Getting Started With Ghost
Andreea Năstase

Andreea Năstase

Getting Started With Ghost

I recently picked Ghost for a side project on my ongoing code learning journey. This is an overview of this new publishing tool derived from personal experience and research in case it helps you figure out if it's for you or not.

Note: I'm not paid by Ghost to write this; I happen to like it so far.

What is Ghost?

"When it came to launching my blog, I didn’t know where to start. With about 2847 platforms ready to power your blog, I was running into the paradox of choice. Should I choose Wordpress, a custom site, or just hand over my publishing to Medium?"Steph Smith

Ghost is a modern publishing platform that wants to make blogging fun again. Technically speaking, it's a Content Management System (CMS) with a flexible REST API at its core. One of the founders was a contributor to WordPress, and started Ghost as a response to its growing complexity for regular users.

You may have noticed a resurgence in publishing, along with different ways to make money out of it. Ghost is one of the tools out there, but increasingly popular for three reasons:

  • It changes the way content creators can get paid. Many people have a Patreon for fans, while their art is elsewhere. Ghost allows you to have a member community and get paid directly by them, on your site, via easy-to-set-up integrations. You don't have to monetize your stuff to use Ghost, but if that's your jam - it's where it shines.

  • You are in control of your content. With other platforms, depending on their T&Cs, your content may belong to you in copyright terms, but you're licensing it away for 'discovery' or other purposes. That means you may or may not have a say in where it appears. With Ghost, that's not an issue.

  • It's friendly for developers and non-developers alike. Non-developers typically opt for platforms like Substack, Medium, etc. Developers or power users (those who know their way around hosting providers, domain registration, and so on) may choose the more modern JAMstack approach to publish sites with JavaScript, APIs, Markup and static site generators. That's how this site works too. Ghost satisfies both: it has a paid-for solution for bloggers starting out who don't want to deal with the developer bits, or ample documentation for those who want to self-host.

I like that they operate as a non-profit startup, and the paid-for solution funds them, as well as the open source version. They're transparent about their metrics, which are pretty strong and stable. Since launching in 2013, Ghost is now on version 3 and over 2m installs.

Key features

  • Simple markdown text editor, with support for image galleries, embeds and more; it looks a bit like a hybrid of the Medium and block-based WordPress ones;
  • Built-in SEO, AMP, and analytics support via integrations, without the need to install and configure add-ons or modules; you can customize your post metadata, Twitter cards, and so on;
  • A theme marketplace with a few elegant, free or paid-for options as well as easy development of new themes via Handlebars;
  • Content and metadata can be exported anywhere using a flexible API. You can (have someone) build whatever you want to display posts.

If you're curious how it holds up against alternatives, their own evaluations are pretty fair.

Setup and Hosting

You can choose from:

  • Ghost Pro: A managed hosting solution for non-developers, aka small, professional-ish bloggers just getting started;
  • Self-host: since it's free and open-source, you can have control over everything: domain, DNS, hosting, etc. There's ample documentation as well as a growing community on their site to help; not so much on StackOverflow yet. If you're willing to learn, two developers set up a dedicated website called 'Ghost for Beginners' that's handy, albeit a tad out of date by now.
  • Ghost Valet: an option if you want to self-host, but don't want to do the setup, maintenance or migration. There's a smaller individual fee, and a pricier business-y option.

A note on migration

What if you have content elsewhere? The big downside of both Pro and Valet is that there's no support to mass-migrate stuff from other platforms, outside the priciest of plans.

If you self-host and DIY, presumably you know what you're doing. Even so, people suggest that exporting content (e.g. from WordPress) may entail a lot of work to clean up and reorganize categories and tags. For instance, Ghost doesn’t support nested tags, like WordPress.

I didn't need it, so I haven't tried. Your mileage may vary. It seems best for new projects (or people with money/patience).


Ghost recommend DigitalOcean, which is what I chose. Their pricing options for 'Droplets' are varied and affordable. You can get a hundred dollars off via a referral code, e.g. mine or the one from the Ghost - if you scroll far down enough to the FAQ.

You can also choose Amazon Web Services (AWS), but the pricing structure may frustrate you, and the documentation may be lacking if you don't know what you're doing...or even if you do.

For newcomers, Steph Smith wrote a handy step-by-step guide for setting up Ghost with DigitalOcean to complement the Ghost for Beginners website. There are also a few extra steps to secure your Droplet worth checking out.

Themes and customization

Many personal sites I've seen, mine included, don't stray too much from the default theme. This isn't a problem now since it's not as popular, but the sameness may become a thing later.

  • Simple styling tweaks and analytics can be added or changed by code injection into the heaeder or footer. It feels dirty to add too many inline styles or override, but it does the job and only I know it's there (for now);

  • If you want to make advanced tweaks to your theme, e.g. to translate the language used in some of the forms, you have to download the theme, edit the necessary parts, then re-upload it. No specialized knowledge needed.

  • If you want to add additional functionality to the theme or change entire sections, you'd have to either know how to code and get familiar with Handlebars, the templating engine used, Or hire someone!

Lastly, the official Ghost theme marketplace is worth checking out. Outside of it, some of the indie Ghost theme creators I'm aware of include Aspire Themes and Biron Themes. There is often a friendly developer making a living out of this, so you know where the money goes.

Wrap up

As mentioned, Ghost is great for publishing and content creation, not fully-fledged websites. I picked because I like their business model and approach, and because I wanted a breath of fresh air after using the cookie-cutter look and feel of WordPress and Medium for several years. Setup and configuration were also a great learning opportunity.

It's easy to self-host if you're a developer or power user. You're in control of costs and platforms, and can edit your theme to no end (or create new ones, if so inclined). But the downside is the added cognitive load from all the things to keep track of, renew or update, not to mention time-consuming design if you want something custom. That's the route I took, but it's not accessible to everyone.

If not, Ghost Pro is an elegant and professional alternative, especially if you want to make money from publishing. The good news is that you wouldn't have to worry about setup and management, but it comes at a cost. Outside of enterprise plans you're on your own with content migration from a different platform. Only you can know if the total cost of hosting, theming, analytics, etc. and is too much or too little.

Hopefully this gives you a better idea of what Ghost is and what it can do for you.

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