Born into books

Meet the Serfatys. Lavih, Nurit, Raphaela and Shulamit. Between the four of them, the family has written and illustrated hundreds of children's books. After 40 years in the book business, Lavih decided to open a small publishing house of his own. Three years ago, the family opened Zafra Books. "Raphaela and Shulamit produced their first book, when Raphaela, the elder one, was five years old," said Lavih. "I remember, she showed Shulamit how to draw pictures on the pages and then put the pages together and bind them." Growing up in the Serfaty home, it was impossible not to be surrounded by books. Lavih, a graphic designer by training, worked for many of the country's leading publishing houses, and Nurit is one of its most celebrated children's illustrators. "When the girls were little, we didn't own a television," said Lavih. "I used to make up stories for them every night. We'd make up characters together and every night they'd have a different adventure." Today, both sisters have children of their own, but telling stories is still in their blood. Raphaela studied to become a child psychiatrist and uses her knowledge to write and illustrate books for young children. Shulamit studied at the Holon Academic Institute of Technology and began working as a freelance writer, illustrator and animator. Shulamit's illustrations appear in books by top children's authors and she has written several best-sellers of her own. "When we opened Zafra three years ago, we had a vision of producing and publishing the family's books. The idea was to publish a book each month," said Lavih. "We were able to produce the books easily enough, but we couldn't sell them." He soon realized that he couldn't approach the big retail chains himself and that to get his books into the stores, he'd have to hire a national distributor. "That's when the sad story began," Lavih said. "For a book to appear on the shelves, I need to part with 65 percent of the price. I'm left with 35% gross, from which I have to pay for all the expenses: the writer, the illustrator, the paper, the binding, the printing, the editing, the layout and the profits. The profits are very low." He said the situation was exasperated by the fact that in the chains, his books were put to the side to retain space for the owner's titles and that he felt it was necessary to lower his prices further to compete with their sales. "If you can buy four books for NIS 100, why would you pay NIS 60 for one?" He said that while some publishers have moved their printing operations to China to save costs, he's not ready for that yet. In fact, Zafra Books has a new approach to publishing that relies on more, instead of less, local support. The idea is to open publishing cooperatives. "The writer, the illustrator and the producer; all share in the expenses, and publish the book together." Zafra's originality doesn't stop there. Upon opening, it partnered with the Jewish National Fund in a project called "books bring trees back to nature." Zafra pledged that for every new title published, it would plant 10 trees in a JNF forest. "We care about nature and are aware of the impact of the book business on the world's forests," said project manager Asaf Engel. "We know this won't change everything, but we believe it makes a valuable educational statement and hope that others follow our lead." For now, it seems that Lavih's dream of a family business to leave to his children is not taking off. All of the family members spend most of their time working elsewhere. Nurit illustrates for other authors and holds illustration workshops for children across the country, both daughters work independently and Lavih works as a graphic designer and an exhibit planner for museums. The family's work was celebrated in an evening dedicated to them during Israel Book Week at the Beit Ariella library in Tel Aviv.