I had a minor epiphany recently. I was at my desk smelling fragrance samples sent by Style Arabia for my column, and samples sent by the Institute of Art and Olfaction to be assessed blind for their awards. The Style Arabia frags were mainstream, the IAO frags artisan and independents. After a while I noticed that I was getting an unaccustomed feeling from smelling the IAO samples: joy.
There is no question that niche perfumery (definitions vary, but let us say perfumery that tries to be interesting) has saved the art from total decay. Mainstream fragrances are for the most part so dull that they fail to offer both options open to the critic, praise and blame. They are usually neither good enough to lift the spirits, nor bad enough to rouse eloquence. To quote Wolfgang Pauli, they are “not even wrong.”
The IAO samples were quite another story. Plenty were wrong, one or two unaccountably tried to ape mainstream frags, and a few were gloriously, glaringly right. Smelling the good ones after the mainstream offerings was for me like going back in time to thirty years ago, when launches were few and far between, plagiarism was restricted to derivative brands, and all the big houses wanted their perfumes to be memorable.
The rise of “niche” fragrances has been extraordinary, so much so that visiting a department store today makes you wonder whether it is not the mainstream brands cowering in corners that are de facto niche. When thinking about a follow-up to our perfume guide, Tania Sanchez and I have long wondered what we should do.
We are unwilling to retrace our steps and re-smell all the reformulations. We doubt that a new mainstream guide could be made more interesting than the fragrances themselves. A niche guide would be great, however. A scan through Michael Edwards’ database reveals there are more than 5,000 (broadly defined) niche fragrances out there, so there should be no problem picking 2,000 or so for a new book.
But there are several problems with a niche guide.
For a start, many niche firms are small and financially fragile. Whereas a scathing review has an imperceptible effect on the sales of a Guerlain or Lancôme fragrance, it could conceivably tip the scales of a niche firm towards failure. Conversely, as apparently happened years ago with Andy Tauer, a great review could help a small firm survive and establish itself. Clearly we want to help, not hinder. The niche guide would therefore consist of only selected good reviews.
The second problem is money. Writing a 2,000-frag guide is a full-time occupation, and I have a day job. The publishing industry is in turmoil at the moment, still finding its feet to cope with the rise of digital media. One thing is for sure: the old model in which you got an advance on, say, 8% royalties is having a hard time. We considered various formats and schemes, ranging from an e-book-only to a partnership with a publisher to share risk, etc.
As anyone who has published a book knows, this is a great time for piracy. I get three Google alerts every week reminding me that everything I have written is available for free download somewhere. Some of the websites are obliging enough to tell me how many copies of the book have been stolen from the publisher. One of them, by no means major, listed 2,400 copies downloaded of The Secret of Scent, probably more than Faber (UK) and Ecco (US) sold in several years.
Those scumbags are not going to go away, and they may even do some good by weeding out, for example, greedy scientific publishers who get print-ready book manuscripts from the author and then charge $160 for a book. But they also do damage to small-time authors like us, and basically make it impossible to write for a living unless you are so big that even 90% loss leaves you with enough cash to pay the bills.
So I have decided to try a different approach: I will write reviews of niche fragrances at my own pace. I will pick only the ones I love, hence the name of this blog. That way small firms who send me samples can take comfort in knowing that the worst that can happen is no review. When a great mainstream fragrance comes along, I will review that too, since there is no point excluding good stuff simply because it is widely available.
Comments: I will leave them turned off. There are plenty of places, e.g. Basenotes, where readers can comment and talk to one another, no need to add another one. Plus I am old enough to know that I cannot resist checking for comments every five minutes. I am also too intemperate to be trusted to give polite answers, and I cringe when I see the courtly manners displayed on most perfume blogs so as not to scare anyone away. Everyone is welcome to email me at perfumesIlove@gmail.com. I promise to read all emails, but not to answer each one. I am also on Twitter @perfumes_Ilove.
What about cash? Well, if it turns out that people read the blog in sufficient numbers, I may in time turn on the targeted ad service by WordPress. I have no idea at this point whether and when this will happen, but I hope it does, since that will mean the blog is successful.