Architects of Digital Publishing: An Interview with Tzviya Siegman
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Tzviya Siegman is in her second year as Digital Book Standards & Capabilities Lead at John Wiley and Sons. I began our conversation by asking about her work and her history in publishing. She has been, she told me, with Wiley for 15 years. As so many people in the publishing industry do, she began as an editorial assistant, in culinary and hospitality books, an area where textbooks cross over into trade, and she became engaged with software and internal testing, experience that she developed into a more formal focus on “production technology.” In 2008, that focus become her full time employment, in a moment where, as she says, “e-books became the ‘thing’.” She started by doing quality assurance, primarily for Kindle editions and then became increasingly focused on EPUB, as EPUB 2 emerged. As the e-book market grew, so did her job responsibilities, until she “slowly” (her word; to this interviewer it seems like rapid growth) took over all of EPUB at Wiley. Tzviya wrote and maintained Wiley’s e-book specifications and style sheets and serves as Wiley’s liaison to publishing industry groups including the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), Book Industry Study Group (BISG), and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Tzviya most recently joined Wiley’s Information Modeling Group, joining her interests in content structure, standards, and linked data. Tzviya co-chairs the W3C Digital Publishing Interest Group and the EPUB 3.1 working group, helping to make the web and books better friends.
This editor first became aware of Tzviya’s work in the context of the formulation and articulation of standards for e-books, and standards became a touch point of our conversation. As befits one whose (digital?) bread and butter is the production of those e-books, Tzviya is quick to point out that standards must be reality based. In explaining her personal trajectory, she says, “As you start working with them, you get roped into writing them.” She recounts her early involvement with standards development, marked by at time of uncertainty about her own ability to contribute: “You begin by thinking all these people know more than you do.” She began volunteering to be the minutes taker for standards working groups, a responsibility that “forced [her] to pay attention and learn.” She is now engaged with both the IDPF and W3C work on publishing standards and is co-chairing the IDPF working group. In guiding me through the organizational alphabet soup, she explains that IDPF writes the EPUB spec, and W3C manages the foundational specifications from which EPUB pulls. She also outlined the standards groups’ current ambitions to develop a specification for portable web publications, working on alignment of this specification with the open web platform.
I asked Tzviya to step, for a moment, away from the immediate work and to consider, in the time that she has been attending to publishing as a field and a profession, the most significant changes that she has observed. As many might, when confronted with such a question, she pointed to the shift from publishing’s focus on print, but, in her case, not just to digital products but to services that are part and process of the publication. She also emphasized the way in which publishing focus has moved away from proprietary technologies and specifications to standardization, and a realization that standardization can, first, save money, and, in the longer term, actually change the economy of publishing.
Continuing to look forward, I asked where publishing is most in need of change, and whether that change is underway or we are still waiting for it to arrive. Tzviya argues that the change publishers need now is cultural change and that is the kind of change that “is extremely difficult and sometimes painful; and sometimes comes with layoffs which is the worst part of it.” But she also points to the ways in which “technological and cultural innovation go hand in hand.” She believes publishers need to put more emphasis on “moving rapidly and being willing to experiment; being willing to invest in start ups,” and then goes on to provocatively ask, “where’s the large publisher where this is happening on a large scale?” She qualified that implied criticism by pointing out that many publishers have many small experiments going on. As examples of other areas where culture has not caught up with technology, she cites rights management, “we’re still having that old conversation . . . the technology exists to do something better but the culture hasn’t caught up with yet,” and user experience work that needs to be more a part of digital publishing, observing, “getting there has been a bit rocky. We need to embrace change.”
As we thought together about change, Tzviya returned to her touchstone topic of standards and the need for publishers to embrace those standards: “Even if publishers don’t realize it, their work is based on standards; common standards are better for usability, accessibility, processing.” She went on to characterize standards as a kind of common language and to assert that while “some publishers believe they restrict creativity, and limit competitiveness they are, in fact, “a scaffolding and a structure” that promotes accessibility and interoperability; and “encourages competitiveness; levels the playing field.”
I concluded the conversation by asking what work really needs to happen now, and if, twenty years from now (on JEP’s fortieth anniversary!) we were to talk again, what developments will be looking most historically interesting to us. This led to a mutually enthusiastic free-form conversation on all the “stuff” that needs attention. Tzviya pointed out the need for more regularized contracts to express and mange the interactive elements of publications, and to the need to standardize annotation and the new ways in which we interact with the Web, work now underway at W3C. What appeared to me as some of her greatest interests and priorities emerged around the permanence of the publications, the need for their digital existence to be mainstreamed and persistent, but that also publisher’s need to focus on good ways to download a packaged publication, and that publications need be able to live equally on and off line; there should be an easy fluidity between on and off line. In her closing words, as befits a professional immersed in the world of digital publishing, she called for a “shift to looking at electronic products as first class citizens. Just like books.”