A nation gripped by fear of bioterrorism turns to a surprise best-seller


Judith Miller, a 24-year veteran of writing and reporting for the New York Times, begins her story.

”It was Friday, and I was sitting there thinking about my next story, ripping through mail. I just ripped one open, and there it was. POOF. A little POOF cloud all over my face and my hands and my clothes. And I yelped. It was definitely a yelp. And my colleagues said, ‘Oh, what’s wrong?’ And I said, ‘It’s nothing, I’m sure it’s nothing.’ Just at that moment the phone rang and I instinctively hit the answering-machine button, and then I realized: Somebody had told me about NBC getting a letter with anthrax. And I was sitting there with powder all over me, and I thought, Omigod: IT COULD BE THE REAL THING.”

Mercifully, it wasn’t — though Miller and about 30 Times colleagues were swab-tested for spores after the release of the white, talcum-scented substance in their newsroom on Oct. 12 — but the Middle Eastern affairs reporter had reason to be worried. Along with fellow Times journalists Stephen Engelberg and William Broad, she’s behind the eerily prescient publishing sensation of the fall: Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War. A meticulous analysis of the history and dangers of biological warfare, the book catapulted onto best-seller lists last month, making a minor media star out of Miller — a now-frequent TV talking head who is suddenly getting calls from the likes of Oprah Winfrey — and bundles of unexpected cash for publisher Simon & Schuster, which originally shipped just 14,000 copies of the book.

Germs didn’t start out a likely candidate for success, of course. Prompted by the announcement that the Army was planning to vaccinate soldiers against anthrax, Broad and Miller began reporting on the apocalyptic potential of bioweapons in 1997, with Engelberg as their editor. A book deal came in 1999, and the planned six-month project stretched to two years — ending with a rewrite in January 2001. The final draft was delivered this summer.

Then the Sept. 11 attacks happened, anthrax appeared in Florida, Washington, D.C., and New York, and the book took off.

”There was no WOO-HOO! moment. Just dread. You think, what if this book is right?” says Simon & Schuster executive vice president and publisher David Rosenthal. ”Make no mistake, the good news is that the book is selling magnificently. The bad news is why.”

How magnificently? Germs topped Amazon.com’s list last week and currently sits at No. 1 on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction best-seller list. Simon & Schuster has just gone back for its eighth printing, good for almost 385,000 extra copies in less than four weeks — a non-Oprah book club feat that industryites characterize as astonishing.

”Everyone is interested,” says Broad, a science expert for the Times. ”I mean, let’s face it, this book was probably going to be read by a small set of experts or interested academics. Now it’s part of pop culture.” Adds Miller, ”People ask me all the time: Are you concerned about more attacks? And I think you have to be. But I’m calm. I’m certain of our people, and I have a very strong belief in our strength. That’s why I’m calm. Does that sound corny?”

Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War