The works of Franz Kafka, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and our Herman might have been forgotten, even lost, but for something as arbitrary as a particular person wandering into a used book store.
Melville is the one that I think should keep novelists up at night.
Bissell tells how Moby-Dick was "a resounding un-success" when first published, selling "three thousand copies over its thrity-six years in print." (Does that count sales in England?) By the turn of the 20th Century it was unpublished and unread. Sometime in the early 1900's, "according to the legend," critic Carl Van Doren found a copy of M-D in a used book store, recognized it as a masterwork, and wrote about it. A Melville renaissance followed — his books were brought back into print and have stayed in print since.
The essay that started it all was gathered into Van Doren's study, The American Novel, published in 1921, with a second edition in 1940. Copyright on the 1921 edition has expired; you can find it online.
If you're interested in the current state of the publishing business as it confronts e-readers, copyright extensions, Amazon's under-pricing, and knock-off books (such as "I Am the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," not by Stieg Larsson), listen to the entire program.