Terra Galleria Photography

The steepest ratings drop


The rollout of the third edition of Treasured Lands possibly established a new record for the steepest drop in Amazon ratings ever, an unfortunate development not warranted by any reasonable standard. To explain what happened, this post elaborates on two seemingly disparate subjects: the workings of the Amazon rating system, and book binding.

Amazon ratings and reviews

The previous editions had accumulated 578 ratings. A rating on Amazon consists of a number of stars, with one being the worse, and five the best. The total (more on that later) broke down to 203 ratings for the first edition and 375 ratings for the second edition. Each of the two editions had the same size, 3 printings of 5,000 each, so why the difference?

Counterintuitively, it was quite remarkable (and not accidental) that the first edition got more than 203 ratings, which at the time, was the same as 203 reviews. I am grateful for any of you who wrote one. For comparison, according to publishing industry data, Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan’s companion book to their popular series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea has sold over 200,000 copies since its publication in 2009. Yet the book has received “only” 229 reviews. A review means that the customer writes comments about the product, which only a very small percentage are willing to do. As part of writing a review, they also assign a rating.

The second edition was released in the summer of 2019. In late 2019, Amazon launched a new “one tap review” system. Previously, in order to leave a rating, customers needed to write a review, which is why I wrote that previously ratings and reviews were the same. With the new system, to leave a rating, customers need to only tap or click the corresponding number of stars provided that they had bought the product from Amazon. Writing a review is optional. Naturally, the new ease of providing ratings led to the fast growth of their numbers, although at the expense of quality, since ratings with comments are more informative than ratings without.

Customers who have not bought the product from Amazon can still leave a rating, but they are required to write a review like before. Reviews by customers who bought the product from Amazon are labelled as “verified” and carry more weight. In the past, it was possible to post a comment as a response to a review, making it possible for other customers to rebut unfair reviews, or for the publisher to directly address issues, but that feature was removed in 2021.

In terms of rating values, the two previous editions had obtained an average rating 4.9 out of 5, which is about the practical maximum for any product with significant sales, as there will be always a few outlier negative ratings to prevent a perfect 5. At the beginning of this month, the average rating for the third edition was 1 out of 5, which is the absolute minimum – in some reviews, customers write that they wish they could give a zero-star rating, but they can’t. That is a drop from the almost highest rating to the absolute lowest. It was only possible because the previous ratings were so stellar, and the new ratings so dismal, probably setting a record for largest drop ever. So what happened?

Book binding

The first customer to write a review received a copy with some pages bound in an incorrect order. Although they noted that the issue affected only a small number of pages (16 out of 492), they gave a 1-star review.

That review was particularly damaging because its early date and the accompanying image are more likely to make it stick and be the first review that customers see. However, it is still fairer than some abusive reviews I have seen where the customer left a 1-star review because the product was damaged in transit due to improper packaging from Amazon! When I ship books, I package them in bubble wrap or with crumbled paper and double boxes, and I always make sure they are not loose nor that impact to the box would dent them. However, Amazon just throws books in a box with maybe some less than useful air packs.

When pages are mixed up, customers tend to assume it is a printing error that affects the entire edition. See for example this review from the second edition from a customer of Amazon Germany, whose choice of rating was, in my opinion, more adequate:

In fact, in book printing, there are so many checks at different points in the process that such a printing mistake would be almost impossible. However, books are mass-produced, at a remarkably low cost for what they represent, and not all copies are perfect. There are some lemons.

In that particular case, most likely the issue was caused by misfeed occurring when the book was bound. The feeding is done manually, so mistakes are possible. It can happen that the machine fails to grab one of the multiple booklets that make up the book. You can see the process in the video below (more here)

That is why 16 of the pages of the books were affected. That is exactly one such booklet, called a signature. What is a signature? Books are not printed page-by-page – this would be too inefficient, but rather on larger sheets of paper that include 8 pages on each side. After folding and trimming, you get a booklet of 16 pages. This was illustrated in that video, scroll to 2:15 (more here)

As an aside, that customer of Amazon Germany eventually contacted me, and I determined that his book had exactly two signatures messed up. I offered to provide a replacement book, but he preferred to keep his copy because of the annotations he made. Although ripping a book apart and sending the two signatures across the Atlantic Ocean ended up costing more than replacing a book, that’s what I did. It would have been nice if he revised his misleading review. If you have a production issue with your book, I will replace it for you even after the retailer return period has passed. Since seeing that May 26, 2022 review, I made sure to check the books that I am sending out directly. None of the more than two dozen copies had any issue.

Selling on Amazon

I wish it wasn’t the case, but nowadays, the vast majority of book sales take place on Amazon, and even more so for relatively expensive books like Treasured Lands. There is no realistic alternative marketplace for mass distribution. The company does live up to its motto of being exceptionally customer-friendly. For sellers and publishers, they are not so friendly. To begin with, they buy books at a wholesale discount of 55%. Adding other hidden fees results in a split of 40/60 in favor of the retailer. If you need them, publisher communications are the exact opposite of customer communications: the channels are obscure and it takes a surprising amount of back and forth to get anything done. They also appear to suspend seller accounts for seemingly arbitrary reasons, and it takes many hoops to get them reinstated.

I’ve observed that customers still buy copies of the second edition, although the out-of-print book is offered way above list price, rather than the up-to-date third edition, which is offered at a discount. Sales are much slower than they were for the second edition at the same time of the year.

The main reason is that the second edition has 578 ratings with an average of 4.9, whereas the third had 1 rating with an average of 1! As of this writing, the customer with the defective book had the diligence to update his review with the mention that he received a flawless replacement copy, however, his rating is unchanged. Two 5-star reviews came in, but an average rating of 3.5 is still very poor on Amazon (the average product rating is 4.4). Amazon reviews and ratings are currently one of the most important factors in book sales.


  1. Paul B says:

    Geez, what a nightmare. Just left a 5 star review. Best, Paul

  2. Rick F says:

    Sadly, this is where we seem to be headed: one or two huge vendor/makers for everything. Only option is take it or do without. No way to contact them, they don’t want to hear about any issues or concerns.

  3. Harry L says:

    That is awful. I don’t remember how or where I started seeing your photos but dug a bit deeper as I started to hike a lot more, attracted to the beauty of what nature has to offer. I signed up for your newsletter and got really hyped when you announced Treasured Islands. My then girlfriend, now wife, wasn’t into either but has since started to appreciate the artistry behind it through pure exposure of Treasured Islands. For that, I thank you. Keep up the great work and I’ll be sure to support your next venture! Wishing you the best!

  4. Greg P. says:


    Terrible predicament to be in, with the lousy rating for the 3rd edition.

    OK, you may shriek at this suggestion, and I make it, not having ever having a book of my own in print, but would self-publishing an electronic PDF, be any way to avoid these publishing/rating issues?

    • QT Luong says:

      Thank you for the suggestion. I have a (partial) PDF of Treasured Lands, but units sold are only a tiny percentage of the print version. It may be because Treasured Lands is above all a photography book.

      For guidebooks, it could be different. A decade ago, my friend Laurent Martres (http://phototripusa.com) told me that electronic versions did not have much distribution compared to print versions, but due to recent increases in publishing costs (another big issue) seems to have decided to go electronic going forward. BTW, I highly recommend his photography guidebooks.

  5. Robert says:

    Hi QT
    Just put a “fiver” in German Amazon. The review of Kaztheatre has been “updated”, but still counts. I am no computer specialist and did not foind a way to answer his review directly and propose to change it in the sense, that now – after receiving technically impeccable book – he should review the contents. Maybe you could achieve this as directly concerned and damaged? Maybe Amazon could recognize that?
    Btw: I own the first edition. One of the reviewers wrote, that every edition gets better and better; what does he/she mean – are there many new images?
    Best regards, as a bit lazy walker I am in awe before your toughness 😉

  6. Michael says:

    Ouch that’s a tough one. It’s unfortunate that your retail options are so limited and the service is so difficult to work with. On the bright side, it looks like the reviews are have been going up nicely in the past couple weeks!

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