25 years to truly master the art of perfume-making, and Aftel still calls herself a “beginner” after 30 years of working in this field.

5. Not all perfumers work with fine fragrances.

Fragrance is used in many different ways, some of which we encounter on a daily basis without realizing it. Some perfumers specialize in creating scents for “industrial application,” which could include anything from children’s toys to paint to fabric, Brosius says. In the case of toilet-bowl cleaners, cat litter, and asphalt, the goal is not necessarily to create a pleasant aroma; instead, the challenge is to mask an unpleasant one. However, many of the perfumers working on the industrial side have scientific backgrounds and tend to work for a chemical company rather than a perfume label, Wilson says.

6. Some of the materials perfumers work with are hazardous.

Some undiluted ingredients—such as cinnamon—can cause severe chemical burns if they get on one's skin. Brosius wears gloves and goggles while blending materials and says some ingredients in his studio come with a "do not open without authorization" label attached. He says, “We have a protocol here that if anything new comes in, it’s opened in specific parts of the building or even sometimes outside on the terrace so that we don’t have an accident where it’s like, ‘Oops I just spilled one single drop of aldehyde [an organic compound] and now the entire building is uninhabitable, although next week it will smell like ginger ale!”

7. They want you to know your aromatherapy lotion might not be made of rose, jasmine, or whatever the bottle claims it contains.

Labels can be deceptive. If you’re buying an “aromatherapy” lotion or shower gel that claims to have rose, sandalwood, or jasmine in it but costs $15, that’s a red flag. According to Wilson, these ingredients can cost many thousands of dollars per pound. Wilson says it’s far more likely that cheaper products contain just a drop or two of the natural oils advertised—for the sake of being able to list them on the label—plus a host of synthetic ingredients that mimic the smell.

8. They're not always working on fragrances they like.

Marketing is a huge part of the cost of the perfume, especially on the higher end; the perfume industry spent around $800 million on marketing in 2016, according to Bloomberg. “Ninety percent of the time, the cost of the juice in that bottle is fractional,” Brosius says.

Marketing demands are also one reason why perfumers don't always get to follow their nose—and their creativity. “Most perfumers who work at large houses are not so happy with their job all the time,” Brosius says. “For every fine fragrance they get to work on, they’re compelled to work on a ton of crap fragrances as well. Much of it is entirely dependent on the whim of the marketing company.”

Companies are also more risk-averse, Wilson says—and the perfumes themselves now aren’t always built to last. “It used to be that a ‘classic’ was considered to last for 20 years—so your Chanel 5 and things of that nature,” Wilson says. “Now, it’s very rare to have a perfume that stays around for even 10 years.”

9. The smell of puppies is impossible to replicate—but perfumers are trying.

A bottle of Soaked Earth accord from CB I Hate Perfume
Kevin O'Mara, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Brosius has taken on some ambitious projects over the years, including fragrances imitating the smells of snow and wet earth, but some scents are harder to capture than others. That’s because the aroma chemicals needed to replicate certain smells haven't been created yet. This can be said of gasoline, champagne and certain wines, and some animal smells. “Particularly with puppies and kittens, the molecules needed to accurately reproduce those smells don’t exist in the perfumer’s palette. You can’t solvent extract puppies and kittens for their smell," Brosius says, describing a method that involves applying a chemical solvent to a raw material—such as a flower—to extract its aroma.

However, he’s had success creating "a context that’s so strong that people are convinced that they’re smelling something that isn’t there," he says. For instance, his roast beef fragrance doesn’t contain roast beef or anything like it, but it does contain notes of parsley and black pepper. That scent in particular, and a few others like it, aren't meant to be worn on the body. Brosius says some of his fragrances are more like modern-day "smelling salts," where the goal is to revive you, in a sense, by relieving stress. "All you have to do is open the bottle, breathe in, and your system will automatically reset to calm," he says.

10. Perfumers sometimes work with whale poop.

A small bowl with ambergris in it
Peter Kaminski, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Perfume-makers work with some unusual ingredients, and ambergris is certainly at the top of the list. This rock-like material comes from the excrement of sperm whales and occasionally washes up on shore. Aftel is fortunate enough to have some on display at the olfactory history museum she operates, called the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents. To convert the solid mass of crushed up squid and cuttlefish bits into an aromatic oil, she had to mash it up with a mortar and pestle, then add alcohol, heat it, and let it age. So what does it smell like in liquid form? “Heaven,” Aftel says. “It’s just ambery and shimmery. It’s a miracle of transformation.” Besides, Herman Melville mentioned it in Moby Dick and it used to be a 17th-century ice cream flavor, so you know it has to be good.

11. They keep wool nearby to combat nose fatigue.

Wool is the olfactory equivalent of eating sorbet in between courses. If you’re smelling the same scent for a prolonged period of time, or sniffing too many perfumes in a row, your odor receptors will habituate and stop sending those signals to your brain. This is officially called olfactory fatigue, and it explains why you might stop noticing a smell after a couple of minutes.

“If you smell a lot of scented materials, a lot of times your nose will just kind of conk out,” Aftel says. She keeps some wool nearby to help reset her sense of smell, and three big whiffs does the trick. So why does this work? Aftel says one theory is that the lanolin in wool absorbs and neutralizes odors, giving the brain a rest from sensory overload. As for those coffee beans you might see in some perfume shops? Those "definitely don't work," Aftel says.

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