As practically the entire Steampunk world knows by now, IBM has predicted that Steampunk will be the big new trend from 2013 to 2015.
They based this prediction on their computers, which sift through broad swathes of the internet in order to see patterns that may help commercial industries. According to them, Steampunk has been on the rise for the last few years, and they predict that it will explode into peak popularity within the next two years.
But what does that mean and how will it impact people who have been into Steampunk for years? Most importantly, how can we make money from this?
One thing at a time!
It means that we should be prepared for a massive influx of people who know nothing at all about Steampunk—obviously.
It also means that we're going to rehash a lot of the same discussions and arguments that we've been having for years about what Steampunk is. If the history of Goth is any indication, we should also expect to see groups splinter off from the main "Steampunk" heading. There may be further separations into Dieselpunk or Atompunk, or as-yet-unidentified-punk.
We should also expect Steampunk to come under fire for endorsing the bad parts of the Victorian era, such as slavery, colonialism, imperialism, sexism, etc. Despite the fact that those arguments have all been more or less laid to rest years ago, count on a major publication picking it up and running with it.
This also means that there will be an influx of young people into Steampunk, which has so far retained a rather high average age for such things. This means that Steampunk conventions will have to become very good about segregating 18+ events from the family-friendly areas, lest we start being accused of turning children gay/straight/bi/pan/omni/whatever. We also need to be good about not letting under-aged attendees drink which, while I've never seen a problem about it before, is still something that should be considered.
It also means (and I'm considering taking this advice myself) that we should be nice and friendly to newcomers. "Please come in!" we should say.
Tons of new people interested in Steampunk means that those who are selling things should make a killing, right?
In reality, what will happen is that the massive mainstream companies will swoop in, undercut everyone with shoddy merchandise, and make piles of cash from people inside the subculture as well as outside of it.
EDIT: As Jack Horner brought up in this thread on Facebook, it may become very important for those who make things to protect their creations under copyright law. When the big companies swoop in to make a killing, it's not uncommon for them to lift designs from smaller artists. If you're prepared for such an eventuality, you may be able to make some money in court. However, consult a professional copyright lawyer. Don't trust advice from the internet! /EDIT
In all likelihood, the people who sell Steampunk things will continue making about the same as they're currently making. Okay, maybe a bit more due to the inherently DIY/handmade quality of Steampunk. Still, it's hardly like there will be money raining from the sky.
Sadly, it's not going to be easy.
The best way is to put yourself in a position to have your work distributed through a large company. This will involve going to apparel marts and other industry shows where buyers for large companies go to secure large quantities of merchandise to sell on the national (or international) market. The popularity of Steampunk will mean that it will be easier to sell retailers on your product, especially if it looks authentic.
This will, of course, mean that you'd have to produce tons of merchandise, potentially thousands of pieces. Obviously people who make props out of found and scavenged objects simply can't produce that level of merch, which is why the best thing to do is to sculpt pieces from scratch so that they can be poured and then painted, or to partake in some other easy production method. Similarly, clothing orders will almost certainly have to be produced in a factory, and if you don't already have a production method arranged, you'll be out of luck.
It's not easy to make lots of money! If it were, everyone would be doing it.
The people who may benefit the most will be those who produce non-material goods, such as writers and musicians. That said, with the enormous quantity of people getting involved, there will also be more competition. So expect the cream to rise to the top, so to speak, with the milk staying at the bottom.
Steampunk conventions will likely see bigger numbers in terms of attendance, meaning increased budgets. Conventions should be wary of overextending, though, as the popularity of Steampunk will likely subside back to its present level after the public at large has lost interest. Conventions that expand too quickly, or that bank on keeping all of those attendees, will fail spectacularly, and lose tons of money.
So in reality, the influx of new blood into Steampunk isn't exactly a rising tide that carries everyone up with it; some will drown in the stormy waters.
I encourage you to try to take advantage of the incoming flood, but do hedge your bets! Public opinion is fickle, and IBM and folks like Forbes have certainly been wrong before.
Good luck, Steampunks!