Textbooks companies have faced a number of challenges in recent years, such as open course content, an increasingly vibrant used-book marketplace, new publishers proposing alternative pricing models, and new federal rules requiring the unbundling of expensive add-ons from the traditional texts.
But a case that came before the U.S. Supreme Court last week suggests that the textbook companies might soon face an even stronger threat: themselves.
If the case Costco Wholesale Corporation v. Omega, S.A., falls for Costco (the high court heard oral arguments last Monday), the textbook publishers could see the U.S. market flooded with less fancy editions they had produced for students in poorer countries. The foreign editions might be flimsier, but their content is the same as the editions the textbook companies sell to U.S. students — and they are “often half or a quarter of the price of the domestic editions,” according to an amicus brief filed in the case by the Association of American Publishers.
In other words, students who don’t mind shoddier textbooks could buy editions intended for students in poorer countries at a fraction of the cost of what they would normally spend at their campus bookstore.
The textbook companies, meanwhile, say such a ruling would be disastrous. The anticipated decline in revenues from domestic sales, their lawyers say, would make it impossible for them to afford “the extensive research and development necessary to ensure that the information in textbooks is current and accurate.”