An association representing 90 per cent of university and college bookshops in the United States has sued Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press for charging them higher wholesale prices than their off-campus competition.
The National Association of College Stores says the publishers, along with the US textbook company Addison Wesley Longman, have been charging different prices for identical titles in violation of US anti-trust law.
All three publishers admit they sell books for as much as 45 per cent below list price to mainstream retailers compared to only 20 per cent below list for campus stores.
"College stores are required by professors to purchase certain titles for classroom use and some publishers take advantage of that fact," said Jeff Mack, association president.
"Our aim in filing suit against these publishers is to level the playing field for all stores."
Ten other publishers with smal-ler scholarly sales have already agreed to stop dual-discounting.
College stores are "a captive audience", Mr Mack said. As the price of classroom textbooks continues to rise, many students have taken to hunting through the stacks of those off-campus retailers that can afford to sell for less.
The publishers say the bigger discounts are because academic titles are slow-sellers that take up valuable shelf space. Besides, they say, extra sales of scholarly books in mainstream stores help keep prices down for students.
"By encouraging the wider distribution of academic books, Oxford's pricing policies work to the advantage of authors, stores, students and scholars," said Susan Rotermund, OUP in New York spokeswoman.
Publishers warn that the lawsuit could force them to publish fewer books and raise their prices. Some university bookshops seem to believe them. Harvard, Pennsylvania State, Chicago and Connecticut university shops, which also sell popular titles, have refused to join the lawsuit, fearing they will lose their discounts on all their book sales.
CUP gives discounts as high as 45 per cent to independent book shops and popular chains, while college stores that order books in bulk for classroom use pay 20 per cent below list price.
Addison Wesley gives 36 per cent discount on certain categories, but exempts textbooks from that plan. OUP charges a higher price not as the quantity of titles purchased falls, but as it rises.
"Cambridge believes the discount is needed to help promote the sale of such academic or specialised works, which might otherwise be confined largely to classroom use, to a wider reading audience," said Barbara Colson, North American director of CUP.