a Ghost tutorial for the rest of us

My first blog was on Blogger; my last was a static site I edited through GitHub. After 23 years writing online, my ideal website is somewhere in between. I'm hoping this is Ghost.

I'm a techie, but I'm not a programmer. So when I first looked at Ghost for my blog and newsletter, it was just out of my reach. Every tutorial I read was aimed at an audience comfortable with the command line and at least conversational in multiple coding languages.

But I didn't want Ghost (Pro). I didn't want to pay monthly for something if I could DIY it. I've hosted Wordpress in the past; my last website was static Jekyll. I really thought I could do this.

In January, feeling kinda desperate to start blogging again, I signed up for Digital Ocean. They promise Ghost is "one button" setup. It kinda worked? Then I kinda broke it. The site was there, but I couldn't log in. I was ready to nuke and restart with a new droplet when I read a post recommending PikaPods as an alternative.

They also have a "one button" Ghost setup, and lo, it worked! I had a website, I had a login screen, and then, all of the sudden, I had a blog again.

I know a lot of people in 2024 are probably looking to migrate rather than start over. I know, in particular, a lot of people are trying to move off Substack or Wordpress for ethical reasons, and I fully support you. I was there once. But I have 25 years of blog archives across a half dozen platforms, and tbh, I'm OK if they just stay in the /archives folder on my hard drive for now.

I just wanted to blog again, and this was the fastest way to get started.

Here's how I did it:

  • PikaPods: sign up for an account > choose Ghost from the Apps page > add your pod. Automatically, you'll be hosted on a PikaPods URL, but you can add your own domain in the pod settings. All you have to do is add a CNAME record to your DNS.
  • Ghost: once the pod is running, you can log into Ghost at yourdomain.com/ghost, much the same way self-hosted Wordpress works. Then you can set up blog they way you want, pick a theme, import a mailing list. It's a really nice interface, a lot like Wordpress, but I like it so much more.
  • Mailgun: if you want to send a newsletter with Ghost alongside your blog posts, you'll have to sign up for a Mailgun account. This is the actual email sending part, but you'll write and design the newsletter in Ghost.
    • First, sign up for a Mailgun account. You're automatically enrolled in a free trial of the Foundation plan, which will renew at $35 dollars. You can downgrade to the Flex plan, which is free for 1,000 emails a month, but that plan is very well hidden (not cool, Mailgun). I had just happened to see a blog post about downgrading as I was setting up Ghost the first time, but I can't find the exact post now. I wish I could! I'd love to thank that person!
    • This other post I found explains the same process to go from the free trial to the Flex plan.
    • Then you have to set up DNS for the domain you'll be using to send email. Mailgun recommends you create a subdomain for this, which I did, just mg.mydomain.com. There are good walkthroughs for most of the popular hosts. I use Namecheap for my domains, and I didn't have any problem following along. Just make sure you're copying the right string and pasting it into the right field.

I didn't have any problems EXCEPT for a problem I encountered with email replies. I sent a test newsletter from Ghost, and everything seemed to work. The newsletter arrived in my inbox. But when I sent a newsletter to my entire list, I didn't receive a single reply. That's a little unusual for me. Especially considering it was the first letter in more than a year; I kinda expected some responses from friends at least.

Then I heard from someone that their attempted reply came back undeliverable. I found my mistake in two places:

  • Ghost has a section to manage your mailing list (called Members) and a section to edit the design of the newsletter. It kinda feels to me like the reply email setting should be in the former section, but it's in the latter. There are two text fields where you can specify a SENDER email and REPLY email. These can be two separate emails. I made them the same.
  • These fields are pre-populated with noreply@yourdomain.com. This was my first mistake.
  • The second mistake was in DNS. I'm using my private email, which I pay for through Namecheap. Because I had previously set up hosted webmail, there were pre-existing MX records. When setting up Mailgun, I replaced those MX records. I should have kept both. You need both MX records in order to send AND receive email, which means I have a total of four MX records.

So now I have a blog and a newsletter in one place, and it's barely cost me a dollar so far (for the PikaPods hosting. The domain and email I was already paying for is about $30 a year.)

I hope this inspires you to make a blog of your own. (Need some ideas? Here's a list of 101 blog posts to write!) Let me know when you do; I'll add your site to my RSS reader.

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