Although she wanted a media career where she could control how information is read and seen, Winfrida Mbewe, publicity manager at W.W. Norton, is in the business of uncertainty. “It's an uphill battle,” Mbewe says, describing the unpredictable world of book publicity, where competition for coverage is stiff. “You do the hard work and hope for the best.”

After graduating with an English degree from the City College of New York, Mbewe interned at various media outlets, including MTV, NBC and Vibe magazine. She was fascinated by the process of disseminating information, but like many English grads, she also had secret dreams of being a writer. “I think most of us who work in publishing are closeted writers,” she says. “For whatever reasons, we don't pursue it as a career. Book publishing is the next best thing.” Mbewe credits the publishing certificate program at City College of New York for bringing her into publishing. She enrolled in the program at the suggestion of a friend and, as part of her studies, began interning at Norton. She's spent her entire book publishing career there, moving up the ranks from publicity assistant to publicity manager.

A natural extrovert and self-proclaimed “chatterbox,” Mbewe finds publicity to be a happy marriage between her love for words and media. “I get to deal with amazing authors and great literature,” she explains. “But at the same time, I also deal with radio and television producers and editors at diverse publications.”

The continued loss of review space in publications nationwide, the deluge of published books and the emergence of the Internet have provided both opportunities and challenges for all publicists. “We're fooling ourselves if we don't pay attention to the Internet,” says Mbewe, who also serves on the Brooklyn Literary Council. “But I still see the importance of newspaper reviews, magazine features, and radio and television interviews. People are still learning about books and authors through traditional sources.”

But publicity isn't an exact science. It's a results-driven career where a publicist's work is never guaranteed to yield the desired outcomes. Promised coverage may never happen, and when a review does run, it could be horrible. “It is always such a dark, dark day,” she says about times when her authors receive bad reviews. “We may not edit books, but publicists develop relationships with our authors, who trust us with their baby.” So she's become an expert at managing author dissatisfaction before it happens. “Authors have particular expectations, realistic or not, and by the time I have my first conversation with them, I have already received my marching orders from the powers that be about what is expected,” she says. “So I explain from day one what media I will try to secure. I have to make sure we're on the same page.”

She believes that her five-year tenure at Norton has spoiled her, giving her an opportunity to work on a strong list. She recently led the campaign for science writer Mary Roach's Bonk, a look at sexual physiology, which rode the New York Times bestseller list for four weeks, and she looks forward to The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed, a forthcoming title (see Reviews, p. 57) that explores Sally Hemings's family.

But even when it seems like all the ingredients for a bestseller are handed to a publicist, there's still room for the inevitable. “There are times when you think it's going to be a no-brainer—a high-profile author, huge buzz and you get the coverage,” Mbewe says. “But sometimes it doesn't strike a chord and it doesn't sell.”

In a world without guarantees, Mbewe is incredibly hopeful. “If you've done all you can, short of stalking Oprah, you realize that not getting the results you want isn't from lack of trying.”

Name: Winfrida Mbewe

Title: Publicity manager, W.W. Norton

Age: 29

Hometown: New York, New York

Education: B.A. in English, City College of the City of New York; Publishing Certificate, City College of New York

How long in current job: Almost one year

Previous job: Senior publicist, W.W. Norton

Dream job: Publicity director who works with fantastic books

Passionate about: Helping women and children in underdeveloped countries