A man reads a Kindle in Victoria Tower Gardens. Image: Getty.
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Amazon to pay authors according to how many pages people read

The company will pay self-published authors on its lending services per page from next month. 

From the beginning of July, a clutch of authors self-publishing on Amazon's site will no longer be reimbursed based on how many people download their books. Instead, the company has announced, those operating through the site's Kindle Unlimited and Lending Library book borrowing services will be paid according to how far customers actually get through their books. 

Amazon says the move is a response to "great feedback" from authors, who had asked that the company "better align payout with the length of books and how much customers read". Authors of longer books, who were presumably pushing for change in the first place, may be a little disgruntled to find that the new system may result in them earning less than before. 

At the moment, the site's direct publishing division sets a monthly "Select Global Fund", which is then divided among authors according to how many people have downloaded their books (this month, for example, it was $3m).  Now, that amount will be divided among the number of pages read by customers that month instead. 

Oh, and before you ask - the old "big margins, big font" trick won't work here. Amazon has developed something called a "normalised page count" based on standardised font, line length and spacing, and will calculate the number of pages read accordingly. An author of a 100 page book read 100 times cover-to-cover this month would therefore earn $300 if 100m pages were read in total.

It will be interesting to see first whether the move makes it to other Kindle products; and second whether it affects the way authors structure their work. When novels were regularly serialised in the 17th through 19th centuries, the practice understandably resulted in a higher volume of cliffhangers, and more episodic chapters. An ambitious Amazon self-publisher might well try to end every page mid-sentence, or with a particularly tantalising bit of description. 

Big-hitter authors like Thomas Piketty should hope that the funding model doesn't make it up the literary food chain - last year, the Wall Street Journal estimated that most people only made it through a couple of chapters of Capital in the Twenty-First Century. We have an inkling that the David Foster Wallace estate wouldn't be too happy, either. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.